Category: Online Video

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

Google Chromecast Vs. Apple TV: Which is better and for what type of users?

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Now that Google’s diminutive WiFi media player is available in Canada, how does it stack up to Apple’s set-top box and which should you buy?

It’s been several months since Google unleashed the Chromecast, a tiny dongle-like device that turns any HDTV into a Wi-Fi enabled display. Initially only available in the U.S., the $35 gadget was very well received and Canadian Reviewer’s Gadjo Sevilla found it to be an easy and reliable way to stream content to a TV.

But if you wanted a Chromecast back in 2013, you needed to order one via the U.S. and frankly that was a hassle. Now that it’s being sold in Canada for $39, the time is right to take a look at this new player and see how it compares to one of the most popular devices in this space: Apple TV.

Continue reading the full article on Canadian Reviewer

Apple's new ads are basically Genius

Only in a world where one company has established a reputation not only for ground-breaking gadgets, but also the ads that promote them, can we legitimately write a tech post about Apple’s new ads.

These aren’t just the latest ads promoting the new iPad or iCloud or the new MacBook Pro. Those ads have a very Apple-esque feel and are precisely what we’ve come to expect from Apple’s agency ever since they put the wonderful Mac vs. PC campaign to bed a few years ago.

The ads I’m referring to are the brand-new “Genius” ads just launched in the U.S. and man do they ever live up to Apple’s once heavily promoted motto “Think Different.”

As the name suggests, these ads centre around the Apple Genius – the guy or gal at the back of every Apple store, clad in a blue t-shirt and sporting a distinctive silver doodad on a lanyard around their neck. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that these “geniuses” are the people you go to when you have an Apple-related question, no matter how big or small.

Perhaps in an attempt to talk to those of us who have indeed been living under rocks, Apple’s new campaign tries to impart a personality to the otherwise nameless geniuses that staff their stores. But does it work?

It’s hard to say. The campaign has kicked off with three new spots. The ads are funny, but not in the laugh-out-loud way that Mac vs. PC tended to be. The actor cast as the Genius is likeable – you can almost see the briefing to the casting director: “Find us Matthew Broderick.” Watching all three spots you can clearly catch glimpses of the famous actor from his roles in 1980s era classics Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games and LadyHawke.

And yet, you kind of get the feeling that the ads are trying too hard. Ken Segall, in his Observatory blog describes the campaign as “[…]something Best Buy would do. Maybe even Dell. Between the writing, casting, directing and production, this campaign has a very “local” feel to it. It doesn’t have the feel of quality that has defined previous Apple advertising.”

Readers, what do you think? Has Apple kept up its reputation for top-notch advertising, or is this latest campaign a mistake the company should quietly (but quickly) walk away from?

Update, August 7: Apparently Apple has pulled the Genius TV ads. Though their agency,  TBWA/Media/Arts Lab claims the plan was always to give the ads a short run, clearly the overwhelming negative perception surrounding the spots was a big influence on their decision.

Watch as quadrocopters play the theme from James Bond

I’m a sucker for remote controlled helicopters. They’re a blast whether you use them indoors to terrorize your colleagues or outdoors to terrorize your neighbours. But as cool as remote helis are, they don’t hold a candle to remote quadrocopters, or quad-rotors as they’re sometimes called.

Especially when said quadrocopters are remotely controlled by a computer to execute a complex yet beautiful set of manoeuvres. Did I mention there’s also music involved?

Check out this amazing video that demonstrates the potential of these tiny machines. The performance was created by Vijay Kumar and his team at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and presented as part of Kumar’s TED2012 talk. This group of engineers studies how swarms of robots such as these quadricopters can work together – sensing each other in real time and reacting appropriately.

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I’m not the first person to make the connection between this performance and the zany musical exploits of perennial YouTube favourites OK Go, and for good reason: each takes music performance to a whole new level.

If you’re curious, do a few searches for quad-copter or quad-rotors on YouTube – you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. These four-rotor machines are supremely maneuverable and can hover in one spot with a greater precision than a single-rotor craft.

When we attended CES 2012 earlier this year, we had a chance to see the latest version of the Parrot AR.Drone, a quadrocopter with some unique features and a price tag that is within reach of most hobbyists: Approx. $300 USD. While not quite as powerful or precise as the models being flown by the team from GRASP, the AR.Drone is still a fantastic piece of robotic tech.

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Let’s just hope we never anger the computers controlling these flying machines, or we might be the next to be terrorized!

YouTube launches movie rentals in Canada

Known simply as YouTube Movies, the service which launched in the U.S. earlier this year, is now ready for a Canadian audience.

Similar to other online rental options such as iTunes, YouTube Movies lets viewers choose from an ever-increasing catalog of titles ranging from new releases such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and Battle Los Angeles to older favourites like Superman II and Roxanne.

Pricing for the rentals, which will be viewable for 24 to 48 hours (depending on the title), will start at $3.99 for older releases while the most current titles will cost $4.99. The rental period begins the first time you hit play.

YouTube, which will be competing with established powerhouse Netflix, has no plans at the moment to offer a subscription price plan for unlimited viewing.

