Technology Nobody Needs
Along with tracking the more promising gadgets and technologies gracing the Internet of Things, we keep a notebook in Evernote titled “The Book of Bad Ideas.” That is where I send all of the eye-rolling, cringe-inducing nightmares that crop up during my daily web scrape. Here are a few of the highlights:
Selfie Sombrero (Acer x Christian Cowan-Sanluis) $980
This glittery, obscenely expensive pink hat-and-tablet combo, which first appeared at London Fashion Week, was designed by the young Dutch designer Christian Cowan-Sanluis. It rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to find your best selfie angle. In case you were wondering, this was inspired by a similar outfit (minus the dangling tablet) that the designer created for Lady Gaga last year.
Quirky Egg Minder ($49)
If you have egg anxiety, fear not: The Quirky Egg Minder is here. This connected egg tray works with a smartphone app to track how many eggs you have, when each individual egg was placed in the tray, and when each egg is set to reach its expiration date. You can even check on your egg tray from the grocery store to see if you need to buy more eggs, and receive text alerts when your eggs are about to expire! As an urban chicken keeper, I strongly recommend investing in the low-tech solution of a few backyard hens and an egg skelter instead.
Sony Smart Wig (prototype only, price TBD)
This one may never see the light of day, but it’s so wonderfully ridiculous that we just can’t leave it off this list. Sony filed a patent at the end of last year for a smart wig, capable of such functions as navigation, health monitoring, and EEG tracking. Even better, Sony’s patent covers a Presentation Wig, designed for use with PowerPoint. The wig allows the user to control a laser pointer with a wiggle of the eyebrows, and advance to the next slide by tugging on the sideburns. Sadly, we’re not joking.
We:Ex Navigate Jacket (price TBD)
The designers of the Navigate jacket are very concerned about the risks of pedestrians using GPS on their phones. Citing an increase in pedestrian traffic accidents involving smartphones, they’ve developed jackets that will lead you around town using LEDs on the sleeves and vibrating shoulder pads. Because we can safely assume that all those smartphone-related pedestrian accidents involve someone intently staring at Google Maps, rather than checking Facebook or emailing the boss. And while you can use earbuds to get audio navigation cues from your phone, surely it will aid your exploration of the city if your sleeves are flashing and your jacket is abuzz with haptic feedback.
Aside from being ridiculous, the Navigate jacket is city-specific, meaning you can’t buy one and use it wherever you go — currently there are versions being tested for New York City, Paris, and Sydney. We don’t have a price tag just yet, but we think the idea of purchasing a distinctive-looking electronic jacket just to get directions to the Louvre is absurd. If you want to stand out as a tourist, this is probably a good bet.
airVR, by Metatecture, is a virtual reality headset that completed its round of funding on Kickstarter on October 16. This project “leverages iOS Retina hardware that is already in millions of peoples’ hands.” In other words, it involves strapping an iPad Mini to your head.
To be fair, it seems this device might actually have a few practical uses – one of the apps, diplopia, claims to help correct lazy and crossed eyes. But we just can’t get over the image of this guy cavorting around with an iPad strapped to his face.
Oh, and they make one for iPhone too:
Satis Smart Toilet ($4,000 no longer available)
This connected toilet, made by Lixil (now owned by American Standard) is no longer on the market – and for good reason. The toilet connected to a smartphone app via WiFi and Bluetooth, though we’re still not clear on why this was a selling point. In case you want to track usage? Or flush from your phone? (Never mind, we don’t really want to know.)
But the steep price tag and questionable utility were not the worst things about the Satis Smart Toilet. A Bluetooth PIN of “0000” was hard-coded into the app, making it possible for anyone with the MySatis app to control any toilet within range. According to a security advisory issued in August of 2013, “an attacker can cause the toilet to repeatedly flush, raising the water usage and therefore utility cost to its owner. Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user.” We’ll just leave you with that mental image….
Chromecast, a year later
Last fall, we first got our hands on Google’s Chromecast. Now, a little over a year after its release, we’re taking a look back at the little dongle that could. Because by popular metrics, it took the market by storm.
Expanding app selection
When Chromecast launched on July 24, 2013, just two apps were available on iOS: Netflix and YouTube (Android users could also get music, movies, and TV through Google Play). In February, Google finally released the Chromecast SDK and developers everywhere began building the cast functionality into their apps.
