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.

Eric’s Adventures in the Third Dimension!

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It’s 2013.  Consumer TVs with 3D built-in have only been on sale in the U.S. since 2010.  But in just three years, 3D has gone from the whiz-bang “it” feature of the future to the black sheep of the consumer electronics family. There have been many post-mortems on the seeming demise of the technology, so I won’t venture into that territory.  In fact, I still think  home 3D, done right, can be pretty cool and compelling.  But is it too little too late?

MY FIRST 3D TV

As much as I love being an early adopter, I just couldn’t muster up the energy to buy a new TV just because of 3D, especially in 2010 when the TVs were initially quite expensive. But then my wife and I moved into a new home late last year, giving us the perfect excuse to upgrade our in-home tech.  Ideally, I wanted to find a 60+ inch LED TV with passive 3D (click here for the differences between active and passive 3D).  Why passive?  In my opinion it’s the better home option.  The glasses are cheap and battery-free.  The images have the least amount of crosstalk.  The only real advantage that active 3D has over passive is that it preserves more of your screen’s resolution, but since I have a hard time telling the difference between 720P and 1080P anyway, that doesn’t concern me.

At the time, the choices were slim.  LG made a 65 incher that was already a year old.  Vizio had announced a 65 incher of their own, but I couldn’t find anywhere to see it in person.  I wound up getting a brand new Sharp with active 3D.  My preference for passive 3D wound up taking a backseat because the Sharp had everything else I was looking for  — matte screen, great performance in daylight, good price for its size, etc.  All those things were far more important to me than 3D.  Besides, it was a brand new TV, so I figured the 3D couldn’t be that bad. Right?

Well, before I could test the 3D quality, I had to get some content. There was one movie I missed in theaters and avoided renting in 2D simply because I wanted to see it the way it was shot — in 3D.  That movie was Hugo.  I figured if Martin Scorsese felt the need to capture his vision with 3D cameras, I should at least watch it the way he intended.  But I didn’t want to pay full price to buy the 3D blu-ray disc.  How hard could renting a movie in 3D be?

Netflix offered Hugo in 2D, but that was it.  They don’t offer any 3D movies. (Okay, technically they do, but good luck getting access to them.)  DirecTV has a very limited selection of 3D content: an ESPN 3D channel that seems perpetually stuck on skateboarding, a channel called 3Net and its plethora of documentaries, and one pay-per-view channel that shows just one 3D movie at at a time.  I checked the other streaming sources I had access to — iTunes, Hulu+, Crackle, Amazon Instant Video — and they were all bereft of 3D content.

Okay, no biggie. I could just leave my house.  You know, like the old days.

The closest video rental shop to me is in West Hollywood… which is precisely why I’d never gone in there before.  Don’t get me wrong, I think West Hollywood is a great part of town.  Good restaurants, well-kept parks, very pet-friendly.  What’s there not to like?  I’d just always assumed this particular video store, like a fair portion of West Hollywood, was, um… not intended for people like me.

But it looked pretty big from the outside and it did have some posters for Hollywood hits in the window, so I figured it was worth a shot.  I went in, and, yes they did have some actual mainstream movies… A whopping ten of them (or so it seemed).  The rest of the store’s collection rested behind a curtain.  I imagined many a young man ventured behind that curtain in search of something 3D… but I figured my best shot at finding the movie Hugo (and not some dude named Hugo) lay elsewhere.

The closest video store to me that did carry 3D blu-rays was another 4 miles away.  So off I went, bravely crossing the 405 freeway in the process (which makes a 4 mile journey feel like a 40 mile one).  They had several 3D movies, but, sadly, Hugo was checked out.  I wasn’t going to leave empty-handed, though, so I picked up Prometheus.  Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorsese, but it was shot in 3D, and Scott is on the record of saying that’s how he intended the film to be seen.  Then came the weirdest part of the trip: The girl behind the counter didn’t even know it was possible to watch 3D movies at home.

She works at a video store.

That rents 3D movies.

And she didn’t know 3D TVs existed.