Another challenge for YouTube Movies is a lack of integration with popular home entertainment devices like Sony’s PS3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii, all of which have embedded Netflix options to let users watch movies on their big screen TVs.

At launch, the only way to get YouTube Movies on your TV is to connect your computer to it, preferably with an HDMI cable. Auxiliary devices like D-Link’s Boxee Box and others that offer full web access might provide another alternative.

But viewers may be fine sticking with their PCs or small screen devices like iPads: for the moment, all YouTube Movie titles are in standard definition – roughly the same quality as a regular DVD.

The Canadian version of YouTube Movies will offer many more Canadian productions than its U.S. counterpart: Google has established partnerships with several distribution companies such as Alliance Films in order to differentiate themselves in the market while also making it less likely that CRTC will want to regulate them over a lack of Can Con as some journalists have suggested might happen to the nascent online video space.

To rent movies from YouTube, simply sign-up for a Google account (if you are already a Gmail user or are registered with one of their other products you can use that account) and provide the company with payment information in the form of a credit card.

iPad 2 gets shot up and blended

For some reason, as obsessed as some of us are with the latest shiny gadgets from Apple, there are still others out there obsessed with destroying them for our amusement/horror.

To highlight this phenomenon I give you two very different videos. Each goes about rendering a brand new iPad 2 – the same device that people are currently waiting weeks to receive in the U.S. – completely and utterly useless. Of course each goes about the process in very different ways. The first video gives us a highly stylized and somewhat John Woo-inspired treatment which renders the destruction almost poetic. The second is just a clown stuffing the device into a blender.

No need to thank me.

Google wants to teach your parents about tech

Send your parents a tech support care packageJust in time for holiday gift-giving I suppose, Google has created a clever, tongue-in-cheek yet quite useful site for people who would like to play tech-support for their parents just a little less this year.

The site lets you choose various tones of voice from polite to downright snarky.

The site lets you choose various tones of voice from polite to downright snarky. (click for larger image)

TeachParentsTech.org is a multiple-choice order form that lets you kindly – or cheekily – provide your parents (or anyone who you think has displayed an unacceptably low understanding of basic tech principles) with a laundry list of short tutorial videos as a virtual “care package.” The videos cover categories such as “The Basics” and “Media” with specific instructions for activities like: “How to attach a file to an email” and “Copy & Paste”. More sophisticated options include such gems as “Make calls from your computer” or “Set up an email auto-responder.”

Now, as you would imagine, Google uses the opportunity to promote their products and services but not to the point of being obnoxious and sometimes not at all: in the “Upgrade your browser” video for instance, Google chooses to use Firefox as their example instead of their own Chrome browser. The videos are short and simple – in most cases just an average guy or gal in their twenties demonstrating the tip without any kind of marketing polish so it’s easy to forget that Google is involved at all and you can just choose to focus on the content.

That’s really the best part of these videos. Their plain-language content and minimalist style is approachable and won’t intimidate even the most skittish computer user.

Of course, this all assumes that your care package recipient knows how to open an email :-)

sample email generated by the TeachParentsTech.org site

Sample email generated by the TeachParentsTech.org site (click for larger image)

Even that task is simplified thanks to format of the email that is generated by the site: It’s stripped of any fancy HTML, presenting only some bare-bones text and an image and hyperlink for each video you’ve selected. No matter which email platform your parent is using, these emails will be easily opened and read.

The option to respond to your thoughtful tech-support provider

The option to respond to your thoughtful tech-support provider. (click for larger image)

Finally, when your recipient is directed back to the TeachParentsTech website to watch their videos, they are given an option to reply to the person who so generously chose to send along these little tech tidbits. In a nod to turnaround being fair play, their options run the same gamut of kind or snarky so you can look forward to some amusing thank-yous.

Netflix launches in Canada

NetflixToday’s the day many Canadians have been waiting for. Netflix, the company that offers unlimited DVD and Blu-ray rentals in the U.S., has opened their virtual doors in Canada. While their product at launch isn’t exactly the same as south of the border, it is the first service of its kind and promises to shake up the video landscape. Here’s what was announced:

  • $7.99 CDN per month gets you unlimited access to Netflix’s online movie and TV database
  • First month free
  • 1/3 of the content that is available can be streamed in HD
  • There is no disc-based option at this time (streaming over the internet only)
  • Service is supported immediately on Wii, PS3, PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch
  • Xbox360 support coming later this fall
  • Some Blu-ray players from Toshiba and Samsung are already compatible
  • The service will work with Apple TV and several other devices once they launch in the Canadian market
  • The selection of movies and TV shows (which number in the thousands) are not new releases, but older “catalog” titles

There is really only one catch to Netflix’s offer: Since ISP price-plans vary wildly in terms of how fast your connection is and what your bandwidth cap is set at, consumers have to take a close look at their web-surfing habits so that their Netflix activity doesn’t end up costing them more due to overage charges. This will be especially important to monitor if you plan on streaming HD content – it doesn’t cost any more to do so from a Netflix perspective, but these movies will eat up a lot more of your internet bandwidth.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings responded to these concerns when interviewed by the CBC. He claims that in spite of evidence to the contrary, bandwidth caps should go up, not down, over time and will eventually cease to be issue for services like Netflix.