Now, there are roughly 78 apps available for iOS — 24 of them “featured apps.” Notable streaming video apps include WatchESPN, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Watch ABC, YouTube, PBS Kids, MLB.TV, and Crackle. As for the number of Chromecast apps for Android, the count stands at “oh, hundreds” (in other words, we stopped counting).
A small sampling of the Chromecast-compatible apps available for Android
Netflix Post-Play makes marathon watching far too easy
Just this week, Netflix finally brought the “Post-Play” feature to Chromecast – meaning it will now automatically cue up the next episode if you’re watching a series. This feature has been on other devices since 2012, and is extremely useful if you happen to be marathon-watching episodes of Dexter while slicing and dicing your way through a bumper crop of plums (take it from me). Not so useful is the fact that there is no way to toggle this feature off within the app; you’ll need to go to the Netflix website and change the settings there, or risk getting sucked into a marathon. Netflix, you’re a terrible enabler.
Improved browser streaming, and Firefox support
Chromecast also allows you to stream virtually any web video from your computer, using a Chrome Browser extension, but when we first tested out the Chromecast, I found this feature to be downright useless. Because the video streams from the computer and not from the cloud, I ended up with a grainy, sputtering video where the audio track rarely synced up with the picture.
Fortunately, it’s now possible to change the resolution in the extension options. “Extreme” video quality equals 720p high-bitrate, so streaming from a browser never looks quite as sharp as watching something from the Netflix catalog. Dropping to “High” quality, which is still 720p, doesn’t cause much difference in resolution but does smooth out the playback considerably.
Changing the quality settings on the Chromecast browser plugin
The ability to send tabs to Chromecast is coming to Firefox, too. Mozilla now has a “Send to Device” extension in its latest Firefox Nightly Build for Android devices (Firefox for Android Beta 33), where it will presumably undergo further testing before showing up on our computers and other devices. Firefox’s new extension also casts browser tabs to the Roku 3.
Why Chromecast is my (input) #1:
These days, I find myself using the Chromecast more often than I do the Roku Streaming Stick that’s plugged into the same TV. Roku still has more content, but Chromecast is much more accessible and convenient to use. Because Chromecast uses CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), I can just select a piece of content to play on my phone and the Chromecast will seamlessly turn on the TV, switch to the correct input, and start playing the video. Roku’s Streaming Stick, which has no CEC and a limited selection of apps that support DIAL casting, still requires that I juggle two remote controls.
The simplicity of Chromecast is a beautiful thing, and the growing catalog of compatible apps makes it more relevant by the day. We’re hoping this will be the year that Spotify, Amazon Video, and Showtime Anytime get on the Chromecast bandwagon.
For that matter, we wouldn’t mind seeing some more TV Everywhere apps from broadcasters and cable operators, too…and by “everywhere,” we mean in-home and out. And yes we realize that’s a different and special hell of copyright stuff. But still…
The IoP (Internet of Plants)
As an avid gardener, few things fill me with as much joy as the baskets of produce starting to come in from the yard this time of year. Or, in Leslie’s case, to see her massive wildflower jungle come into bloom on a schedule that makes sure her honeybees are rolling in nectar and pollen from the earliest in Spring (croci), to the latest in Fall (sedum.)
Gadgets are right up there, for both of us, though. And lucky for us, the Internet of Things (IoT) is sending runners into the garden everywhere we look.
For the past couple years, we’ve been ogling plant sensors like Parrot’s Flower Power ($60) – a little WiFi-enabled twig that uses a database to determine whether your plants are getting enough moisture, sunlight, etc. and then sends text notifications to let you know that the raspberries are thirsty and the shade plants are getting too much sun.
These sensors are novel, and might well be a very useful tool for the new (wealthy! – see $60 apiece) gardener trying to figure out what conditions each plant needs to thrive. But I can tell when my tomatoes aren’t happy; I don’t need a text to remind me that they need water. What I do need is something that will take the guesswork out of my watering schedule and ensure that every plant gets exactly what it needs. I find watering to be the most difficult and frustrating part of my garden; even with soakers on an automatic timer there’s a lot of wasted water and time spent manually fine-tuning the watering schedule. For instance, shutting off valves between soakers every other day to ensure that the raspberries get enough water and the tomatoes don’t get too much (and then forgetting to turn the tomatoes back on until they start pouting). I need a system that will automatically water each plant in response to what’s happening in the skies and below the soil.
Fortunately, garden gadgets are heading in exactly that direction. Another system, PlantLink ($79 for the system; $35 for each additional sensor), provides fewer metrics than Flower Power but works with optional smart valves ($65 each) for automatic irrigation control , adjusting the watering schedule on the fly in response to the current conditions and each plant’s specific needs.
