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.

How to listen to your Smart TV’s Apps in surround sound

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how A/V receivers are avoidable if you really don’t want one.

This post is for the rest of us — the people who love our surround sound and like having a quality A/V receiver, but we also have a smart TV with cool apps of its own.  If you’re like me, all your components (Blu-Ray player, game system, cable box, etc) plug into the A/V receiver, which sends the video to your HDTV while sending the audio to your external speakers. That means the apps built-in to the HDTV aren’t connected to your good surround sound speakers. The apps have to use the crappy speakers built into your TV. What’s a sound-loving techie to do?

Have no fear. There is hope.

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A digital audio out port.

The good news is that if your TV has built-in apps then it also probably has a “digital audio out” port (see photo). Most brands have been including digital audio ports on their HDTVs for years, so even older sets should have one. Bonus points if your digital audio port can send out a full Dolby Digital 5.1 signal (refer to your TV’s manual for any possible limitations on its digital audio port).

Note #1: These methods are good for getting any sound off your HDTV and back to your receiver.  For example, your HDTV may have an over-the-air antenna built-in that you like to use.

Note #2: When using your TV’s digital audio out port, you’ll also want to set your TV so that it will send out a “fixed” audio signal even when the TV’s internal speakers are muted and/or turned off (as they should be).  See your TV’s manual for this. There’s usually a menu setting for this.

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An analog audio out port.

Note #3: If your TV does not have any kind of digital audio port — and you’ve really, really looked for it — it might still have analog audio outputs (see photo). These can work too, but the sound won’t be as good. And if you’re really desperate, you can use your TV’s headphone jack to get audio back to your receiver, but you can forget about any kind surround sound at this point.

Method #1: Treat your TV as a separate audio component

Simply plug your TV’s audio-out into an empty input on your receiver (preferably one set aside just for audio, like the CD input.) When you use your TV’s built-in apps, just set the receiver to that input.

The upside: You can do this with just about any receiver, even a really old one.
The downside: It’s a pretty crappy solution. You won’t be able to use the TV apps concurrent with video from your cable box or blu-ray player. You will only be able to see video provided by the apps themselves. For Netflix and the like, that’s not such a problem, but for others, it might be.

This method is okay if you have a newer TV but an older receiver.  This is also the method to try if your TV does not have a digital audio out port. (If you only have a headphone jack, use a headphone-to-RCA adapter to connect it to an empty analog input on your receiver — no surround sound, but it should still be better than your TV’s built-in speakers.)

All the methods below are preferable to this one, if possible.

Method #2: Use your receiver’s “TV” input port.

If you have a new-ish receiver, it may have a port set aside specially to receive audio from your TV.

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Note the digital audio jack labeled “Optical (TV)” in the center of the picture.

This port should play nicely with your Smart TV. I say “should” only because every manufacturer has their own idea of how things ought to work.

Method #3 Use an assignable digital audio port on the receiver.

Look to see if your receiver has at least one audio port labeled “assignable.”

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This receiver has two assignable ports. Most receivers only have one, but one is all you need.

If so, you’re in luck. This is my preferred way to get sound from a Smart TV. Again, you’ll need your manual to see exactly how it’s meant to be used (and how to set it up), but the basic gist is this:  Connect your TV’s audio-out port to an “assignable” port on the receiver.  You then set your receiver so that whenever you switch to a particular HMDI input, instead of using audio supplied by the HDMI cable, it’ll use the audio from this port instead (which comes from the TV).

Note:  If you connect your TV to the receiver via component cables (and not HDMI), this method might not work.

Real life example:  On the receiver in my family room, I noticed that there’s an assignable digital audio port that goes with the SAT/CATV HDMI input.  I plugged the digital audio output from the TV into that port.   The sound from my DirecTV box now travels via HDMI through the receiver to the TV… and then that sound keeps traveling back into the receiver.  When I’m watching TV, the audio doesn’t sound any different.  But because the sound is technically coming from the TV and not directly from the DirecTV box, whenever I load up the Netflix app built-in into the TV, that sound plays through the speakers, too.  Make sense?

Method 4: Be the first person in America to actually use your receiver’s Audio Return Channel (ARC)

Technically, the most current HDMI standard comes with the ability retrieve sound from your TV automatically. It’s called ARC. If you have both a relatively new TV and a relatively new receiver, this could be your best (and easiest) option.

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Note the letters “ARC” on the HDMI-out port.

