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HOW STUFF WORKS / AUTOMATION

How To Create A Smart House

By SmartHouse Staff | Tuesday | 13/06/2006

SmartHouse shows you a few simple steps to a smarter home.

Do your eyes glaze over every time you walk into an electronics retailer? Unsure whether to go with plasma or LCD? Simply had it with that pile of remotes you paw through daily to switch audiovisual sources? Yes, technology does have a way of complicating our lives. The good news is it doesn't have to. When electronic systems are carefully designed and installed to fit the unique needs of your home and family, even the most sophisticated products can change your life for the better. You'll wonder how you ever lived without that flat-screen TV in the bathroom and that music control keypad on the patio.

Still not convinced? It'll all make sense after you read this. We'll give you several good reasons to incorporate new electronic systems into your home. We'll show you where to go for additional inspiration. We'll explain how to decide what's right for you and your family. And we'll introduce you to some of the most innovative technologies to hit the scene since the DVD player.

Good Reasons to Go High-Tech
Why on earth should you invest in a home theatre, a whole-house stereo system, smart light switches and other types of electronic components? That's a good question. Most electronic systems are fairly pricey and can be extremely complicated to set up. But these are minor issues in light of all of the wonderful rewards you'll reap by outfitting your house with a few high-tech amenities. Here are a few of the reasons to treat yourself to technology.

Become a Trendsetter
Times change, and although we could reminisce about the good old days forever, at some point, you've got to let go of that 8-track player and move on. Yes, it can be difficult to keep up with the changes, especially when it comes to electronic systems for the home. Computers are getting faster and more powerful, and TV screens are growing larger by the minute. Remote controls are getting smarter, and speakers are becoming sleeker.

Updating your house with new forms of technology such as widescreen HDTV and in-wall speakers is a great way to prove to yourself and to your friends that you haven't spent the last few years under a rock. That in fact you are a trendsetter.

Lead a Simpler Life

It's hard to believe that something that's comprised of switches, circuits, chips and other mysterious little widgets could actually make your life easier. You'd have to be a computer nerd to use stuff like that, right? Wrong. That's one of the biggest misconceptions about electronic systems: that they will only make life more complicated.
While it's true that electronic systems may be sophisticated on the inside, those that are well designed can simplify your life dramatically. Most people who have invested in electronic systems for their homes can't imagine how they managed without them. Such systems use a touch-panel to close drapes, dim lights, alter temperature and select music to play throughout the house.

By putting a system like this in charge of your home's lights, thermostats, music system and other electronic gear, you can get out the door quicker. Instead of wasting time running around the house, the system can turn off the lights and set back the thermostats as you press a button on your way out.

And yes, there is an easier way to operate your entertainment system than with the half-dozen remote controls you own now. One universal remote can do the job of every clicker on your coffee table. Press a single button and your entire system is ready to roll.

As tiresome as it can be to fiddle around with several remotes, there's nothing more tedious than sifting through your CD collection looking for a particular disc. Technology can completely eliminate that job as well. By loading your CDs onto the hard drive of a media server, you'll never waste another minute with jewel cases. The server categorises your music and lets you select a song as easily as pressing a button on a jukebox.
Electronic systems can also streamline your morning routine and shut down the house for the night. It can all be right at your fingertips.

Feel More Secure
Most people feel a bit of home security paranoia. And that's not a bad thing. Preparing for the worst can actually make you feel more comfortable and secure.

One of the best ways to protect your home and family from break-ins and fire is with a professionally installed security system. You'll sleep better knowing that the system will sound an alarm and call for help if something's wrong. However, there are additional steps you can take to feel safer still. By tying your security system to the Internet, for instance, you can check up on your home while you're at work or on vacation. Surveillance cameras offer a way to visually inspect the backyard or the hallway whenever you hear a bump in the night. Lighting systems can add another layer of protection by randomly turning the lights on and off to make your vacant house appear as if you were there. They can also illuminate a path from your bedroom to other rooms throughout the house, ensuring that you make it to your destination without tripping over toys, pets or furniture.

Get Organised
There's a reason why the rich and famous hire personal assistants: to stay organised. But as we all know, you don't have to be a movie star to lead a hectic life. Average families suffer from activity overload every day. Even though they may not have the means to have a flesh-and-bones assistant at their side, there are ways that technology can bring order to daily chaos.

A home control system, for example, can manage many of the details of your life. It can remind you to take out the rubbish by displaying a message on a touch-screen that's mounted, for example, by the front door. Some systems can also function like an intercom, allowing you to call up all house members Big Brother-style.

Should you forget to leave the door unlocked for the plumber, when they arrive you can use the system to unlock it from your computer at work. When said plumber rings the doorbell, your system can automatically send a message to your mobile phone or PDA.

Maybe it's dinnertime that frazzles you. Using the Internet, you can find the ingredients for a recipe order the items online and remotely pre-heat the oven for your arrival home.

No matter what kind of lifestyle you lead, technology can add convenience, simplicity and excitement to it. And who doesn't want that?

Finding Inspiration
Sure, there are many great reasons to outfit your home with electronic systems. Merely hearing about them might send some people straight into a professional installers store with their chequebook wide open. But most homeowners require additional inspiration before they're totally sold on the idea. They need to see the stuff in action before they understand how it can benefit them. They need to feel comfortable with how the systems look and function. They need to operate the systems for themselves.

When it comes to electronics, it's a good idea to kick the tyres. You'll want to explore your options, compare your choices and envision yourself at the wheel, so to speak. So where can you go to test-drive electronic systems and to ultimately become inspired to incorporate some of them into your own home? There are several places that can show you many of the wonderful possibilities.

