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!

DirecTV just rolled out a new feature for tracking your favorite sports team, but is it any good? (Not really.)

I live in Los Angeles, city of transplants.  Not heart transplants or face transplants, but whole people transplants.  Somehow I managed to marry a local, but everyone else I know out here seems to hail from somewhere else.  As such, we all root for teams that are way out-of-market, and watching out-of-market games isn’t cheap.

As of this writing, DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package costs at least $240 ($330 for the version that includes web & mobile access).  Adding the MLB Extra Innings package costs $200, same as the NBA’s League Pass.  If you’ve got the money to spend and really think you’ll wind up watching a high percentage of games, they can be worth it.  For most people, though, they are overkill.

Another option — a Slingbox.  In theory, a single Slingbox can solve all your out-of-market challenges.  Just hook it up to a cable box in your hometown, and wherever you are in the world, you can watch all the local coverage of your favorite teams.  In practice, though, it’s not an ideal solution.  The boxes themselves run from $180 to $300, and — chances are — you’ll need the more expensive option because the cheaper model doesn’t include wifi (i.e. it needs to be physically situated not just near a cable box, but also your home’s internet router).  “Slinging” the content to mobile devices is easy (though the smartphone and tablet apps cost an additional $15 each), and watching on the web is free, but it’s difficult to get the high quality content to a TV set.  Whenever I use Airplay to mirror the iPad app to my living room TV, the video quality always takes a hit. Also: if you’re using Slingbox to watch a program remotely, then whoever is at home looking at that TV has to watch the same thing.  (And don’t forget, this is all contingent on you having family or a friend in your hometown willing to let you hijack their cable box at will.)

Really, I’m just happy watching my favorite teams the few times a season they show up on local TV.   As a Tampa Bay Rays fan, between the nationally televised games that ESPN, Fox, and the MLB network air, not to mention all the times the Rays play the LA Angels, I can easily watch well over a dozen games a year without having to spend any additional money.  For football, I can watch the Bucs at least 3 or 4 times a season the same way.  Hockey is tougher because my DirecTV package doesn’t include the NBC Sports channel, which has the rights to most of the games.  (Thank goodness Tampa doesn’t have a basketball team, as that’s one less sport to worry about.)

The hard part –> Knowing in advance when games will be airing locally.  Using a “keyword” search on a DVR (i.e. looking for any programs with the words “Tampa Bay Rays” or “Buccaneers”) is inexact.  You wind up getting a list that includes non-games, repeats of games, and lots of games on channels you don’t subscribe to.  Websites that specialize in channel listings weren’t much help either.  Ideally, I wanted a site that would email me whenever a channel I get shows a game with a team I want to watch.  Though many sites offered email reminders and customizable channel listings, I couldn’t find a site that offered both the way I need them.  I then turned to an app called IFTTT — which stands for “If This, Then That.”  It’s an amazing app that ties different services together in incredibly useful ways.  You can program it so if that anytime “A” happens in one app (or service), then “B” will automatically happen in another.  “If” a Rays game showed up on a local channel, “then” I wanted an email reminder and/or it to set my DVR.  This, too, turned out to be a dead end, thanks to inadequate TV listing apps and services.

Then, last night, I turned on my TV and I saw this message from DirecTV:

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It’s a new update for DirecTV Genie users specifically to help them track their favorite teams. Sounds great, right?  Well… Let’s check it out.  I followed the above messages instructions and navigated over to Sports.

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Once there, I navigated over to “My Teams” and added the Rays as a favorite.

449A5633Then I selected the “Team Page” of the Rays. 449A5634And from the Team Page, I was able to set recording options.  Note: Because of DirecTV’s obtuse menu system, this is so far taking twice as long as it should.

449A5636As you can see, it very clearly says it’ll record on my subscribed channels. Perfect.  I set it to automatically record the Rays whenever they show up on any channel I get (which should be soon, since the Rays play the Angels this weekend, and I definitely get that channel).  Now let’s navigate over to “upcoming games” and see what it plans to record…

449A5638Wow, that’s a lot of games over the next week.  Too many in fact.  All that should be listed is the upcoming Rays @ Angels series.  I’m also seeing Rays @ Seattle (which is on a channel I don’t subscribe to), A’s @ Rays (also on a channel I don’t subscribe to), and Red Sox @ Rays (again, on a channe to whichl I don’t subscribe).  Even the Rays/Angels games, which are shown locally on Fox Sports West are set to record on the wrong channel (Sun Sports, a channel I don’t get).  In other words, if I trusted this new feature to do as promised, it would record absolutely nothing.  All it weeded out was the “MLB Extra Innings” premium broadcasts. That’s it.

So much for this new “smart” search feature.  It’s just as dumb as ever.  If you subscribe to every channel, though, I suppose it’ll work as advertised, but if you don’t, it’ll just frustrate you with its wasted potential.

Back to a combination of Slingbox and manually checking the Rays upcoming schedule and matching it to local TV listings.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better than relying on DirecTV’s heinously flawed feature.

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.

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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Note About My Reviews

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When I review a product it’s based on personal experience after buying the product either for a client or myself.  I don’t do “reference reviews” where the reviewer places the product next to a bunch of similar ones and runs a series of calibration tests to see which offers the best pure performance.  There are a lot of sites that specialize in such things, like CNET, Home Theater Review, Sound & Vision, and Digital Trends.   And as important as reference tests are, they should only be the starting point when deciding what to buy.  They can tell you if a certain product is worth its price under ideal conditions, but unfortunately most home environments are far from ideal.  The difference between “great” and “excellent” is often unnoticeable in many real world situations.  They can also be information overload.  The most important question isn’t: “What’s the best product out there?”  It’s: “What’s the best product for me?”  There’s a difference and no single review can answer that.  Ideally, you want to find a review from someone whose set-up is as close to your own as possible.

Also: The best advice I can give to someone about to make a major A/V purchase — buy from a place with a good return policy (no restocking fee) and don’t be afraid to return it if it’s not everything you expected it would be.