I could hear the collective sobbing of HDTV marketing execs everywhere.  She was their worst nightmare.  (Granted, she was also the kind of girl who didn’t even own a TV, but still…)

Home I went.  I popped in the Blu-Ray disc, put on the single pair of 3D glasses I owned (purchasing of a 2nd $50 pair was based entirely on the outcome of this try-out), and… proceeded to calibrate the TV for the next 1/2 hour.

Here’s the thing about active 3D, something I hadn’t been warned about:  It’s extremely fickle.  Or, at least, this set was.  I COULD get an excellent image, but it took some work.  TV’s with active 3D have a setting that allows you to adjust the “3D depth.”  It sounds like a personal preference for how profound of a 3D effect you want. But it’s not.  It’s actually intended to control crosstalk by allowing you select the virtual midpoint of the 3D plane.  Not only did different movies require different settings, but I had to adjust it from scene to scene of the same movie.  Every time Prometheus went from a wide angle shot to a close-up, I’d have to readjust the 3D depth to account for the different kind of shot, or else the image would be too blurry. Is this a problem for all active 3D tv sets? I’d imagine not.  I have read some good reviews of  active 3D TV sets. But my guess is that whenever you read a review of a TV and the reviewer says it suffers from too much “crosstalk” (the most common complaint among active sets), this is the culprit. The end result for me: The 3D was pretty much unusable.  Not only did I not buy a 2nd pair of glasses, I returned the pair I had.

Thus ended my grand desire to watch 3D at home… ’til last week.

MY SECOND 3D TV

I needed to replace another TV at home.  Since this TV wasn’t the one we’d use for serious movie watching, I didn’t care as much about features.  The only feature I wanted to make sure it had was passive 3D.  And the cheapest TV I could find with passive 3D was a Vizio, a brand not known for high-end performance.  It wasn’t even one of their newer models, but one from last year that was still on the shelf at a local Costco.

I set it up, turned it on, and immediately gave the 3D a try, tuning to 3Net. All they had on was a documentary on how to make firetrucks, but it was enough to tell the 3D was WAY better than on the much more expensive Sharp.  Were the colors slightly muted?  Yeah, a little.  Could I tell the image resolution took a hit?  Sure, if I got close enough.  But those were minor quibbles.  Crosstalk was practically non-existent, and there’s no depth setting to worry about.  This wasn’t just usable 3D, it was preferable.  If I have a choice between a 2D movie and it’s (properly shot) 3D counterpart, I’d probably choose the 3D version.

And here’s where the story gets even better:  I noticed the TV had the Vudu streaming service built-in.  I had never tried Vudu before, so I loaded it up, surprised to see that they actually had a half-decent selection of 3D movies.

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Note that this is just movies “1-18 of 79” total. Not bad, and hopefully the number will only grow.

The only downside: a lot of the really good movies were available for purchase only (as opposed to renting). But it’s great seeing a company really make an effort to offer up 3D options.  They even let you preview the first 2 minutes of each movie for free before purchase/rental.  That’s a really nice touch.

IN CONCLUSION

3D has come a long way in just three years, unfortunately most consumers will never know it.  I’m not going to say it’s too late for 3D to make another comeback, though, because that would be, well… stupid.  The technology has been left for dead more times than Michael Myers (the slasher film villain, not the guy who killed comedy). The biggest knock against home 3D right now is that it’s inessential to the viewing experience.  But you know what else is inessential to the viewing experience?  Surround sound.  Heck, even color was once viewed as a gimmick. The holy grail for TV quality will always be an image so lifelike, you can’t distinguish the screen from a window, and some form of 3D will definitely be a part of that.  Don’t believe me, go to your nearest Sony Store and check out the passive 3D on their newest (and extremely expensive) “4K” sets.  The 3D experience rivals that of the best theaters.  I’d even say it surpasses the experience in theaters because it’s more intimate.  It’s the closest thing we have now to a “window-like experience” (though still far from it) and it’s currently the gold standard in home entertainment.  4K passive 3D might not be the future because it still requires glasses, but it’s definitely the near future; a stopgap until the next tech breakthrough comes around, allowing us to finally have a true window-like image without the need for anything but our eyes.*

In the meantime, for anyone actually wanting to view the occasional 3D movie to see them the way they were intended, LG and Vizio make good, affordable passive sets that I highly recommend.

