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.
A 3D-capable Amazon phone might signal the next wave in retail
Interesting times for Amazon. Especially in the hardware space. First we get the surprise launch of their new set-top box, the Fire TV, now rumours are spreading of an imminent smartphone from the retail giant.
Not that this rumour is new, per se. We’ve been hearing speculation about an Amazon phone almost as long as we’ve been hearing about an HDTV from Apple. But this time, the rumour comes with a new level of specificity at least as it relates to a key tech spec: the handset will supposedly ship with a quad set of cameras that will enable a retina-tracking, glasses-free, 3D display.
Let’s assume for the time being that this phone, if real, will be a logical stable-mate to the existing Kindle Fire line of tablets. This would mean Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android and access to all of Amazon’s streaming services. Certainly not a bad set of specs. Especially if they include access to the Fire TV’s game store.
Frankly, if this was all there was to this rumoured handset, the right price would make it a very popular choice. Amazon’s tablets have received very favourable reviews and it seems likely that an Amazon phone would fare equally well.
But I’m troubled by the 3D aspect of the report. I know that movie studios continue to flog 3D on all of their mega-budget releases as a way of luring audiences to theatrical releases (with the correspondingly over-priced tickets). Some people even choose 3D over 2D when given the choice. Not me. I’m completely over 3D. Most of the time my brain becomes so accustomed to the effect that 20 minutes into the movie the only thing I’m noticing is the glasses on my face and the darker picture on the screen (non-3D movies are noticeably brighter).
As for home 3D? Fugedaboudit.
Even if we owned a 3D TV I doubt we’d ever use the 3D part. My neighbour, who is as big a movie buff as you’re likely to find, never uses his TV’s 3D capability. I suspect he’s far from an outlier on that count.
Which brings us back to why Amazon would choose to include 3D on a handset, especially when others have tried (and failed) to market one successfully.
The most obvious reason is that they want to enable traditional 3D content, i.e. movies and games. Nintendo has enjoyed relative success with their 3DS line of hand-held game consoles and those who have them assure me that the 3D part is really enjoyable (I’ll have to take their word for it).
But there may be a secondary element to Amazon’s 3D strategy: retail. Though I’ve never felt that the current model of multiple-angle images in gallery format was insufficient when looking at products online, perhaps Amazon wants to take the virtual shopping experience to the next level by giving shoppers a more immersive and realistic view of catalog items.
Could such an evolution in the display of retail objects (or indeed any objects) be a game-changer? My instinct is to say “no” purely based on my lacklustre experiences with 3D in other contexts. But I underestimated how profoundly popular having an “iPod Touch on steroids” would be when the iPad was first released, so I’m willing to concede that the experience of 3D shopping might be one of those things you need to see, before rendering judgment.
What are your thoughts on a 3D phone from Amazon?
Sharp announces biggest TV in Canada
Yes sir, that right there is the biggest TV in Canada. Or at least, it will be when it goes on sale next month for the equally big price of $5,299.00.
The gargantuan AQUOS LC-80LE632U (hey Sharp – must we still use such awkward model names?) is 80 inches of full HD awesomeness and also sports these features:
- UltraBrilliant Full Array LED backlighting system
- Dual USB Inputs – enable viewing high-resolution video, music and digital photos on the TV
- Connected TV Services – delivers streaming video, customized Internet content and live customer support via built-in Wi-Fi
What I find a little surprising are the features it lacks, namely: 3D and Quattron.
I can certainly overlook the lack of Quattron. While I was impressed by the technology’s picture quality (Sharp claims that the inclusion of the extra yellow pixel renders colours more accurately) I’ve never been convinced of the science behind it. Given that no digital cameras or other recording equipment possess yellow sensors (they all use combinations of Red, Green and Blue) it seems to me that any data being sent to Sharp’s yellow pixels had to be interpolated from the original signal, so how accurate could it be?
