Monthly Archives: December 2013
Holiday Gadget Review by Some Gadget Gurus We Know
No better way to know what’s super-cool, gadgetry-wise, than to check in with the people who make it a point to know and live such things. Which is what we did. With no further ado, here’s what cable’s top gadget junkies either crave, or love.
Starting with flying things and personal drones. For Mike Hayashi, EVP of Architecture, Development and Engineering for Time Warner Cable, and Comcast CTO Tony Werner, it’s a ($1,100) flying camera — the DJI Phantom 2 Vision. “Watch out for my drone,” Werner cautioned. (He was kidding. Pretty sure.)
With the camera-copter, you too can be a drone — long before Amazon lifts off: http://bit.ly/19jlSsg
“It is going to change the world,” Hayashi added of the gizmo. And we believed him, after viewing the clip he sent: http://bit.ly/1dpLhDi
Hayashi, an audio engineer at his core, also admires the Klipsch La Scala II Three-Way Horn-Loaded Loudspeaker (http://amzn.to/18UOCYl) with 15-inch woofer and 2-inch composite cone. (Of course he does. )
Super hot in 2013-14 gadgetry: Action-cams that clip onto a helmet, surfboard, dog, you name it. GoPro (www.gopro.com) owns the category. (Werner’s list includes the “mutt mount,” for a dog’s eye view.)
Fancy watches are back. Sherita Caesar, VP/National Engineering and Tech Ops for Comcast, likes the Samsung S9100 phone watch (http://bit.ly/JHa6BG). “It’s big and has lots of flashing lights,” she laughed.
Also big: Bicycle accouterment. Jay Rolls, CTO of Charter, is eyeing a road bike with electronic shifting (http://bit.ly/1fIoQf1) — “it’s finally gone mainstream — but commands a $1,000 premium,” he sighed, which makes us think he’ll be shifting gears the old-fashioned way, for now.
For Jud Cary, VP and Deputy General Counsel at CableLabs, it’s a string of LED lights made specifically to spruce up a bicycle’s spokes: http://bit.ly/18BbGk0
And, of course, there’s television sets. Craig Cuttner, SVP/Advanced Technology for HBO, and someone who closely monitors developments on the 4K / UltraHD scene, finally upgraded his “1980s HDTV” with a Samsung F8500 series plasma. “I love the look of the dark blacks of plasma — and, take that, 4K, it’s 1080P. As the future will foretell, it’s all about brightness!”
Likewise for Sabrina Calhoun, VP/Engineering for Brighthouse, who braved a big-box store last week to fall in love with Samsung’s curved OLED. “WOW! It looks like a work of art,” she noted. Price tag: $9,000. (She’ll stick with her non-organic TV for now.)
Lifelong gadget guru Bill Sheppard, with Nuance Communications, recommends the Aviator Laptop Stand, for chronic air travelers. (http://keynamics.com/laptop-stand.html)“It’s a cheap but really useful way to keep a laptop usable even when the jerk in front of you fully reclines.” (I’m in for that one.)
And as a guy on a mission to empower his two daughters to be excited by technology and programming, Sheppard also likes the Lego Mindstorms EV3 (Lego Mindstorms EV3), which he described as “a third generation robotics program with an amazing array of programmability, sensors, I/O, integration, etc. — the ultimate geek toy and educational to boot!”
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what’s on the mind of our own Jeff Baumgartner — The Bauminator. As the guy who first described to me how he was flipping his family out by changing channels on the home TV, while he was on the road, he’s now ready for an upgrade to his Slingbox scene. “I’m looking at the Slingbox 500, to complement the Slingbox Pro-HD that I installed at my parent’s house — so I can watch the Broncos games that aren’t covered in Philly.” I’m no football expert, but it would appear this is a good year to do that.
That’s the roundup for this year. From all of us to you — may all of your 2014 gadgets be friendly and bright! Merry merry.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Your 2013 Guide to Streaming Stocking Stuffers
Still looking for some last-minute holiday gifts? You’ve come to the right place. Once again, we’re rounding up our favorite streaming devices in an attempt to make your holiday shopping research a little easier. After all, we follow this stuff all year long!
In keeping with the title, we’re focusing on the stocking stuffers of the streaming world – small, specialized, and relatively inexpensive. Because the price and features differ so much, we’ve left the game consoles and connected Blu-ray players off this list (they won’t fit in a stocking, anyway).
Without further ado, here’s our list (scroll down to the bottom for a side-by-side comparison of the apps that are currently available on each device).
For your tech-savvy friends: Chromecast ($35)
This little dongle made quite a splash earlier this year, and its low price point and small size make it a fantastic stocking stuffer. Unlike Roku’s streaming stick, Chromecast will work on any TV with an HDMI port. It currently has access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, and HBO Go, with more compatible apps joining the ranks soon. Chromecast isn’t as user-friendly as the other devices on this list, but it’s a great choice for anyone who enjoys playing with the latest technology.
