Are consumers' 'digital dreams' any closer to reality this season?

The latest CEA statistics remain upbeat, claiming consumers are still buying CE devices in droves. Yet they still face big challenges in getting these products to work well together - and in some cases, to work well at all.

"Lots of consumers today are very confused. They don't know what to do with some of these products," Shawn DuBravac, an economist for the Consumer Electronics Association, told BetaNews.

Confounded by the complexities of using today's consumer electronics products to put together a "360-degree digital solution," most American consumers today are, sadly, still only capable of dabbling in the digital dream.

That's the opinion expressed by the CEA's analysts, whose research shows that, although consumers continue to buy CE devices in droves, the products aren't necessarily doing all that is wanted or expected.

During a presentation to journalists in New York City last week, DuBravac and Tim Herbert, the CEA's senior director for market research, predicted that vendors will try to smooth further adoption of HDTVs, DVDs, DVRs, PDAs, digital cameras, and other CE devices by coming up with better approaches to integrating devices and distributing digital content over the year ahead.

Despite a less than flourishing economy, though, consumers are still spending big time on CE, according to the researchers. Expenditures on travels and new homes are down, but the CEA projects 7% growth over last year in sales of CE devices this holiday season.

Back in 1990, the year when PCs first hit 25% household penetration, the number of CE devices per US household averaged merely 9.7, contended the CEA's Herbert. But by mid-2006, that figure had just about tripled to 25 devices.

Meanwhile, people are both asking for and receiving more CE devices as holiday presents, according to the market researcher. In one question, "Moms and Dads" taking part in this year's CEA survey listed these items as things they'd like to receive:

Parents' wish list
1. Computer
2. Peace / happiness
3. Big-screen TV
4. Clothes
5. Money

Conversely, last year, clothes came in at number one among adults, and money at number three. "Computer" ranked only in fourth place, and "big screen TV" landed in the eleventh spot. But just as in the 2007 survey, the respondents of 2006 gave "peace/happiness" as their number two choice.

Teens' rankings, on the other hand, remained exactly the same as last year:

Teens' wish list
1. Clothes
2. MP3 player
3. Video games
4. Computer
5. Cell phone

But what kinds of CE gifts are people actually planning to buy? Among US households with plans in this direction, this year's totals came in as follows:

Family CE purchasing list
1. Video game console
2. Additional memory for digital camera
3. MP3 player
4. DVD player/recorder
5. Digital camera
6. Portable gaming device
7. Carrying case
8. Video game peripheral
9. Notebook computer
10. Cordless phone

Yet given that such CE products are now in place, are the devices living up to consumers' expectations? Not entirely, according to the researchers.

"Many people are still playing 'sneakernet' at home," DuBravac noted. As one example, instead of streaming video and audio content throughout a home network, lots of households today download the the video on to a single device, burn it on to a CD, and then tote it by hand to another spot in the house for playback.

Indeed, 50% of those surveyed by the CEA admitted that, as a "content distribution method," they are currently "physically moving content," although merely 25% said they preferred to do so.

Moreover, fully 21% are "physically moving the device," while only 4% want to take that tack. About 23% of the respondents would like to store their content centrally, yet only five percent have managed to accomplish this.

Everyone is a consumer at some level, including those who work in the computer and media industries. People who viewed the CEA's presentation in New York City last week reported taking similar types of approaches in their own households, citing barriers that included the high prices of some CE products and services, incompatibilities among products, and even less than desirable digital output quality.

"Products from different vendors are incompatible. And sometimes, these incompatibilities happen even in products from a single vendor. When a vendor releases a new model, you might find that it doesn't work with previous versions of the product," said a producer from radio station WBAI.

David Schwartz, also on hand for the presentation, is one of the legions of people who download video to a single device only. Schwartz, who is president of the Gotham City Audio Society, said he doesn't even bother to download MP3s, since he finds the audio quality to be too low.

But Schwartz has downloaded prodigious amounts of video on to his PC. He finds that by pursuing this strategy, he avoids the headaches and expenses associated with setting up a home network.

Still, he's encountering some problems in even downloading the video. Reception has been intermittent since he's switched from cable to a satellite network, a problem he blames on the fact that he lives nearby a large cable TV facility.

"Now, I'd like to upgrade my satellite service. But I don't think my landlord is going to be willing to pay for a new dish for the roof," said Schwartz.

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