A little something I wrote for Digital Trends…

It looks like I now have a weekly column at Digital Trends, and my first post is all about the (unspoken) connection between cable channel bundling and show quality. The more click-baity headline would be something like “How à la carte cable is going to destroy the golden age of television,” so I’m very happy they went with something far less incendiary.

If you have any ideas for media-related topics I can address in the future, let me know!

Don’t buy that universal remote control just yet…

Kevin Costner said it best in Waterworld when he uttered the eternal words: “DRY LAND IS NOT A MYTH!”  It’s not. Especially if “dry land” is a metaphor for “a single remote control for your whole A/V system.”

And the only remote you’ll ever need may already be in your house — it may already be on your coffee table! — just sitting there, barely tapping its potential.

Here are three steps to help get closer to that magic number of 1 without having to pony up for a new remote:

Step 1: Elimination.

Fewer components means fewer remote controls. Do you really need an A/V receiver? Maybe not. How many different ways do you need to access Netflix? Just one will do.  How about that VCR? Keep it in a closet until your parents visit bearing that old VHS tape of you in the one local commercial you did as a child in the ’80s. (What? That’s just me?)

My recommendation: Any equipment you haven’t used in at least four months you should disconnect and store elsewhere ’til needed. Seriously, if you only use a device two or three times a year (if even that much), you don’t need to have it out all the time, cluttering things up, forcing you to integrate it into your system full-time.  That’s what auxiliary inputs are for (the kind they put in easy-to-access places on your TV and/or receiver). Only pull out that old laserdisc player when you have to watch the original trilogy in its purest form one more time…

Step 2: Consolidation.

Take stock of what’s left, especially any equipment that might be old & outdated.  If you’re going to buy anything new, I’d rather see you upgrade the gear that matters most than spend money on a remote.  This is your chance to upgrade smartly, replacing two things with one, further reducing your number of components.  For example, if you like your surround sound set-up and need an A/V receiver, consider getting a receiver with a blu-ray player built-in. Or a blu-ray player with smart apps built in. You get the picture.

In my main media room, I’ve only got four items: a Sharp HDTV, a Samsung Blu-ray player (with smart apps), a soundbar, and a DirecTV box. That’s all we need 99% of time I’m there, so that’s all I have set-up full-time.

FYI: Another thing to look out for when upgrading your equipment: Company specific protocols designed to help reduce the number of remotes you have to use. For example, Sony offers Bravia Sync, which allows Sony TVs to control other Sony products. Panasonic offers the similar Viera Link, Sharp offers Aquos Link, and LG offers SimpLink. Sometimes they even work with each other, allowing a Sharp TV to control a Sony receiver, but I still consider those “happy accidents” more than something you can count on.

Step 3: Customization.

449A4793If you have a cable or satellite box, then it comes with a remote that’s surprisingly versatile.  Your remote is probably set-up to turn your TV on and off (something the installer should’ve done before he/she left), but it can also be used to control at least two more devices.

If you have an A/V receiver or a soundbar as part of your system, then you should take advantage of a remote feature called VOLUME LOCK.  This takes the volume buttons on the remote and locks them to one device (i.e. not your TV).

Real life example: My DirecTV box and Blu-Ray player plug into the TV, and I’m using the TV’s “digital audio out” port to send all sound to the soundbar.  I locked the volume keys on the DirecTV remote to only control the soundbar. Since the soundbar automatically turns on whenever the TV turns on (and it turns off on its own too), I don’t ever have to worry about it.  Whenever I want to watch TV, I just hit a single button (“System On”).  If I want to watch a Blu-Ray, I need to take the additional step of switching inputs on the TV, but since I’m only using two inputs, that’s easy enough. (In fact, I’ve disabled all the TV inputs I don’t use.)

We also have a room with an A/V receiver that does not power on/off on it’s own. In that room, we have a very similar set-up, except we just leave the receiver on all the time, so we never have to worry about it.  We also use the TV as the HDMI switcher.  The receiver powers the surround speakers and sets the volume and that’s it.