The set-up is dead simple: If you have both a TV and a receiver that supports ARC, a single HDMI cable between them can send information bidirectionally.  In other words: It can send video from the receiver to the TV, but it can also send audio from the TV to the receiver. No special set-up required. Just one cable.

Receivers with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to its TV output.  HDTVs with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to one of its inputs.

Not only is ARC intended to send audio signals from your TV back to your receiver, but it’s also — theoretically — able to send remote commands, too, though I haven’t been able to test this ability myself. At the least, you’ll probably need a TV and receiver made by the same company, and the company will have to make sure to include the necessary firmware that’ll make this happen. If I were you, I’d be happy just getting the audio to work right.

Note: ARC functionality isn’t limited to TVs and receivers. Some soundbars feature the specification, too.

Also worth noting: Older HDMI cables might not work with ARC. If both your TV and Receiver support ARC and but things aren’t working, you might want to try a new HDMI cable.

If your TV’s digital audio port only sends out a stereo signal (as many do), ARC could be a way to get full 5.1 channel surround sound back to your receiver.

ARC is supposed to kick in automatically once the TV and receiver sense each other, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep your TV and receiver manuals handy. This is a relatively new standard, which means some companies might be implementing it differently. (i.e. You might have to go into the menus and turn the feature on.)

For further reading about ARC, you can check out this piece at HDGuru.

So there you go. Four ways to get sound from your Smart TV back to your receiver. Bon chance.

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UPDATED MARCH 27, 2017 —  If, after reading this, you think you might need a receiver, here’s some I think represent a good value. All are under $500 (as of this writing) and all feature ARC (mentioned above). 

 

Do you really need an A/V receiver?

The short answer is “no.”

The long answer is “hell no.”

Look, if you have a dedicated home theater space with 5 or more separate speakers, then, yeah, you’ll need something to control them.  But you already know who you are and you aren’t reading this.  If that is you and you are reading this, then stop.  You do need an A/V receiver or something like it.  This post is for people who landed here after typing “Do I really need an A/V receiver?” into a search bar.  To you, the answer is: Only if you want one.  It’s not a requirement for good sound these days.

Why wouldn’t you want an A/V Receiver?

Three reasons: Added complexity, cost, and feature redundancy.

The added complexity is evident every time you try to tell someone else how to watch TV:  Turn on the TV, then turn on the receiver, then set the TV to video input 1 and the receiver to SAT/CAB, oh, and then make sure the cable box is turned on, and remember, if you want to control the volume don’t use the TV remote!  Why does simply watching TV have to be that complicated? Sure, you can get a universal remote that might streamline the process, but they aren’t perfect.  Even a top-of-the-line smart remote can be problematic it gets out of sync with your equipment (for example, if the remote thinks a component is on when it’s really off).  The only true way to simplify the experience — and increase the reliability of universal remotes — is to reduce the number of overall components.

The cost is evident in the amount of money you’ll be missing from your pocket.

The redundancy is evident in the other features you probably don’t need.  For example, a lot of receivers now come with Apps built-in (Pandora, Netflix, etc.). Sounds great, except chances are you have those same apps also in a different component.  Do you really need Netflix on your TV, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, smart phone and your receiver?

So why would you want one?

1. As mentioned, you want true surround sound.

2. You like listening to the radio.

3. You have more video components than your TV has inputs.

What are the alternatives?  

As TVs gets thinner and slicker, the built-in speakers gets worse and worse (or, at least, it seems like they do).  You really don’t want to rely on your TV’s built-in speakers for movie watching, which means you will want some sort of sound system, just not one that requires an A/V receiver for power.  I’m a big fan of soundbars for this very reason.

NOTE: If you are perfectly content with the sound from your TVs speakers, and you just need a device that can switch between your many components — cable box, blu-ray player, game system, etc. — you can just get an HDMI switcher.

If the idea of a soundbar intrigues you, consider doing what too few people do these days — plug all your components directly into your TV’s multitude of inputs. Then use your TV’s “digital audio out” port to send the audio from your TV to the soundbar.  And that’s it.  Every time you change inputs on your TV, the soundbar will automatically keep up.

Even better: You can get a soundbar that will automatically power up when your TV turns on, meaning you never have to worry about turning it on or off.

You can then simply program your cable or satellite box’s remote to adjust the Soundbar’s volume instead of your TV’s, eliminating the need for a universal remote (for TV watching, at least).

