Amazon takes the proprietary route with its Fire TV set top box and gives consumers one more choice that won’t serve all of their needs.
I’ve always admired Amazon for their customer-centric view of the world. Their online shopping experience is second to none. Their customer service is superb. Their dedication to creating devices and services to meet the needs of their customers has always impressed me – especially given that the hardware space is so competitive (and littered with failures).
So I was really keen to find out what Amazon’s latest toy, the $99 Fire TV set-top box had to offer. Even though it isn’t available to Canadians currently, the U.S. version is likely a very strong indicator of what we’ll get when it arrives.
Sadly, what we’ll get is a series of compromises.
We’ve covered wireless audio solutions before here on Sync, and by golly we will continue to cover them – wireless audio is one of those technologies that can change the way you experience media. Well executed, it can bring a goofy smile to your face as you try to contemplate how you ever lived without it. Poorly executed and it leaves you wondering what all the hype is about.
Unfortunately HP’s Wireless Audio falls into the latter category.
Before we get into why, let’s review some of the basics.
The primary goal of any wireless audio system is to let you experience the digital music that you have stored on your computer, smartphone or other device on a set of speakers that are better suited to the task and often located in a different room than the device with the music.
Sometimes the speakers belong to a high-end home theatre system, sometimes they’re just a small tabletop radio with an auxiliary input. But they aren’t the tinny things that come stock with most laptops or PCs which means your music is going to sound a lot better.
There are three wireless technologies that companies have used for this. First is Wi-Fi (or a proprietary version thereof). Its strengths are distance – it can usually cover your whole home and sometimes more – built-in networking (you can do more than just stream music over it) and flexibility (there’s virtually no limit to how many devices can share a Wi-Fi network, and you don’t need extra hardware). It’s drawbacks are mostly related to reliability. Because only a few Wi-Fi routers can help to prioritize one type of network traffic over another, streaming music can sometimes cut-out or fall out of sync with a video source.
Second is Bluetooth. It’s a piece of cake to set up, almost all modern laptops and smartphones support it, audio quality is good and lag is rarely if ever an issue, but it caps out at about 30m of distance and so far, Bluetooth connections can’t be multi-device (I can only stream my music to one Bluetooth speaker at a time).
Third is fully proprietary wireless signal. This is used by HP’s Wireless Audio. Proprietary wireless’s main strength is that the devices which use it share a dedicated, highly reliable signal which can be used to deliver a wide range of audio including 5.1 surround sound. The down side is that you have to use a dedicated wireless dongle with limited transmission strength. Depending on the frequency(ies) and power used by the system it may or may not be successful in penetrating walls and other structures.
Thus is the weakness of HP’s Wireless Audio solution. In testing out the review unit, I found I wasn’t able to maintain a connection between the receiver unit and my laptop which had the USB dongle, unless I stayed within about a 15-20 feet “safe zone.” The orientation of the laptop (and thus the dongle) also made a big difference at the edge of the safe zone. This is in stark contrast to HP’s claim of “30m bi-directional range,” using a tri-band combination of 2.4, 5.2 and 5.8Ghz frequencies. If you’re hoping to get your music from one end of the house to the other, the HP Wireless Audio system isn’t going to deliver.
I was also disappointed that HP hadn’t created a free app that I could download to an iOS or Android device so that I could control the audio remotely. That feature exists for both Apple’s AirPort Express as well as Sonos’s wireless solution.
So without the ability to effectively stream music from more than one room away and with no built-in way to control the audio on the computer, I found myself wondering exactly who the system was meant for. Which application had HP envisioned when they created the Wireless Audio?
Then it hit me: The scenario that was made for HP’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses. For folks who have all of their movies on their computer and want to watch them on their computer’s display but want the audio to run over their home-theatre speakers, the HP Wireless Audio works perfectly.