If you don’t have cable or satellite, but you do have a newer TV, the TV’s remote might also similar functionality, allowing it to be your main remote if you only have a couple other components.

Now, you may not be down to just one remote control by this point — especially if you have an Apple TV or Roku or some other device you can’t live without.  But the above line of thinking should help you get down to one remote that you can rely on the vast majority of the time.  It’ll also make things tremendously easier for guests and non-tech savvy people who live under your roof.  (Besides, if you have an Apple TV, you should really be using a bluetooth keyboard anyway!)

And if you have taken the time to streamline your set-up (at least mentally), but you still think you want a universal remote, the really good news is that now you won’t need to get an expensive one.  As much as I love Harmony remotes and the like, they can cost well over $200 for a nice one (the kind you’d need for a complicated set-up).  That money could be better spent elsewhere… or not at all.

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Addendum #1: The above is going to be painfully obvious to some of you. Sorry about that. Thanks for reading anyway! This post is for people who don’t like to think too much about the tech in their home, they just want it work well.

Addendum #2: If you don’t have the manual for your cable/satellite remote, don’t fret. DirecTV remotes are programmed by the DirecTV box itself actually, via the SETTINGS menu. No instructions needed. For other companies that don’t do things so visually: Just go to the support section of their website. They should have a whole section devoted to programming the remote, as well as manuals you can download.

One more reason to love Vizio TVs

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Whenever someone tells me they need a new TV, but they don’t want to pay through the nose for above-average performance, features, and size, I steer them towards Vizio.

Another reason to love Vizio smart TVs: They replicate a lot of the functionality of Google’s remarkable Chromecast.  This is something I first noticed when I did my Chromecast review, but I didn’t realize just how extensive this functionality was until last night, when I found myself able to “fling” Youtube content from my iPad directly to the TV.  Here’s how it works:  Mobile apps like Netflix and Youtube now have a “cast” button — the button you’re supposed to use to send audio and video to a Chromecast device. But Vizio has smartly used the same “casting protocol” that Chromecast apparently utilizes.  So if you’re watching a movie on Netflix or a video on Youtube and you want to continue watching it on your TV, just hit the “Cast” button and select “VIZIO DTV” (see above screenshot of the Youtube app for the iPad).  The Vizio’s built-in Netflix/Youtube app will kick in and pick up right where you were on your smartphone/tablet. You can then use your mobile device to control the video on the TV.

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This is the iPhone Netflix app. Notice the “VIZIO DTV” option.

Note: I’ve only done it with Netflix and Youtube, but I’ll try some more apps next time I get a chance. I’m guessing that any service built-in to the TV will work, so long as there is a corresponding mobile app.

Oh, and, of course, the TV and the mobile device need to be on the same wifi network.

Your #1 2014 New Year’s Tech Resolution: Do not buy a 4K TV

Seriously.  I know you have that holiday bonus burning a whole in your pocket.  I know you’ve been to your local Sony Store and been blown away by their 4K demo.  I know you really want a new TV, and you don’t want to get stuck with “yesterday’s technology.”  But you must wait. You have to wait. It just doesn’t make any sense to buy a 4K TV this year.

First: What is a 4K TV?  Basically, they are TVs with greater resolution than what’s currently considered high definition.  Some companies call them 4K, others call them Ultra HD (or UHD).  They have approximately four times the resolution of a 1080P set (the highest current standard of HDTV).  At larger sizes from the right distance, the difference is striking.  So if you can afford the new TV, it’s a no-brainer, right?  Not by a longshot…

Reason 1:

There is little-to-no 4K content.  It’s going to be years before your local cable/satellite/fiber company offers 4K channels and Blu-ray simply wasn’t designed with 4K in mind.  Your only hope for content in the short-term is via streaming services — which are still trying to figure out how to compress all that data for the average American broadband connection.  Chances are, you’ll need to upgrade your broadband service. What little content is being made available to early adopters comes at an additional price, and the options are slim.  If you buy a Sony TV, for example, you’ll get access to SOME Sony Movies, but that’s it.  Yes, Netflix is working with TV manufacturers to provide 4K versions of their original programs, but there’s still no timetable for when it’ll be implemented, and even when it does, we’re still only talking about a handful of programs you might actually watch.