But no 3D, especially at that price? That’s a tougher nut to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of 3D by any means. In fact, I still consider it to be both a fad and a gimmick despite what some manufacturers would have us believe. But I’d also be the first to acknowledge that the kind of buyer who is ready to drop over five grand for an 80-inch TV, is likely not going to be happy with a unit that doesn’t “do it all.” If you want 3D and Quattron, you’ll have to give up the extra 10 inches and grab Sharp’s LC-70LE735U which has both and MSRPs for $4599. Like most of the rest of Sharp’s high-end line, the LC-80LE632U comes equipped with Sharp’s AQUOS Advantage LIVE service. This free service actually lets a Sharp service advisor connect to your TV remotely in order to help you trouble-shoot any issues you might be having, or simply to calibrate the unit so that it gives you the best picture for your environment. While most techies will scoff at this, plenty of buyers will appreciate not having to describe technical problems over the phone to a customer service person.
If, by some stroke of luck, Sharp has managed to create a screen that is as beautiful to watch as it is large, then I will consider the money well spent. But I’m not sure that this is the case. Consider for instance that this new 80-inch behemoth only runs 120 Hz motion processing. The standard for most high-end HDTVs is at least 240 Hz, which is still a far cry from a plasma screen’s native 480 Hz. At 120 Hz, especially at an 80-inch screen size, I’m concerned that motion-blur will be an issue.
Of course, it’s completely unfair to judge a TV – or any other gadget for that matter – until you’ve seen it in real life, so I’ll stop my premature hand-wringing. Speaking of real life, if you want to get a sense of just how big this TV is, check out CNET’s photo of the unit complete with a bored-looking Sharp spokesperson for scale.
Secretly, I can’t wait to see what GT5 looks like on this monster!
Prediction: An Apple HDTV will revolutionize video chat
Thanks to the famous Apple distortion field, it’s easy to get caught up in the Apple rumour mill. Today for instance, leaked images of a new iPhone case have the blogosphere in full speculation mode as to the dimensions of the upcoming iPhone 5.
Thinner! Bigger screen! Repositioned volume buttons! Can you believe how breathless we’ve become about attributes that should frankly illicit little more than a yawn were they in regards to *any* other company. But this is Apple we’re talking about and the usual rules clearly don’t apply.
Which brings me to my favourite Apple rumour-du-jour, which has nothing to do with the next iPhone.
Instead, it concerns a project that many have been theorizing on for some time: Apple is poised to bring an HDTV to market.
I know, I know, this too – were it from *any* other company – should prompt nothing more than a slightly glazed look and then a quick glance to see if there’s anything interesting on Twitter. After all, the consumer tech landscape is teeming with HDTVs. The aisles of Best Buy, FutureShop and Walmart are littered with them. A recent study (albeit a highly politicized one) out of the U.S. even suggested that they have become so mainstream that even 17% of people dubbed “poor” now own them.
So why would an Apple HDTV matter?
First of all, according to a CNET report, Apple is already in talks with LG to manufacture 55″ OLED screens. Right there, we have a major technology shift in the works. There are for all intents and purposes, no OLED TVs on the market right now. Plasma and LED-backlit LCD panels represent well over 99% of all HDTVs. The primary reason so far has been price. Even Sony’s OLED experiment, the XEL-1, a diminutive 11-inch kitchen-class device cost a whopping $1,700 when it briefly came to market a few years ago. Needless to say, a 55″ beast would be an order of magnitude more expensive, making it prohibitive for all but wealthiest consumers. But nonetheless, LG themselves have announced plans to build just such a TV next year. It lends a lot of credibility to the Apple HDTV rumour. And OLED will be a game-changer.
But if LG is going to make one, it will probably be cheaper than Apple’s, so why would I buy the one with the fruit on it?
It’s safe to say that Apple’s second generation Apple TV unit, that little black hockey-puck of a device, has been much more successful than most anticipated, especially given the luke-warm response their first generation “hobby” was given. It’s also safe to say that any Apple HDTV will have Apple TV or similar functionality baked right into the unit. As cool as I’m sure this would be, it’s not a big deal. Apple TV’s are cheap (relatively speaking) at $119.