Interestingly, Blockbuster Video earlier this week launched a new price plan presumably aimed at people who like the idea of an all-you-can-watch pricing model, but who for whatever reason aren’t interested in Netflix or aren’t able to access it: $9.99 per month will let you rent as many DVDs or Blu-ray movies as you like, one title at a time. Similar to Netflix, the selection of titles is limited to their “favourites” category, which does not include new releases.

So Sync readers, what do you think? Has Netflix created the ultimate video-watching option, or do the bandwidth issues create too much of a headache? Or perhaps you’re content with the existing options you have with your cable or satellite provider? Do you think $7.99 is the right price for a service like this even if you can’t choose from new releases?

Update: On a related note, Netflix reportedly hired a group of actors to attend the launch event today in Toronto and instructed them to “… look really excited, particularly if asked by media to do any interviews about the prospect of Netflix in Canada.” Netflix later apologized for the gaffe, saying it shouldn’t have happened.

Update Nov 1, 2010: Netflix is now available on Xbox 360 in Canada: simply click on Netflix in the Video Marketplace on the Xbox 360 Dashboard.

Google Maps + Arcade Fire = groundbreaking web video

chrome_landing_arcade_fireOne of the many things that I love about the Internet, is the way it provides a nearly unlimited canvas for creativity, and then, once an artist has put the finishing touches on their work, the word can spread like wildfire and touch millions of people’s lives in a matter of hours.

I’ve just finished watching – and participating in – an experience that only the net could give us and I’m stunned by its beauty and originality.

It’s called “The Wilderness Downtown” and it combines the technology of Google’s Chrome browser, with the visual data of Google Maps & Street View all set to a track by Canadian band Arcade Fire – arguably one of the most influential groups in today’s music landscape.

If this description doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as my lead-in would suggest, you’re right. That’s because describing The Wilderness Downtown is sort of like describing the colour blue or the feeling of being cold. You could try, but ultimately all three of these items need to be experienced to be understood.

In a nutshell, The Wilderness Downtown uses your computer monitor as a multi-window display for a music video of Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait“. By opening and closing Google Chrome windows in different shapes, sizes and locations on your screen, each with a different visual element, your whole desktop becomes the video. But that’s just the beginning.

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Screenshot from The Wilderness Downtown - click to enlarge

Using location information that you provide before the experience begins (the website asks for the street address of where you grew up), a significant portion of the video you see is pulled from Google’s Maps & Street View to show you sights that are unique to you as a viewer. Depending on how old you are and how many memories you have associated with your childhood neighbourhood, the effect is both eerie and profound.

There is also a portion of the experience that you are invited to take part in, but I’m not going to tell you what it is – but take my word for it – it’s worth doing. Don’t ignore it.

The Wilderness Downtown isn’t just an intense experience for the viewer – it’s also a workout for your computer. The site suggests – and I firmly agree – that you shut down all other programs or processes that might be eating up CPU cycles or your broadband connection. The best experience would be to run Chrome (it won’t work in any other browser) maximized on your desktop. Doing so ensures that you avoid any visual distractions and will hopefully prevent stuttering video or audio. Netbook users, you may be out of luck.

Check it out and tell us what you think.

NORAD tracks Santa's progress

NORAD_ShinyNot much has changed since last Christmas, so here for your convenience is our post from 2008:

By the time you read this, Santa has already been busy for many hours. According to NORAD, Santa’s schedule kicked off at 6am Eastern today and won’t wrap up his global jaunt until all kids are firmly asleep in their beds.

This year though, while the kids are still up, they have lots of ways to keep tabs on the man in the red suit. For the first time, they’ll be able to follow Santa on Twitter. Just log on to Twitter and follow @noradsanta for updates on his whereabouts and to participate in holiday conversations.

Looking for other ways to spy on St. Nick? NORAD offers the following options:

  • 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) for children to call and personally speak to a Santa tracker
    • Did you know that in 2007, 1,012 volunteers at the NTS Operations Center answered 94,743 telephone calls and 10,326 emails from children around the world?
  • send an email to noradtrackssanta@gmail.com
  • NORAD Tracks Santa Web site: www.noradsanta.org now with videos
  • Track Santa in 3D using Google Earth: http://www.noradsanta.org/en/track3d.html

NORAD’s site is available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese.

Bonus points:

Have OnStar in your car? If you’re traveling Christmas Eve, just hit the blue button and ask for a Santa update!

The NTS program began on Dec. 24, 1955, after a phone call was made to the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. The call was from a local youngster who dialed a misprinted telephone number in a local newspaper advertisement. The commander at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo. who answered the phone that night gave the youngster the information requested – the whereabouts of Santa. This began the tradition of tracking Santa, a tradition that was carried on by NORAD when it was formed in 1958.

 

Merry Christmas Sync readers!

(Oh and Happy Chanukah too)