Hands-on Review: Roku Streaming Stick
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.
Why the Apple iPhone 5 might ditch the 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:
- 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.
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?
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.
Word Lens can translate anything your iPhone can see
Augmented Reality (AR) is the term used to describe apps that layer new information on top of what your phone’s camera lens is currently showing you. Examples include Layar, which pulls information from Google and other sources to help you identify shops, restaurants, museums etc – pretty much anything you could find in the Yellow Pages and shows it to you while you scan the area around you with your smartphone. Others like THQ’s Falcon Gunner, simply use it as an amusing way to change the gameplay, allowing TIE-fighters to swing out from behind your couch or a nearby building.
Today, a colleague drew my attention to what I think is the most amazing use of AR to-date. Quest Visual’s Word Lens is an app that will translate any text that you can squeeze into the frame of your iPhone’s camera lens and it does so in real time, and most impressively, it does it by completely replacing the text that you’re capturing with matching translated text. The effect is nothing short of stunning, taking an already pretty magical device like the iPhone and elevating it into the realm of Harry Potter-style magic.
Best of all, the app is completely self-contained. There’s no network component to the translation – it would work even if you disabled Wi-Fi and 3G.
Now here’s my confession: I haven’t actually ponied up the $4.99 fee that you need to pay once you download the free app in order to activate either the English to Spanish or Spanish to English options (yes, you pay for each one) largely because I don’t have a need for those right now, but if their demo video on YouTube is any indication of how well it works, I will be grabbing it for sure before our next Mexican vacation.
There’s not a lot of information on Quest Visual’s website other than a few FAQ’s, so here’s the YouTube…
Not too late to make this a gift for the traveler on your list.
Netflix now disc-free on Wii and PS3
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?
Netflix streaming coming to Canada "this fall"
All 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
HDMI – 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.
- 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 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.
What has happened to OLED TV?
There’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.