Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Buying AIO Products Can Be a Mistake.

Some people grab snacks and drinks during the all too frequent commercial breaks of professional football games. Not me. I tend to read "light" magazine articles covering topics of interest. Yesterday, I ran across a rather lengthy review of DVD Players in a popular computer magazine. The fact that periodicals once dedicated to hardware and coding  have strayed into such consumer appliance centric fields as DVD players is probably worth an entirely separate discussion....

This got me to reflect on a recent personal search I made for a replacement TV for the house. I admit to being predominantly German in descent and I think some of the stereotypical frugality and engineering "genes" play roles in my lifelong buying habits and love of technology in general. I am not stingy; in fact, I believe my friends would consider me giving and generous. I always look for the "value" proposition-- which for me translates to a convergence of design and technology.  And of course, price.

The DVD Player review covered all three of these elements but there is a pronounced focus on the inclusion of internet services and widgets-- design elements which aren't part of the product's original core functionality.  In fact, I found the author's bias to be over-weighted towards the ancillary "value" a DVD Player offers-- playing Hulu Plus; Netflix; Pandora; and more. These reviews echoed many I read last month when selecting a new HDTV. Is this desirable for the consumer?

AIO (All In One) devices by their nature tend to become Swiss army knives, performing multiple tasks adequately, saving space, at time money, and (at times) adding convenience. often at the expense of doing some-- and sometimes all- of these functions sub-optimally relative to standalone alternatives. Before delving into a specific example or two, let me bring up some additional, less obvious, compromises of AIO devices:

If the product malfunctions, you don't just lose the utility of the primary device, you lose access to all of the secondary and terciary functionality. Recently, I replaced my SOHO cable modem and router (for differing reasons). One alternative included an AIO Motorola product which combines a wifi router with cable modem functionality. Do I really want to lose local network access if my cable modem goes on the fritz? Conversely, if the router portion of this device "stops" so does any hope of internet access until the unit is replaced or repaired.....

Same for those (in)famous AIO printers/scanners/copiers/FAX machine hydras which are sold like razors online, at big box stores, and even at your local wholesale club. If one of these devices break, your home and/or office can no longer access any of the services these machines offer. This can effectively, and needlessly, bring you to your proverbial knees. 

Next problem, obsolescence. Things move quickly in the world of technology. If a new commercial standard should emerge in wi-fi (which is likely over the next twelve to twenty-four months) or cable data transfer (possible but much less likely), purchasing Motorola's SBG6580  means you have to sit on the sidelines until it bites the proverbial dust; upgrade the unit "early" and pay for unneeded equipment in the process, or really lose "value" and purchase a separate, up-to-date, component to use which more than defeats any initial savings the AIO purchase may have promised.

Related to this issue of obsolescence, is the often more sinister effect of buying a service you really don't need or want because it is part of the AIO equation. I can't tell you how many AIO printer systems I have networked which have one or more functions ignored for various reasons. Do you really need a traditional FAX machine? Is your home or office going to use that AIO Scanner function? If so, is the unit going to be located somewhere convenient to shuffling papers in the machine? (Jumping up and down for every paper jam or page flip can get tiresome very quickly!) Do you really still make lots of paper copies!? or do you work to minimize paper copies in favor of electronic documentation (you should be moving this direction if you aren't already!)?

In almost every circumstance, the most frustrating eventuality is you or someone sharing this device, won't be able to print a report or other critical document because one of these other, rarely used, services isn't working properly (or at all)! Add the dubious benefit of making one of these AIO printers accessable via wi-fi (versus some direct or indirect wired networking solution), and you are likely to spend more time making the AIO work, than performing your "real work!"

If you want a scanner, far better to buy a Neat Scanner and Imaging System and locate it on your desk. Fax? Combine this scanner with some free, or low cost e-fax service and get the benefits of electronic storage and delivery when you really need it. Copy? Again, scan the document on a dedicated device and print multiple copies if you really need to do so.....

Back to purchasing a new HDTV. This purchase decision can be bewildering (even for someone who enjoys reading reviews during commercial breaks). The various models are confusing even within a manufacturer's product lines. Check out the various Samsung or LG products at a box store or online. The array of choices, and the subtlety of the differences between various series, can cause you to scratch your head, create spreadsheets, or simply give up and seek expert advice from a friend, review,or sales person. 

I don't want an AIO HDTV! I want the best picture for the dollar. Period. I know this criteria in and of itself can be subjective. What is my "best picture for the price," may well not be yours. Looking at picture clarity in a showroom isn't even a guarantee you will make the right choice (displays are optimized for viewing in these environments which are always very different from your home conditions unless you live in a brightly lit, cement, cave). But picture, and perhaps sound...., quality is my bottom  line.

Specifically, I use other devices for accessing content. My TIVO is a better DVR than my cable box will ever be. Apple TV offers better access to Netflix, dedicated "purchase" movies, Amazon on demand, and my music library, than any TV widget will provide over the life of the TV. I really don't want my HDTV on my wired or wireless network "calling home." 

A simple, high quality, DVD player will play blue ray content better than a game box in almost every case.  I am not happy that even my $100 Sony DVD player requires network access to upgrade its firmware! I just want this box to play an increasingly occasional movie with an absolute minimum of fuss! (I admit I originally rationalized buying a PlayStation III because it was a "very good, cheap" DVD player in addition to being a great gaming console when it first arrived on the scene. Sony's marketing was quite effective at the time of the PS3's original release. However, once again, when my original PS3 didn't load a disk, I lost the ability to watch "Raiders of The Lost Ark" until I could play Madden Football again.... Ouch.)

