Category: Home Entertainment

Hands-on Review: Roku Streaming Stick

roku-streaming-stick-review

Tons of features, good performance and an unbeatable price make the Roku Streaming Stick by far the best value in the increasingly busy Smart-TV add-on category.

If you already own a Smart TV—a WiFi-connected, app-enabled HDTV—you really don’t need to read this. That’s because the Roku family of devices (to which the Roku Streaming Stick is the latest addition) is for all of us poor shmoes stuck with TVs that have no way of talking to the internet and thus no way to access content providers like Netflix, Crackle, CrunchyRoll or YouTube unless we stretch a very long and trip-hazard-creating HDMI cable from our PC/laptop to our TV sets. Don’t laugh. People do that. For real.

There is obviously a better way. It took a few years for electronics companies to figure it out, but simple WiFi add-ons are finally here.

Roku’s Streaming Stick takes the best part of Roku’s earlier efforts, namely the amazing collection of hundreds of “channels” that give the Roku its ability to deliver streaming content, and pairs them up with a dead-simple receiver and an included remote control, all for the rock-bottom price of $59 CDN.

Read the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Battle of the wireless audio players: Pioneer XW-SMA1/3 vs. Sonos PLAY:3

If you’re a music junkie, now is a great time to be alive. Not only is it easier than ever to find and buy new music, it’s completely portable. Through devices like iPods, iPhones and other digital media players, your tunes can go wherever you go.

There has been one tricky exception to this digital revolution, and that’s in-home audio.

Yes, you can buy some great docks that let you plug in your i-device or other gadget and get the tunes going in at least one room. But if you’ve got your entire library on your computer, it seems silly to rely on your portable player’s limited memory, plus docks attached to the sounds systems in each room. Thankfully there are two great alternatives if you want to have whole-home control over your music without having to resort to ridiculously expensive professionally installed systems.

When it comes to wireless home audio, the two names you need to know are AirPlay and Sonos. Here’s a quick recap in case you aren’t familiar with these words:

AirPlay

A little while ago, Apple started experimenting with transmitting music around Wi-Fi and wired networks from their iTunes software. They called it “AirTunes.” As the name implies, with just iTunes running on your computer, and a compatible AirTunes device like Apple’s AirPort Express, you could be listening to your iTunes collection anywhere you could plug in an ethernet cable or be in range of your Wi-Fi network.

Over time, Apple renamed the feature to “AirPlay” since it became capable of images and videos as well as audio. AirPlay is now an ecosystem unto itself, and many manufacturers are creating audio systems with AirPlay technology baked right in, so no additional hardware like the AirPort Express is needed. The AirPlay component is automatically detected by iTunes.

Currently the limitations on AirPlay are: You can’t stream more than one song to multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes (they must all play the same song or none at all) and, iTunes itself is the only source of AirPlay audio from your Mac or PC. To access your iTunes library, your computer must remain on, with iTunes running the whole time. You can however, use an i-device like an iPhone or iPad to create a second stream of audio to your AirPlay speakers, but only one. Multiple speakers can only be accessed from iTunes on a computer.

Finally, because AirPlay runs over regular Wi-Fi, if you have other devices that are fighting for Wi-Fi bandwidth, you could experience some interruptions to your music streaming.

Sonos

Long before Apple started its AirTunes/AirPlay ecosystem, a small company called Sonos was busy creating their own proprietary standard for wireless home audio. They call that standard “SonosNet” and it is effectively a separate WiFi network that runs parallel to your home’s existing network, but because all of the bandwidth is dedicated to streaming Sonos audio, interruptions are avoided. Plus, every Sonos component you add, effectively extends the size of this network, making it more robust.

The Sonos system is made up of two types of components: The software controller (which can run as an App on your smartphone, iPod Touch or tablet) and the hardware player (there are three different kinds of players: All-in-one speakers, amplified players and non-amplified players). You may also need a Sonos bridge device if your home router is located too far from any of the hardware players and running an ethernet cord to the nearest one isn’t practical.