Oh, and for those wondering, I still haven’t seen Hugo.

 
*Or maybe the solution will be to bypass the eyes entirely and beam images directly into the visual cortex of our brains… hmm…

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Redbox Instant by Verizon: Full of potential, light on everything else

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First, a quick primer on the service…

  • It’s not Redbox Instant. It’s Redbox Instant by Verizon. I stress this because, well, apparently it’s a big deal to Verizon that they get referenced as much as Redbox (even if it makes for clunky headlines).
  • If you’ve never heard of Redbox Instant by Verizon, it’s basically a direct competitor to Netflix, offered by Redbox. And Verizon.
  • Just like Netflix, you have the option to instantly stream content (of mostly older movies) right to your web browser or mobile device, and just like Netflix there’s also an option to get physical discs for newer releases.
  • Unlike Netflix, those discs aren’t mailed to you. You pick them up from one of their many kiosks at grocery stores, 7-11s, and the like.
  • The service is still in beta, and there’s a bit of a waiting period to sign up for it.
  • The default plan costs $8/month.
  • The default subscription comes with unlimited streaming of movies Netflix-style to your computer or mobile device AND up to four physical DVDs from their kiosks per month.
  • In addition to their subscription plan, they also offer iTunes-style digital downloads of movies for rent and/or purchase.
  • Xbox users will have direct access to Redbox Instant LONG before Sony or Nintendo consoles (if they ever get support for it).
  • The ability to stream content to your TV is currently very limited (see below).
  • If you want your monthly subscription to cover Blu-Ray discs (in addition to standard DVDs) from their kiosks, it will cost $9/month.
  • If you don’t care about physical DVDs or Blu-Rays at all, the subscription goes down to $6/month.

Okay, now that that’s all out of the way, how’s the actual experience?

First off, the sign-up process is very buggy. I got my authorization code to sign up for the free trial about a month ago, but it wouldn’t let me actually sign up.  I tried again a few days ago and it was still very buggy — particularly text entry — but at least it worked. If you decide to sign up for it, be prepared to switch web browsers at least once and be very patient.

Content-aside, on the right device, you’d be hard pressed to find any ground-breaking differences between this and Netflix.  The Netflix mobile app is geared more towards guessing what you want to watch. Redbox Instant steers you more towards its newest/featured releases. Both apps make it relatively easy to search for what you want.  Redbox Instant even allows you to search both their streaming catalog and their kiosks at the same time.

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Netflix has the more robust library, but that’s no surprise at this point. I won’t even try to break down which movies could be found on which service because that’s constantly changing, though it should be noted that Redbox Instant isn’t even trying to compete with Netflix for TV shows.  There isn’t a single episode of a single series to be found on Redbox Instant (or at their Kiosks, for that matter).

So if you don’t care about TV shows, and you like a single subscription for both streaming and physical discs, Redbox Instant (by Verizon) may be right for you.  Just one caveat; You’ll notice I used the qualifier “on the right device” up above.

On the right device — like a newer iPhone or iPad (and I’m assuming Android devices, too) — the experience is on par with Netflix (save for the smaller library).

But what’s it like on the wrong device?

On the wrong device it’s practically unusable.

And to make matters worse, that “wrong device” is your TV, which in my opinion is the most important device for movie watching.

Netflix makes streaming to a TV super-easy. You can do it via any number of smart TVs or blu-ray players. You can do it from any game console. You can do it from this and this and this. And this. Oh, and this, too.

Redbox Instant simply can’t compete in this area. They just signed an exclusive agreement with Xbox, so forget about using your PS3 or Wii for the time being. Only three Samsung Blu-Ray players are currently able to access Redbox Instant, and they’re all from 2011. (My top-of-the-line Samsung Blu-Ray player from 2012 isn’t compatible.) And the list of compatible TVs is pretty anemic (again, only certain Samsung models).