Note:  If your TV allows you to turn off the internal speakers completely, do it.  That way you never have to worry about accidentally hearing sound from both the TV’s speakers and the soundbar. Many newer HDTVs have that option.  If yours does, then it also probably has the option to send a “fixed” audio signal to the soundbar, meaning no matter what the TV volume is set at, the soundbar will still get the signal it needs.  Ideally, you want a set-up where the TV’s speakers are off completely and the only way to control the volume is from the soundbar.

Another option: Find a Blu-Ray player with HDMI inputs.

They’re rare, but they do exist.  Being able to use your Blu-Ray player as an HDMI switcher can streamline the number of components in your home theater, which is always a good one thing. Two more situations where you might want one:

1) If your HDTV doesn’t have “discreet” inputs.

“Discreet inputs” means that each input on the TV has it’s own separate remote code to switch to it.  That’s very handy for universal remotes.  For example, let’s say your cable box is input 1 and your Blu-Ray is input 4.  With discreet inputs, your universal remote only has to send one command to switch from “CABLE” to “BLU-RAY” and vice versa.  The chances of messing up are rare.  But if your TV doesn’t have discreet inputs, then that means you can’t switch from input 1 to input 4 without cycling through inputs 2 and 3.  And to get from 4 to 1, you have to cycle through 5, 6, etc, all the way back to 1.  In other words — the universal remote has to virtually send many button presses to accomplish one task, which is very prone to errors. If you like the idea of pressing a single button and letting the remote do all the work, you really need a TV (or other device) with discreet inputs.

2) If your HDTV is already mounted to the wall.

If your TV is already mounted to the wall, you might not not have access to the TV’s inputs or you might not want to string new cables in front of the wall.  For example, I have a TV in my house that was mounted with just a single HDMI cable built into the wall (for the best aesthetics).  The idea was to use that single, hidden HDMI cable to connect the TV to a receiver, and just use the receiver to switch between the other components.  But to make things easier for my wife, I ultimately decided not to put a receiver in this room.  So then what?

I could’ve just gotten an HDMI switcher, but then I stumbled across the Samsung BD-E6500.  It’s a Blu-Ray player with two HDMI inputs.  Perfect.  I plugged the BD player into the TV using the HDMI cable that’s strung through the wall.  Then I simply plugged the DirecTV box into the BD player.  Even better, the BD player has what’s called an “HDMI pass-through signal.”  That means whenever the BD player is turned off, the DirecTV signal automatically “passes through” it to the TV.  Switching between components is as easy as turning the BD player on and off (on when I need Blu-Ray, off when I need DirecTV).  I only have the BD player and a DirectTV box hooked up to this TV, so I didn’t even need the 2nd HDMI input. (Though I might use it in the future for an Apple TV.  At the moment, the Blu-Ray player has all the “smart functions” I need, like Netflix.)

FYI: In addition to the Samsung I mentioned, Oppo also makes high-end Blu-Ray players with multiple inputs, like this one and this one.

So there you go… Thanks to an ever-improving stable of soundbars and other devices, if you don’t want the hassle or complexity of a receiver, you really don’t need one.

UPDATE APRIL 22, 2017

Looking for a soundbar that can also supply true surround sound? This one from Vizio could fit the bill:

Note: The surround speakers require their own power supply, which could restrict their placement around the room. Also: It doesn’t have HDMI inputs, so your TV would need enough inputs to handle all your components.

If you can live without “true” surround sound, a soundbar at the top of my wish list is this one from Yamaha:

It’s simulated surround sound rivals many multi-speaker set-ups and it has 4 HDMI inputs, so you can plug a range of components directly into the soundbar (much like you would an AV receiver). It’s super-pricey though, hence it being on my “wish list” and not “in my living room.”

A more reasonably priced soundbar that can act as an HDMI switcher is this one from Harman Kardon:

It also has 4 HDMI inputs, and is marked down a great deal because it’s a slightly older model.

Are there cheaper soundbars to be found with both good sound and at least 4 HDMI inputs? I’ll keep my eye for some, and add them here…


Looking for other home theater equipment? Don’t forget to check out Amazon’s TV & Video deals.

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.

So you want to break up with your cable company…

There’s nothing worse than staying in a bad relationship way past it’s natural expiration date, yet that’s what always winds up happening. We worry we can’t find anything better. We focus too much on the few good times, not enough on the multitudes of bad ones. We deceive ourselves into thinking things will get better.

That’s why I’m here.

I’m here to tell you can do better.

I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

I’m here to tell you how to break up with your cable company.

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