Distance is no longer a factor because your receiver and computer are in the same room. There’s no need for remote control because the computer is sitting right there in front of you, or at least within arm’s reach. The ability to stream 5.1 surround is big benefit and not running cords from your PC to your receiver is obviously another. Finally, the Wireless Audio’s dedicated signal and resulting no-lag is perfectly suited to movie soundtracks: no one likes watching an actor’s lips start moving a half-second or more before the words start coming out.
But for all its strengths in this scenario, I just can’t see someone dropping $99 for this capability. It’s hard for me to imaging that someone who has a great 5.1 set-up doesn’t have an equally great widescreen TV to match and if that’s the case, a single HDMI cable kills two birds with one stone: you get great audio *and* video.
However, if you were thinking “hey that’s my set-up exactly” when you were reading my computer+speakers scenario, you’ll be pleased to know that set-up of the Wireless Audio was painless. HP provides a dedicated control panel for Windows that lets you sync your receivers (yep, you can have up to 4) to your computer. There are few options and after the install you’ll mostly manage the audio levels for your Wireless Audio from your Windows sound properties.
The receiver itself, while generous with connectivity options (it has RCA jacks, a mini-jack/TOSLINK combo and an RCA-style S/PDIF connector) and uses a nearly universal mini-USB port for power, is nonetheless cheap-feeling with plastic case that is so light weight, one can’t help but wonder why it needs to be so big.
Oh by the way, in case you’re a Mac user, sorry – you’ll have to stick with Apple’s Airport Express or other solution – HP’s Wireless Audio is only compatible with Windows PCs.
Overall, I’d have to say that if you’re looking to build a wireless home audio system on a budget and you don’t mind the occasional lag, Apple’s Wi-Fi and Airplay-based AirPort Express is a much more versatile gadget for the same price.
According to a report by Parmy Olson on Forbes.com, Facebook has signed a deal with streaming music provider, Spotify, in a move that could see music added to the giant social network in as little as two weeks.
Unfortunately for Canadians and Americans, Spotify has yet to sign the necessary agreements with North American record labels to bring its very popular product to Facebookers in Canada and the U.S.
Olson makes the connection between Facebook and Spotify clear for those who aren’t familiar with the two organizations: Not only is Mark Zuckerberg a big fan of Spotify, Facebook’s first president and early Napster employee, Sean Parker, sits on Spotify’s board, while the two companies also share investors.
But the coming-together of these entities is not limited to dollars and directors. While Spotify started out in 2006 as a way to listen to music online, it has grown considerably since then, most recently in 2010 when it added a social networking feature powered by – you guessed it – Facebook.
Once integrated into Facebook officially, according to Olson, a Spotify icon of some description will appear to the left of users’ Newsfeed.
The intent is move Facebook’s media strategy forward (they already have a movie agreement with Warner Bros.) while giving Spotify access to a massive new source of potential subscribers. Spotify’s free service is ad-supported, but they also have a paid service which is ad-free and offers a higher bitrate for the music streams.
The real question however is: Will this new socially-powered angle prove tantalizing enough to Facebook users to make a real difference for either company? After all, this is hardly an original concept. Microsoft tried to make music social with their nearly-defunct Zune product – even going so far as to let users of their Zune media players “find” other Zune-ers who were located within range of the device’s Wi-Fi connection. Apple has kicked this can too with their poorly received Ping product which is now a feature built-in to every copy of iTunes and several of their devices including the iPhone. Yet even with Apple’s significant market share, Ping is hardly a success story.
But if social music on Facebook is going to be a success, it will happen in Canada. Why? Turns out our very own country has the world’s most extreme users of Facebook. I can’t say I’m surprised. Sync readers seem to have an insatiable appetite for all things Facebook-related. So that’s all the more reason why Spotify has to hurry up and sort out whatever remaining legal hurdles it faces with record labels and add Canada to its list of supported countries. Heck, given how rabid Canadians are when it comes to Facebook, it might make sense to get the Canadian deals ironed out first, before the U.S. – we could be the perfect test-bed for new features.
Alright readers – your turn: Are you excited by the idea of being able to share your musical tastes with your FB friends via an integrated platform like Spotify?
