Lifestyle

Give the gift of good design

Many a Christmas morning is ruined by poorly designed consumer electronics. In an effort to shave pennies off their costs (and thus retail prices), manufacturers omit required accessories, skimp on usability testing, and translate instructions from Chinese to English by machine. Customer support lines (if they even exist and are open on Christmas Day) are overwhelmed by similarly confused gift recipients.

Over the course of a year, I test dozens of consumer electronics products. A lot of them are junk. This year, I tested a router from Cisco that required a reset every few days.

But there are five products I’ve used this year that not only work as advertised but are genuinely a pleasure to use.

Sonos music system

Sonos sells a range of wireless speakers and accessories that let you easily create a whole-house music system without fishing cables through your walls. You can play your iTunes collection, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player, and many other services throughout your home. And you can synchronize music across multiple rooms, controlling it all from any room with a PC, Mac, or iOS or Anrdoid device. I’ve even taken to leaving outdated smartphones throughout my apartment to serve as Sonos controllers. The speakers are beautiful and sound great. The controls on each speaker are Apple-like minimalist: volume up/down and mute.

The biggest knock I have against Sonos is that it doesn’t natively support Apple’s AirPlay music streaming. (It’s possible to add a kludgy version of AirPlay to Sonos by connecting an AirPort Express to the Sonos line in jack. But that defeats the elegance of both AirPlay and Sonos.) The smaller Sonos speaker, Play : 3, costs $299; the larger Play : 5 is $399. A subwoofer is available for $699 (I haven’t tested that).

Harmony 900 and Harmony Touch remotes

If you have a lot of devices in your home entertainment system, chances are you also have a bowl of remotes. The nicer your system, the harder it is to use. Unless you have a Harmony remote. Logitech’s Harmony remotes let you control all of your infrared devices from one remote. Harmony remotes are based on an activity metaphor. Instead of selecting a specific device like a Blu-ray player or stereo system, you select an activity, such as listening to music or watching TV. (This metaphor is beginning to breakdown as multiple devices can accomplish the same task. My Apple TV, Roku, TiVo, and Blu-ray player can all play movies.) In my home, selecting ‘watch TV’ turns on the TV and the amplifier. It also makes sure that the TiVo input is selected on my amplifier and the TV is set to HDMI 1. My ultimate test is whether people who visit me can figure out how to watch TV; they can.

My favorite feature on the Harmony Touch is the ability to set your favorite TV channels. In the thousand channel cableverse, getting to the few channels you like can be hard. With the Harmony Touch, select your favorite channels during the setup process and you get 1-click buttons on the touch screen for them. (It’s also possible to have this functionality on the Harmony 900 but is much more difficult to set up.)

Unlike cheap universal remote controls, Harmony remotes are extremely customizable to your specific system. Typical universal remotes require you to look through a tiny print list of manufacturer codes and then stare at blinking lights. (Was that a long blink or a short blink?) With the Harmony remotes, you use a Web-based tool to enter the model numbers of the devices you want to control; the software picks the right codes. Configuration is as easy as it can be for a complicated task like this.

The Harmony Touch is the newer of the two remotes. It’s smaller and has a gesture control system. It also does away with the numeric keypad. But the Harmony 900 supports RF control, which allows you to control devices hidden away in a cabinet. The Harmony Touch retails for $250, the 900 for $350.

TiVo

Earlier this year, I named the TiVo the most disruptive product in television. I debated whether to include TiVo in this guide because there are so many ways I can think of to improve the user experience. But that doesn’t change the fact that TiVo is the best way to watch TV today. (And infinitely better than the torture that Comcast inflicts on its customers through its DVRs.)

TiVo does what it always has: It lets you timeshift television and watch it on your own terms. And it does it really well. But it also does so much more. You can watch Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus. Recent changes also make it possible for you to watch Comcast’s on-demand videos and pay-per-view. (TiVo also lets you access music and photo services such as Pandora and Picasa, but those features are poorly implemented.)  My favorite TiVo feature is the universal search, which allows you to search across your video sources. You can enter the name of a show and quickly see where it’s available across Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Xfinity video-on-demand, and live TV. Combine universal search with TiVo’s brilliant iPad app, and you can pull up a grid of every episode of that show. Click on a show and a provider, and TiVo takes you to the right place in the service’s menus to start watching.

The biggest knock against TiVo is unfortunately one that it has little control over: For it work with your cable service, you need a CableCARD. It took a month of dealing with Comcast incompetence to get my CableCARD set up correctly. The cheapest TiVo Premiere DVR is $150, and service is $15/month, but the company frequently runs specials.

iPad mini

The iPad mini is the best tablet out there — even better than the newest iPad. (Disclosure: I own Apple stock — and Google stock.) No, it doesn’t have the Retina display, but it’s small size and lightness more than makes up for it. It beats low-end Android tablets like the Kindles and Google Nexus 7 based on the breadth of tablet-optimized applications and its elegant build.

There’s not much more to say about the iPad mini. If you’re looking for a great tablet, buy this one — if you can find one in stock. If not, an IOU for an iPad mini is a much better gift than an inferior tablet. The iPad mini ranges from $329 to $659, depending on the configuration. I recommend at least the 32GB model.

Panasonic DMP-BDT 220 Blu-ray player

Despite all of the talk of video streaming on demand, the state of copyright law and video licensing means much of the most compelling content is only available on plastic discs. This means you probably need a Blu-ray player in your entertainment system.

This player will play your plastic discs but also connect you with online streaming services like Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube with its built-in Wi-Fi networking. It can also play content from SD cards and media servers on your home network. Setup was surprisingly painless. You can control the Blu-ray player through iPhone, iPad, and Android apps. The apps even include a virtual shuttle control that movie fans will appreciate.

The Blu-ray player is the cheapest of the bunch at $99.

These products are pricier than many of their competitors. But they should pay for themselves if you detest frustration as much as I do.

As for assembling that bike you bought your daughter for Christmas? I suggest searching for YouTube videos.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org; and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

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