Other than the dedicated wireless network, benefits include: No need to leave your computer turned on if you store your music on a networked-hard drive. Sonos doesn’t need the iTunes software, but it can still access and play all of your iTunes music, as long as the songs are DRM-free. Sonos can play more than one song to more than hardware player. The software controller gives you the ability to group and ungroup players as you see fit. Want one song in every room simultaneously? No problem. Want a different song in each room? It can do that too. The system can also be configured to split a stereo signal between two different hardware players, so that one acts as the left speaker while the other acts as the right.

Limitations on Sonos at the moment are: Sonos is purely for audio. There are no hardware players that connect to your TV or other display devices for showing movies and images. Sonos doesn’t play nicely with AirPlay, unless you buy an AirPort Express and mate it to one of your hardware players, but this is a bit tricky and not every hardware player supports it. There is no way to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet to a Sonos player, however you can buy special docks that let you use your iPhone or other device as a source of music for the whole SonosNet network. The disadvantage being that if you use that same device to control your Sonos system, you won’t be able to walk around the house with it. Sonos makes two different all-in-one speaker hardware players: the PLAY:3 ($329) and the PLAY:5 ($449).

Sonos PLAY:3

One of the simplest ways to enjoy a Sonos system is to buy their Sonos PLAY:3 all-in-one speaker system ($329). Using the PLAY:3 wirelessly means you’ll also need the Sonos Bridge ($59). The PLAY:3 is a small, self-contained stereo speaker cabinet which comes in two colours: black and white. Other than an ethernet port on the back, and some small volume buttons on the top surface, the PLAY:3 is as minimalist as it gets. Even the power transformer is contained inside the PLAY:3’s cabinet, leaving only the power cord exposed.

Many people have noted that Sonos takes their design inspirations from Apple and that is very clear in the PLAY:3’s overall look and feel. You can rest the speaker flat, in a landscape orientation, or you stand it on one end to fit into narrower locations. The cabinet has small rubber feet for both options. The speaker’s volume can be controlled either from the software controller, or the physical buttons on the cabinet.

Set-up of the PLAY:3 couldn’t be easier: Simply install the Sonos software on your computer, power on the bridge and the PLAY:3 and follow the on-screen instructions.

As Sonos’s entry hardware player, the PLAY:3 lacks some of the options found in the rest of the Sonos line-up, specifically: there is no auxiliary audio jack and indeed no jacks of any kind other than ethernet. This means that they PLAY:3 is strictly for playing Sonos audio sources and can’t be used as an AirPlay speaker nor can it send its audio to a secondary device like a sub-woofer. There is also no way to power the PLAY:3 down when not in use – it is always on. A somewhat hidden but handy feature is that you can plug any ethernet device into the back of the PLAY:3 and get internet connectivity through the SonosNet wireless network.

Pioneer XW-SMA1/3

One of the earliest companies to join the Apple AirPlay bandwagon is Pioneer. The Japanese company with a long history of making consumer audio products, has embraced AirPlay in almost its whole range of home theatre receivers, and this summer they are debuting their first stand-alone all-in-one AirPlay speaker systems.

There are three models  to choose from: the XW-SMA1 ($329), A3 ($429) and A4 ($429) – available in the coming weeks. The A1 and A3 are acoustically identical, the only difference being that the A3 has a built-in rechargeable battery and is somewhat splash-proof for outdoor use. The A4 is a higher-end unit which is more comparable to the Sonos PLAY:5.

For my comparison, I tested an A3.

The SMA1/3’s cabinet (only available in black) is sleek and glossy, without any physical buttons. Along the bottom of the unit are several LED indicators to signal power, network and input status while on the other side are touch-sensitive buttons areas for power, input and volume up/down.

Around the back, you’ll find ethernet, USB, AC in and an auxiliary mini-jack. There is also a small button for activating the speaker’s network set-up functions and a stubby antenna near the top which can be raised and lowered on a rotating cuff to improve Wi-Fi reception.

The SMA1/3 is taller but shallower than the PLAY:3, and it weighs 2 lbs more than the Sonos. Unlike the PLAY:3, the SMA1/3’s power supply is an ugly brick which you’ll need to tuck away so it can’t be seen.

