Category: Television

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

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Sony Xperia S: A step in the right direction for mobile gaming

Perhaps more than any other company in the consumer electronics industry, Sony has repeatedly baffled customers and analysts alike with its product strategies. Music players that could only playback proprietary formats, cameras that could only use proprietary memory cards, a tablet that could control your entire home theatre but not your Sony PS3, an iPod-competitor that isn’t PlayStation-certified, and phones that could provide a great mobile gaming experience but couldn’t display those games on your TV.

That’s just a short list.

Much of these decisions can be attributed to Sony’s desire to exert the kind of control over user experiences that Apple is famous for. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio even lends credence to the idea that Apple learned this lesson from Sony. The other explanation is that Sony is a company divided. With interests in consumer electronics and media publishing, the fabled Japanese tech giant has been fighting for harmony amongst its divisions for decades, with few visible successes.

But this might be changing.

Consider the new Xperia S, the first Sony smartphone in Canada to ditch the old Sony-Ericsson branding. It’s a dual-core, HD smarpthone running Google’s Android 2.3 OS (upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich later this year) and like it’s predecessor, the Sony-Ericsson Xperia Play, it’s PlayStation Certified which means you can enjoy a catalog of games from Sony including older PlayStation 2 titles that have been optimized for the mobile device.

Unlike the Xperia Play, these games are no longer confined to the phone’s 4.3″ touchscreen. Equipped with a micro-HDMI port, the Xperia S lets you enjoy video and gaming on your HDTV.

Sounds like a solid feature right? Well, yes and no. Yes, the ability to view your mobile games on the big screen makes a ton of sense. Not only will they look better on an HDTV, but friends and family can watch the action without having to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with you. But there’s a down-side too. The Xperia S, unlike the Play, is a touch-screen only device. There is no slide-out set of physical buttons (the Play’s slider featured a PSP Go layout). So while you’ll be able to view games on your TV, it will likely be impossible to control the gameplay without looking down at the phone to make sure you’re swiping and tapping the control areas accurately.

Let’s hope that Sony brings back the Play’s slider form-factor on their next model so gamers can really harness the HDMI-out feature to its full extent.

The Xperia S also features a 12.1-megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video along with NFC (Near Field Communication) – a technology that will enable everything from mobile payments via Google Wallet to content sharing between compatible devices, so gaming isn’t the only reason to consider this smartphone.

Pricing has been set at a very reasonable $99 on a 3-year phone & data package from Rogers Wireless. The Xperia S will be available exclusively through Sony Stores when it launches April 17th.

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.

Netflix streaming coming to Canada "this fall"

netflix.caAll we have at the moment is a fairly vauge press press release from the company saying:

Netflix, Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), the leading Internet movie subscription service, today announced it will expand into Canada this fall offering unlimited movies and TV episodes streamed instantly to TVs and computers for one low monthly fee. The Canadian launch will mark the first availability of Netflix outside the United States.

Unlike Netflix in the U.S., the Canadian version appears to  be streaming-only, which means that if you were hoping for some disc-based competition for Zip.ca, you’re going to have to keep waiting at least for now.

While the company has yet to announce an actual date for the service to begin, you can sign-up at netflix.ca to be notified as soon as one is released.

The service will initially be English-only but the company expects to have a French version in the future.

In the U.S., Netflix streaming is available on several devices including all three major gaming consoles, net-connected Blu-ray players, connected TVs, PCs and even Apple’s iPad.

No word yet on which of these devices will be supported here in Canada, but let’s hope they’re able to extend all of these relationships.

In case you’re not familiar with Netflix’s service, they offer a subscription-based video streaming platform which gives members the ability to watch an unlimited number of TV shows and movies, in up to 1080p HD, for one flat fee which, in the U.S. is $8.99/month.

When they launch up here in Canada, they won’t be the first service to offer streaming video, since Xbox Live and Apple’s iTunes already let people do this, but they will be the first to offer a subscription based system that is available on more than one hardware platform, making them nearly ubiquitous.

Readers, if Netflix maintains the same price point here as in the U.S., will you be signing up with them once they launch?

HDMI 1.4 announced, adds 3D, micro-connector

3dHDMI – High Definition Multimedia Interface, has made in-roads into nearly every type of consumer electronic device that is intended to send or receive HD video. As a standard, HDMI defines the way software, firmware, cabling and signaling all work together to deliver digital information between these devices.

Previous versions of the HDMI specification have provided for such features as 1080p video, Deep Colour, and device control (CEC). Now, with version 1.4 officially released, HDMI is poised to move beyond its previous role as a single-cable digital replacement for all of those red, white, yellow, green and blue cables that used to make the backs of our AV equipment look like a rat’s nest.