But the feature that I think will really set an Apple HDTV apart, is FaceTime. Yes, it would be the same FaceTime that has been available on iPhone 4s, iPod Touches and Macs for over a year now, but with one key difference: The FaceTime camera will be behind – not on top – of the OLED screen.
This is a feature that I had predicted would make its way into the very first iPad. Man was I wrong on that. The iPad didn’t even get a regular webcam until the second version.
But in my defense, I didn’t know that the iPad would be an LCD-equipped device. And according to the patent I was basing my prediction on, in order for a screen to work with a “hidden camera,” it needs to be OLED – not LCD.
In case you haven’t clicked-through to my iPad prediction yet, allow me to summarize: A hidden FaceTime camera would change the nature of video chat. Instead of watching someone gaze at a point in space that seems to be around your lower-neck, they will be looking right at you. All the time. The TV would become a virtual window allowing eye-to-eye communication. FaceTime is already a great chat product – especially on the iPad 2. A FaceTime camera situated behind the screen where you’re already looking, would be, well, magical.
Yes, it seems a little foolish that having been wrong on this once before I’d be willing to stick my neck out again for the same premise. But I guess that’s a measure of how great I think this feature would be, and why Apple could own the high-end of the HDTV market just like they own the high-end of the smartphone and tablet market.
Check back here in 2012 to see if I’ll be eating my words once more.
A strange week for 3D and TV
This is the kind of week it’s been in the world of TV and video, with stories not necessarily in chronological order…
First up: The 3D debate got hotter and well, weirder, when Roger Ebert – who has maligned the technology openly in the past – declared the format “inferior and inherently brain-confusing.” To prop up his thesis, he quotes liberally from fellow 3D-denier and award-winning editor, Walter Murch – whose work you are familiar with if you’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now, Ghost or The English Patient.
Now there’s no question that Murch’s credentials as far as the art form of cinematic editing is beyond reproach. But in a recent letter to Ebert, he goes way beyond a critique of 3D from the perspective of editing, citing biological arguments against the format such as:
[…] the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for.
He’s referring to the process by which our eyes must try to converge on two different focal lengths in rapid succession. Now he may very well be right that this is the component of 3D that has caused undesirable effects amongst some viewers, but to claim that our very biology isn’t up to the task because of how we’ve evolved strikes me as a reach.
I get that Ebert hates 3D – heck I even agree with some of the points he’s made in the past – and I get that Murch isn’t impressed by it either, but I’m not buying the so-called scientific explanation as to why it sucks. Read the full post and see if you’re on-board or not.
Next: A new report suggests that this is the year we will see Blu-ray players for as little as $40 and 42″ LCD HDTVs coming in at under $300. Despite the fact that these devices will likely not support advanced features such as 3D, Wi-Fi or streaming, those are nonetheless stunning price points. It looks like 2011 will be the year that fantastic picture quality will be within reach of nearly every economic group in the West.
Finally, Pioneer and Sharp have announced that they will be creating a new line of LCD HTDVs that will bear the “Elite” badge – a marque that hasn’t graced a TV display since Pioneer discontinued its production of plasma panels last year. But this new venture, rather than being a rebirth of the TVs that earned CNET’s highest rating of any HDTV, appears to be at best a new line of LCD’s from Sharp with Pioneer’s Elite designation and at worst, nothing more than a re-badging of Sharp’s existing line-up of high-end models.
At first it might seem that this is a dig at Sharp. It isn’t. I’ve had the chance to audition their latest line-up of Quattron 3D TVs and I was duly impressed by their image quality and feature set. They’re good TVs. But they aren’t plasma and they aren’t Pioneer units – in short, they aren’t “Elite”. Now I realize I should withhold final judgement until I see the new Elites in the flesh, but I am (as you can tell) highly skeptical. I’m also a little stunned that Pioneer – a company that put plasma on the map – has decided to back LCD as a display technology after all this time. I would have much preferred that they partner with Panasonic, a company that has stayed the course on plasma and has inherited Pioneer’s HDTV crown as a result. Perhaps Pioneer believed that LCD will eventually eclipse plasma as the best display technology, or maybe they’re just looking for a more cost-effective way to re-enter the TV business without having to actually make their own glass. Either way, I worry that the Elite marque – so long a pinnacle of quality in the A/V space – will be diminished by this move.