I really wish they were more open about compatible devices BEFORE you sign up for the service.

On their FAQ page they recommend hooking up your computer or mobile device to your TV using an HDMI cable. How quaint. Honestly, this isn’t a terrible suggestion, especially if you already have such a set-up (it’s a great way to get Hulu on your TV for free, by the way). But it’s far from ideal having to keep your computer running while you watch TV, not to mention the whole “now I have an extra cable to deal with” thing. And depending on your TV/computer/mobile device, the experience will greatly vary.  A typical set-up will involve Company X’s hardware running Company Y’s software hooked up to Company Z’s television, which is not a formula for seamless connectivity.

For example, this is what it looked like when I hooked my third generation iPad up to my TV via an HDMI cable and hit play on the Redbox Instant app:

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See how much black there is around the image from the movie? This isn’t an aspect ratio thing. The letterboxed image is the same aspect ratio as the TV. It just doesn’t fill it. To make the image fit I have to use the TV’s “zoom” function. The end result is a movie resolution that’s only a fraction of what it should be. Most movie apps for the iPad know how to properly send content over HDMI. Redbox Instant isn’t one of them.

Redbox Instant’s FAQ also recommends that owners of Apple TVs use Airplay mirroring (if they also have a iPhone, iPad, or newer Mac laptop) to push content to your TV. Airplay mirroring, in general, is great. If you own an Apple TV and you aren’t using Airplay mirroring to connect your iOS device to your TV, you’re missing out on one of Apple’s coolest features. But Redbox Instant somehow manages to even mess Airplay up. When mirroring via Airplay, the image still doesn’t fill the screen. An iPhone 5 works better than the iPad because the screen has a more cinematic native resolution, but it still has a thick border around all sides.

Netflix, it should be noted, has no such issues with Airplay. The image fits the screen beautifully. But, then again, you don’t need Airplay to push Netflix content to your television because Netflix is already baked into Apple TVs.

CONCLUSION

This is where I should remind you that the service is still in beta and that the number of compatible devices will surely grow, but since it’s a PAID beta (after the first month), a certain amount of usability should be expected. And until I can watch high quality content directly on my TV, it’s not worth my 8 bucks.

The only way I can see spending 8 bucks per month for this service is if:

a) You live near a Redbox kiosk and really like the idea of a combo disc/streaming service.

and

b) You have a 2011 Samsung Blu-Ray player or TV, an Xbox 360 (with its own Xbox live subscription) or a computer already hooked up to your HDTV.  Or you don’t care about any of that and you just want to watch movies on your tablet/laptop.

If you’re not both A and B, then this isn’t the service for you right now.  Wait a few months — if not longer — before trying it. No point in wasting the 1 month free trial only to discover on day 1 it’s not practical for you.

I’m in group A, but not in group B.  So I’ll be canceling my subscription when the trial ends.  I haven’t written off the service, though. I’d totally consider signing up again, I just hope they’re working as hard on getting it on more devices as they are on getting it more content. Content, oddly enough, is pretty decent considering how young the service is.

I still have three weeks left on my free trial, though. So if anything changes in that time, I’ll update this review.

Note: If you decide to give it a try, hang onto the authorization code they email you. You need it for every device you want to activate.

UPDATE MARCH 7th:  

My free trial is up and I cancelled the subscription.  Nothing I’ve mentioned above has been addressed, and I have no interest in paying full price for a very, very beta product.

Review: MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar

Product:  MartinLogan’s Motion Vision Soundbar
Retail Price: $1500

Released this past summer, MartinLogan’s Motion Vision aims to fill a small-but-significant gap in home theater offerings:  the “high end” soundbar.  There are very few products in this category and understandably so.  If you have over $1000 to spend on a sound system, why not just go with a multi-speaker set-up?  The vast majority of people will do just that.  But not everyone can.  Some rooms simply can’t be outfitted in such a way.  Outside walls, lots of windows, inadequate crawl or attic space — these are things that can hinder speaker installation throughout a decent-sized room.  Or maybe the room just has a nice charm you don’t want to ruin with a multitude of speakers.  Also: If you could get outstanding 5.1 channel “surround” sound from just a single $1500 bar, it could actually be a good deal.  You wouldn’t need an A/V receiver.  You wouldn’t need to pull cables through walls.  Assuming you’ve already got a decent TV (with multiple HDMI inputs), you can use your TV as the receiver and simply plug the soundbar into your TV’s digital audio out port (which is becoming standard on decent HDTVs these days).  No extra components.  No need to hire an A/V installer.  You might not even need a universal remote.  None of that.  Which brings us to the $1500 question…  Is the Motion Vision that soundbar?