1.4 includes:

  • HDMI Ethernet Channel – Adds high-speed networking to an HDMI link, allowing users to take full advantage of their IP-enabled devices without a separate Ethernet cable.
  • Audio Return Channel – Allows an HDMI-connected TV with a built-in tuner to send audio data “upstream” to a surround audio system, eliminating the need for a separate audio cable.
  • 3D – Defines input/output protocols for major 3D video formats, paving the way for true 3D gaming and 3D home theater applications.
  • 4K Support – Enables video resolutions far beyond 1080p, supporting next-generation displays that will rival the Digital Cinema systems used in many commercial movie theatres.
  • Content Type – Real-time signaling of content types between display and source devices, enabling a TV to optimize picture settings based on content type.
  • Additional Color Spaces – Adds support for additional color models used in digital photography and computer graphics.
  • HDMI Micro Connector – A new, smaller connector for phones and other portable devices, supporting video resolutions up to 1080p.
  • Automotive Connection System – New cables and connectors for automotive video systems, designed to meet the unique demands of the motoring environment while delivering true HD quality.

Typically, in previous upgrades of the HDMI standard, consumers didn’t need to worry too much about what had changed – the average HDMI cable was backward and forward compatible with the new sets of information that could be passed over their lengths.

Now however, with the introduction of the HDMI Ethernet Channel and the new Micro Connector, there are physical differences as well as signaling differences.

The Ethernet Channeltakes cabling simplification to the next level. When devices emerge that support this new feature, you will only need one internet connection (e.g. to your TV) which can then be shared with all other HDMI-connected equipment. Unfortunately, since HDMI can’t be daisy-chained, your TV is the best candidate for the role of Ethernet hub. It’s also the least likely (so far) of your devices to be equipped with an internet connection. It will probably take 3-4 years before people have a suite of devices that can take advantage of this feature, and it’s quite possible that ongoing improvements to Wi-Fi will make it moot for many.

When shopping for devices that enable this aspect of the 1.4 version, it’s important that you look for HDMI ports that have been specifically labeled as Ethernet Channel capable. The HDMI organization recommends that manufacturers label the ports as “HEC” (HDMI Ethernet Channel), but it is not a requirement. Likewise, you’ll need to make sure that you buy the right kind of HDMI cable – these are labeled either as Standard HDMI Cable with Ethernet or High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet.

The new HDMI Micro Connector. Courtesty of HDMI.org

The new HDMI Micro Connector. Courtesy of HDMI.org

USB Micro connector, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

USB Micro Connector, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Micro Connector however, is something I expect to see on tons of devices very shortly. Most of the digital cameras that were new to the market within the last year have been shipping with some kind of HDMI port, whether the full-size version or a proprietary version that comes with an adapter cable. But the Micro Connector, at 50% of the size of the regular port, means it can be easily added to even the smallest devices. In fact the biggest challenge may be in easily identifying the difference between the HDMI Micro Connector and the USB Micro Connector, which has been adopted by a majority of cellphone manufacturers as the standard charging connector. It would be helpful if the HDMI and USB licensing groups could recommend a colour-coding standard to help consumers identify the two similar ports at-a-glance.

If you’re reading this and are becoming concerned that new 1.4 devices won’t work with your existing HDMI equipment, don’t be. The HDMI standard is backward compatible, so though your older HDMI gear won’t be able to support these newer features, they will still do everything they are currently capable of doing, even when connected to newer gear.

Bell TV launches remote PVR programming

Bell-TV-remote-PVRGood news for PVR addicts who find themselves away from home when they suddenly realize there isn’t enough room on their hard drive to record that show coming on in a few hours. Bell TV has launched a remote PVR management system that can be accessed online via a web browser or via a compatible smartphone.

Here’s how it works:

  • You need to have either the 9242 or 9241 Bell PVR Plus receivers (with or without an external HD)
  • You must have broadband internet access (min. of 256kbps)
  • You need to be able to connect your PVR via an ethernet cable to your home router or…
  • you can buy a HomePlug adapter (known as a Home Connect Kit) from a Bell World Store, or online at Bell.ca for about $50

To access your PVR from the web, you need to log into your online account at http://www.bell.ca/recordnow.

samsung-omnia-2If you want to use your smartphone, you’ll need the corresponding app.

For BlackBerry models 8830, 8330, 8530, 9630, 9000 & 9700 or the Samsung Omnia 2, you can download the app OTA (over the air) by pointing your mobile browser to www.bell.ca/rpvr
(BlackBerry owners – check your home screen, you may already have the Remote PVR icon there)

There is an app coming soon to the iTunes App Store for the iPhone 3G and 3GS, but in the meantime, you should be able to just use the built-in Safari browser. The same goes for the Palm Pre – just use your browser and head over to http://www.bell.ca/recordnow.