For loved ones willing to pay for good TV: Apple TV ($99)
Despite no updates to the hardware for quite some time, Apple TV is finally getting more premium content. In past years Apple TV only had Netflix and iTunes, making it a tough one to recommend. But with the addition of Hulu Plus, and payTV apps such as HBO Go, Disney, and ESPN Live, the premium content selection is starting to look a lot more like Roku’s. And about HBO Go – many of the big payTV operators currently block access on Roku but not on AppleTV, so AppleTV is probably the best bet for any Comcast or DirecTV subscribers on your list.
For just about everyone: Roku ($50-$100)
This one won’t surprise anyone, because Roku is consistently at the top of our list in terms of value, content, and ease of use. (Disclaimer: My parents are still using the Roku I got them for Christmas 3 years ago).
There are a few different Roku devices to choose from:
Old TV? Roku LT or Roku 2.
Roku is the only manufacturer on this list that offers component out, making it a great choice to smarten up any dumb analog TV. At around $50, the Roku LT is a perfect gift for your relatives with an ancient TV. While the LT tops out at 720p, the Roku 2 ($80) streams full 1080p video and also includes a headphone jack on the remote – perfect for watching while other people are trying to pretend to work, or sleep.
For your favorite media junkie: Roku 3.
At $99, Roku 3 adds some premium features on top of the standard ones. Its processor is about 5x faster, and it includes a motion-sensing remote control for gaming (and a free copy of Angry Birds, as in years past). Roku 3 also includes USB and Micro SD ports, making it easier to put home movies and photos up on the big screen. But the thing we’re most excited about is support for DIAL (Discovery And Launch), the same protocol used by Chromecast – this makes it possible to control Roku’s Netflix and YouTube channels from a mobile device.
Google TV Android TV …just stick with Chromecast this year
Google retired the “Google TV” name and is now partnering with manufacturers to make devices “with Google services.” New devices from Sony and Hisense have been announced, and Google is also rumored to be building a “Nexus TV” device. We’ve yet to see the user interface, but the details released so far suggest the same old Google TV experience.
And remember, HDMI cables aren’t included with AppleTV and Roku anymore, so you’ll want to throw one in the box as well – no need for anything fancy, this will do.
The Future of Batteries
It’s now less than 10 days until Christmas. Chances are high that you need extra batteries for some of those packages you’ll put under the tree next Tuesday night — which seems a festive reason to drop in on that vital technology precinct.
Most of us grumbled through this year about this or that battery draining so quickly, or taking so long to charge, or getting so hot when it’s charging. Today’s batteries seem to draw as much in expletives as they do electrical current.
As much as we get mad at our batteries, though, they too are on a massive innovation trajectory. For instance: Sumitomo Electric wants to triple the life of a battery using a complicated process that involves a new-ish conductive material called “Aluminum-Celmet.” It gets painted onto a plastic foam, which gets nickel-plated, then heated, so the foam and other materials separate. The foam is more porous, so more Lithium can go in, or some such.
Then there’s the recharging mat. Plop your phone onto it, watch it refill its tank. Outfits like the Power Matters Alliance, founded by Procter & Gamble and PowerMat Technologies last year, want to line the horizontal surfaces of our lives with such charging pads. Coffee shops, train stations, ironing boards, you name it.
Here’s an end state for batteries that’s simultaneously desirable and inconceivable: Recharing our gadgetry without wires, and without a charging pad. What! The Alliance For Wireless Power, among others, want to do what charging mats do, but over longer distances.
But this is by far my favorite battery story of the year: Eesha Khare, the 18 year old who invented a way to completely recharge a cell phone — in 30 seconds.
She (she!) won Intel’s Young Scientist of the Year award for supercapacitor-based energy storage, detailed in the deliciously nerdy-sounding “Design and Synthesis of Hydrogenated TiO2-Polyaniline Nanorods for Flexible High-Performance Supercapacitors.”
Translation: Foundational stuff for a battery that lasts way longer than today’s Lithium-Ion types — 10,000 cycles, compared to around 1,000 cycles inside the batteries powering the gadgets in our digital gardens now.
Bonus: It’s solid state, which means no nasty battery juice inside. That also means it’s environmentally friendly. And, it can be bent or folded or rolled up, and still maintain its electrical properties.
None of this will be ready by next Wednesday. But have faith. It’s coming.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Happy Thanksgiving from your Slingbox: What’s In the Much-Needed App Refresh
On November 18th, Sling Media released an overhauled version of its SlingPlayer app for Android and iOS. With this update came a lot of features that we really like, some of which even breathe new life into some of our old “televestigial” devices.
In case you missed our first Slingbox post, or aren’t altogether sure about what a Slingbox does, you can read up on it here.