If lawns are your thing, there are also a handful of other companies offering connected sprinkler systems (Rachio, GreenIQ) that offer smartphone control, and which also change your watering schedule in response to the weather.
But lately our eyes are on Edyn, a smart garden system that just achieved 300% of its Kickstarter goal (expected to start shipping in Spring 2015). Edyn’s smart garden system ($150 for each sensor/valve combo) consists of soil sensors and water valves designed by Yves Behar’s fuseproject – designers of FanTV (the sleek little set-top box coming soon to Time Warner Cable subscribers) and our beloved Jambox speaker.
Edyn combines the best features of the other garden gadgets – smart sensors that track moisture and nutrients in the soil and sun exposure, coupled with information from weather, plant, and soil science databases. Edyn uses these factors to adapt the watering schedule for each of your plant varieties, and smart valves automatically open or close in response to the real-time water needs of your garden (or the touch of a button on your smartphone). The system also sends you text messages to let you know that the tomatoes need fertilizer, or that it skipped watering today because it’s about to rain, etc.
While I don’t really like the part about being inundated by text messages (hopefully there’s a way to change alert settings), the premise of Edyn is really exciting stuff for any hobby gardener or small-scale farmer. If I can leave the watering to the cloud(s), my time can be spent on more satisfying work, like harvesting tomatoes and pulling bindweed.
Which brings me to a final question: How long until we see a pattern-matching robot that will seek out and destroy weeds and common pests, like a Roomba for the garden? Sign us up for that Kickstarter.
Aereo, Say It Ain’t So
Back when I lived at the farm, with terrible antenna reception and no cable service, Aereo solved my problem of not having a reliable way to watch TV. That is, until service was cut off pending the Supreme Court’s final ruling on whether Aereo violated copyright law by retransmitting broadcast signals captured on dime-sized antennas.
We’ve had an ear to the ground all year, waiting to find out if Aereo would upend the media industry or go dark forever. That decision finally arrived on Wednesday, June 25, with the Justices ruling 6 to 3 against Aereo.
Aereo’s cloud DVR service worked using massive rooftop arrays of dime-sized antennas, each assigned to an individual subscriber. Because the antennas weren’t shared, Aereo argued that its retransmission of broadcast signals did not constitute a “public performance” and as such should not be subject to licensing fees.
Broadcasters, not surprisingly, had a different opinion.
One of the attorneys representing Aereo, David Frederick, is often quoted comparing Aereo’s technology to that of 1980s-era video recorders. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that recording programs at home for later viewing did not violate copyright laws, then Aereo’s remote DVR service shouldn’t raise any red flags. Right?
Actually, Aereo’s service was a far cry from the VCR experience of the 80s – both in terms of the monthly fee and the ease of enforcement. While broadcasters couldn’t do much to stop a guy with a set of rabbit ears and a VCR from recording episodes of Dallas back in the 80s, it’s a very different story when you’ve got a company repackaging free over-the-air content for a profit. And it’s much easier to make an example of that company.
So what’s next for Aereo, now that the Supreme Court ruled that they have to pay retransmission fees to broadcasters? Aereo founder Chet Kanojia (a long time cable industry guy, who founded interactive TV advertising company Navic Networks, selling it to Microsoft in June of 2008) previously said that Aereo had “no Plan B” if the court battle didn’t go in their favor.
However, in an email to Aereo subscribers on Wednesday, Mr. Kanojia changed the message by saying “our work is not done” and vowed to “continue to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”
The ruling also calls into question anyone delivering cloud-based video services, especially live and linear content. For now, it appears, so long as partakers keep paying broadcasters (for the content they pay for and distribute), it’s still a clear path.
So will Aereo be reinvented as something new, or is it destined to gather dust on our shelf of televestigials? Only time will tell… and we’ll be watching.
Happily, for lots of reasons, I’m off the farm now and back “on the cord.” If nothing else, I’m glad we got to be part of what was a very good television experience … until it wasn’t. Thanks, Aereo. (Can we have our dime-sized antenna, just for nostalgic posterity?)
The Wearables I Want
Wearable buzz is hitting a frenzied pitch in the consumer marketplace. Here in the lab, we’re early adopters, and not just of over-the-top video options. Leslie’s in year six of walking 10,000 steps a day, for instance, starting with a Fitbit in 2008, and has walked several different fitness bands into the ground (including the recently sampled Polar Loop, returned within a week); I’ve been wearing sensors for longer than iPhones have been on the market.
