Is Chromecast the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread?

chromecastBack in July, Google announced the release of Chromecast — its latest pride and joy to come from the billion-dollar idea factory. The device, which is only about two inches long, works to stream video (or simply screens) from a computer, tablet, or phone, onto one’s TV. Basically, any television with an HDMI port can magically be turned into a smart TV of sorts. Easy, right? And unlike some of Google’s other releases, this one is surprisingly affordable. No subscription or ongoing fees — just a flat $35 to enjoy Chromecast for as many hours as the device will last.

The Setup

Chromcast can be purchased at any local electronics store or even Amazon. Then all that’s required is to plug in the device, and set up the streaming medium from a website Google automatically displays on the TV. Once in place, users click a box in the top right-hand corner of the screen (the “cast” button), and can start viewing. Remember that YouTube video you wanted to show to an entire room of people? Size is no longer a limitation. Or when ready to view Hulu Plus’s “computer only” content, you now have the upper hand.

Other Perks

  • Users can give their Chromecast a customized name.
  • Though Chromecast is optimized for specific websites (like YouTube), any content can still be shown through tab mirroring.
  • Content is streamed via the cloud, not from the device itself, so users are free to use the computer, tablet, or phone, for other tasks without interrupting their program.
  • Chromecast can be setup for multiple devices at once — use whichever one’s the closest.

This brings us to the next question: How did we ever live without it? Seriously, think of all the online TV, movies, and clips we could have been watching. If Google has anything to say about it, we’ll no longer need cable subscriptions, and rather just a strong Internet connection and a fully charged computer.

Of course, there are a few flaws with the device. For instance, software developments are still being updated, and Chromecast isn’t compatible with older iOS or Windows versions. Plus, videos stream as they appear on the computer. On HDTVs, that means less than crisp quality, but considering all the perks, a slightly grainy picture seems like a small price to pay.

The unfortunate downsides of streaming music services

playIf you haven’t heard, Google recently announced a streaming music service. For $9.99/month you can stream all the music you want to your compatible device.

This is not the first streaming music service, and it probably won’t be the last. In principle, an all you get stream music service sounds good, but in reality it has a few problems which keep me from signing up for one and sticking with purchasing music.

Problem 1: Mobile data limits

The biggest problem with streaming music services is data limits enforced by wireless carriers. Unless you are on a WiFi network all of the time, you are going to need to use a data plan, which for most people is limited to 2GB or less.

You might argue the 2GB is plenty of data, and it is if you are just surfing the Internet and checking emails and maybe downloading apps every now and then. However, that data goes faster than you think, and streaming only makes it go faster. Yes, audio uses a lot less data than video, but it is still using that data and I would venture to say you will use up that data before your month is up.

I can see many people who unknowingly sign up for a streaming service without even knowing they are eating up their data plan until they get a nice present tacked onto their next bill for data overage. Of course, the data providers would love it if you purchased an upgrade for your mobile data plan. Now you get to pay for more data and the monthly streaming fee.

Problem 2: WiFi isn’t perfect

Let’s say you are one of those people I mentioned above who have constant access to WiFi. You have WiFi at home, WiFi at work, and you frequent enough places that have WiFi access that you don’t really care about streaming in your car or other places.

Just because you have WiFi access doesn’t mean you can stream your music. Your employer might limit streaming or even block it. If you are on public WiFi at a cafe it could also be limited by the establishment or just extremely slow from a large amount of people using it. WiFi is great, but only if it is completely usable.

Problem 3: Owning the music and making an audio CD

Contrary to what some might think, the physical CD is not dead yet. I, for one, still make audio CDs of my music. If you have a streaming service you can’t import music into iTunes and burn a CD. You have to buy those tracks. Yes, you can do both but this can get costly if you are always doing it. Plus, call it old school, but many people prefer to own their music. I like being able to load my iPhone with what I want and be able to listen to it whenever and where ever I am without having to worry about using data or being on WiFi.

Conclusion

For many people a streaming music service is great. They have a limited data plan, have WiFi access, and or don’t care about owning music. For others, like myself, it is the wrong way to go.

Netflix is finally getting it right

netflix logoIt’s been several months since Netflix has been under the scrutiny of the press. Despite their former fall from grace, the company has managed to make a solid comeback, gaining customers and fan loyalty in the process. It’s even gotten interest of internet emperor Google, looking at a price of $17.9 billion. This is especially impressive considering it was just under two years ago that Netflix put customers and shareholders on edge, announcing an entire company adjustment.