My client’s living room is a little over 20 feet x 15 feet.  That’s either large or medium sized depending on where you live.  In a big city like Los Angeles, it’s actually a nice-sized room, especially for a room solely dedicated to entertaining and nothing else.  It’s got two outside walls, lots of windows AND a charming mid-century Mediterranean look the client’s wife didn’t want to alter.  So the room definitely fit the bill for a soundbar, and powerful one at that (to fill the space adequately).  The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama and the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR were both out of the client’s price range (each runs over $2000).  Also, they were kinda ugly.  So, after reading some glowing reviews — here, here, and here — I recommended the Motion Vision.

The first thing you notice is how striking it is to look at.  It definitely looks like a $1500 piece of equipment, at least compared to other speaker systems.  But does it sound like $1500?  Our first test DVD:  The Blu-Ray for Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights.  Why a comedy, you ask?  Well, for one — it’s not just a comedy.  It has several racing sequences that can really test a system’s ability to handle action.  And secondly:  Sound is actually pretty important to comedy, especially for a slave-to-detail like director Adam McKay.  For all the over-the-top gags, there’s just as much humor found in the nuance of individual lines.

Our first reaction:  It sounded FANTASTIC.  Out-of-the-box, the sound was rich and full-bodied.   The race car engines revved like they did in the theater.   For a soundbar with no external subwoofer, the bass was more than enough.

But something odd kept happening.  On more than one occasion, I’d have to ask: “What’d that guy just say?”  Occasionally muddled dialogue is par for the course with movies featuring thick accents and lots of background action — but with the Motion Vision, just about any overly-deep, overly-raspy voice sounded like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

I tweaked and tweaked the soundbar, but no matter how I adjusted the settings, mid-range dialogue sounded either a little muted (compared to other sounds) or too breathy.  I had to turn down the overall bass down a lot just to get the dialogue to sound the way I wanted it to (not an ideal solution if you like bass and don’t have an external subwoofer).

Note: The dialogue sounded better coming from a DTS source than a Dolby Digital source, but if you’re planning to use your TV’s digital out port, DTS likely isn’t an option.

Now, other people who listened to this soundbar didn’t mind the breathiness of the dialogue.  In fact, the amount of “depth” to the dialogue might even be considered impressive to some (because “tinny” voices are a sign of low quality).  Personally, I’d gladly take a little tinniness if it came with a bit more clarity.  So if you plan on watching as many dialogue-heavy costume dramas as you do action films, this might not be the soundbar for you.

For the client, the dialogue issue was actually forgivable.  And I have a feeling this is a common complaint among soundbar technology in general.  But there was a glitch that we couldn’t overlook.  The Motion Vision has an “auto-off/auto-on” feature.  At least, it’s supposed to. I wanted to set it up so the client never had to turn on or off the soundbar, so this feature was something I liked a lot.  On paper.  In actual practice, it didn’t work right.  Every time the Motion Vision turned itself off (to save power), the next time it turned itself on again (whenever it sensed a signal coming from the TV), it defaulted to the wrong audio source.  I tried this with two different units and both had the same defect.  So basically, if you intend to use the auto-power feature to reduce the need for a 2nd remote (or to keep from having program a macro into a universal remote), the feature is worthless.  Every time the system turned on, you still had to manually switch over the right source input.  Very annoying.  I had to turn off that feature and program a universal remote so that it turned on the soundbar manually with the TV.  Not the worst solution in the world, especially if you were already planning to use a good universal remote anyway, but I was really hoping to set-up the system so that it didn’t need a universal remote at all (because the TV and Blu-Ray player were the same brand, and because apps like Netflix and Pandora are baked into the TV itself).