Another way to look at it: a 4K version of a movie is essentially a digital negative, hence studios are going to delay making them readily available for as long as they possibly can out of piracy concerns.

Reason 2:

There are still some standards yet to be determined.  A fancy new screen isn’t worth as much if its ports and software are outdated within a year or two. For example, the current standard for HDMI wasn’t designed with 4K transmissions in mind.  You do not want to buy a 4K TV unless it supports HDMI 2 and the first round of 4K TVs didn’t (because the standard hadn’t been finalized yet).

Reason 3:

Price. I’m not talking about the price of the 4K TVs, which can be equivalent to the price of a small car. I’m talking about the price of the current generation of HDTVs — they are so affordable now, it’s ridiculous. You can buy a well-performing 50incher now for less than $500.  Want to go bigger?  You can get 60 and 70 inch screens for less than $1000, and not from knock-off brands either but from legit companies known for producing quality HDTVs.  It makes no sense to spend an egregious amount for a “future proof” TV now when the current cost of a 4KTV  is enough to buy both a regular HDTV now and a 4K TV later.  Yes, I know Vizio just announced a 50 inch 4K TV for $1000, and yes, Vizio is one of the HDTV brands I trust, but — and this is a big BUT — it remains to be seen what compromises Vizio has to make to reach that price point. For example, we know for a fact that Vizio is dropping support for 3D, which is a shame, because passive 3D on a 4K set is SPECTACULAR. It’s theater quality.  Vizio’s $1000 4K TV is also likely to offer a contrast ratio on par with its other “cheaper” models, which is good but not great.  Remember, resolution and image quality do not go hand-in-hand.  It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that a high-end 1080P set will perform better than an entry level 4K set, and for less money.

Reason 4:

Will you even notice the difference?  If you’re only in the market for a 50 incher, and you’re not planning to press your face up against the screen, the extra pixels probably won’t even make it your eyes.  From what I’ve seen so far, 4K is really for the next generation of extra-large TVs with 70, 80, and 90 inch screens.  And those are the sets that still require a mortgage to buy in the short-term.

So even if you’re superrich and can easily afford to be an early 4K adopter, I still can’t advise it.  If you’re that rich, you probably have a special media room in your mansion set aside just for movie watching with blackout curtains and sound-absorbing walls.  You don’t need a 4K TV because you have a kickass projector. Keep enjoying it and use the money you’d spend on a 4K TV on a first class ticket to Tokyo or something.  I hear the robot show is amazing.

Review: Google Chromecast — Google’s most Apple-like product yet?

72 hours ago, “Chromecast” was just a good name for a podcast on hood ornaments. Now it’s the “it” item in the tech world, selling out online within a day (though I had no problems walking into Best Buy today and walking out with one — they had plenty in stock).

In my “premature thoughts” column three days ago, I had tempered enthusiasm for the product. I knew it wasn’t going to outright replace the Apple TV in my media room nor the PS3 in my family room (my current online streaming devices) simply because the Chromecast didn’t offer any groundbreaking new features not found in either of those devices. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not having a whole lot of new features is okay if the things it does do, it does really, really well.

In this way, Chromecast might just be Google’s most Apple-like product yet. Apple is the king of streamlining devices, taking away features that offer more clutter and confusion than practicality. Particularly in the Steve Jobs era, if Apple felt like there was a better way of doing something, they just did it, and without giving people the option of continuing to do things the old way (for better and for worse). In this regard, Chromecast feels like a play right out of the Jobs playbook. Google’s bread and butter is in the cloud. Chromecast is built to access that cloud faster and easier than any other streaming device. Locally stored media is an afterthought (and in the case of accessing media stored on your phone, it’s not a thought at all — there’s no way to do it). Does Google care? Nope. Like Apple, they’re betting on what you’ll want to do tomorrow, not what you want to do today.