Splitting into two separate entities, jacking up prices, and a reroute of current services, it was to be the business equivalent of 52-card pick up. Luckily the company listened to critics and its fans, and, against the odds, has finally started doing things right.

The Good

To date, the company is up to 27.1 U.S. streaming customers and netting nearly a billion per year. They’ve also expanded their streaming base considerably (though I fail to be satisfied until every movie/show ever can be streamed). The site will also be the only source for new episodes of Arrested Development, which will air along a feature-length film later this year. Having grown into a cult classic, the show was revived after its cancelation nearly seven years ago. An unusual viewing for an even unusualer Hollywood situation.

What’s more is that the company shuns commercials and ads, instead it looks to its membership fees as a source of funds. Buffering speeds have greatly increased, and recommendations pan its past views for an accurate bank of preferred shows. Users can even search for movies by the stars who play in them, or search through bios, ratings, release dates, and average viewer ratings.

Still Moving Forward

Does Netflix sometimes have some quirky categories that we must decipher through? Like “witty workplace sitcoms” or “raunchy dysfunctional-family TV comedies”? Yes. And sure their blog sits at a weird URL and is only sometimes updated (with self-promotional content). Nor do they have writer profiles or pictures. There’s a glaring lack of request form, where users can ask for various shows to come through – or give much feedback of any kind. But if that’s the list of complaints, we’ll take it. When movies and TV shows can be streamed in unlimited quantities, a few blogging faux pas are nothing.

As any mechanic would say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; Netflix we’re happy it’s a mantra you finally decided to follow.

The new Apple TV: compact, stylish, and riddled with issues

I really want to love my tiny, stylish new Apple TV box, but I’m finding it rather difficult.

For those that don’t know, the Apple TV is a streaming media device. It connects to your TV via an HDMI cable and allows you to buy and play content from Apples iTunes store and a few third-party providers. It also lets you play shared iTunes content held on other computers on your network, and use AirPlay to mirror your Mac, iPhone or iPad onto your TV.

Or at least that’s the theory.

First impressions were good. The Apple TV’s packaging is typically minimalist and stylish and the unit itself is surprisingly compact. The initial setup was straightforward, requiring me to connect HDMI, optical audio and power. Upon start-up, the unit requested my Wi-Fi details and my iTunes username and password.

The basic menu is attractive in high-definition, and looks like something between iOS and the iTunes store. From the initial switch-on, you can see all the latest movies available for rental and purchase, and obtaining something is a simple matter of a few clicks on the diminutive silver remote.

The Apple TV
The Apple TV

So far, so good. Or at least it was until we decided to rent an HD movie. After taking our money quickly and efficiently, our Apple TV told us we had to wait 50 minutes until our movie was ready to watch. The device advised us that we could reduce the waiting time by selecting a lower resolution – but doing this actually increased our waiting time.

Sadly, this delay has occurred on more than one occasion, and it only takes a quick Google search to find that the problem has affected hundreds of unhappy people. Before anyone blames our download speed: we have a perfectly fast home Internet connection, and one that buffers other HD content almost instantly. This is an Apple TV or iTunes problem. Sometimes it doesn’t occur at all – but when it does, it always seems to be when the popcorn is warm and a group of people is waiting – not good.

Unfortunately, our problems don’t end there. One of the main attractions of the Apple TV is AirPlay, which gives you the ability to echo your Mac screen straight to the television. While the screen echo usually works, the audio output transfers to the TV perhaps one in four times. Sometimes it works, other times we must restart the Apple TV or sometimes the Mac’s Web browser. There’s no consistent pattern (and believe me, I’ve read and worked through the forum suggestions).

The outcome of this is that often there’s more fiddling around involved in watching a streamed TV show via the Apple TV than there used to be when we dragged an HDMI cable across the room. So much for progress. Since I’ve had the Apple TV, my meal is often getting cold before my chosen TV show starts.

It’s all a terrible shame, because some of the time the Apple TV works exactly as it’s designed to – and when it does, it’s great. But it’s all not quite good enough.

Aside from Netflix (which is not available where I live), Apple TV ties you firmly into Apple’s media ecosystem. By purchasing one, you are committing to buy a significant quantity of media from the iTunes store, where it often costs more than it would elsewhere.