In terms of music streaming options, the SMA1/3 is a virtual Swiss Army knife. Much like the PLAY:3, it can be connected to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once on the network it will recognized as an AirPlay speaker by iTunes and any iOS device you have. But beyond that, the SMA1/3 is also recognized as a DLNA 1.5 compatible player, which means you can stream music to it from other devices such as your PC, even when not using iTunes.

The SMA1/3 also boasts the ability to handle direct-streaming from certain devices. If you have an i-Device, you can set-up the speaker with Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing the need for a full Wi-Fi network. While this is similar to Bluetooth streaming, it is much more flexible – the Wi-Fi range is much farther than Bluetooth. Similarly, if you have an HTC One smartphone, you can use HTC Connect to establish a direct stream from your phone to the SMA1/3.

Finally, you have two wired options. The first is via the USB port. Connect your iPhone or iPod/iPod Touch using your existing dock cable and you can play music directly. As a bonus, the SMA1/3 will also charge your device. Alternatively, you can use any other portable media player (even an analogue one like a Sony Walkman Cassette player!) via the AUX in mini-jack port.

The SMA1/3 also comes with a dedicated credit-card sized infrared remote to control power, volume, play/pause, next/prev track and input mode from across the room, though in practice this isn’t needed if you’re using AirPlay to control the action via an i-Device.

If you opt for the SMA 3, you get a 5-hour battery and a degree of weather protection for outdoor use.

Each of the networking options offered by the Pioneer unit worked well, and I was especially impressed by the unit’s ability to pull my home Wi-Fi setting from my iPhone when I connected it via USB – that’s a neat trick which I haven’t seen before and it dramatically reduces the hassle of networking a device like this.

So, How Do They Sound?

When it comes right down to it, regardless of the features, you’re buying a speaker system so it had better sound good.

Before I proceed, let me point out that I am not a professional audio reviewer. I have, however tried the SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 side-by-side using identical tracks and sources as well as some differing material.

The Pioneer and the Sonos are designed to provide what is, in the opinion of their engineers, the best sound characteristics at all volume levels. Some tweaking can be had using the Sonos’s adjustable treble, bass and loudness controls. Strangely, even though the Pioneer lists “Sound Effect (EQ, DRC, Loudness)” on its feature sheet, I was unable to find any way to control these settings. Update: Pioneer has confirmed that while these features are part of the SMA’s audio design, they are turned “on” by default and cannot be adjusted by end-users.

The good news is, they both sound great. The SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 go for clarity over power with the SMA1/3 excelling at delivering crisp, bright highs. But there is a definite winner in this contest and that title goes to the Sonos PLAY:3. I suspect the reason is the PLAY:3’s speaker profile. Sonos has employed 3 separate Class D amplifiers, one for each of the speaker’s three drivers (1 tweeter, 2-mid-range). It also employs a bass radiator – a passive system for reproducing low-end sounds. The result is a fuller, richer sound than the Pioneer unit offers. It can be heard across all genres of music, but I was especially aware of it when playing jazz – the PLAY:3 let me feel more of bass thrumming than the SMA1/3.

Though Pioneer doesn’t get as specific as Sonos as to the design of their speaker, on the surface at least, they seem close enough: 2 Mid-range, 1 Tweeter and a Bass Reflex Port. Perhaps Sonos’s use of dedicated amps, plus their choice of the bass radiator over the bass reflex is enough to make the difference.

Conclusion

There’s no question that Pioneer targeted the Sonos PLAY:3 in designing the SMA1/3. The size, shape and functionality all closely mirror what Sonos has done. For the most part, this approach is a success, particularly where the Pioneer fills in the feature gaps left by the Sonos. In terms of versatility, you get a bigger bang for your buck with the Pioneer. But Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound quality. So which to choose?

To figure this out, you need to determine your priorities. If you want to buy a single unit that will complement your existing sound set-up at home and you’re not looking to build out a dedicated network of audio components, or if you’re a student or someone who lives in a small 1 or two bedroom apartment, the Pioneer SMA1/3 is a great choice. You get plenty of versatility and compatibility and while it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos, you might well feel the extras offset this difference. And I should reiterate – the Pioneer does sound very good. We’re not talking about night and day here. If I hadn’t played the two units side by side, I would have no reason to criticize.