All that said, it’s still a piece of brand new technology. Results will vary. So how did it actually work for me?

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I didn’t buy the product just to review it. I bought it wanting to keep it. Specifically, I wanted it for my bedroom, which currently has no way to access Netflix (or any other online streaming service, for that matter).

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The bedroom TV is ANCIENT for a plasma HDTV. It’s also “off brand” (unless you consider Sceptre a brand, which I don’t). The set is nearly a decade old and is the only piece of technology my wife brought with her to the marriage. It’s not a smart TV. It’s not even a dumb TV. It’s barely a TV at all. It has more analog connections than digital ones, and just one HDMI port. USB? Nope. If Google Chromecast can work on this TV, then it’ll work on any TV.

The good news: The HDTV’s sole HDMI port was free since our DirecTV box has to use component video cables (for reasons I won’t go into here). The Chromecast requires a separate power source, though. You can either plug it into a USB port or into a wall socket. But the nearest wall socket was too far away and the TV didn’t have USB. So what did I do? I used the USB port on the DirecTV box. The Chromecast ONLY needs USB for power, so just about any USB port on any device will do. So I powered Chromecast up, opened my laptop, and downloaded the Chromecast software needed to set it up.

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The laptop found the Chromecast and the set-up wizard began doing its thing. Before the Chromecast goes onto your wifi network, it first sets up it’s own mini wifi network. The set-up software will temporarily take your computer off your home wifi network and put it onto the Chromecast’s mini-network, so they can talk. Pretty smart. The set-up wizard is very good at explaining what’s going on. At no point are you left to wonder what’s happened and if you should be doing something.

So far, everything was working just like it should.

Until it didn’t.

When it came time for the Chromecast to finally put itself onto my home’s wifi network, the Chromecast couldn’t find it. The signal was strong on all other wifi devices in the room — laptop, iPhone, and Blackberry — but the Chromecast couldn’t pick up a wifi signal at all. Thinking the Chromecast might simply be broken, I hooked it up in the family room, to see if it would work there.

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The Vizio in the family room had a nice empty HDMI port right next to a USB port. Very convenient. Not-so-convenient? The fact that the dongle wasn’t completely hidden by the TV’s bezel.

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As you can see above, the USB cable couldn’t help but protrude a bit. The good news? In this room, the Chromecast had no problem finding a strong enough wifi signal. Everything was good to go. And it worked as advertised. Apps with the ability to “cast” built-in, worked great, even on my iPhone. (Note: There are only a handful of supported Apps at the moment.) From a computer, web pages with video and audio can add a “casting option” which will send content directly to the Chromecast, just like the mobile apps do. Netflix.com and Youtube.com already have this ability. Others, like the Washington Post website, have already announced plans to incorporate this ability soon.

But you don’t NEED the web page to be optimized for Chromecast for it to work. It’s only a “beta” function at moment, but the Chromecast is able to “mirror” a Chrome browser window on your computer. This will allow you to send almost any web-based content to your TV. I was expecting the feature to be rather buggy, but it actually worked well despite its limitations.

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Every time I’d “mirror” a web page to the Chromecast, I’d get a white screen that wouldn’t go away until I hit the “cast” button a second time. I imagine this bug will be fixed in short time.

You can only mirror a single browser tab at a time, but that’s understandable. To mirror an entire desktop would require some sort of integration into the OS itself. Maybe one day Android devices will offer that level of integration, but that day isn’t today. Or tomorrow. This is one area where the Apple TV has a clear advantage.

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“The Colbert Report,” streaming off Hulu onto a TV via the Chromecast and a laptop.

Watching Hulu on the Chromecast was as easy as going to the website in the Chrome browser, hitting the Cast button, and mirroring the browser tab on the TV. Once you’ve started watching a program, Clicking the “fill screen” button on your computer will also fill the screen on your TV (though I can see there being some aspect ratio problems arising here and there in the future). Unlike Apps or webpages optimized for Chromecast, in order to watch content “mirrored” from the Chrome browser, you have to keep the browser up and running. Anything you do to the browser tab will be reflected on screen.