Update, Jan 30: I knew I had forgotten something. Back on the 20th, CNET’s David Katzmaier wrote an interesting piece concerning the merits of active vs. passive 3D based on his experiences comparing VIZIO’s new passive-3D TV (XVT3D650SV) to Panasonic’s class-leading active-3D set (TC-P65VT25). The results are instructive for those who are looking to make their move into the 3D arena: Passive possesses quite a few advantages over active (and I suspect will become the standard soon) but falls short in one key area which I hadn’t previously realized – the VIZIO TV at least, can’t do full HD in 3D. Their passive system uses a circular polarizer to blend two 540p images – that’s half the resolution of Panny’s active system which can present the full 1080p signal to each eye. I’m sure as newer passive systems come on the market, this limitation will be overcome, but in the meantime, active 3D would seem to be the better choice for folks who aren’t willing to sacrifice a pixel of their Blu-ray material.
Samsung: Smart TVs get a lot smarter at CES
The age of the connected TV is here and it will take the humble television and turn it into much more than a screen for watching video. Every manufacturer is now shipping or has plans to ship models that will let you do everything from streaming videos to video calling and almost everything in-between. Samsung’s Smart TVs are a great example of how rapidly this technology is evolving. My guess is that those of us who migrated away from the TV to start using the internet for our entertainment will now be coming back to the big screen… and loving it.
Apple TV reviewers impressed but not blown away
Overall, it’s a pretty good time to be Apple. Their tablet computer, the iPad, has been selling like hotcakes broken a record for the fastest selling gadget since it launched earlier this year. Despite initial concerns regarding the new iPhone 4’s antenna, it’s nearly impossible to find one in stock. And their new line-up of iPods has been met with enthusiasm, even if the form-factor choice for the iPod nano hasn’t exactly been met with unanimous praise.
To round out what has been a milestone year for the company, their second take on their Apple TV product – a tiny black box with no hard drive – has been reviewed by some of the leading tech sites south of the border and the sentiment is upbeat, if not ecstatic.
The bottom line, for those who don’t want to read all of the reviews, is this: Apple TV lives up to Apple’s reputation for slick user-interfaces, simplicity of design and interaction and flawless execution. The $99 price point ($129 119 CDN) makes it almost a no-brainer for those who already own a few Apple products. The available content, on the other hand, is the device’s Achilles Heel.
I’m not surprised by this reaction. The marketing gang at Apple positioned the Apple TV very specifically as the ultimate media-streaming machine – a perfect companion for your HDTV that gives you instant access to first-run movies on the same day they are released on DVD/Blu-ray and then throws in TV shows, YouTube, Netflix and some other goodies to round out the package. So when people discover that the movie selection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that TV shows are almost non-existent, you can see why their excitement might be tempered a wee bit.
The silver lining in all this is that content can be improved – vastly if enough effort is invested. And it doesn’t rely on hardware or firmware upgrades. The reviewers all agree that Apple has gotten the basics right. Price, Features, Physical size/shape – they’re all good. So what’s a little missing content? The answer might be different depending on whether you live in the U.S. or here in Canada. If you think Apple TV’s tv show rental offerings in the U.S. aren’t sufficient (they only have ABC, FOX, Disney and BBC for now) you’ll be pretty bummed by the line-up for the Great White North: zip. zero. nada.
Okay, so the content isn’t there yet – my bet is that over time it will be, and it will be great when it comes. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter that much. Most of the reviewers have been quick to point out that if you already own an iPhone, iPad or the latest iPod Touch, you hold the key to unlocking a ton of content on the Apple TV that isn’t tied to what you can rent via iTunes. When iOS 4.2 comes on the scene next month, it brings with a feature called AirPlay. AirPlay will allow any of the devices I just listed to play audio or video content wirelessly on the Apple TV and thus your home theatre and HDTV.