A bit of disclosure: I’ve had Type 1 (autoimmune) diabetes since childhood, and back in 2007 I got my first CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) — a system that tracks the glucose levels under my skin. There are two companies making CGMs for the US market currently – Medtronic and Dexcom – and both systems work essentially the same way:
A disposable sensor, changed out every week, has a small wire that sits below the skin and measures glucose in the interstitial fluid. This sensor connects to a reusable transmitter, which sends raw data from the sensor to a receiver, which in turn uses an algorithm to generate a graph of estimated blood glucose levels.
CGMs don’t replace blood glucose testing — they require fingersticks for calibration, and there’s a bit of a lag between the sensor and actual blood glucose levels – but the trend information is incredibly useful.
Imagine you’re driving a car that has no windows or mirrors, only a sunroof – and you have to keep popping your head out to get a brief glimpse of the curves in the road and the hazards in your way. When I got my first CGM, I suddenly found myself in a car with windows for the first time in over 10 years, able to spot trends in my glucose levels and head off potentially dangerous lows and highs.
But all of this comes at a price – one sensor, good for about a week, runs about $75-100. Transmitters are reusable but need to be replaced every 6 to 12 months, to the tune of about $1400 per year. Then there’s the receiver, which is an insulin pump in the case of Medtronic (roughly $6,000) or a standalone device in the case of Dexcom (about $1,000). Fortunately more insurance companies are starting to see the value of covering this technology, but the out-of-pocket burden is still incredible.
And several expensive CGM systems later, I’m still using pretty much the same technology I had 7 years ago. Back then, I was using a Palm Treo. The word “app” was not a part of the mainstream vocabulary.
Medical technology moves at a snail’s pace because there’s a lot of red tape in place to ensure that things actually work before they’re put on the market. This is why the glucose sensors and insulin pump that I wear 24/7 are still pretty much unchanged – every little feature addition is something that needs to be tested and retested to ensure it doesn’t introduce some unforeseen risk for the end user. That’s understandable, but depressing, especially compared to the pace of wearable innovation.
That’s why it’s quite a jarring contrast to follow this new explosion of wearable health devices, because the production cycle moves much quicker without the whole FDA clearance bit – but there’s also a big risk that these new devices won’t actually work as advertised.
Leslie’s experience with several Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands, the Polar Loop and a gamut of digital pedometers confirms this, at least on a “steps” level. Most bracelet-styled pedometers, for example, don’t count correctly when the “wearable arm” is connected to ground in any way — pulling a suitcase (she does a lot of that), walking dogs on leashes (that too), or holding on when on a treadmill.
She reports that there’s invariably “sync issues,” which highlight another unanticipated ogre of tracking your active life: The botched streak. The Nike Fuelband design team brought this to the foreground with its quirky little app-side dude, named “Fuelie,” which bounces and squeals on every new accomplishment — like the number of consecutive days of hitting “goal.”
Then, the Fuelband breaks (usually within eight months, and always the same way: It shows as charged when plugged in, then displays the “charge me” icon immediately upon removing power.)
Suddenly, you’ve lost your “streak,” but not because you didn’t reach your steps goal. As Leslie puts it: “And at that moment, you realize that your life is freakishly controlled by a little dancing digital icon” — in her case, a 249-day streak — because the only way to correct the streak is to actually pick up the phone and call Nike. (Which has the best customer service of all of them, she adds. But still.)
On the consumer-grade medical wearable end, there’s the GoBe Wristband – a glorified pedometer that claims to be able to calculate calories consumed by unobtrusively tracking glucose levels under the skin.
I’m skeptical about this one for a number of reasons, but mainly this: If you don’t have diabetes, your blood glucose levels won’t fluctuate much at all, even if you have 5 gallons of ice cream and a barrel of root beer for lunch — so the whole premise of tracking calorie consumption this way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yet, over 4,000 people signed up for a GoBe Wristband on Indiegogo, pouring about $200 each into technology that probably doesn’t work as advertised.
As someone who’s lived with diabetes for most of my life, my data is for the most part accurate, but I need it to be seamless. Right now, I have to connect all my devices (CGM, glucose meter, insulin pump) to my computer and download the data, then compare a bunch of different reports in order to make adjustments to my treatment regimen.
Instead, I want everything – my CGM, my insulin pump, my glucose meter, my bike computer, my pedometer, and my desk chair – to send data automatically and wirelessly to a single source, where it can be analyzed for larger trends without taking up my whole day and making my brain hurt.