If, on the other hand, you want a dedicated and expandable wireless home audio system that can grow as you grow, the Sonos is the preferred choice. It lacks the Pioneers multiple source options, but its fuller sound works better in big rooms.

Whichever you go with, you’ll be enjoying the leading edge of wireless audio – easily the best thing to happen to music since the first CD was ripped to a PC.

Review: HP Wireless Audio

We’ve covered wireless audio solutions before here on Sync, and by golly we will continue to cover them – wireless audio is one of those technologies that can change the way you experience media. Well executed, it can bring a goofy smile to your face as you try to contemplate how you ever lived without it. Poorly executed and it leaves you wondering what all the hype is about.

Unfortunately HP’s Wireless Audio falls into the latter category.

Before we get into why, let’s review some of the basics.

The primary goal of any wireless audio system is to let you experience the digital music that you have stored on your computer, smartphone or other device on a set of speakers that are better suited to the task and often located in a different room than the device with the music.

Sometimes the speakers belong to a high-end home theatre system, sometimes they’re just a small tabletop radio with an auxiliary input. But they aren’t the tinny things that come stock with most laptops or PCs which means your music is going to sound a lot better.

There are three wireless technologies that companies have used for this. First is Wi-Fi (or a proprietary version thereof). Its strengths are distance – it can usually cover your whole home and sometimes more – built-in networking (you can do more than just stream music over it) and flexibility (there’s virtually no limit to how many devices can share a Wi-Fi network, and you don’t need extra hardware). It’s drawbacks are mostly related to reliability. Because only a few Wi-Fi routers can help to prioritize one type of network traffic over another, streaming music can sometimes cut-out or fall out of sync with a video source.

Second is Bluetooth. It’s a piece of cake to set up, almost all modern laptops and smartphones support it, audio quality is good and lag is rarely if ever an issue, but it caps out at about 30m of distance and so far, Bluetooth connections can’t be multi-device (I can only stream my music to one Bluetooth speaker at a time).

Third is fully proprietary wireless signal. This is used by HP’s Wireless Audio. Proprietary wireless’s main strength is that the devices which use it share a dedicated, highly reliable signal which can be used to deliver a wide range of audio including 5.1 surround sound. The down side is that you have to use a dedicated wireless dongle with limited transmission strength. Depending on the frequency(ies) and power used by the system it may or may not be successful in penetrating walls and other structures.

Thus is the weakness of HP’s Wireless Audio solution. In testing out the review unit, I found I wasn’t able to maintain a connection between the receiver unit and my laptop which had the USB dongle, unless I stayed within about a 15-20 feet “safe zone.” The orientation of the laptop (and thus the dongle) also made a big difference at the edge of the safe zone. This is in stark contrast to HP’s claim of “30m bi-directional range,” using a tri-band combination of 2.4, 5.2 and 5.8Ghz frequencies. If you’re hoping to get your music from one end of the house to the other, the HP Wireless Audio system isn’t going to deliver.

I was also disappointed that HP hadn’t created a free app that I could download to an iOS or Android device so that I could control the audio remotely. That feature exists for both Apple’s AirPort Express as well as Sonos’s wireless solution.

So without the ability to effectively stream music from more than one room away and with no built-in way to control the audio on the computer, I found myself wondering exactly who the system was meant for. Which application had HP envisioned when they created the Wireless Audio?

Then it hit me: The scenario that was made for HP’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses. For folks who have all of their movies on their computer and want to watch them on their computer’s display but want the audio to run over their home-theatre speakers, the HP Wireless Audio works perfectly.

Distance is no longer a factor because your receiver and computer are in the same room. There’s no need for remote control because the computer is sitting right there in front of you, or at least within arm’s reach. The ability to stream 5.1 surround is big benefit and not running cords from your PC to your receiver is obviously another. Finally, the Wireless Audio’s dedicated signal and resulting no-lag is perfectly suited to movie soundtracks: no one likes watching an actor’s lips start moving a half-second or more before the words start coming out.

But for all its strengths in this scenario, I just can’t see someone dropping $99 for this capability. It’s hard for me to imaging that someone who has a great 5.1 set-up doesn’t have an equally great widescreen TV to match and if that’s the case, a single HDMI cable kills two birds with one stone: you get great audio *and* video.