I’ve already discovered plenty of ways to play just about every type of content on my iPad thanks to apps from 3rd party developers. Given the, ahem, prevalence of non-iTunes content out there on the net, it may just be that you never use Apple TV’s rental feature for TV shows. One great example is CityTV’s recently released iPad app. It lets you stream episodes of their shows e.g. The Event, on-demand. After iOS 4.2, that content will be one tap away from your HDTV if you have Apple TV.
Of course, if you *don’t* already own some i-devices, Apple TV loses some of its lustre. And that’s no accident. Apple’s price on the Apple TV isn’t just a function of the revenue-model created by the rental function; it’s a gateway device. It’s designed to get you hooked on the Apple ecosystem if you aren’t already.
Now, if you’re curious to get the deets straight from the herd of horses, here are the links:
CNET.com’s Apple TV Review: Balanced, focused on the technical benefits of the device compared to the Roku
Engadget’s Apple TV Review: Josh Topolsky engages in some constructive criticism
PCMag.com’s Apple TV Review: To-the-point, no-nonsense overview
Ars Technica’s Apple TV Review: More in-depth than the others and somewhat more tongue-in-cheek
Got that? Now, what’s your take? When Apple TV hits Canadian shelves in a few weeks will you be first in line or will you pass in favour of other devices (or none at all?)
Bell TV Launches Video On Demand, 1080p Hi-Def Movies
In the ultra-competitive world of TV distribution, particularly here in Canada, the big battle has been waged predominantly between cable and satellite providers. Cable companies traditionally speak of their advantage over satellite in areas like reliability, Video on Demand (VOD) and quick channel-changes. Satellite for its part makes claims around superior picture quality and geographic coverage.
Today however, the landscape has changed yet again, with Bell TV announcing that it has launched satellite-based VOD – a first of its kind in Canada.
Typically, satellite customers have been able to order scheduled Pay Per View programming, but the infrastructure needed to handle true real-time access to videos on demand hasn’t been available. Now, not only is VOD possible, the movies are being made available in what’s known as “Full HD” or 1080p, meaning that these movies are being streamed at the equivalent of Blu-ray quality. By way of comparison, all broadcast HD programming on cable and satellite is typically done in 720p – slightly less than half the resolution of 1080p. This is the first time 1080p has been made available in Canada. If you’ve been resisting the call of Blu-ray so far, Bell TV’s offering may mean you can forego that purchase altogether.
As of this announcement, the selection of available VOD content was slim – only 10 movies. However, if the selection of content on Bell’s IPTV product – Fibe TV – is any indicator, many more movies and shows should be available soon. According to Bell, new titles will be “made available every week.”
To access Bell TV’s VOD service (see their FAQ here), you’ll need one of their HD PVRs – either the 9242 or the 9241. To enjoy the full HD 1080p signal, you’ll need to have one of these PVRs connected to a 1080p-capable HDTV. No word yet whether Bell will extend the service to their PVR-capable 6131 HD receivers.
Update: As one of the commenters pointed out below, these receivers only show two HD options: 720p and 1080i. So how does one achieve full 1080p? The answer from Bell is:
The set top box automatically overrides the existing setting and outputs at 1080p. The output settings will include 1080p in the future when there is 1080p broadcast available.
Movies cost $6.99 per title for up to 48-hour access, and are available instantly by remote control on channel 1000 or by calling 1-866-68 ORDER.
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada.
Masters golf tournament first national Canadian 3D broadcast
If you’re one of the few in Canada who have bravely stepped up to become an early adopter of the new 3D-capable HDTVs that just hit retail shelves, we’ve got some good news. Bell TV will be airing rounds three and four of the 2010 Masters Tournament in 3D HD this weekend.
The 3D feed, which is originating from Augusta, Georgia via Comcast’s network and being distributed internationally, will be broadcast in commercial-free 3D HD from 5 pm to 7 pm ET on Saturday, April 10 and Sunday, April 11.