These devices should all work together to keep track of the larger patterns and the smaller victories, to simplify living with a chronic illness and keep burnout at a minimum.
My phone could alert me to the fact that I’ve been running high in the evenings and may need to tweak my insulin dosage, and then congratulate me when I keep my glucose levels in range for a full 24 hours (known among CGM users as the elusive “no hitter”).
And when I start stepping up the intensity of my workouts, and my blood glucose levels are likely to end up in the trenches overnight, maybe my phone could offer to set an alarm?
With big players like Samsung and Apple now building frameworks to combine data from 3rd party apps, we’re hopeful that some of the major hurdles with respect to security can be cleared. Maybe then medical devices can start talking to our other gadgets, and we’ll finally be on the way to having wearables that simplify our lives, instead of just adding angst.
From OTT to IOT
Just as our focus in the lab is expanding from OTT-only to include gadgets outside the living room, so are many of the majors in the OTT world busily branching out into the Internet of Things (IOT). Let’s have a look.
For the past few years, the leadup to every Apple announcement always includes plenty of hype about Apple TV – a hardware update to the streaming player is always predicted, but never shows up.
That held true at Apple’s recent World Wide Developers Conference (handily abbreviated “the WWDC”), where there was once again no new TV-related hardware. Instead, a number of new developments on the IOT front:
Along with iOS 8 Apple is releasing HomeKit, software that runs on an iPhone or iPad and controls lights, security cameras, thermostats, garage doors – pretty standard connected home stuff. Apple has a certification program for hardware partners, and is already working with a bunch of companies, including TI, Honeywell, and Marvell.
HomeKit hardware partners
HomeKit will be controlled by Siri, so you can say something like “Siri, get ready for bed” and it will dim the lights for you. I don’t have much hope for that at this point, but maybe Siri will get a lot better with iOS 8. Speaking as someone who spent several minutes this morning trying in vain to get Siri to understand an address and give me directions, I sure hope so.
Perhaps more exciting: Apple is developing a framework called HealthKit in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Nike, which pulls in data from 3rd-party apps to keep tabs on health metrics, over time, and allows clinicians to easily access information from your health apps. We don’t have much information yet, and clearly there are a lot of questions to be answered about security, but it’s exciting to see big companies getting involved in modernizing healthcare (more on that in a future post.)
In April, Samsung released the “Gear Fit,” a smartwatch with a pedometer baked in, to lukewarm reviews – apparently Samsung’s custom software leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Then, on May 28, Samsung announced the Simband — a wearable prototype that measures key vital signs like heart rate, heart rate regularity, skin temperature, oxygen levels and carbon dioxide levels – impressive, but not an actual product, yet.
Samsung also introduced SAMI (Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Applications), an open software platform for wearables and sensor technology. We like the potential of an open platform, and the health applications are potentially exciting, but we’re not sure Samsung will be the one to ultimately succeed (our own experiences with their devices could be a post all on their own.)
Back in March, Google announced its Android Wear initiative, extending its Android operating system to cover wearables (early arrivals to the market include smart watches from Motorola and LG; Samsung’s early Gear smartwatches used Android Wear as well). The Android Wear SDK is currently in Developer Preview, to be officially launched later this year.
And in other areas of the home, there are persistent rumors of Google subsidiary Nest (the gorgeous, automated thermostat) buying Dropcam, makers of the $150 WiFi security camera. What, you don’t want Google recording the goings-on in your home? They’re already reading our email, after all…
With all these gadgets and sensors in our homes and on our bodies, security is obviously a big concern — and there are currently some gaping holes that need to be filled. We’ll keep a close eye on what each of these massive companies does (or doesn’t do) to protect our data, in addition to how well the products actually work.
Another Device on the Lab Bench: Amazon Fire TV
One more device showed up in the lab recently, once again filling up the shelf space we so recently decluttered. Joining the ranks of Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast is the long-awaited new streaming device from Amazon: Fire TV.
Fire TV’s hardware is a small box, a bit slimmer than an Apple TV but with a slightly larger footprint – not the dongle form that some early reports predicted.
Fire TV has 2 GB of RAM, roughly 4 times that of Apple TV, and a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm CPU (which in theory should make it about 3x faster). While both devices are plenty fast for the moment, we did notice that Fire TV’s UI is extremely responsive, with no noticeable lag when responding to button presses on the remote. It makes quick work of scrolling through a bunch of titles, and stops scrolling immediately when you take your thumb off the button – I found myself “overshooting” a lot less on Fire TV than the other devices.