Now, the Chromecast isn’t made for streaming local content (i.e. music, videos, and photos stored on your hard drive). Google is more than happy to point that out. Yet if you point that out in a comment section on any tech site that covers the Chromecast you WILL get reamed by Google fans more than happy to tell you you’re wrong. They’ll say that local streaming IS possible. And they are sorta right. There is a trick to get local content to stream from a PC or Mac, but media content on your smartphone/tablet is completely off-limits.

The trick for streaming content from your computer hard drive involves manually dragging the movie/music/whatever file to the Chrome web browser and then mirroring the entire browser window over to the Chromecast. I tried it with a very high quality video clip of my nephew playing basketball. Things weren’t perfect though.

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Compared to the Stephen Colbert clip, you’ll note that the basketball footage — despite being a 1080P file — doesn’t fill the entire screen. And nothing I did would rectify that. I also couldn’t get sound with this specific clip. Different file types will yield different results.

Side note: This is another way that the Chromecast is like an Apple product. Frequently, it is possible to make Apple products do things that Apple doesn’t officially support (like jailbreaking an iPhone), but it’s always at your own risk. Local streaming is definitely an “at your own risk” feature. And it definitely feels like a “workaround” more than a feature. Results will vary. Greatly. Don’t buy a Chromecast expecting this to be something you can count on. And don’t believe anyone in any comment sections who tells you otherwise. Most of them don’t even own a Chromecast yet.

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Now, I said I bought the Chromecast specifically for watching Netflix, so let’s take a deeper look at that experience. Unlike local streaming, Netflix streaming is something that Google is more than happy to promise will work without any limitations. Whether from your browser or your mobile App, they want the Netflix experience to be seamless. I’m happy to report it is. Google clearly made sure there was nothing “beta” about Netflix performance.

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This is what it looks like when you cast a Netflix movie from your iPhone to a TV with Chromecast. Note: The Netflix app says it’s playing in the “Bedroom” beause that’s what I named this Chromecast when I first set it up.

As soon as I casted the Netflix stream from the iPhone to the TV, the Netflix App turned into a remote. You can turn your phone off and the Netflix movie will still play (though you won’t be able to control it). Again, everything worked great, but I did notice something interesting when I opened the Netflix App and hit the cast button for the first time…

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I was expecting to see two options: Watch it on my iPhone or watch it on the Chromecast. But I actually had THREE options of where to send the Netflix stream. I could watch it on the iPhone. I could watch it from the Chromecast (still labeled “Bedroom”), or I could watch it from the Vizio TV without the need for any intermediary devices whatsoever. I knew Netflix was built-in into the TV, but I didn’t know that it would communicate with a mobile App. This is a Netflix/Vizio feature I never knew existed. Thank you Chromecast for pointing me towards a useful special feature I already had. The irony, of course, is that the discovery of this feature is yet another reason why I don’t need Chromecast in this room.

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You’ll now note that the App says it’s playing on the Vizio DTV. And it is. With the push of a button, the Vizio’s built-in Netlix App opened automatically and started playing the video where it left off on the iPhone. No Chromecast needed.

Chromecast totally does everything that Google says it will. It even does a couple things Google won’t really talk about. But, overall, I’m sorry to say I still gotta return it. I bought it for a room where the Chromecast can’t get a wifi signal (yet every other wifi device in that room can). I would keep it for another room, except, well, I don’t need it for those rooms. The PS3 is a full-fledged gaming device that Chromecast can never be (nor should it). And the Apple TV, well… the Apple TV can do this:

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The Apple TV’s ability to use any HDTV as an external monitor for your computer is a feature you won’t find on any $35 dongle.