I was prepared to make this commitment, but the Apple TV simply doesn’t live up to the quality of the other Apple products that have won my heart. It’s not on my “things for eBay” pile just yet, but it’s on seriously thin ice.

TunnelBear easily allows access to location-restricted websites

TunnelBear

As someone who lives and works between two countries, I am the typical target market for the many companies offering locational VPN services. These VPN services allow those browsing the web in one country to appear as if they’re in a different country.

There are various reasons why someone might do this, but one of the main reasons why most people use VPN services is so they can access streaming TV content that would otherwise be blocked in their country.

One such VPN service is a snazzy little application called TunnelBear. Available for both Mac and Windows, TunnelBear is a very straightforward app with just two controls — an on/off switch and a switch to select between US and UK VPNs. These controls are laid out on a rather old-looking funky transistor radio background.

How it works

TunnelBear can be downloaded for free, but it’s limited to only 500MB of monthly bandwidth, which will disappear quickly if the service is used to watch streaming media. The free version gives everyone a chance to try the program out, but anyone using it frequently will want to pay for a monthly or annual subscription ($4.99/month or $49.99/year). TunnelBear also offers an extra 1GB of traffic to anyone who promotes the app via Twitter — a pleasingly innovative way of spreading the word. 

The program itself works almost faultlessly. Start the program, select US or UK, switch it on, and within ten seconds or so you have a US or UK IP address that will allow you to access anything you could access if you were in that country, including regional TV-on-demand services, cloud gaming platforms and region-locked YouTube content.

Is it legal?

The legality of using these kinds of services is certainly a grey area to say the least. For example, in the UK, citizens need a TV license to watch broadcasts from the BBC. If a UK citizen and license-payer were to travel abroad on holiday and use TunnelBear to watch BBC iPlayer, it would simply seem nonsensical for this to be illegal. However, those wishing to ensure they stay on the right side of the law may want to check legalities with the media services they plan to use. These VPN services do work, and many of them are promoted specifically as being for the purpose of watching streaming media, but his doesn’t always mean it is permitted.

Conclusion

TunnelBear is a great app and it has its uses beyond just viewing media, such as the ability to search Google in another country (useful for web and SEO work). The only problem you may experience is a flaky internet connection if you quit the app while it is still connected to the UK or US. However, this is a minor complaint for a piece of software that does what it is intended for, and does it very well indeed.

GIVEAWAY: Win a $25 Rdio Gift Card

If you’re an avid Rdio user or are considering jumping ship from another music streaming service, you just might be pleased to know that we have a $25 Rdio gift card with your name on it (if you’re the lucky winner, that is).

The $25 gift card is yours to use however you see fit on Rdio’s website. They have three different tiers of services to choose from: web-only unlimited streaming for $4.99/month, web and mobile unlimited streaming for $9.99/month, and a family package where you get two web/mobile unlimited streaming accounts for a discounted $17.99/month.

How to Enter

Nobody likes a complicated giveaway, so to enter the contest simply post a comment below. Just make sure to use a valid account, whether it be email, Twitter, Facebook – we’ll need to contact you if you’re selected.

Entry will close at 11:59PM Sunday, March 11th. Good luck!

Update: The giveaway is now over! The winner has been contacted. Thanks for all of those who participated.

Create better online videos with the YouTube Creator Playbook

There are two ways you can use YouTube to gain fame and fortune:

  1. Create a viral video that gets viewed by millions of people.
  2. Create a YouTube channel that drives traffic to your brand over time.

Viral videos rely a lot on quirkiness and luck. Despite that randomness, there are some best practices that will help your video. The more methodical approach to building a popular YouTube channel requires a mastery of a wide range of online video best practices. The YouTube Creator Playbook is a guide to those best practices broken into Programming and Producing, Publishing and Optimization, and Community and Social Media.

For example, these are some of the best practices:

  • Tent Pole Programming: Schedule online videos in connection with cultural events to create more interest in your channel.
  • The First 15 Seconds:How to hook your viewers by making the beginnings more compelling.
  • Thumbnail Optimization:Create thumbnail images that act as mini-movie posters for your online video.
  • Social Media: Using social media to find audiences for your YouTube channel.

This is a very practical guide. Each best practice is introduced by a summary page that gives an estimate of how much time is required, description of what metrics are affected, estimate of how much the task will impact metrics and at what stage of production it will be used. The information helps content creators decide what is important for them to do.

