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Setting up the perfect digital entertainment center. Yesterday’s home entertainment center planning was little more complex than clearing a space in the den or the living room for a television or a radio. Then came stereo with its integrated and rackmounted units–and surround sound with its in-house wiring schemes.

Now, flat panel HDTV and/or projector-based video–coupled with the ubiquity of the Internet, which offers everything from live shows to downloadable movies , music and games–has given myriad entertainment options to homeowners. The options have also intensified the complexity of designing in-home entertainment centers.

Let’s look at the present state of home entertainment centers, reviewing the subject from the standpoints of optimally organizing your living space for home entertainment, and of deciding what kinds of technology options to incorporate into home entertainment. In the end, the goal is to simplify a task that is daunting to many.

1. Define Your Home Entertainment Objectives

Creating a home entertainment center is as unique as the home it is going into and the desires of the homeowner. The only universal necessity is planning before purchasing.

“People should determine their budgets and their expectations early, because both factors will determine their overall mindset,” says Sheri Orts, interior designer and owner of Sapphire Studio in Seattle. Orts works with consumers whose budgets and home entertainment expectations range from entry level to top of the line.

“Many times people start into process without having a clear idea of what they want,” says Orts.

She recommends that buyers first ask themselves what entertainment options they want to have in their homes–before going out to redesign living space or to buy equipment. For instance, do you primarily want to watch movies and have surround sound? Do you want to have music? Or, do you want a VCR, a DVD player, a Tivo and a large TV monitor that you can tie into your laptop or home computer?

“There are so many options and ways to be creative,” says Orts. “That’s why it’s good to start with a budget. Regardless of resources, consumers should understand that there are good home entertainment center solutions at every budgetary level.”

2. Assess Your Living Space

Every home has advantages and constraints when it comes to allocating space for a home entertainment center. As an interior designer who works daily with a variety of different living space scenarios, Orts advises consumers to first assess the living space that they want to convert for home entertainment.

“Are you looking to convert a room in your home into a dedicated media room or will you be using a room that will have multiple functions, such as a family room, in which entertainment is only one of those focuses?” asks Orts. “A lot of what you do will depends on which of these two paths you want to take.”

The first path is for those who want a home entertainment center in a multi-purpose room like a living room or great room.

“Typically, individuals who favor this approach want a great entertainment system but do not want it to be seen when they’re not using it,” says Orts. “The task is to integrate the room so that the entertainment center is not a central focus. The classic example is the TV that is concealed in a cabinet.”

On the flip side, there are people who want to show off their electronics. A dedicated media room is a good solution in that case.

“Virtually no room is too small for a home entertainment center,” says Orts. “Of course, screen size can be a limiting factor–a 64-inch screen will not work well in an 8-by-10-foot room–but in the end, home entertainment centers come down to the amount of money that you have to spend.

“Video and sound can be streamed to virtually any device,” she says “There are wireless speaker systems, but physical wiring is still required for excellent sound–don’t forget to consider integrating your computer with your home entertainment system. For this, a wireless network can work well, but for better reliability use a hardwired system..”

3. Select Your Technology

Popular home entertainment options today include ready Internet access, music appliances like stereos and MP3 players, video games, photo and home-movie sharing, TV, satellite radio, and on-demand music, video, sporting events and movies, to name a few.

So many of these activities have specialized themselves away from standard PC capabilities that Intel has now come out with Viiv, a dual processor chipset expressly designed for entertainment technology that is systematically being integrated into entertainment appliances from various manufacturers.

Centralization of home entertainment on a PC is being facilitated by new Intel Viiv chip technology, which is specializing PCs (no mater whom they are sold by) to facilitate an end-to-end entertainment experience.

With PC centralization, you can eliminate all your older home entertainment appliances and watch DVDs, download TV programs, listen to CDs and MP3s and record and store everything. You can tie into high-definition video and up to 7.1 surround sound with ready access to digital photos and PC games. You can easily download movies, music and games for the Internet–and you can do it all with the zap of your remote.

“The Internet is the central factor,” says Ralph Bond, consumer education manager at Intel. “You can get audio and video streaming, broadcast TV and radio–and increasingly, consumers are recognizing that you can route all of this entertainment to a large screen or to other home entertainment devices. These devices can even include plain old television sets, although standard TVs are not as compelling as HDTV with flat panel displays, or projectors with screens.”

Home entertainment center technology is on track to establish itself in more American homes, with falling prices for flat panel displays and other popular technology appliances. From a technology standpoint, Intel’s Bond maintains that there is a certain level of technology that a person must have before he can fully “technology-enable” his home entertainment center with a central PC for entertainment.

“If there is a ‘right’ person for a home entertainment PC, it is a family or individual with DSL or cable, and either a wired or wireless network in the home that can facilitate multiple PCs on a single communications line,” says Bond. “They’ve probably made the decision to purchase a flat-panel display–whether it is plasma or projector. They are likely to have a surround sound system–and above all, they probably regularly have fun on the Internet, which is the central component of their home entertainment platform.”

Emerging Trends

Sapphire’s Sheri Orts and Intel’s Ralph Bond see several emerging trends in home entertainment for both home living space and home technology.

* Dedicated media rooms : “More people are dedicating a room in their homes as a media room,” says Orts. “This concept is much different than having a home entertainment center in a multi-functional room, and what people are finding is that they have more flexibility when they are working with dedicated space. This is because they don’t have to contend with any other room uses, such as traffic flows, views, conversations, and so on. A dedicated room eliminates the need to balance all of the different activities that transpire in multi-purpose rooms.”

* Integration : “My clients want to integrate their PC’s with entertainment media and also with home surveillance and security systems,” says Orts. “This allows them to press a button that can activate a view of the front door on the screen while they are watching TV. They are also making conversions that allow them to use their television sets as controllers for their music libraries.”

* More free space : “Today, many households still have stereo stacks” or rackmounts of different pieces of entertainment equipment,” says Bond. “Down the road, Intel will produce Viiv media adaptors that will allow all of these devices to interact with your home computer and the Internet. It will be either a wired or a wireless adaptor box that is connected to, for example, a TV display. From here, you can use the remote control to talk to your entertainment PC. This will eliminate racks of equipment and free up more space in the home.”

A Wealth of Options

Now more than ever, there are many different ways to design and implement a home entertainment center. The keys are knowing what types of entertainment functions you want to feature, defining your budget, and making the decision on whether you want the entertainment center to be in a multi-functional or a dedicated media room.

Once a homeowner gets rolling with home entertainment, it is not uncommon to spend between $5,000-$6,000. With that kind of investment, a two-hour consultation with an interior designer, which can run between $75-$150 an hour, can be well worth the investment. On the technology side, the options will only get better–and the prices lower.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

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