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Interface Time

I felt like a man facing a firing squad.

?Tell me the truth, doc. Give it to me straight.?

The doctor looked up from his chart with a furrowed brow.

?Well, I?ve got some good news and some bad news.?

I waited.

?The good news is that we?ve got some new technology that can save your life with a single surgical procedure.?

Reprieved!

?OK, what?s the bad news??

?You?re going to have to do the surgery on yourself.?

That?s how potential home theater buffs feel when buying or installing a new HDTV or surround receiver. The picture is sharper than ever. Surround effects from a rented DVD can be just amazing. But while the technology itself is great, the means of implementing it is complicated, confusing, and sometimes just plain infuriating.

We?ve got too many jacks on the back panel, too many options in the menu, and too many stunted phrases in too many pages of instruction manuals. The average consumer feels unnerved and inadequate, as though running his own gear were like slicing open his own chest cavity.

So the consumer turns in desperation to mediators. If you?ve got the money, you can pay a custom installer to lash it all together. He?ll program a touchscreen interface that will reduce a complex system to a handful of intelligible commands. On the other hand, if you can barely afford the components themselves, you might arm yourself with information from the Internet, magazines, and books (like mine, hint hint).

But even those resources have a learning curve. To get the most out of them, quite often you have to know a few things already. Whenever I write a story for a men?s magazine, my editors constantly drive me to simplify, simplify, simplify?because otherwise, I?d lose the reader?s attention entirely. My home theater book explains everything but ?everything? is impossible to assimilate all at once.

One of the more dissatisfied readers of my book is my own psychiatrist. She?s won prizes for fathoming the chemical subtleties of medications, including the ones that keep me a happy camper. But she found my book distinctly off-putting. I often tell people to use the thing as an answer book?reading it all the way through would induce vomiting.

OK, we?ve established that home theater tech can be painful. The question that logically arises is: why? The answer is: because you want to have options. In fact, if a simplified product took your options away, you might be even more upset.

Every jack on that back panel is there for a reason. Simply put, the manufacturer wants to make sure you can hook up all your stuff. Very few people eject everything they own whenever they buy a new component. So manufacturers design products to accommodate every legacy component under the sun.

Yellow-color-coded composite video is the lousiest way to hook up any video device?but it?s the jack most likely to connect a VHS VCR. S-video is only slightly better but it?s the best available connection for the first few generations of satellite receivers. First-gen HDTVs used component video and woe to the manufacturer whose DVD player omits that cumbersome trio of red, green, and blue jacks.

Those three analog video interfaces account for a huge amount of real estate on the back panels of surround receivers and video displays?so much, in fact, that many makers of flat-panel TVs are putting the jack pack into a separate box. That?s inconvenient for the person who simply wants to hook up a cable box to a bedroom TV. But product designers fear that if they omit all that junk, consumers and critics will whip out the long knives.

A better world beckons. The new digital interfaces, HDMI and 1394, handle both video and audio at the highest possible level of quality. The connectors are physically tiny. You could fit a hundred of them on the back panel of a typical surround receiver?or better yet, perhaps, make a smaller receiver.

While we?re waiting for the great interface shakeout, other problems vex us. The menu?s long list of features and adjustments can be intimidating. However, that?s not nearly as irksome as looking something that matters to you and not finding it. If including a feature doesn?t cost much?if it?s already built into the chips?manufacturers err on the side of completeness.

Then there are the format frenzies. One editor (of a non-buff magazine) recently pleaded with me to explain all that Dolby stuff in his surround receiver. Dolby this, Dolby that?what?s the deal with all those Dolbys? In a merciful mood, I decided to answer his question by mentioning only two of the dozens of things I know about Dolby surround formats:

(1) Dolby Digital is the format used for movie soundtracks on the DVDs you rent at Blockbuster. (2) Dolby Pro Logic II is the mode that adapts stereo sources like CDs to surround.

I wanted him to absorb these two useful points and therefore refrained from explaining how these formats actually work. I also sidestepped Dolby EX, DPLIIx, the new Dolby Digital Plus, the original Dolby Pro Logic, the even older Dolby Surround, the four Dolby noise-reduction formats for audiocassettes, etc., etc., etc.?not to mention DTS and THX!

I have a confession to make. Whenever I review a surround receiver, there comes a terrible moment when I have to figure out which button on the remote accesses the menu. Once I?m actually in the menu, I know what I?m doing, but that first step often eludes me. So I do what anyone else would do?look in the manual. It is not unusual for several minutes of red-faced anger to elapse before I figure out what button to press on the remote. Sad but true.

Of course, many more people don?t have the benefit of experience. So even when they get into the menus, they still don?t know what to do. They don?t know that you should set compact satellite speakers as ?small? in the receiver menu, or how to activate the subwoofer output, or the correct setting for the sat/sub crossover. They watch their new widescreen HDTVs with 4:3 programming displayed in 16:9 mode and wonder why the picture is stretched?has Oprah been putting on weight again?

A partial solution is the wizard. When you plug in, say, a new DVD player, a setup routine will step you through the most vital settings: Is your TV a widescreen TV? Are you using surround speakers or a stereo pair? Of course, you still have to know the basics to make sense of it all, but being prompted to answer necessary questions up front is still better than going on a fishing expedition when something goes wrong.

How do we get out of the black forest? One possible path would be a smarter wizard?smart enough to explain why you?re being asked the questions in the first place. A consumer who buys a DVD player shouldn?t have to know what a widescreen TV is.

It?s time for that information to move out of the manual and into the product?or at least into a CD-delivered tutorial. No proud new owner of a surround receiver wants to read a 70-page novella. He just wants to figure out how the thing works. Don?t tell him?show him. Audio/video product designers should drag themselves out of the dark ages. If we?d all had to read one of their ridiculous manuals before we had sex for the first time, we?d still be virgins.

The next step would be intercommunication among components. Believe it or not, this has existed for more than a decade. Receiver makers like JVC and Pioneer have long built fairly advanced control interfaces into their products?so that if you power down the receiver, it?ll power down the other components. Unfortunately, these interfaces are proprietary, so you have to stay within the same brand.

The industry needs a single standard, and that standard must expand, so that your DVD player will recognize a widescreen DTV as easily as your computer recognizes a printer. This is one of 1394?s attractions. It turns your system into a network.

Once we?ve got fewer jacks, sensible tutorials, and the components are talking to one another, the final frontier will be to simplify the whole process of using the system, essentially automating what custom installers do now. (A whole lot of industry contacts are going to stop talking to me after they read this.)

In this context the most innovative product is the Logitech Harmony remote. Tell the associated PC program the model numbers of your components and which ones are needed for a given operation?say, ?Watch Satellite TV.? It then uses a web interface to compile the necessary string of commands and download them into the USB-equipped remote. Select ?Watch Satellite TV? and bingo, you?re doing it.

You can set up a new operation whenever you buy a new component or just want to use your system in a different way. You can also update existing operations. It takes a few minutes but it?s not hard. I hereby bestow upon this product the Mark Fleischmann Award for Distinguished Service to the User Interface.

Note to the Logitech people: Send the suitcase full of cash via my editor so he can collect his cut.

The beauty of the Harmony remote is that it does not require you to know how your system works?only what components you have and what you want to do with them. It essentially substitutes computer literacy, not a stretch for most people nowadays, for audio/video literacy, which is much rarer. The rest of the industry should steal?no, um, borrow, yes, emulate, even better?Logitech?s ideas. They are truly the wave of the future.

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.