A beautiful wood deck is the superstar amenity of a home's exterior. It is the undisputed focal point, serving both visually and as the "heart" of one's outdoor lifestyle. Much like the kitchen phenomenon indoors, decks are a social "magnet" where those who live there relax and will spend a great deal of time and it is where guests gather and socialize.

Simply put, decks in and of themselves are a great attraction with great attraction.

Say "decks" and one automatically thinks: wood. It's only natural. Wood is beautiful, there are numerous choices with various levels of quality and pricing and when warmed by the summer sun, it simply "feels" good, both physically and aesthetically.

Appearance aside, the wood you choose for your deck is generally a function of budget. The most pervasive and least expensive natural material is pine, Douglas fir and economy grades of redwood. While considered the most traditional of all decking materials, even with proper care, they have a limited lifespan, generally about 10 years or less depending upon exposure and how well they are maintained.

You can extend the lifespan of "economy" lumber by using that which has been "pressure-treated," whereby chemicals (pesticides) are driven deep into wood fibers to retard deterioration due to moisture and to provide insect resistance.

Pressure-treated wood, with proper care, is said to extend the lifespan of wood from 10 years to as much as 20 years.

The obvious pluses and benefits are offset by a modest increase in price and a minor controversy over the long-term exposure to the actual chemicals used to achieve the desired effect. The original formula, chromated copper arsenate, contained arsenic. Today's more human-friendly version, ammonia copper quaternary, uses copper-based preservatives to accomplish the benefits of pressure-treated wood and, though less toxic, still conjures up health concerns among families with little ones who might scour the surface on all fours.

Beyond economical and longer-lasting lie a number of woods that increase price-wise exponentially, as do their beauty, durability and exotic aspects. The pricing ladder begins with cedar and cypress and goes on through rich mahoganies, durable and beautiful redwoods, and exotics such as South American ironwood.

Budget aside, a beautiful wood deck can also put a damper on one's summer fun or entertaining with ongoing maintenance. However, today's technology is steadily providing exciting new solutions.

The cost and drudgery of keeping wood looking good is rapidly giving way to a man-made species called composite wood that is giving Mother Nature a real run for her money.

Say "composite wood," and the uninformed may think: cheesy plastic? No way, not today. Along with the steadily increasing numbers of manufacturers offering a wide range of looks has come a product that truly rivals the properties and performance of natural woods.

Composite wood in general blends real wood fibers with various forms of plastic and molds it into "board form" to achieve the look and properties of conventional decking but with a host of built-in benefits.

First be aware that composite wood is only used for deck surfaces, and that all sub-structures still utilize traditional framing techniques and conventional materials. Here's where pressure-treated lumber really shines. But it is on the surface where composite wood-look decking is becoming a superstar.

Basically, composite woods last far longer than natural lumber and require very little maintenance by comparison. Periodic soap and water cleanup is all the maintenance usually required. Composite decking will stain just like natural materials, so be sure to prevent nasty spills and drips from your barbecue.

Beyond being artfully molded into planks that truly capture (and rival) the "look" of traditional decking, it does not warp, crack, rot, split or splinter and it resists insects. It handles like wood for sawing, drilling and fasteners (screws and nails), and it requires no staining, painting or finishing initially or later on.

While not a no-maintenance product, it is certainly low maintenance and the elimination of initial staining or sealing and re-staining or re-sealing over time equates to savings that more than offset the modest increased upfront cost.

Aha, you say, there's the catch. Not really. Composite woods fall in the same price range as the upscale choices such as cedars and redwoods but without the "down the road" drastic changes in appearance and inevitable care required. Keep in mind that even composite materials will age, oxidize and turn gray with prolonged exposure to the sun. (But then so will you.)

Once you've decided that composite wood just may be your decking surface solution, compare before you buy. The Internet is a great place to start, as most manufacturers provide comparative data on their Web sites. Once you've narrowed the field down to only a few, based on that which appeals to you, head for dealerships where those products are offered in your area.

You'll find a wide range of technologies and engineering, such as reversible planks (with different graining on either side) and tongue-and-groove edges that make spacing easy and provide proper drainage. Then there are hidden fastener options (for better appearance and safety), hollow products that allow for wider joist spacing, extended warranties (up to 25 years) and composite accessory options such as matching railing systems.

Collect literature and brochures for comparison and ask to visit a finished deck where you can see and test-walk the product.

In the end, a beautiful deck increases the beauty, value and enjoyment of your home and choosing (and using) the new composite wood deck surface that's right for you might just make things better in all three categories.