However, if you were thinking “hey that’s my set-up exactly” when you were reading my computer+speakers scenario, you’ll be pleased to know that set-up of the Wireless Audio was painless. HP provides a dedicated control panel for Windows that lets you sync your receivers (yep, you can have up to 4) to your computer. There are few options and after the install you’ll mostly manage the audio levels for your Wireless Audio from your Windows sound properties.

The receiver itself, while generous with connectivity options (it has RCA jacks, a mini-jack/TOSLINK combo and an RCA-style S/PDIF connector) and uses a nearly universal mini-USB port for power, is nonetheless cheap-feeling with plastic case that is so light weight, one can’t help but wonder why it needs to be so big.

Oh by the way, in case you’re a Mac user, sorry – you’ll have to stick with Apple’s Airport Express or other solution – HP’s Wireless Audio is only compatible with Windows PCs.

Overall, I’d have to say that if you’re looking to build a wireless home audio system on a budget and you don’t mind the occasional lag, Apple’s Wi-Fi and Airplay-based AirPort Express is a much more versatile gadget for the same price.

Sonos SUB: First impressions

I’ll admit it: when I read the press release for Sonos’s new sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB, I was skeptical. Why would anyone need a wireless sub?

When I think “sub-woofer” I picture home theatre set ups- you know the kind- 5, 6 or even 7.1 surround systems with that “.1” referring to the sub woofer which, more often than not, is tucked into a corner, hidden under a plant or sometimes concealed behind a wall panel. What these configurations all have in common is permanence. Your average home theatre buff will spend a fair amount of time figuring out optimal speaker placement and once wired in to their locations, never moves them again.

Why would Sonos seek to market a wireless sub to this group of buyers? Yes, the Sonos sub enables placement options that wired subs can only dream of, but when I tell you that Sonos’s sub is incompatible with every amplified home theatre system on earth, you’re probably going to start scratching your head. I sure did.

Before I explain this bizarre limitation, let me clarify who the Sonos sub is actually aimed at: people who already own, or intend to buy one of Sonos’s all-in-one speakers, the Play:3 or Play:5 or their Connect:Amp powered receiver for bookshelf speakers.

Now, about that strange incompatibility. Let’s do a quick refresher on the nature of sub woofers. Subs are designed to do one thing and do it well: provide the low-end bass reproduction that standard speakers simply can’t deliver. In home theatres, they are loved for that couch-shaking rumble on movie soundtracks. Audiophiles use them to fill in the lows that their dedicated stereo speakers can’t reproduce. But regardless why you use a sub, your receiver/amplifier plays a critical role. Every system that includes a sub needs a setting known as “cross-over.”  Cross-over is the frequency at which the sounds you are playing are divided into signals. All sounds above the cross-over frequency get sent to the regular speakers. All sounds below that frequency get sent to the sub-woofer. Sometimes, as with inexpensive HTIBs (Home Theatre In A Box) systems, that cross-over frequency is set at the factory and can’t be changed while receivers/amps used in component systems will typically have an adjustable cross-over frequency so you can get the perfect calibration for your specific speaker/sub-woofer combination.

So what does that have to do with the Sonos SUB? Well, just like every other sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB needs to have a cross-over frequency established. On Sonos systems, that cross-over setting is managed in the software and is dynamically set based on the particular combination of Sonos speakers in your room(s). But because the software uses its knowledge of volume levels and amplification of ALL the speakers in your system, it can’t make the necessary adjustments if your system included components that the software isn’t aware of from an amplification point of view. This includes any externally-amplified speakers you are running through one of Sonos’s Connect devices. These devices only pass music signal, not amplification to a set of speakers. Conversely, all Play:5, Play:3 and Connect:AMP components will work with the SUB.

One of the benefits of the Sonos software-controlled cross-over system is that the cross-over frequency can change. Not only can it change based on which speakers you’re using with the SUB but it can also change as you adjust your volume levels which means you’re always getting the optimal amount of low-end for any moment in time. If the engineers at Sonos ever feel the blend needs to be adjusted, they can do so via a software update. The down-side to this arrangement is you can’t tweak the cross-over frequency if you aren’t happy with how the software is dealing with it.