The remote control is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. With 8 buttons plus a directional pad, it falls in between Apple TV and Roku on the button tally. It’s simple yet functional, and the size is just right – it doesn’t disappear into my hand (and the couch cushions) like Apple TV’s, and it doesn’t feel overly thick and chunky like Roku’s. The voice search button is well-placed, and actually works (more on that in a bit).
Fire TV also has 8 GB of internal storage, and works with Bluetooth gaming controllers for casual gaming. We’ve yet to try this out, but the buzz is that while it’s a solid effort, it won’t be competing with game consoles like the Xbox One anytime soon.
When we started up the Fire TV, a cartoon man immediately launched into a very thorough explanation of how to use our new device. While this might well be helpful for someone new to streaming devices, I always like to jump in and start exploring right away, so I found this really grating. Especially when I pressed the home button, thinking I could bypass the video, and the enthusiastic cartoon spiel started over from the beginning.
Once we finally got past the intro video, Fire TV has a pretty nice user interface (UI), with (of course) a big emphasis on titles offered through Amazon. The home screen intersperses Amazon titles with other apps such as Hulu and Netflix, and has a section at the top for titles and apps that you’ve accessed recently.
I did find myself wishing that I could filter some of the categories to only display content offered for free through Amazon Prime – though it’s not hard to imagine why Amazon might not want to do this. Leslie also commented that the menu items in the left pane of the home screen were hard to read when not selected, and in fact I could barely get them to show up when snapping photos of the UI.
Fire TV’s virtual keyboard is right up there with Apple TV, using shortcut buttons to switch keyboards (CAPS, special characters, etc.) so that I don’t have to scroll all over the place to put in a password.
Fire TV also wins the prize for best screensaver, knocking Chromecast’s pretty pictures out of the way with some stunning photos and a nice “Ken Burns” effect.
Voice recognition technology is finally getting to the point where it works pretty well (with the exception of Siri, who doesn’t understand a word I say.) Fire TV is no exception – just say a title or actor while holding down the microphone button at the top of the remote, and it’ll pull up a list of related content.
In our tests, it recognized speech correctly about 99% of the time. However, at launch there was something notably missing with the voice search function – content from providers other than Amazon. This is changing; Hulu content is already appearing in voice search at the time of this writing — though when I searched for The Daily Show, I had to wade through several seasons of “unavailable” episodes to get to the more recent episodes that are currently on Hulu.
Clearly there are still some kinks to work out. Showtime and Crackle are integrating their catalogs with Fire TV’s voice search in the coming months, but we haven’t heard any word on Netflix yet.
If you’re self conscious about talking to your devices, you can also do a text search on Fire TV. However, for some reason Amazon doesn’t use their excellent virtual keyboard here – instead you have the painful process of scrolling through a single row of letters and numbers.
Fire TV also uses DIAL for its “second screen” experience, allowing you to control the video from a compatible mobile device and read more information about what you’re watching using Amazon’s “X-Ray” feature. However, this is currently only true for Kindle Fire HD and HDX devices – our earlier Kindle Fire doesn’t give us the option to send video to the Fire TV, nor do any of our iOS devices. Amazon says that the second screen feature will be coming to more Android and iOS devices at some point in the future, but with all the DIAL-compatible devices in our lab it seems a bit short-sighted to not have that functionality working right out of the box.
We like Fire TV for its interface and responsiveness, and think it has a lot of potential. It does an excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own content, but we’re looking forward to a more unified search experience and being able to take advantage of the second-screen features on more devices. At this point we’d have a hard time recommending Fire TV (at $99) over Roku ($50-100) or Chromecast ($35) as an all-around streamer, but it’s a great choice for anyone getting most of their streaming video from Amazon.
A Dongle Duel: Roku v. Chromecast
A Roku Streaming Stick showed up at the lab recently, so we’ve been putting it through the paces alongside Google’s Chromecast stick. While both devices have quite a bit in common (such as a dongle form factor and DIAL functionality), they are also fundamentally different. So which dongle do we like best? Read on.
PRICE: Roku’s Streaming Stick will set you back about $50; Chromecast $35.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX: Both dongles ship with a micro-USB cable for power. Roku’s Streaming Stick includes a full-size remote control, while Chromecast is controlled by mobile devices only. Chromecast also includes an extender in case the HDMI port on your TV is a tight fit.
