As recessions go, this last one wasn't pretty. Sales tanked in just about every category except one — home entertainment. Sales of home theater systems are up 83 percent over last year.
Maybe it's because people feel safer curled up on the couch at home. Or maybe we're hungry for a little escapism. Or maybe, after losing their shirts in the stock market, people just want to invest in something they can control.
In any case, this fall is going to be a great season for home-theater nuts. A number of drool-worthy new items will be available . But keep credit cards in wallet at all times because these toys are expensive and the temptation to buy them can be overwhelming.
What's wrong with in-flight movies? They play on a nine-inch screen, six rows away, while passengers listen through plastic headphones. The movies' directors would be rolling in their graves if they weren't still alive.
But if passengers have a personal DVD player, they can pick the movie themselves. The screen doesn't chop off the sides of the picture as a TV does. And when not traveling, passengers can hook it up to their television and use it like a regular DVD player.
The price: $700 and up. Of course, for me, that's nothing. I take mine everywhere — to Aspen, Honolulu, the south of France.
Oh, all right, it's not even mine. I rented the DVD player from InMotion Pictures, which has booths at major airports. For $12, the company rents passengers the player, headphones and a movie of their choice — passengers just return it after landing.
What do you get when you cross a VCR with a DVD player? A machine that records video straight onto a blank DVD with spectacular quality. The only problem is, what to call it? A DVDCR?
Anyway, there's no tape, so you never fast-forward or rewind. Better yet, it always records onto blank areas of the DVD. Never again will users reach for a tape to grab the game, only to discover they've just erased their wedding video.
A Panasonic DVD-recordable costs $800 and a Pioneer DVD-recordable costs $600 more, but it includes an input for a digital camcorder. In other words, users can actually make DVDs of home movies and then sell them to Blockbuster.
Of course, none of the gear mentioned will do any good without a TV. And a plasma screen is one of the best. It is so thin that it can hang on the wall. And it's so gorgeous that some could watch it all day, even with the power turned off.
These massive screens are massively expensive, which is why most probably are seen only at trade shows, sci-fi movies and Bill Gates's house. But the prices are dropping by about $2,000 a year. Already, you can pick up one for the low price of only $8,000. OK, most of us may not have that kind of cash right now — at least not without selling the car. But look at it this way, where do most spend their time — in the car or in front of the TV? I rest my case.
If you have heard of TiVo or the ReplayTV, it was probably from a friend. Everyone who has one of these things turns into a raving fanatic. It's like a VCR on steroids. Users browse the TV listings. When they find something they'd like to record, they just press one button. When the time comes, their show is recorded onto the hard drive automatically. Later, when users have time for some TV, they've got a list of shows ready to play back. With a TiVo or a ReplayTV, there's never "nothing on."
Users can also play with live TV. If the phone rings while a user is watching, he or she just hits the pause button. When the viewer is ready, he can pick up from where he left off. Isn't that cool?
The ReplayTV can even cut out the ads automatically when playing back a show. It is a feature so controversial the TV networks have taken the company to court over it. But with or without that feature, watching TV with a TiVo and ReplayTV is addicting. Viewers won't even mind having paid $400 for the box, and a one-time $250 fee for the listing service.
People already use their PCs to play music and even show DVD movies. So Microsoft figured: Why not add home-entertainment features into Windows?
And voila, a new operating system with the catchy name, Windows XP Media Center Edition. Starting next month, for about $1,500, users will be able to buy a new PC like the one from Heward-Packard, that comes with a remote control. When they press the magic button, the Windows desktop disappears and the user is in the media center.
Now, computer users are ready to listen to the music from their collections; put on slide shows from their digital cameras; watch DVD movies; watch live TV; or even schedule TV shows to be recorded to the hard drive.
Now, not every family is going to boot up the old PC every night to watch TV. But I could imagine Microsoft's little gadget being a hit wherever space is tight — like dorm rooms, offices, and the Space Shuttle.
Now, most might be getting the impression that all this cool new home entertainment stuff is very expensive.
And they're right.
But look at the bright side. If everyone runs out to buy all this cool new stuff right now, they'd pump billions of dollars into the economy.
And presto: Recession? What recession?