If you haven’t already guessed from the details so far, the Sonos SUB is intended to enhance the enjoyment of music within an existing Sonos set-up. This is not a sub for home theatres. As an acknowledgement of this fact, Sonos took a little more care with the design and materials in their SUB. After all, if your sub-woofer is wireless and can be placed anywhere, why not show it off a little? The SUB’s piano-black gloss finish and striking shape makes for a great conversation piece. But look a little closer and you’ll see that Sonos’s engineers found an intriguing solution to a design challenge.

Their research told them that traditional down or side-firing sub-woofers limit placement options for consumers. Their boxy shapes can be hard to hide and they certainly don’t slide under couches very well. At the same time, rectangular subs, while easier to stow under furniture, aren’t much to look at if you do need to leave them visible. To make a sub that was both elegant when seen and slim enough to be hidden, Sonos employed a “ying-and-yang” arrangement: two speaker cones and ports which fire from opposite sides, but both facing the inside of the cabinet – the donut hole in the centre of the SUB. The benefits of this design are two-fold: because there are no externally facing speakers, you can position the SUB with any of its five available surfaces facing down and sound quality is never compromised (the “bottom” should probably never be used on “top” for balance reasons). Plus, overall vibration on the SUB’s cabinet is reduced to negligible levels thanks to balanced output of the two drivers. It’s the sub-woofer equivalent of a boxer engine.

It’s also worth mentioning that Sonos’s built-in wireless system creates a level of flexibility that wired sub-woofers simply can’t match. If you use Sonos gear in a multi-room configuration, but decide that you don’t need sub-woofer power in each of those rooms all of the time, simply unplug the SUB, carry it to the other room, plug it in, and then associate it with the new room from within the Sonos app on your smartphone or tablet. The software does the rest, including a recalibration step that ensures you get the right balance between the SUB and the speakers in your second (or third or fourth etc..) room.

But how does it sound?

I auditioned the SUB in a small listening room at Toronto’s The Spoke club. Sonos Product Manager Craig Wisneski had two Play:3 speakers set up at either side of the room, configured to run in stereo mode (each Play:3 speaker reproducing just one channel respectively). We sampled several tracks including some reggae standards which are perfect for checking out low-end sound thanks to their bass-heavy rhythms. Without the Sonos SUB, the sound produced by the stereo Play:3’s was already (to my untrained ears) full, rich and satisfying. Adding the SUB to the mix did exactly what you would expect – it filled out the low end that you hadn’t even noticed was missing.

It very much reinforced for me that the SUB has been designed for music – not movies. The effect of turning on the SUB was immediate and noticeable while retaining a subtlety I don’t usually associate with sub-woofers. It many ways, it does what all good audio gear should do. It gives you the impression that you weren’t hearing the full range of music before you added it to your set-up.

Price

Here’s the part that might give you pause when considering if the Sonos SUB is right for you: the price. At $749 the Sonos SUB is more expensive than two Play:3 speakers plus the Sonos Bridge all put together. It’s a big expense for a product that many consider a nice, but optional extra to their music system. And while Sonos has plans to release a slightly cheaper $649 matte-black version of the SUB later this year or possibly early in 2013, that’s still twice what it costs to buy a decent powered sub-woofer for component systems. But therein lies the catch – if you want that deep bass sound to accompany your existing Sonos wireless speaker set-up, there is – for now – only one game in town. Is the SUB $749 worth of sub-woofer? Probably not. But if you value stunning industrial design, the convenience of place-anywhere-wireless convenience and a speaker that has been designed to provide optimal low-end sound for your existing Sonos gear, then it might very well be worth the asking price.

In any event, you’ve got a few weeks to decide/save up – the Sonos SUB starts shipping July 30th if you order online. But if you’ve already made up your mind, you can pick one up right now at selected retailers and installers such as Best Buy, Future Shop but call first as stocks are limited at this point.

Why the Apple iPhone 5 might ditch the dock connector

The iPhone 4/4S as it might look with a Micro-USB port instead of the usual 30-pin Dock Connector

On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”

Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.

Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.

How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?

So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to –  would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.

But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.

First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.

Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.

Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:

  • Recharge
  • Sync data
  • Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)

All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.

If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord  – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.

