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Home theater preview

What sort of home theater trends can you expect to see at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show? CNET weighs in.

Coraline Blu-ray with 3D
Is this the future of Blu-ray? Amazon

Brace yourselves. Less than two weeks after you open your gifts on Christmas morning, the consumer electronics industry will be reminding you that all those new gadgets--touted as lustworthy just days earlier--are already obsolete.

OK, maybe that's a tad cynical. But it's certainly true that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (January 5-10) codifies the trends and sets the bar for what you can expect to see on store shelves for the following 12 months. That's especially true in the home theater category. But before we look forward to the upcoming show, let's take a look back at what we saw in 2009.

As the 2009 show came to an end, we chose the Samsung HT-BD7200 home theater system and the EchoStar "SlingLoaded" HD DVR 922 as the most promising products in the home audio and video realms. The latter product, to date, has yet to make an appearance in the real world (an all too common trend for many high-profile CES debuts). In theory, there was a lot to like. The multituner HD DVR had support for Net-enabled widgets, and the capability to stream live and recorded programming to other SlingPlayer-enabled devices (phones, computers, and other TVs), either elsewhere in the home or anywhere you could access the Internet.

You can, however, buy the Samsung, which is a good embodiment of the industry's current trends: it has a built-in Blu-ray player, it streams a variety of online media services (most notably Netflix), and its 2.1 (two speakers plus a subwoofer) design relies on fewer speakers delivering a virtual surround experience--easier to set up and more decor-friendly than a full-fledged 5.1-speaker system.

For 2010, here are the trends we expect to see at the show. Some of these are new, but most are incremental follow-ups to those of last year:

3D comes to Blu-ray
We already know there will be a huge push for 3D TV products in 2010. But those TVs will need 3D programming sources, which will be slow in coming to TV networks who are just reaching the end of a costly transition to digital and high-def. Blu-ray, on the other hand, offers the perfect DIY solution. Of course, the devil is in the details here. Will there be a unified Blu-ray 3D standard for players and discs, or are we headed for a three-dimensional format war, a la Blu-ray versus HD DVD? Is there enough 3D content on deck? Do consumers really have any interest on buying into 3D technologies in the living room that will require another huge investment in hardware, software, and accessories? Personally, I'm skeptical--especially knowing these technologies all still require special glasses to view.

HDMI 1.4
Once demonized (justifiably) as glitchy, problematic, and unnecessarily burdened with DRM (digital rights management) restrictions, the HDMI standard has improved and stabilized considerably over the past few years. HDMI has become the simple, convenient AV connector of choice, replacing the four to five cables you used to need to achieve the same high-def audio and video experience. (It's built into a wide range of devices from TVs to Blu-ray players to computers to camcorders--pretty much everything except the Nintendo Wii, in fact.) But 2010 should bring the first devices to support the updated HDMI 1.4 standard. Among the advertised improvements: built-in support for network sharing, bidirectional audio (inputs and outputs on a single cable), 3D and expanded resolution (up to 4K ultra high-def), and support for smaller jack sizes. Thankfully, new HDMI 1.4 devices should be backwards-compatible with existing HDMI-enabled ones.

More Internet-delivered content, apps, and widgets
Blu-ray is the new DVD, but the real selling point on most Blu-ray players is their capability to access online video and audio services that are available via cheap subscriptions (Netflix), pay-per-view (Amazon, Vudu), or free (YouTube, Pandora, Internet radio). Consumers want fewer one-trick-pony boxes underneath their TVs, so look for more of these services to be integrated into game consoles, Blu-ray players, and AV receivers. (The exception is Hulu integration; that service's network TV overlords continue to work hard to make sure it can't be accessed on unauthorized non-PC devices or software applications.) As on TVs, look for manufacturers to mimic Apple's success by framing these services as "apps" or "widgets."

Other returning perennials
Though calendar purists would disagree, the upcoming show will be touted as the first one of the new decade. Still, we'll see plenty of trends from recent years making the rounds again, with varying levels of success. Most notably: iPod and iPhone compatibility will continue to be a major selling point. Beyond the ubiquitous iPod/iPhone dock built into everything from clock radios to home theater systems, look for companies to follow the lead of DirecTV, Sonos, and others by offering branded apps to remotely control their network-enabled products. Despite repeated promises, a true wireless speaker standard has yet to emerge, but you'll still see plenty of wireless subwoofers and rear-channel speakers offered as part of proprietary systems. And a variety of virtual surround solutions will still be profferred--everything from the 2.1 models such as the above-mentioned Samsung to soundbars designed to be mounted below a TV.

Of course, the always welcome trend at CES (for consumers, at least) will be price erosion. Manufacturers charged premium prices for the sort of once bleeding-edge features mentioned here just a few short years (or even months) ago, but you can expect them to become included as part of the minimum feature sets on ever more affordable products we'll see in 2010 and beyond.

See all CES 2010 coverage

Related CES 2009 coverage
CES 2009 home audio preview

CES 2009 home video preview

CES 2009 home audio wrap-up

CES 2009 home video wrap-up