Cloud music, less 5.1, slow death of discs: Home theater trends for CES 2012

CNET takes a preview look at possible home theater trends for CES 2012, including more sound bars, less disc players and possibly the ultimate cord-cutting device.

Blu-ray players may be around longer than you'd think. Sarah Tew/CNET

You may still be trying to figure out what products to buy this year, but CES 2012 is less than a month away, and I'm already thinking about what's likely to be new in home theater. In prior years, the big CES trends in home theater were obvious before we even got to the show (3D, rise of Blu-ray, emergence of streaming video), but CES 2012 seems much less predictable.

The slow death of discs
It's no longer appropriate to say that streaming video is the future of home theater, because the future is now. Even still, disc-playing home theater gadgets won't totally disappear at CES 2012, although they'll continue emphasizing their streaming video features more than Blu-ray playback. Because modern Blu-ray players handle so many legacy disc-based media formats (Blu-ray, DVD, CDs), we wouldn't be surprised if they stick around longer than you might expect, as a catchall solution for your old media.

More Google TV?
I was expecting a handful of new home theater gadgets to feature Google TV at CES 2012, until Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said that he expects half all TV to have Google TV by the summer of 2012. If that's actually true (and I'm skeptical), there could be a lot more devices with built-in Google TV than I originally thought. And while I still think Google TV has its fair share of issues, more widespread adoption will make it more attractive for developers and could convince Google to devote more resources to the seemingly neglected platform.

Get control of your apps

Hopefully other manufacturers will follow the Xbox's lead with innovative ways to find streaming content in the home theater environment. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

All of the major manufacturers have their own suites of streaming-media apps, but the experience is still pretty primitive. All of the content is sandboxed within each service, forcing you to remember where to find your favorite content is stored. The recent Xbox dashboard update definitely showed a way forward for streaming-media boxes and Blu-ray players, integrating voice search and cross-platform search at the same time. I'm not optimistic that any of major manufacturers will really solve this issue, but I'm hoping to be surprised.

Cheaper AirPlay?
If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, AirPlay is a pretty great technology for wireless streaming video, music and movies straight to another devices. The only problem is that most of the AirPlay products in 2011 were too pricey, which caused a lot of manufacturers to lean toward Bluetooth solutions instead. We're hoping more devices get AirPlay this year (especially sound bars, maybe even Blu-ray players?) and that the premium for AirPlay is more like $20, rather than over $100.

Less 5.1, more sound bars
The trend in budget home audio has been toward sound bars and away from the older-style "home-theater-in-a-box" (HTIB) systems. That's fine by me. Sound bars are a much more hassle-free solution if you just want sound that's better than your TV's built-in speaker, and HTIBs generally don't sound good enough to justify all the wires--you're better off stepping up to a true separated system if you want better sound. (It's cheaper than you might think.) I wouldn't be surprised to see major manufacturers substantially scaling back their HTIB lines this year.

Wishlist item No. 1: Cloud music in home theater Online music fans have been enjoying cloud music storage services from the likes of Amazon and Google for months on their PCs and smartphones, but there's not much support for those services on home theater devices. That's too bad, because it's an excellent sound for those who want to listen to their digital music collections in the living room without leaving a computer on or worrying about a networked attached storage drive. Amazon Cloud and Google Music apps would be excellent additions to Blu-ray players and streaming video boxes this year.

Wishlist item No. 2: The ultimate cord-cutters box
Many have tried, but I'd argue that there still isn't a true, affordable, easy-to-use cord-cutters box. Companies are obviously aware that there's some demand for a product like this (given products like the Channel Master TV and TiVo's occassional discounted monthly fee for over-the-air usages), so we're hoping to be surprised by a totally new product that combines streaming-video and over-the-air HDTV in an affordable box that requires minimal setup. Sure, I've been dreaming of this box for years now, but we're not giving up hope yet.

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