Of all the features that launched with last week’s iOS update to 4.2, the one I was most eagerly anticipating was AirPlay.
In case you haven’t been following along, AirPlay is the ability to wirelessly stream audio and video from a device like an iPad to your 2nd generation Apple TV. It’s essentially and enhancement on the existing AirTunes feature that already let you stream audio from iTunes to an AirPort Express router so that you could pipe your tunes directly into a connected receiver. AirPlay takes that framework and expands it to include video.
The system is dead-easy. Just make sure that your i-device and your Apple TV are on the same wireless network. Then choose your app: iPod for video or music, the Photos app for, well, photos and the YouTube app for, uh, you get the idea. Once your media is playing or your photo is displayed, simply tap the little rectangle pierced with a upwards-pointing triangle icon and choose “Apple TV” from the list that pops up.
The result is nothing short of spectacular. I tried AirPlay using my iPad as the source device and played back a high-quality version of How To Train Your Dragon. For the techies out there, the file specs are: 1280×544 in .m4v, @155kbps with 5.1 Dolby. In short, it’s a file that has been optimized for Apple TV. Once I had selected Apple TV from the AirPlay list, the movie started playing on my plasma TV within 2 seconds.
I didn’t watch the whole movie but I did let it run for several minutes during which there was no observable glitch in audio or video. Both were perfect. In fact, the video compared so well to the HD version we had rented via Bell TV’s on-demand service, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Sounds great right? Yes – it really does exactly what is promises. But (you knew there had to be one…) I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of AirPlay video support for 3rd party apps.
That’s right. As of right now, the *only* apps that can send video wirelessly via AirPlay to the Apple TV is the Video app on the iPad (iPod app on the iPhone/iPod Touch) and Apple’s own YouTube and Photos apps.
Here’s why this stinks: Apple TV is, out-of-the-box, able to stream any content that iTunes can play on your PC. It also has it’s own YouTube app. Lastly, it can present photos from your PC if you enable iTunes to stream that content too.
So what exactly has AirPlay done to extend Apple TV’s capabilities? Nothing. Well, almost nothing.
If you have content on your iPad or iPhone that you don’t have on your Mac/PC, then I suppose it’s handy to be able to stream that content to the Apple TV without the need of a middle-man device. But let’s think about this: If you bought an Apple TV, it’s fair to assume that you were already using your computer as your primary media repository and you were okay with managing that media via iTunes. Now I’m not suggesting that you would *never* use just your i-device to download new content – thereby skipping the iTunes-PC step, but I’m guessing it will be rare.
I real promise that AirPlay held for me, and I suspect many other Apple TV owners, was the ability to use all of the 3rd party apps that have popped up in the App Store that support all of the media file types that iTunes (and thus Apple TV) don’t support.
I was frustrated by Apple’s decision to limit Apple TV to just a few video formats when they announced the product, but I immediately thought “okay, no problem, Apple doesn’t want to support other formats, I can deal with that since it looks like AirPlay will enable other companies to take on that burden through 3rd party app development.” With AirPlay being limited to just Apple’s trio of native apps, what would have been an otherwise perfect compromise between what Apple was willing to do and what consumers wanted, is now almost superfluous. A neat trick of engineering that will rarely be used or needed.
For the sake of being optimistic, I hope that this limitation with AirPlay is merely temporary while 3rd party apps are updated by their developers to be compatible with the new feature… but I’m not very convinced this will happen. Some other blogs have pointed out that 3rd party video *was* working in the beta of 4.2 but was subsequently disabled in the final release. Apple, what say you to this?
Update: Apple got back to us rather sooner than we thought, or at least, MacRumours thinks Steve Jobs has gotten back to us. In an email reply reportedly sent to one of their site’s readers, who asked about Safari YouTube and 3rd party support, the iCEO himself said he “hopes to add these features to AirPlay in 2011.” I don’t know if we can bank on one as-yet unvalidated email, but here’s hoping!
Okay, your turn: Have you used AirPlay yet? If so, do you think it’s a feature you’ll be using on a regular basis? Let us know.