The family room, sometimes known as the living room. By either name, it’s the place where we, well, live. It’s where we hang out with our family or even just by ourselves.
After a long day, after I get the kids to bed, I often collapse on the couch in my living room and “brain drain.” I let the worries of the day melt away, and lose myself in the stories and lives I see on TV.
I actually don’t watch a lot of TV, but the time that I set aside for viewing is precious — no channel flipping for me! I suspect you feel the same. It's all about what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. So, it’s important to have the proper tools to get lost in other worlds. These are some of the best new home entertainment products to do just that:
Smart TVs: The Next Generation is Here Today
Did you know TVs went back to school to become smart? Okay, they didn’t actually go back to school, but they are smarter.
Smart TVs, sometimes referred to as connected TVs, rely on an Internet connection to pump up your content. Different manufacturers offer different features. Most smart TVs these days give you access to Facebook and Twitter. Most offer the ability to watch Netflix and a few ways to stream movies (more on that below). Sony has partnered with other companies to create their own apps, including a Tara Stiles Yoga station and a Livestrong station for healthy living tips. There's even a golf station to help you improve your game.
For years, manufacturers have been trying to find a way to get the computer out of the office and into the living room. It’s getting closer. Some Smart TVs now allow you to access the Internet in some form. Google TV was one of the first to market. When you search for a show with Google TV, it will not only look for the show through your cable or satellite service, the system will also search the Internet for clips and information about the show and/or its actors.
Other companies, such as Samsung, have features that make viewing recommendations for you based on what you’ve recently been watching. For instance, if you’re watching “American Idol,” the TV will recommend “The Voice.” It may also recommend shows you've never heard of, but find you love, similar to the way that Netflix recommends movies and shows. Most new TV models have some sort of “smart” feature. Think about what you want before you shop. This might help you narrow down the perfect smart set for you.
Streaming: Not a product, but a technology
Streaming will change everything, and has already done so for some of us. Steve Jobs once said the disc was dead. Maybe not 100 percent true at the time, but the disc is now definitely a senior citizen. I can't recall the last time I watched an actual disc. That's due to streaming.
What is streaming? Streaming a movie or show uses an Internet connection (wired or wireless) connected to one of your components. It can be the TV itself, like the smart TVs above, a Blu-ray player, AV receiver or a separate device such as Apple TV or a Roku player. However you stream, there are a few great services worth mentioning.
I’ll open with this since most people have heard of it. Think of Netflix as a “bowl” of movies and shows. You pay a monthly fee to access this bowl of TV shows and movies and you're welcome to watch as many as you want in a month.
Not a video service, but an audio service. Best part is, Pandora is free. If you haven't experienced Pandora yet, I recommend checking it out. Enter the name of your favorite artist and the site will create a customized radio station for you. Presto — music just for you. It's a great way to discover new artists. Apps are available for smarts phones, TVs and more.
Hulu Plus & Others
Hulu Plus is getting us one step closer to cutting the cord to satellite and cable, while keeping up with current TV. There are limited commercials (you can’t fast-forward or skip them) with this pay-for service.
Then there are some great services where you pay only for what you watch when you watch it. Apple TV (via your iTunes account), Amazon.com, Vudu (HD movies on demand) and more. Needless to say, streaming is here to stay, so jump on the bandwagon and get streaming.
Soundbars: A Cool Alternative to Surround Sound
One of my favorite recent inventions is the soundbar. You used to have only two choices when it came to sound: the tiny stereo speakers built into the TV or a a full-blown surround sound system. Surround sound involved at least six speakers, plus an audio/video receiver as the brains and brawn of the system. There's nothing like surround sound. It is completely encompassing, bringing you into the movie by immersing you in audio.
But surround sound isn’t for everyone, sometimes due to a limited budget, sometimes because of limited space. Enter the soundbar. For anyone not satisfied by the sound through those tinny flat screen speakers, soundbars are for you. Most models come with a wireless subwoofer, which adds back the low end of sound that we lost as our TV sets became thinner.
DVR: The Workhorse
The DVR has been around a while now, but it demands attention since it completely changed the way we watch TV. There was a time when people ran home to catch the new episode of a favorite show. If you missed it, you missed it. Today, we can watch TV on our own time (now if we could only control the bill). I record a few shows. When I sit down at the end of the day, they're waiting. No commercials. No channel surfing. DVRs are getting better. With some providers, you can now record a show in one room and watch in another.
Smartphones and Tablets
You will see smartphones and tablets play an even larger role in home entertainment as we move forward. They can already take on the role of remote control and become a second screen for out TVs. You can connect with a friend via social media (AKA social TV) and share your thoughts about the episode or get more information about an actor or scene. You can choose the show on a smartphone or tablet and then it play on your TV.
What's next? I’ll be keeping an eye on this blooming tech. Home technology changes at a rapid pace. It might seem difficult to keep up. But, as technology improves, it's aimed at making your life easier. At the very least, new technologies make for a more interesting evening. So pour yourself a glass, sit back and let these products take care of the rest.