Conclusion:  We returned the MartinLogan.  But it was a tough decision.  The thing was beautiful.  For the most part it sounded EXCELLENT, but the dialogue got a little lost under certain circumstances — just enough that I thought the client could save money and get a less expensive sound bar that wouldn’t be any worse in that area, and maybe even a little better.

The client wound up getting the Harman Kardon SB30 (currently retailing for just under $800). Overall, it’s not as “substantial” a sound delivery system as the MartinLogan — music especially doesn’t sound as good — but for movies it does hold its own against and even does better than the Martin Logan in a couple areas.  Dialogue tended to sound crisper and the SB30’s simulated surround sound worked much better i.e. it has a wider sitting area to get the full effect, and the effect itself was more profound (though still nothing compared to actual rear speakers). It also saved the client nearly $700, which is always a good thing.

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How does a techie-filmmaker-magician pop the big question?

How do you surprise someone who wants to be surprised?   That’s the problem I faced proposing to my girlfriend.  If I did anything out of the ordinary, she’d be suspicious.

I knew I wanted to do it around New Year’s — which would give us enough time to have a summer wedding — but as that day grew closer, I still found myself without any good ideas.  Should I use some of my old childhood magic skills to make the ring “appear” somewhere unexpected?  Should I use some tricks I learned in film school to do it with a heartfelt video?  At the time, I was just getting into the tech consulting biz.  Should I do something high tech?

Three days before my target date (Saturday, Jan. 1st), we went out for sushi.   My eyes kept wandering onto a TV in a corner of the restaurant.  And it hit me.  I pictured us sitting down to watch a Netflix movie at home.  Mid-way through the flick, a character would get down on one knee to propose to another, and that’s when I’d get up, walk to the TV, reach into the film, and pull the ring out of the movie world and into ours.  And then I’d propose with THE RING THAT WAS JUST IN THE MOVIE.   No way she’d see that coming.

I had no idea how I’d do it exactly, but I knew it’d require a little bit of magic, a little bit of filmmaking, and a little bit of techie know-how.  As soon as I got home, I started working on the following plan:

On Saturday, when I’m at her place, we’d get a disc in the mail from Netflix.  But what disc?  It’d have to be both a movie that’d realistically be on our Netflix cue, but also something with a half-decent proposal scene.  I rented a bunch of DVDs, scanned through a bunch of movies, and settled on…


Leap Year
, starring Amy Adams.  It was a romantic comedy that came out within the last year that neither of us saw in theaters, so it could realistically be on our Netflix cue.  It had a proposal-like scene in the 1st ten minutes.  Perfect.  I’m not going to wait two hours to do this thing.  Also, Melissa always falls asleep twenty minutes into every movie we sit down to watch together.  I mean always.  I had to beat the clock.

I’d rip open the envelope, pop the disc into the DVD player, and we’d sit back to watch the movie.  Ten minutes later, Amy Adams and Adam Scott would be on the TV, dining at a super-fancy restaurant, where Amy thinks Adam is going to propose to her (Spoiler Alert:  He’s not, but Melissa doesn’t know that).  So basically, their situation is the exact opposite of ours in every way.

Adam reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small jewelry box, and places it on the table.

Amy looks down at the box and lights up.  This is the moment her character has been waiting for her entire life.

And it’s at that exact moment the DVD will start to get glitchy…

After a moment of skipping, the DVD will freeze on the image of a jewelry box on a restaurant table.

Melissa will think the DVD is scratched.  I’d say “let me take a look at it.”

Then, as I reached behind the TV to “fix” it, Melissa will see…

…my hand and arm, reaching into the movie, grabbing the jewelry box, and pulling it out into the real world.

“I found the problem,” I’d tell her.  “This isn’t for Amy Adams.  It’s for you.”

At least that was the plan.  And for the most part, that’s how it went down.  Read on to find out how I did it, what went right, and what went wrong…

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