Above you can see my wife trying on maternity clothes for her sister 3000 miles away. The Macbook and the HDTV are linked wirelessly via an Apple TV. This is “true” mirroring and it’s super easy and responsive. Anything you do on a Macbook will show up on your TV. Will Chromecast ever be able to mirror an entire desktop experience like the Apple TV can? When it does, I’ll be back in the market for one. Heck, I’ll still buy one if it can up its wifi performance. ‘Til then… it looks like I might be the first person in America to actually return one of these things. (Which sucks, because I REALLY wanted to use this to watch Netflix in the bedroom…. Stupid wifi.)

As for you? If you have a room with a “dumb TV” and have been looking for an easy way to get loads of online content to it, the Chromecast is definitely worth a try.

Premature Thoughts on Chromecast

Google today just announced this

Chromecast is basically a little dongle that plugs into an HDMI port on your TV (or receiver, presumably), allowing you to watch content that originated on your Google-enabled device.

Two qualifiers for that above sentence:

  1. I said “originated from” and not “streamed from” your device.  Apple’s Airplay protocol allows you to stream almost any content from your iOS device (or Mac) to your TV via an Apple TV.  Chromecast, apparently, isn’t intended to do that — which is going to come as a shock to all the people who think it’s an Airplay competitor. If you’re watching something on your mobile device and “send” it to your TV via Chromecast, all that’s actually being sent is the web address of the source you’re watching (assuming you’re watching something web-based).  The Chromecast itself then downloads and plays the video on the TV.  No data actually goes from your mobile device to your TV.  At least, that’s what appears to be happening.  Some clarification on this would be nice, but I have a feeling people are going to be disappointed to learn that the music and videos they already have saved on their mobile device will be off-limits.
  2. Also note that I didn’t say “Android-powered.”  I said “Google-enabled.” If you have an iOS device with Google Apps, for example, you should still get the same functionality out of it.

Sounds incredibly useful, if not a must-have for many people who already live in Google’s cloud.  And at $35, the price is definitely in the right ballpark (unlike the ill-fated Google Q, which this seems to be replacing).

I look forward to trying it, but until then, here are some other completely premature thoughts on Google’s Chromecast:

  •  It gets power from a USB port.  Not cool.  I know most TVs sold today include USB, but if your TV doesn’t — or if that USB port is already being used — this could be a dealbreaker.  Sounds like you basically need both an empty HDMI port and USB port to make this work without having to get out the USB to AC adaptor.
  •  Nowhere do they talk about the ability to “mirror” your Android device’s screen.  Seems you can only share content from specific Apps updated to take advantage of this new protocol.  And if it’s true that nothing actually gets streamed directly from your handheld device, then mirroring will probably never be an option.
  • Buy one now and you get 3 months of free Netflix.  Not bad. [Looks like that deal expired in less than 24 hours!] They’re definitely billing it as an ideal way to watch Netflix on your TV… assuming you don’t already have a TV, blu-ray player, receiver, or any number of other devices that already include Netflix.
  • Twitter has gone overkill with the praise for this thing.  I’ve seen people declare that “cable is dead.”  Yeah, right.  Remember Google TV?  That was also heralded as the death of cable TV, the death of Apple TV, and, well, the death of everything but Google actually.  Three years later, Google TV is still around, but barely.  Chomecast is being called an Apple TV and Roku killer. Um, if all it does it stream internet-based content cued up by your mobile device, then it’s not even in the same category as those devices, which are entirely self-contained media hubs. (Not to mention the fact that the Apple TV also interfaces tightly with content you own that ISN’T in the cloud.)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very exciting development.  Because Airplay streams content from your Apple device, it’s not great when it comes to web-based content (like Netflix, Youtube, or Hulu) which has to be simultaneously downloaded from the internet while it’s being transmitted to the Apple TV.  Chromecast should have an edge when it comes to those kind of things.  But for movies and music you already have on your hard drive?  Stuff you shot on your phone that isn’t on the cloud anywhere?  Video content that isn’t freely available on the web?  The ability to mirror your desktop?  It doesn’t appear to be made for that at all…

UPDATE:  This is the best review of the Chromecast — from someone who actually has one! — that I’ve seen yet.

UPDATE 2:  My own hands-on thoughts with the Chromecast can be found here.