The how-to part is rich in detail and ideas on how to implement each best practice.

The Playbook is a must read for anyone – beginner or pro – who wants to create and sustain an audience for online video. It can be browsed quickly for ideas and is strong on detail that explains how to implement practices. YouTube promises to keep updating the Playbook for more tips as they learn what works. There isn’t a subscribe option but keep an eye on the YouTube Creators blog.

Again, the Playbook is a must read. The advice is collected and presented in a very useful way.

Rdio Launches Free, No-Ads Streaming Option

It’s not everyday when you come across a media-streaming service that’s both free and has absolutely zero advertisements, but popular music-streaming service Rdio is bringing U.S. users just that (sorry, foreigners). They’re allowing you free access to their database of over 12 million songs without being bombarded with pesky ads and giving you the same great UI as paid users. There’s no need for a credit card or anything more than just your email address and a password.

However, there’s a slight catch (and you knew there’d be one). For the free users, Rdio is implementing a “customized meter” to limit how much music you listen to on a monthly basis. It’ll show you your usage at the top of the page, so that way you know exactly how many more songs off of that Adele album you can listen to before you hit the threshold.

Free users will also not be able to use Rdio on their mobile devices — you’ll have to pony up $9.99 a month to do that. However, you can freely use either the web or desktop application.

Happy listening!

Netflix Pulls The Plug On Qwikster Service

Remember a few weeks ago when Netflix decided to split its instant streaming and DVD-by-mail services into two separate entities and introduced Qwikster? A lot of people were pretty peeved, to say the least, and it looks like Netflix has finally received the message.

Basically, Netflix was going to move the DVD-by-mail service into a whole separate operation and call it Qwikster, meaning customers would now have two accounts and two queues to manage. This was shortly after Netflix hiked up the price of their service from $9.99 per month for one plan to $15.98 per month. After an upheaval from its customers, the company decided to pull a 180 and scrap the plans it had for the two separate operations.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had this to say about the matter:

“It is clear that for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs. This means no change: one website, one account, one password… in other words, no Qwikster.”

While it might seem that Netflix gave into the angry customers by backpedaling, the company said that it expected to lose around one million customers if they continued with the plans and their stock price would have dropped significantly. It’s probably a good call on Netflix’s part that they decided to call it quits with Qwikster, since their stock has risen almost 7% since the announcement.

Hastings said that, business-wise, the DVD division of Netflix would still be separate from its instant-streaming, but customers will not see any difference. Their DVD division will be moving to new offices nearby in San José, CA.

While customers are glad that Netflix will stay Netflix, it has to be said that this whole ordeal will most likely go down in the books as another one of those ridiculous technology blunders.

Image Credit: Mychal Stanley

Xbox Live to get Cable-Esque Service?

You may soon be able to watch cable television on Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming service. Microsoft is rumored to be joining Comcast and Verizon to provide a cable-esque service on Xbox Live. No details are out as of yet, so allow me to speculate and dream like a wee lad looking at the wrapped boxes under a pine tree in December.

A cable service on Xbox Live would be incredibly convenient to people who hate having 16 set-top boxes and remotes hanging out all over the living room. It also would allow you to have cable television service without a physical cable line. At this very minute I’m watching non-cable TV only because the TV I have does not fit well on the wall where the cable outlet is. I don’t want to run cords all over the place, so cable isn’t hooked up. I do however, have an Xbox with a wireless adapter – that means I could watch ESPN3 on my TV through my Xbox. This could prove to be incredibly convenient, and would make having to route cable through walls and ceilings a thing of the past.

Something else I would love to see would be a little more customization on what you can choose to watch/pay for. I would love to be able to pay for a few different groups of channels. If I could grab just some ESPN channels and a few premium channels (I’m hoping those come to Xbox as well), I would be set. I have always wanted to be able to just watch HBO or Showtime without purchasing a full cable subscription.

Overall, Microsoft’s decision to join Comcast in the cable biz was a pretty smart one. Gaming consoles have become significantly more that just video-game-playing machines. I would say I use my Xbox for non-game uses more frequently than for playing games. Allowing the ability to watch cable television will only add to the uses of the console. All of a sudden it might not be such a waste to own more than one Xbox! The new feature could definitely help sell some more consoles for Microsoft as well as keep them relevant after a new console comes out in the future.