Even a simple sound bar system will offer superior sound than built in speakers found in all but the highest end HDTVs today. So in addition to adding functions you may not actually want or need, the elements added are often, even typically, substandard to dedicated products! Now sound isn't "optional" on any HDTV. I don't include this as an AIO element, but manufacturers in their quest to offer "everything" in their newest models, seem often to shave dollars off  core components including internal speakers and discrete sound chips so they can compete with manufacturers on other elements.

Personally, I don't want 3D at any price! In fact, I don't want this "feature" thrown in "for free." The various flavors of home 3D aren't ready for prime time in my mind. The active format requiring specialized glasses seem too geeky and cause me headaches and the passive, glass free,  systems, don't provide enough effect (another admittedly subjective reference point). The general lack of quality 3D content only reinforces my desire to at least wait out this "fad" another generational cycle.  Some people may be ready to step into this dimension, but if you look at current sales trends, the "I want 3D now crowd" are in the minority. This was an "AIO" feature added by manufacturers in the hope of spurring replacement and upgrade purchases which hasn't caught on. 

Finding a HDTV with a quality picture without paying for internet features (e.g. Hulu, Netflix), 3D, or other connectivity options (wi-fi access) which I either don't want or want to add through alternative sources, wasn't easy. There are lots of options from secondary suppliers and even introductory boxes from the bigger names, but finding that value laden middle ground was a search. (This particular purchase was for a bedroom replacement and admittedly I didn't want to pay top dollar for the newest, top of the line, 2D models even if they didn't have AIO options.) Like cars, printers, blenders and other mature consumer purchases, differentiation and profit all too often don't come from improving the core use, but by adding services and "whistles" which are difficult to compare and often under utilized in real life.

In making a purchase decision, I relied on a combination of professional commentary, customer reviews (especially through Amazon) and eyes on viewing at a local store or two. (My apologies to Best Buy, Costco and others who are increasingly, and with some justification, feeling like unloved, local showrooms, for their online counterparts.) Ultimately, I purchased a 42" Panasonic Vierra through Amazon which fulfilled my value proposition. I got a lot of TV-- primarily a great picture!-- for $600.

I am relying on an aging TIVO Series 2 with a lifetime service agreement and an Apple iTV for content. 
I am not waiting for Apple's still unofficial television product. In fact, I am not convinced that Apple will ultimately enter this market as an "AIO provider." I think much of the "magic" Apple can contribute to these admittedly confusing critical elements of the home entertainment equation come in the form of user interface and content aggregation. In other words, Apple TV combined with elements of other devices and technologies  (think iPad; iPhone; iPod; Siri; iOS), is a better "mousetrap" than trying to compete with current manufacturers selling 36" to 60" panels with all of the requisite connectors and software baked in.

Apple can improve, perhaps even revolutionize, this aspect of our lives, without selling the panel. (Getting a la carte content, which is critical to really changing the television viewing paradigm, will be more difficult, and revolutionary!, than getting Siri to find these programs for us using voice alone.) If I am correct, swapping out my  Apple TV 2 for Apple's newest box will be much easier than unmounting one of my HDTVs from the wall! (I think Apple knows this. The purchase cycle for HDTV's is typically multi year and Apple wants us to update our iToys, every twelve to twenty four months. It is not only easier, there is a real economic incentive, to keep HDTVs and  Apple TV separated.)

All In Ones have a place. I look at my daughter's dorm room and think that one more "anything" can't possibly be crammed into this space! (I also think back in amazement at how happily I lived in similar, if far more primitive, space, at her age.) One of her friends has a big screen (60" I believe) HDTV which serves double duty as a game screen and a room divider! Here's a situation where AIO devices should thrive (but they don't because a single beer or soda spill takes out the game box/TV Tuner/DVD player/Music Player/YouTube.... you get the idea). 

My daughter has an AIO printer in her dorm; certainly a space saver. Guess what, problems getting this printer to work on the campus network has her and her roommates running to the library to print papers most days. I am 99% sure the scanner, fax, and probably copier, have never been utilized over the past year! She needs a printer!

Before your next purchase, think about what you really need or want to replace. Less is often more! Now Sharp's recently announced 8K Ultra Hi Definition 85" box  will get me to take the Panasonic Vierra off the wall (when it comes down to $600! Ha!). This is what I call changing the core functionality and adding value!! In all seriousness, super hi def, 4D or even 8D, is the kind of shift which will get us all reaching for our pocketbooks, or smartphones if that is how we are paying for things in a few years. It was the "HD" in HDTV which has gotten me to methodically rid my household of behemoth CRTs. 4DTVs will make start the replacement cycle process once again. When engineers revolutionize a core competency, consumers respond. Focus on a product's core reason for being, not connecting every appliance to the internet and the outside world and you will maximize profits and consumer satisfaction.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts and opinions! Please share your comments below. You can also  follow Music Row Tech on Google+, Twitter or Facebook! 

I currently particpate in the Amazon Associates Program and certain item links included within this post may tie to this affiliate program.

I hold a long position in  $AMZN

Companies:  Apple, Best Buy, Costco, Motorola, Panasonic

This commentary is not meant as an endorsement of any company or to provide financial advice.  If the author has any financial interest in any company mentioned at the time of this article’s posting, it will be explicitly noted. I welcome feedback and comments. 

All rights reserved @2012, Music Row Tech (MRT). Any reproduction without the author's consent is prohibited.

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