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Take stock of what’s left, especially any equipment that might be old & outdated.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.

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.

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.

Cable Boxes are Evil

From 1950 to 1980, watching TV was super easy: All you had to do was remember what time your favorite shows would be on and then turn a knob to tune in.  So simple.  The process required less than 0.0000001% of your brain power, freeing America to do some pretty cool things during that time span, like walk on the moon, march for civil rights, and impeach a president.

Then came a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sought to annihilate the elegant simplicity of TV watching: The Cable Box.   Sure it came with dozens of enticing channels, but it rendered useless the TV’s own dial and it made hooking up a VCR a complicated mess.  It also made life hell for every 10 year old boy who was forced to become their home’s I.T. guy.

Fortunately, electronics manufacturers saw a need for simplicity, and they started sticking cable tuners right into a multitude of devices. The result:  cable-ready TVs & VCRs that relegated cable boxes only to those who desperately needed to buy pay-per-view programs (i.e. boxing & porn) or unscramble premium channels (i.e. less interesting boxing and simulated porn). Thus the 1990’s became the golden age of cable: 60 to 70 additional channels, no special box required.  With that hassle eliminated, America saw it’s greatest decade of prosperity since the end of World War II.   We even had time to impeach another president.

But then the cable companies fought back. “Sure you can get up to 70 channels with no box,” they said in a dark alley behind the middle school, “but that’s BASIC cable. Wouldn’t you like something better? Something DIGITAL?” Ooh, digital cable. Hundreds of channels! Better sound and video quality! The ability to watch movies on demand! “Sounds great!” we shouted, “but what’s the catch?”

“That’s the best part,” they responded. “There isn’t one!”

Ah, but there was.

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