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Upgrades Made Simple

Tell me if the following scenario sounds familiar. A client asks you to design an amazing home theater or media room. You dutifully draw up plans, specify gear, and incorporate it all into a streamlined proposal that your client reads and loves. You give him/her a pen, expecting a quick signature on the dotted line, but he/she politely declines. The trouble, it seems, is the equipment list. Your client knows how quickly gear becomes obsolete and wants you to leave open the possibility of changing something at the last minute.

This, of course, completely throws off your design process. Each piece of equipment has to not only work with the rest of the system, but also integrate into the physical parameters of the room. It is just not feasible to design a room without an equipment list. Likewise, you have to cut your client some slack for wanting the latest and greatest toys. As fast as things change, he/she could be looking at some serious head shaking if the installation date comes as little as six months after the equipment list is finalized. So what is a well-intentioned CI to do?

The Evolution of Upgrades
Fortunately, there is hope. Equipment manufacturers in our technology-driven economy are always seeking a leg up on the competition, and this time they have discovered something that truly benefits everyone. Im speaking, of course, of Web-enabled products that directly download and install upgrades.

Until recently, upgrading a product was, to be blunt, clunky. When I added V4 EQ to my MC-12 just a few short years ago, a fair amount of circuit-board surgery was required. No longer. Manufacturers are starting to make an unprecedented level of upgrades available in direct-download form. Last year, Toshiba added high-bit-rate audio streaming and 1080p24 video output to its HD-XA2. Sony has added major features like DVD upscaling and DTS-HD audio decoding to its PlayStation 3. Samsung and Sony are promising downloads that will enable some of its current Blu-ray players to access BD-Live online content. These are all features that benefit your client in a tangible way, but were not available when the products were first released. Thanks to downloads, you can make a whole world of upgrades available to your clients without committing hari-kari on your design process.

The Cutting Edge
HD source components have been downloading updates for several years, but the area where that concept is really about to take off is with AV controllers. As I discussed briefly last month, we are starting to see some exciting features. Case in point: Denon. Its flagship AVRs download firmware updates directly, just like Blu-ray players, eliminating the need to connect a PC via RS-232 or some other less-convenient method. While the bug fixtures and improvements that Denon has offered to date are relatively small, bigger things are on the way.

Denon is currently working on a dedicated online service that allows you to download entirely new features. Unlike standard firmware updates, Denons feature upgrades will cost a nominal fee, but that pales in comparison to their value. In the past, when a manufacturer released a new box with new features, you had to swap out your old box to get them. What if, instead, you could simply upgrade last years model to this years? Enter a credit card number, click on the upgrade button, and new features appear in a matter of minutes.

Now, just to be clear, Denon has not yet revealed the extent of the new features that will be available for download, nor the exact process by which you will download them, so please do not call Denon saying something like, Tony Grimani told me I can upgrade my AVR-4308 to an AVR-5308!

Connection Issues
I fully expect direct downloading of upgrades to gain momentum like a freight train headed down a mountain. However, if there is one thing that could derail it, it would be IT issues. These new Web-enabled products rely on local network and ISP support to work their magic. Without an Internet connection, they are just boxes.

Unfortunately, getting them online can prove to be more difficult than you might think. Even Denon is not immune. While testing out its AVR-4308, we discovered that certain features are not supported if the ISPin our case AT&T DSLuses Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet (PPPoE). On a PPPoE network, the AVR-4308 continually failed to connect to the firmware update server. As of this writing, no resolution has been offered by Denon or AT&T other than to change ISPs.

We also found that enabling Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) in one Netgear router caused everything on the network, including the AVR-4308, to randomly disconnect. It was not clear why this happened, but it was problematic because the gaming consoles on the network use UPnP to connect to their respective online communities. While we did find a work-around, it required extra time configuring the router. Had this happened on a job, it would have translated into lower profits for us, or higher costs to the client.

Coming Soon to a Product Near You
IT issues may make Web-enabled products a little more time-consuming to configure on the front end, but do not let that keep you or your clients from reaping the benefits down the road. If you provide them examples of the things that can be added via download, you may be surprised how much more agreeable they are to selecting gear well in advance. In that vain, point them to some of the more reputable online forums that offer information about updates before the manufacturer officially releases anything. Naturally, you must caution your clients not to be swayed by mere rumors, but most of the time they should be able to sort out the fact from the fiction. At any rate, surfing for info on upgrades will keep them busy, leaving you in peace to work on their project.

Chase Walton contributed to this article.