Home Theater Usability

written by Mike Shea on 27 February 2001

Anyone who knows me or has ever read any of my web site rants knows I am sold on usability. The ability for someone to use a product is just as important as what the product is supposed to do. We all know about the flashing 12:00 on a VCR or the infamous blue screen of death on Windows machines, but these are only a couple examples of usability failures.

Usability is a hard subject to take interest in. If everyone was aware of it and worked their best to make life easier, the world would be a better place, but when only I seem to be interested in it, I end up finding folks staring at me wondering if they should call the authorities while I scream about how the gate to my apartment complex sucks usability ass.

Home Theater systems are no different than any other complex system. While we really want only one or two things out of it (watch a movie, listen to music) we get a horribly complex set of components with their own usability issues which are compounded when used together. Instead of being able to spend a bunch of money and sit back to watch movies, we have to know what the hell the difference is between component and S-video is or between DTS and Dolby Digital. None of this really matters. All we want to do is watch a movie with good video and good sound, but a mixture of the tech-heads who think everyone should know that 1080i is worse than 720p mixed with the marketing guys who think that adding new worthless features will build revenue end up forcing very complex component down our throats.

Ideal World

In the ideal world, the systems we use to watch movies would be as transparent as possible. You buy about three boxes with roughly one to four buttons on it each. The components would be the ones to handle figuring out what the best configuration is and what the best connection is. It would know to use DTS mode when the signal is sent. It would know that the disc is 16x9 enhanced and switch over to that mode on the projector. You would have a remote with a volume control, play button, pause, stop and skip buttons on it as well as a power button. People wouldn't have to know what decoding methods are working in the background or whether their system is running 720p or 1080i. Transparency is the key.

The Real World

In the real world, marketeers use features to sell new components rather than trying to simplify the use and increasing the functionality behind the scenes. Going to Dolby Digital is good, but offering 38 DSP modes on top of that isn't. Having a high definition projector is good, but having to switch between five different resolutions trying to figure out which one works with your DVD player isn't. We have TVs with better sound systems and sound systems with better video switching. We have DVD players with four different zoom modes and an ability to do an A-B repeat. And Lord, the remotes! Nothing cracks me up more than watching some poor slob work his way through five remotes to control their system. They have spent countless hours figuring out just which remote controls what system and which features they want to use. When someone else tries to use it, it is like trying to diffuse a bomb sometimes with almost disastrous results. What good is this fancy system if you have to figure out all of this crap and it takes no less than 24 button pushes to do one function, watch a movie.

Good Usability Today

So here is the irony. You can buy usability, but it will cost you and usually quite a bit more than the feature saturated lower end components. Audiophiles and videophiles love equipment with sleek looks. They like the single button activation and auto-detection. Their remotes are horribly expensive but very easy to use. At the even higher end, custom installers will take care of all the setup and write software to handle the specific equipment put into the installation. Unfortunately this is only good until you want to upgrade where you either break the usability of your system or have to go back to the original installer.

There are a couple of items that can help your overall system usability but each have their caveats.

The Philips Pronto

I have had this remote for over a year now and I am still a very big fan. Once set up correctly, you get that ideal remote I discussed earlier. On my screen I have a button for watching a movie and a button for playing a CD. With a single press, all of my components turn on and switch to the proper settings. The movie starts and I am a happy man, all with very little interaction with the system. This works about 90% of the time. The other times, the disc might not be 16x9 enhanced or might have a menu that starts instead of the movie. The Dolby Digital track might be on track two instead of one. These problems are all differences in the software, a problem all on its own. The other problem with the prono is a pretty extensive set up procedure. In order to have a system that is so easy you don't have to know anything about all the different parts, you sure have to know a lot about how they work. It is the only remote I know of that requires you to install software on a machine and download codes from the web. Once again, if you want to spend the heartache initially setting it up, it can be a dream, but that initial setup is the hardest part.

One for All Cinema 7

This is known as one of the best purchases in home theater sales. For about $20 you get a fully functional learning remote with a ton of preset codes. It looks like any typical remote but it has an excellent ability to perform all the functions of all your other remotes. While it isn't very customizable, it can offer you a little bit more simplicity than working with the five remotes you normally have.


Because we don't live in an ideal world, you are going to have to learn a lot about your system before you can really enjoy. While it kills me to think that most everyday folks have to be practically ISF certified in order to watch The Avengers in the privacy of their own home, once you know it you can spend countless hours belittling the Best Buy sales associate by telling him how component and composite are NOT the same thing. This DVD has a full beginners tutorial on setting up a home theater. It has all the testing patterns required to set it up by yourself for ideal picture and sound quality. For learning more about all the painful details of your system, this disc is a must-buy.

Simple components

I spend some time in my home theater 101 guide and my home theater for cheap guide talking about buying components with limited features only to cut costs. Purchasing components with limited features can actually improve usability. If you buy the components with the least amount of extra features, the device should be easier to use. When purchasing a unit, spend a lot of time finding out how easy it is to use. Read the reviews on Audio Review to see what others felt about it.


Usability is the most common problem with the evolution of technology. Home theater systems are no different. While we can hope that manufacturers will work to keep new components simple. In the mean time there are certain things we can look for to keep our systems simple as well as a couple of different items that can help with this as well. Education on the details of your system is still the best approach to having a well performing home theater right now. Discs like Avia can help as can sites like this one. Know your system and you will enjoy it better.

PC Based Home Theaters

No device I have ever seen is as poor for usability as the PC. Not only is it generally very difficult to use and understand, but it is horribly buggy and often doesn't work right even if the user does now how. It is no different when using your computer as a component of your home theater. The complexity of the software needed to run a PC based DVD player just cannot beat the simplicity of the solid state software of a traditional DVD player. When considering using a PC as a home theater component, your best choice is to avoid it.

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