The nice folks at Sling Media sent us a Slingbox 500 after the first review. It’s a solid device with a few new features. It seems to drop the connection a bit less often than our Slingbox SOLO, but the main improvements are the built-in WiFi and ease of setup.
My main gripe with the Slingbox experience remains a tough one to fix – namely, the painfully long delay that accompanies each button press. This means that rewinding or fast-forwarding is a challenge not unlike parallel parking in a car with no brakes. And my slow broadband connection at the farm is like adding some potholes into the mix.
But enough with the holiday driving analogies. On to the latest SlingPlayer app update, which brings some sorely needed features to our fingertips.
Two screens are better than one.
Sling’s updated iPad app brings with it a second-screen experience, making it possible to control the SlingPlayer app on a whole slew of other devices. A SlingPlayer channel also landed on Roku. But (surprise, surprise) there’s a catch.
The free SlingPlayer app that populates our other streaming devices (NeoTV, WDTV, GoogleTV, and Boxee) comes with some basic controls for playing video. (I use the word “control” loosely here, as you can’t do much besides punch in channel numbers). But just keep your eye on that word “free.”
SlingPlayer for Roku doesn’t work this way. It’s free to install, but after that, you must use the SlingPlayer app on your phone to control it. (This is very Chromecast-ish, by the way.) So when you click on the Sling channel, you end up on a page telling you how to buy the SlingPlayer app for iPhone or Android. Huh?
About those mobile apps…
Ahhhh, right. Use-case stumble in the value chain that is payTV. Here’s what we mean: SlingPlayer’s mobile apps cost $15 each (yes, that’s fifteen dollars each), and are device-specific. You buy the tablet version,the phone version still costs you. And if (like us) you shelled out for the iPad version, can you use it to control your Roku? No.
But just as I was mulling over whether to purchase another app just for the Roku (again: fifteen dollars) , something buried in the iPad app settings caught my eye:
Connected device settings on iPad
You’re welcome? Anyway — yes — that’s right, now you can use the iPad app to control the SlingPlayer app on other connected devices. Who knew! Though at the time of this writing (just around Thanksgiving, 2013) you won’t find much (or anything) about it on their website or in the user forums. It took a chat with tech support before I figured out the correct sequence, but it works – quite well, actually.
Please do try this at home!
Step 1: First, log in to the SlingPlayer app, on whatever device that’s connected to your TV, and start streaming live TV.
Step 2: Open the SlingPlayer app on the iPad. Find something to watch. When you select the title, choose “Play on TV.”
Step 3: Wait for 10 to 20 seconds. Come on! You can do it!
Voila: The channel streaming on your TV will change. It did for us, anyway (we tested it on the 2nd-gen Google TV, NeoTV, WDTV Live Hub, and even the Boxee Box).
Today on FitTV, “Fabulous Cakes.” Wait, what?
This differs from the Roku implementation, in that the iPad is not talking directly to the device it’s “controlling.” It’s just changing the channel on the Slingbox, without taking over the video stream the other device is viewing. However, from your and my perspective, it’s the same general process: Select a show in the SlingPlayer app, tap “Play on TV.”
The latest version of the iOS for Slingbox app also adds AirPlay, so you can send the stream to an Apple TV as well. Bummer dude: When we tested it, the video continued playing out on the iPad screen, while the audio played out through the Apple TV. It’s an odd tug on the senses.
Other app features:
One of our favorite new things about the iPad app is the “Gallery” view. It’s an image-based guide that makes for a much easier browsing experience. The gallery view also lets you browse favorites only, if you set favorite channels (by tapping the heart icon in the guide). Favorites have long been a feature of SlingPlayer’s iPad app, but they work particularly well in Gallery view.
Gallery View on SlingPlayer for iPad
Another SlingPlayer for iPad thumbs up: Ahhh, there you are, metadata! In previous versions of the app, tapping an item in the guide would automatically tune to that channel. As people who expect guidance metadata — What show is this? What’s it about? — I had a lot of trouble with empty, trigger-happy channel changes.
The latest version of the app keeps the current channel playing when you tap an item in the guide. On the same screen real estate, it loads a description of what you’re watching, with the option to watch or record. As this is a table stakes capability we expected from the app all along, we’re glad to see it.
The updated Slingplayer for iOS apps also offer a “TV-out” feature, where you connect your mobile device to the TV using an Apple Digital AV Adapter and Component AV Cable. This is a mandatory option for Slingbox owners who travel a lot. It means you only need to pack a couple extra cables to replace the standard hotel lineup — with your own premium channels and DVR.
The growing trend toward two-screen control of our panapoly of OTT devices is a welcome one. We’ve long needed a remote control that lets you browse while you watch, controlling the TV from a handheld device. In other words, we’ve needed a cord-cutter’s version of the iPad guide apps that payTV companies rolled out years ago.