In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.”  AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.

AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch  – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.

Could Apple be planning an AirPlay adapter for older speaker docks? (click for larger image)

I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…

I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.

I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!

So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?

Netflix now disc-free on Wii and PS3

Netflix's streaming video service for the Wii

Netflix's streaming video service for the Wii

Well this just makes sense. I’ve never understood why you had to use a disc to get Netflix up and running on the Wii or the PS3 when both of these consoles support downloadable games/applications and have more than enough memory to run them. Starting today, go ahead and hit that eject button because the era of disc-based Netflix streaming is over. In Canada, PS3 owners have always had the disc-free option, but Wii users still needed the disc.

According to a blog post published today by Netflix’s VP of Product Development, Greg Peters, this change comes with an entirely new user interface as well:

In addition to removing the need for discs, we’ve developed a new user interface on both applications that significantly improves the experience. The new applications will allow you to search for content directly from the device and you’ll also be able to view an increasing portion of our content library with subtitles or alternate audio tracks.

But wait, the good news train isn’t stopping here – there’s more excitement for PS3 owners … “starting today you’ll be able to instantly watch some movies and TV shows in 1080p high definition with Dolby 5.1 channel surround sound.” Netflix said more devices would be added over time to support streaming digital surround sound – hopefully the brand-new Apple TV will be amongst the first to be upgraded.

These are both worthy developments for the recently-launched service here in Canada, however based on discussions I’ve had with people who have signed up, the real improvement that is sorely needed is an increase in the number of titles in the Canadian catalog.

One subscriber observed that there isn’t a single movie from Disney for instance, which is frustrating if you’re a parent of pre-teens.

Netflix has already committed to growing its catalog for Canadian subscribers, but there has been no announcement regarding how soon or how many titles will be added.

So Sync readers – especially those of you who have subscribed to Netflix, what do you make of these announcements? Have you tried the new interface and if so, is it the improvement that Netflix claims?

Finally an end to loud commercials

GefenTV Auto Volume Stabilizer
GefenTV Auto Volume Stabilizer

What’s more annoying than commercials? I’ll tell you. It’s commercials that jump on to your TV screen at what seems like twice the volume of the show you were just watching. Depending on the volume level of the program, the difference can be so abrupt that you instinctively reach for your remote’s mute button because dialing-down the volume can’t deal with the deafening roar fast enough.

I might actually watch more commercials were it not for the intrusiveness of this volume change. Well, maybe not – these days we tend to watch more PVR’d content than ever and that 30-second skip button is the most worn out on the whole remote… I just love it.

But if you don’t have a PVR (and if not, why the heck not?) or for those times when watching live TV is only way to go (sports events, award shows, news programs etc.) you’re just going to have to live with that annoying volume problem.

Or maybe not.

gtv-volcont-backIf you happen to have $179 USD burning a hole in your pocket and you are fed up with those obnoxiously loud ads, Gefen has the solution for you. Their GefenTV Auto Volume Stabilizer is a small device that sits with the rest of your TV gear and serves as a middle-man between your source (likely a cable or satellite box) and your audio receiver. It can handle 3 types of input – digital coax, optical, or good-ol-analog RCA. The same obviously, are available as outputs. You can select which of these inputs will be in use via a handy remote (yes, another remote), but only one at a time. When turned on, the Stabilizer does one thing and one thing only – manages all those highs and lows in volume level so that you aren’t constantly reaching for the remote.

If you use the device in conjunction with a Blu-ray player or other source and find that the auto-leveling isn’t required, you can easily disable it with the built-in “bypass” switch.
I haven’t tried the Stabilizer myself yet so I can’t speak to how effective it is, but at $179 it had better work exactly as advertised or Gefen will have some pretty grumpy customers on their hands.

But whether you like the idea of the Stabilizer or not, the real question is this: Why is there even a need for such a device?

My plea to the cable and satellite companies: Make this product redundant by implementing similar technology at your head-ends, so that the signal you’re sending to your subscribers is already pre-leveled. We’ve got HD, we’ve got 5.1 surround sound, even on-demand where it’s available, so why not good clean and leveled volume for all of TV you choose to watch? Gefen may not thank you, but we will.