Electronics Boutiques
Big electronics retailers are great places to window-shop and often stock many great products, but before getting sucked into interest-free delayed repayment plans, do yourself a favour and find a high-end audiovisual boutique. You'll be glad you did. Electronics boutiques are specialty shops that usually carry higher-end products than national electronics superstores do. They tend to specialise in systems that should be professionally installed, such as home theatre, lighting and security systems. What you won't find are commodity items such as CDs, mobile phones, computers and other popular electronics accessories.

Probably the best place to gather inspiration is at a boutique that has a showroom. There, you might see rows of TVs and shelves packed with stereo equipment, just as you did at the electronics superstore. But it's becoming increasingly common for larger boutiques to showcase their products in settings that resemble a typical home. For example, you might see an LCD TV built above the mantle of a working fireplace, speakers recessed into walls and painted to match and a touch-screen on a coffee table that operates a stack of equipment tucked inside a beautiful customized cabinet. It's easy to envision that kind of system in your own home. Moving on to the kitchen section of the store, you might see a screen that flips down from underneath a cabinet, round speakers in the ceiling and a cordless telephone that can be used as an intercom. The room will probably have the standard stove, refrigerator and microwave as well. Again, it's easy to see how these technologies could be incorporated into your own house.

These aren't just static displays, either. Everything in them works. You can actually press a button on a remote control to kick on the family room entertainment system so that you can experience the picture and sound for yourself.

And here's another reason why home-like demos are helpful: They can help you see how well different products can work together. For example, you might never have considered pairing up a room's lights with a stereo system. But after seeing how the lights can be dimmed to a romantic level the instant you activate the CD player, you'll understand the benefits of integration. The salesperson at a showroom should be able to demonstrate other examples of integration, such as pressing one button on a remote to kick-start a video projector and sound system, and having the lights briefly flash whenever an outside security sensor trips.

Seeing other people's electronic setups is another great way to gather ideas for your own house. You might see something that you never dreamed of doing.

Showcase Homes
Many builders now also include electronics systems as a way to set themselves apart from the competition. During a tour of a model home, you might see a home theatre, a whole-house music system and a lighting control system in action. Computer networks, touch-screen-style remote controls and flat-screen TVs are also popular amenities. Builders usually take great pains to make sure the systems blend in with the architecture and the style of their models homes, so you should be able to pick up plenty of great ideas to incorporate into your own abode.

Trends in Home Electronics
Everyone likes to be up with the times. But in the world of home electronics, staying current can be more difficult than learning a foreign language. There's always something bigger, faster, sleeker and smarter on the horizon. Technological improvements are great, but it's tough to keep track of them.

Aside from resources such as SmartHouse, an installer is probably your best resource for staying ahead of the technological curve. They should be able to tell you which products are hot right now and, more importantly, which ones will hold their own down the road.

Flatter yourself
Plasma and LCD (liquid crystal display) TVs are not the only flat-screens in town. While they still might be the skinniest options around, and while they are expected to remain very popular, new thin-profile rear-projection TVs are poised to give them a run for their money.
Big-name manufacturers such as Thomson, Hitachi, LG and Samsung have developed ultra-thin rear-projection TVs, some of which are slim and light enough to hang on the wall. Many of these have massive screen sizes compared with LCD and are keenly priced. Digital Light Processing (DLP) is a common technology used in these displays. It produces stunning images in many room environments. Most new rear projection TVs are high-definition (HD)-ready.

High-Stylin' Systems
Plasma TVs have helped changed the way people think about electronics. We now know that TVs, speakers, computers and other components can be as stylish as a piece of furniture. Expect manufacturers to continue to refine the looks and function of their products.

Even though they're quite pretty already, plasma TVs is undergoing a cosmetic transformation. Instead of simply being able to hang them on the wall, you'll be able to apply a decorative frame around the set or cover it with a piece of art that rolls up and away when you're ready to watch TV.

Companies including Yamaha and Boston Acoustics, for example, have combined the speakers of a surround-sound system into one housing. Stretching the length of a plasma TV, the single speaker emulates the effects normally created by a traditional full speaker array.

Streamlined Music & Video Servers
Some media servers stream music and digital photos from multiple PCs to a home theatre, while others can also store the entertainment content on their own internal hard drives. But the really big news is that there are now ways to control all those pictures, tunes and video clips that won't have you running to your PC or TV to tell the server what to do. Manufacturers are beginning to package wireless handheld controllers with their servers to give you the freedom to access the content on-the-fly.

In addition to a more convenient means of control, servers will also be designed to take up less space. Early server-based systems required each room to have its own receiver to pick up the music transmitted by the media server. This arrangement still works well, but manufacturers are starting to introduce whole-house music servers that can stream songs without the help of a single receiver. A receiver-free system is an ideal solution for those who love music but don't want the clutter.

Internet-Enabled Products
In the 'old' days of home electronics, professional installers routed special low-voltage cabling throughout a home to enable various products to communicate with one another. Those days are nearly gone. Ethernet cabling (the same wiring that connects computers) has become the communications media of choice among manufacturers of whole-house music systems, security systems, surveillance cameras, lighting systems and home control systems. Because these setups employ a common type of wire and use the Internet to communicate, they are easy to install and program, which makes them very affordable. Ease and affordability has been the anthem of Internet-enabled products since they were introduced a few years ago, but there's always room for improvement. And that's exactly what companies are doing by making their systems simple to set up (even for a do-it-yourselfer) and affordable for just about everyone.

Open Communications
If there's one quality that every new system and product of 2006 should share, it's the ability to communicate. Lighting systems no longer control only lights, and computers don't keep their information to themselves.

It's all because of networking. Whether the information travels through wires or the air, the products and systems of 2005 are able to share content throughout the home. You'll be able to control your house, surf the web and enjoy movies and music from a variety of devices in any room of the house.

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