Once you’ve got it all set up, you should be able to manage the entire contents of your PVR, including deleting recorded events, scheduling new events, check remaining disk space, adjust the priority of recordings and manage any conflicts.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • The remote PVR system will not work with “PVR-ready” systems like the 6141, in other words, you must have one of the receivers that already has PVR functionality “out of the box”
  • When connecting the 9242 or 9241 receivers via the Home Connect (HomePlug) kit, you only need one side of the typical two-sided HomePlug system, because these receivers already have HomePlug chips embedded – but you will need to ensure they are plugged directly into an AC wall socket and not a power bar or other surge-supressing equipment (these devices interfere with the HomePlug signal)
  • If you have an external hard drive connected to your PVR for additional recording space, you can see the recordings that you have on it, but you cannot manage them remotely

Disclosure: Sync blog is owned and operated by Bell Canada

What has happened to OLED TV?

Samsung OLED TVThere’s no question about it, the last few years have been the most exciting for TV viewers since the transition from black & white to colour.

In a relatively short amount of time, we’ve gone from standard definition to high definition, from taping shows on VHS to recording them with PVRs, from stereo (or HiFi) to 5.1 surround sound and from a rigid TV schedule to an on-demand and time-shifted choice of nearly every show imaginable.

But the single most impressive thing I’ve seen in the last few years (that didn’t strike me as a fad or worthless add-on) was the demonstration of Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology in large displays. I’ve always felt that better realism and authenticity should be the goal of TV’s evolution, and OLED is a dramatic step forward on this path. OLED TVs boast richer, more vivid colours than either LCD (CCFL or LED back-lit models) or plasma. When combined with full HD 1080p resolution, the result is nothing short of breathtaking.

So I was a little non-plussed to see that at this year’s CES, there was not a plethora of OLED displays that graced the booths of the major TV manufacturers. Instead, it was 3D-capable TVs that stole the show after having been only a minor presence at last year’s show and virtually non-existent prior to that.

Now I know that some people are really jazzed about 3D for the home, and I admit that – when well executed – 3D is an exciting experience that can genuinely enhance an event like a movie or a sports broadcast. But let’s take a second look at 3D before crowning it the new king of TV land:

  • Despite the promise of 3D sets that can convert 2D content into 3D on the fly, for now, the 3D experience will be severely limited by a lack of content
  • 3D TVs require a 3D source, which for now is strictly limited to Blu-ray media since 3D broadcasts are likely years away (more on this in another post)
  • As cool as it will no doubt be to watch James Cameron’s Avatar as it is meant to be seen when it is ultimately released on disc, just how much of your TV-watching time will be in 3D? I just can’t see people rummaging around their couch cushions to find their 3D glasses to view that re-run of Seinfeld or Friends or the evening news

So why is the consumer electronics industry so hell-bent on the 3D experience, when OLED technology makes every type of TV content better? As a side-note, it also saves on energy: OLED displays are far more efficient than plasma and even LED-back-lit LCD TVs.

I suspect it comes down to two factors: Technological hurdles and the Politics of Profit.

OLED is still very new as a large format display technology even though it has been under development for more than a decade. It has shown up in plenty of devices like cellphones and portable media players that use small (3″ or less) displays, but it seems the cost and complexity of OLED increases exponentially the larger the display (this is not much different than LCD which for a very long time could not be produced in sizes larger than 40″ without dramatic costs being incurred).

Then there’s the issue of the halo-effect – the number of collateral products that a new technology can spur. In the case of OLED, you’re just contemplating the purchase of a new TV. 3D on the other hand means a new TV, new Blu-ray player, new 3D Blu-ray movies, 3D glasses, and ultimately a new 3D-capable set-top box for your satellite or cable subscription. Given that companies like Sony have their hands in almost every bucket of the entertainment business, 3D is a no-brainer: it’s a profit power-house. If things pan out the way they hope, their 3D product road map will take them well into this decade if not beyond.

Does all this mean the end of the line for OLED? I think not.

Watch the video below. It gives you a tantalizing taste of just how amazing and versatile OLED tech really is. From transparent-medium displays to super-efficient and flexible lighting, OLED clearly has (ahem) bright future. And we may still see it make its way into our living rooms once the 3D tsunami has washed over us and companies like Samsung and Sony start looking for the next way to improve the TV experience. It may just be that OLED has simply been re-prioritized while LCD and plasma enjoy a last round of improvements before they are finally retired for good. Here’s hoping.

For more CES coverage including videos, check out our CES Section.

HDMI Cables: Does 'more expensive' mean 'better performance'?

Cable image courtesy of HDMI.org Today's the big day. Lured by increasingly attractive prices on new TVs thanks to an ailing economy, you've decided to buy an HDTV. You've listened to the sales pitch, agreed on a model and now you're headed to the cash register. But wait. What's this? You need special cables for that fancy new TV. And they're going to cost how much?

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