APPS: Both dongles play content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Vudu, and Crackle. Roku carries hundreds of other free and paid channels, including Amazon Instant Video. Chromecast’s library of compatible apps is still small, but growing. So Roku wins on content depth and breadth.
HOW THEY STACK UP: Both Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick use DIAL, which means that within a DIAL-enabled app on your phone or tablet (Netflix or Hulu, for example) you can choose a piece of content, select the little antenna-looking icon, and begin playing it.
Again, this is the only way you can control Chromecast, because it doesn’t come with a remote control.
Roku includes a lot of channels (apps), but lots of them don’t yet work with DIAL — hence the physical remote. (Which is kind cluttering up our recently-decluttered lab). And, alas! The remote for Roku’s stick doesn’t come with the fabulous headphone jack, or motion control, that came with the Roku 3 remote. And while you can buy those separately, they don’t work with the streaming stick.
AUTHENTICATION: Another area where the dongles differ is authentication – signing in to Netflix, Hulu, etc. to get the content you pay for. Chromecast does all of this without prompting you, assuming you’re signed in to whichever over-the-top video app on your mobile device. It does this by sending a token from your mobile device to the dongle, over WiFi.
Not the case on Roku, where you have to sign in to each app the first time you use it. This is a bit of a hassle. Say, for instance, you don’t have HBO, your friend doesn’t have an Internet-connected TV, and you both want to watch Silicon Valley. On Chromecast, you can do this from a mobile phone without authenticating on the dongle itself. Roku makes you enter user name/password, using the onscreen remote. The stick then remembers your friend’s login unless you go in and clear it out.
MOBILE APPS: Chromecast’s app is for setup purposes only, for streaming content Google Cast is embedded into existing apps (such as HBO Go). We find that to be a good thing, because app clutter is as bad or worse than remote control clutter.
We were intrigued to see that Roku’s mobile app for iOS now includes a search feature where you can put in a title, actor, or director and see which content providers are currently streaming what you want to watch. (The feature has been on the hockey-puck Roku devices themselves for quite a while, but it’s new to the mobile app.)
In theory, putting Roku Search on the mobile app is huge, because it lets you sort through the vast amount of content from a handheld device, rather than rummaging around for the plastic remote. Then seamlessly start playing whatever you picked, on the big screen. Sounds great.
Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a bit of disaster. Here’s why. Say you search for Mad Men. You’ll see a bunch of different content providers that have the show, including Netflix. But when you tap on a season of the show on Netflix, expecting to see a list of episodes, you’ll instead find that it immediately starts playing that season from the beginning – and it doesn’t remember where you left off.
Worse, Roku’s search feature on its iPhone app doesn’t work consistently. Selecting a season of a show from Amazon or HBO Go will bring up a list of episodes on the TV screen – I’d rather browse and read episode descriptions on my phone, but at least it works. In the case of Netflix and Hulu, this feature is broken. Selecting a season on Netflix from the iPhone app sends the first episode of that season to your TV (if you’re lucky; often it just times out). It doesn’t remember where you left off and doesn’t let you browse on either screen. In the case of Hulu, this is what we got, every time:
Which begs the question: Why bring the search feature to the Roku mobile app if it doesn’t work in a way that’s consistent or actually useful? This one’s gotta be a bug.
Roku’s stick also seems to have trouble remembering state — that is, if you stop a piece of content midway through, it doesn’t start mid-way through when you resume playout. It typically starts from the beginning when you go back to resume it. Annoying. This hasn’t been an issue with Chromecast.
Another area where Chromecast beats Roku’s Streaming Stick is in CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Chromecast will turn on your TV and switch to the correct input when you start playing a piece of content (assuming, of course, that it’s not powered from your TV’s USB slot.)
CEC is what lets you do things like control the TV volume from your mobile device. This is a very useful feature, and we wish Roku would start incorporating it into their devices already. Instead, I found myself juggling two remote controls and a mobile app while using the Roku Streaming Stick.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Roku’s devices have been my and our all-around favorite for a long time, but I find their Streaming Stick to be pretty disappointing, out of the box. While it does make any digital TV into a “connected” TV, and does bring all that OTT content in without cluttering up the TV stand, it seems to lag behind the hockey-puck-shaped Roku devices in our lab when it comes to processing power. I’d recommend it over the Roku 1 (which is also $50 but doesn’t include DIAL or dual-band WiFi), but all things considered I’d rather put a little more money and space towards a Roku 3.
