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Digital Living Room

Devices Will Get Cheaper, but Some Are Good Values Now

November 29, 2001|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since digital technology started transforming home electronics, each Christmas season has ushered in a new wave of audio and video devices--many of which disappear or plummet in price by summer.

That's why consumers have to ask themselves every holiday season: "Is it time to buy yet?" The answer usually is: "Not unless you can afford to waste a few hundred dollars."

Here are some guideposts for consumers who want to buy entertainment-oriented gifts for the home this year. You can't avoid paying more for a product today than you would a year from now, so the real issue is whether you can get enough value in the short term.

If you're in the market for a big-screen TV, you could probably justify making the leap to an "HDTV-ready" set--a TV that can display richly detailed high-definition signals when connected to a separate digital receiver. But there are good reasons to hold off another year or two. Most cable and satellite services don't carry the local HDTV signals yet, so you'd need a rooftop antenna to tune in to the digital version of "NYPD Blue"--if you can get it at all. And few HD sets have digital inputs, which consumers may need to tune in to some premium HDTV telecasts on cable and satellite.

There's no reason to wait to buy a DVD player, however. Prices have sunk as the number of movies available on DVD has exploded. Look for a player that can handle VCD (compressed video) and MP3 discs, and consider a player with progressive scan output, which doubles the amount of detail you'd see on a digital TV.

DVD recorders have started to appear too. But rival manufacturers have split into two camps, each promoting a different, incompatible set of standards for burning discs. Until that issue is resolved--and prices come down dramatically--it won't hurt to wait.

On the audio front, much of the hoopla this season surrounds the new online music subscription services backed by the major record companies, which are expected to be launched soon by RealNetworks, Yahoo, MSN and America Online. The drawback to these initial offerings, though, is that the songs cannot be moved off a subscriber's computer.

EMusic, an affiliate of Universal Music Group, puts no such restrictions on the MP3 files it offers from hundreds of small independent labels and lesser-known artists. Subscribers can download an unlimited amount of music for $10 to $15 per month.

Another option is premium online radio, which offers personalized playlists, improved sound quality and other attractions. Among the most intriguing of these are Rhapsody from Listen.com, which launches Monday; RadioMX from MusicMatch; Christian music on demand from Higherwaves; and the forthcoming community-based radio service from Echo.com.

For consumers with large music collections on their computers, MoodLogic has just launched a badly needed service that automatically analyzes and adds extensive descriptive tags to the song files on a user's computer. Those descriptions enable the company's software to crank out playlists based on moods or musical styles. Those playlists can be transformed into custom CDs or transferred to portable devices.

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Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at jon.healey@latimes.com.

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