The broadcast will be free to Bell TV’s HD subscribers and viewable on channel 1000. Bell TV’s HD receivers are already 3D-ready, so the only extra equipment you’ll need is a 3D-capable TV and compatible 3D glasses. In case you’re wondering how well golf on TV translates into 3D, BusinessWeek reports that industry analysts who had a chance to preview the experience “claim the technology translates well to golf, due to the wide-open, outdoor setting of the sport and the noticeable variations in course topography.”
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada
The big 3D question: Should you buy now?
The situation is all too familiar: a new format or technology has emerged, promising a game-changing entertainment experience and you are left wondering when or even if you should jump on the bandwagon.
CDs, DVDs, HDTV (in both 720 and 1080p flavours) are all examples of formats that wooed consumers and after a short introductory period quickly grew to mass-market proportions. More recently, but with less success so far than the other technologies, Blu-ray has been making in-roads helped largely by falling prices.
Now 3D is calling your name, with many of the big names announcing retail availability of compatible TVs and Blu-ray players this year, with the U.S. already selling packages.
Here in Canada, starting March 26, 2010, Samsung 3D TVs, accessories and movies will be available at Future Shop’s 144 stores.
If you’re an early-adopter, you’ve already decided you’re on board with 3D and are patiently awaiting the first reviews to emerge so that you make the best purchasing decision.
But for everyone else, here’s some advice.
Be patient. The first products on the market will be the most expensive, and the least sophisticated. As with any technology, each revision will bring improvements and price reductions. If you need another reason to wait, consider the availability of content. Only a handful of compatible movies will be available this year, and so far neither cable nor satellite has made any announcements concerning 3D support in Canada. It will of course be coming soon, but do you really want to make a decision without knowing the price?
Demo the experience. Recently, I had the chance to experience Sony’s 3D TV for myself at the Sony Store in downtown Toronto, in the Eaton’s Centre. They showed us 3D gaming, and some 3D sports footage. It was fun, no question. Sony’s 3D is very convincing, creating the impression that the TV screen was actually a window through which you could see the action taking place. Unlike some other implementations of 3D that I’ve seen, the emphasis was on creating as sense of depth, rather than height (very few objects appeared to ‘pop out’ of the TV). The required active-shutter glasses were comfortable but the demo was only 10 minutes – it’s hard to say if they would be okay for a 3-hour movie. By way of comparison, they are heavier than the 3D glasses you get at theatres, but also a better fit.
I also noticed that the combination of the 3D display and the glasses resulted in a somewhat washed-out image. Perhaps this effect is more pronounced for some people than others – similar in nature to the rainbow-effect reported by some viewers of rear-projection DLP TVs. Or it might be fundamental to the technology as it exists today. Either way, images on the 3D TV did not feel as bright, rich or vivid as comparable non-3D sets. The point here is that you really need to see 3D for yourself to decide if lives up to your expectations.
Be realistic about your viewing habits. Even though 3D TVs like the Sony model will be able to perform a kind of up-conversion on regular 2D to 3D (sort of like the simulated surround sound that some two-speaker audio systems can achieve via clever modulation of the sound), can you see yourself wanting to watch 3D for casual viewing? Remember, that with 3D, you must be wearing the glasses, otherwise the screen will look like a very fuzzy and confusing series of overlapped images. So if someone in the room is watching in 3D, everyone else needs to wear the glasses too – even if they are engaging in another activity like surfing the web or folding laundry. Will they want to wear the glasses while doing that? The question is whether you want to spend a lot of extra money on a feature you won’t be using *most* of the time. Unlike HD, I don’t think 3D is going to become a must-have feature. Now that I have HD, I intentionally seek HD programming – I really would prefer to watch nothing else if I have the choice – it’s just that much better than SD. My guess is that 3D will remain event-driven for the vast majority of viewers – they’ll use it for the occasional movie, game or sporting event, but that’s it.
Stay informed. As the top-tier review sites and publications get their hands on the new batch of gear, they’ll have some great insights into this technology. For instance, now that LCD and plasma are delivering very similar results in the 2D world, will this parity remain in the 3D landscape or will one technology emerge superior? Only time will tell. We’ll do our best to make sure you’re up on the latest resources :-)