Though it has less content than Roku at this point, Chromecast feels far more unified. And let me tell you, I never thought I’d prefer a TV device made by Google over one from Roku. But I found that I prefer Chromecast’s simplicity and lack of a physical remote. The huge variety of content on Roku (and multiple ways to control it) actually started to feel a bit overwhelming.
So: Roku’s Streaming Stick does some things well, but for the price I’d stick with Chromecast.
Not long ago, I bid farewell to the flood-damaged farmhouse in Longmont, Colo. and moved on to greener, less swampy pastures. Despite the stress of moving and the fact that there are still boxes everywhere, there’s a lot to love about the new digs – a neat old Victorian surrounded by gardening space and fruit trees.
And the best part? I’m back on the cord!
One of the first orders of business at the new house, even before the moving truck pulled in the driveway, was to get Comcast service up and running. After the ultra-slow (<5 Mbps) DSL service at the farm, I was beside myself with joy when I saw this:
So how does the “cord-cutting” experience change now that I’m back on the cord?
For starters, I can watch streaming video and download software simultaneously – at the farm, this same challenge caused everything to grind to a halt for 5 or 10 minutes.
I also don’t see nearly as much buffering — there’s some, of course, but it’s generally limited to when I first start playing a piece of content. For example: Slingplayer, whether on my iPad or another device, will now keep playing without dropping the connection for hours on end (at the farm, Slingplayer would lose sight of the Slingbox at the lab at least once an hour, and every 5 minutes if I was watching something particularly interesting).
I expected to see some improvements in terms of video quality, but found it to be about the same as at the farm. Slingplayer works without interruption, but only in the SD or Auto settings – if I change the picture quality to HD, it’s full of skips and starts just like at the farm.
And the same can be said for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, regardless of whether I’m streaming to a Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast. I can’t say that the picture quality is noticeably sharper than it was on an ultra-slow DSL connection. What I do notice is that videos play smoothly at the new house, with virtually no “buffer breaks” (which, like commercial breaks, were a good time to grab a snack. Now I have to pause the video).
This underscores the fact that our OTT devices are really good at handling streaming video, even when the connection is less than optimal. At the farm, even at <5 Mbps, the video generally looked pretty sharp and the buffer breaks were manageable when using a streaming device connected to my TV. The main difference now that I’m on a 50 Mbps connection is that videos load much faster, and I very rarely see buffering in the middle of a piece of content.
Aside from the faster connection, the biggest difference with my new setup is that I can easily get local channels with an antenna. Finally!
You may recall that I spent hours moving a huge high-powered antenna all over the farmhouse, and tripping over coax in the hallways, only to find I STILL couldn’t get all the major over-the-air networks. When I connected the dinky little Boxee antenna to a TV at the new house, it immediately picked up ~35 channels, including ABC and NBC, two that I tried in vain to pick up at the farm. Of course, I can get those channels (and more) through my cable service, but the rarely used upstairs TV doesn’t warrant its own cable box. And now that Aereo has shut down its service in Denver for the time being, the timing couldn’t be better.
It’s good to be on the cord again. The fast Internet and cable TV feel downright luxurious after doing without for years, and I’m excited to finally be able to explore some of the other technologies that are making their way into homes. Now that we’re in the time of home automation and connected bike helmets, I’m glad to be back on the cable loop.
The Great Lab Purge of 2014
Landscapes are changing, both inside the lab and out. We’ve seen the “hardware streamer” category flare up and settle back down; the major players have been established, and the lab shelves are cluttered with “televestigial” devices and piles of remote controls. And so, the purge begins.
A few of the favorite televestigials get an honorary HDMI port — namely the Boxee Box and a 2nd-generation Sony Google TV. The 1st-generation Sony Google TV gets to stay too, because it’s another screen (but probably the dusty 91-button remote control will live in a drawer).
The multiple outdated devices from Netgear and Sony (not to mention the associated tangles of cords running behind the lab shelves) are getting the axe.
Fortunately for those of us dealing with cord-clutter, 2014 is shaping up to be Year of the Dongle. We’ll have offerings from Roku and (so we hear) Amazon joining the lab next month, and we’re looking forward to covering the next phase of OTT technology and branching out to some new areas as the traditional hardware streamer market dies down.
Meanwhile, I recently moved from the connection-challenged farm and am officially back on the cord. Happiness! My new house gets Comcast service, so I now have access to cable TV and 50MB internet – a big upgrade from the farm, where I’d get 4.7MB downstream on a good day. As soon as I find the boxes labeled “OTT,” I’ll be back with an update on how my streaming experience at home changes with a much faster connection. Stay tuned!