Click from the couch

If making your home sweet home into the envy of the Tech TV crowd seems out of reach, don’t despair. There are many ways to turn the dull into the digital.

Everyone has at least one of those geek friends. You know the kind–the techno wizards who’ve wired their living rooms to look like real-life sets from “The Jetsons,” complete with homemade personal video recorder, wireless network, and multiple game controllers. If making your home sweet home into the envy of the Tech TV crowd seems out of reach, don’t despair. There are many ways to turn the dull into the digital.

Because wiring the living room has become a more fervent desire among consumers–especially in the last few years–the parade of new products has never been so brisk. Hewlett-Packard has been leading the computing pack with its Media Center PC, but plenty of other companies have been eyeing the living room as ground for expansion. In fact, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, digital living rooms were all the rage, and hundreds of software and gadget vendors were eager to show their wares and talk about how they plan to get a spot on the couch.

In his keynote address, Bill Gates laid out a future of “seamless entertainment,” which will allow people to connect entertainment devices like DVD players with digital equipment like imaging technology and computers. Chris Norby, a Microsoft spokesperson who monitors newsgroups and customer forums, says this kind of future isn’t far away. “What people want is to be able to digitize their entertainment experience,” he says. “It makes perfect sense that so many companies are putting their focus on that now.”

With so many products in the consumer mix, it may be difficult to choose a handful and hook them all together, especially because compatibility is always a concern. With that in mind, here are some first steps toward bringing your living room into the digital age.

Develop a game plan

As tempting as it may be to sweep through Best Buy with a credit card and a vision of a spiffy new home setup, do some thinking before you walk through those doors. Like other computing strategies that need to be implemented at work and in a home office, digital entertainment configurations should be based on what you need, with a pinch of what you want thrown in for good measure.

Do you need a dazzling plasma TV that’s hooked into a super-speedy computer, so that you can record TV shows and play DVDs through a hard drive? Well, maybe you do. But it’s also possible that you might just need a good TV that can act as a respectable monitor, and a computer that doesn’t pack the swiftest processing speed on the market.

What you should be concentrating on is what you want to use in the living room and how it makes sense for you. If you like playing games on your PS2, but also want to answer e-mail from a comfy chair, all you may need is to connect a fairly inexpensive computer to the TV and plug it into a dial-up connection.

However, if doing more extensive entertainment duty in the living room– editing digital video and music, or downloading movies from the Web–is what you’re after, you should think about getting a fairly speedy computer for your digital blend. A high-powered machine that’s tapped into a broadband connection will be able to handle video and other computing tasks, and let you use your TV as a monitor. Routing the TV through the computer will also let you build a homemade digital video recorder system rather than subscribing to a service like TiVo. For this, you can investigate low-cost options like SnapStream, software that allows you to record TV easily.

A game plan is important, too, for understanding how components fit together, and how you can expand your setup in the future. Merely slamming equipment together whenever you buy something new could cause massive grumbling when you’re holding 15 cords and nothing is working quite right.

Get help

You’ve got that geek friend, right? But if that technically inclined individual is out of town or wiring up someone else’s house, you may want to go with some professional assistance.

Many electronics store chains like Best Buy are hyping their installation services, and the competition between them could be to your benefit. Their expertise is also helpful in buying the equipment and discussing incompatibility issues. Just remember to bring in your game plan and stick to it, so you don’t find yourself loading up your cart (and your credit card) with items that may not play well together, or won’t get much living room use.

Beyond electronics store gurus, there are always technology consultants, who have started to take more of an interest in putting digital entertainment components together. There’s even a CompTIA certification that goes with it, and asking a local consultant about experience and certification is a good way to sort the geeks from the pretenders.

Choose a networking option

Networks have become a top priority in putting together a digital living room. Once a game plan is in place, and you know where to get help, the next primary step is in figuring out what kind of network you’d like to implement.

For most living rooms, broadband delivered through a cable modem seems to be the easiest. After all, your cable connection is there, your computer is there, and you only have to introduce the two for entertainment to blossom. But for some setups, it might make sense to employ a wireless network as well, since computers spread throughout the house could benefit from the living room’s gear.

There are several good software options that can make the whole process easier, and a stellar example is Port Magic from Pure Networks. The application assists with configuration, monitoring, and security, so all you have to do is install it and enjoy your surfing.

Digital entertainment setups may look daunting, but when they’re implemented one step at a time, it’s easier to discover your inner geek.

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