HBO Will Offer a Stand-Alone Streaming Service in 2015

HBO logoCable-cutters, rejoice! HBO is going to be offered as a stand-alone streaming service in 2015. I would like to be optimistic and presume that this news will be followed by other offers of a similar nature for other cable channels. Could this be the start of a-la-carte cable? (Admittedly, what I have just written is mostly speculation.)

What is absolutely true is that Chairman and CEO of HBO, Richard Plepler, announced at a Time Warner Inc. Investor Meeting that the company will offer a stand-alone HBO streaming service in 2015. He said:

“So, in 2015, we will launch a stand-alone, over-the-top, HBO service in the United States. We will work with our current partners. And, we will explore models with new partners. All in, there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them.”

The Washington Post notes that it has not been said exactly how much this new service will cost. It also hasn’t been made clear what content, specifically, will be offered through it.

There is some speculation going around online about what the cost might be. How will it compare to the cost of Netflix or Hulu? Will the stand-alone HBO streaming service eventually be offered outside the US? We will have to wait and see what happens.

Long Term Hulu Plus Thoughts

hulu_plusI have been using Hulu Plus for several months, and I have a few additional comments about the service.

I tend to watch lots of science documentaries. Over time, I’ve seemed to nearly exhaust the documentaries available on Netflix and Amazon videos. One of the things I really like about the Hulu Plus is that it includes shows from the BBC, Canada and Australia. This opens up a new world of high quality documentary material that isn’t available to me otherwise.

From a technical streaming point of view, the service always seems to stream well. I have encountered no server issues streaming either via DSL or mobile data connections.

The various Hulu Plus apps themselves do have a few issues. I regularly use the iOS, Android and Roku versions of the Hulu Plus apps. The interfaces seem mostly straightforward, though there are a few quirks and differences from one app to the next.

The biggest problem I’ve encountered is the service being able to remember where I’m stopped at in an individual video as well as a series of videos. For example, let’s say I’m in the 5th episode of a season. The service may or may not remember that I’ve already watched the previous 4 episodes.

Additionally, if I pause in the middle of a video, there’s at least a 50% chance that if I come back to the series later, instead of starting me out exactly where I was in the paused video, the service will kick me to the next episode even though I haven’t finished watching the prior episode.

These synching problems seem to be consistent across all of Hulu Plus’ apps. I can use only one app, say on my iPad Air, and will likely encounter the synching issue the next time I open the app to try to get back to where I left off. Moving to a different device entirely I will still encounter the same synching problem.

These synching issues are areas where Netflix and Amazon really seem to have this nailed down and leave Hulu Plus lagging behind.

Even with the synching issues, I really like Hulu Plus and make extensive use of it. In my view it is well worth the $8 monthly charge.

YouTube Will Launch Paid Music Service

YouTube logoThe music videos that you enjoy watching on YouTube may not be available for much longer. YouTube has plans to launch a paid streaming music service. It is expected to launch at the end of this summer. It is going to allow people to listen to music without any ads. Other features include the ability to listen to music offline and to listen to an artist’s entire album (instead of individual songs).

That might sound good to some people who currently enjoy streaming music services like Spotify or Pandora. On the other hand, some feel that YouTube’s service may result in less music options than you may be expecting. There is criticism that YouTube might block the music videos of labels who don’t agree with the terms it offers in its contracts.

The Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) has concerns about YouTube’s paid streaming service. WIN released a statement in which it points out that YouTube has “apparently negotiated separate agreements with three major labels – Sony, Warner, and Universal”.

WIN also commented on its opinion about how YouTube is approaching independent music companies. In their statement, the organization said:

At a time when independent music companies are increasing their global market share WIN has raised major concerns about YouTube’s recent policy of approaching independent labels directly with a template contract and an explicit threat that their content will be blocked on the platform if it is not signed.

According to WIN members, the contracts currently on offer to independent labels from YouTube are on highly unfavorable, and non-negotiable terms, undervaluing existing rates in the marketplace from existing music streaming partners such as Spotify, Rdio, Deezer and others.

Personally speaking, the music videos that I seek out on YouTube are the ones from independent artists. I’ve long been a supporter of independent artists and bands. I play their music in my podcasts, make an effort to draw attention to their latest songs and albums through social media, and buy their albums when I am able to. I find it sad that YouTube doesn’t see the value of the bands and artists that I spend the majority of my time listening to.

ITV Player Comes To Roku

Roku LogoUntil today, the big absentee from Roku‘s line-up of catch-up services in the UK was ITV and its regional partners STV and UTV in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At #2 in terrestrial broadcasting behind the BBC, it was a fairly glaring omission, especially as Channel 4 and Five have been on-board for ages. Now UK Roku viewers can use ITV Player to catch-up with the last 30 days of ITV’s content across ITV, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and CITV with programmes such as Britain’s Got TalentCoronation Street and The Americans in addition to coverage of this summer’s World Cup and Tour de France sporting events. Hurrah!

Libratone Zipp Wireless Speaker Review

I first came across Libratone at the The Gadget Show earlier in the year where their colourful hi-fi speakers with interchangeable covers stood out against the more run-of-the-mill Bluetooth speakers. On the back of my interview, Libratone kindly sent me a Zipp, a portable wireless AirPlay speaker, to further my education in their products. Let’s take a look and a listen.

Libratone Zipp Box

The Libratone Zipp is very much fashioned in iStyle but takes a welcome break from monochrome with interchangeable coloured covers. The Zipp comes with three covers in the box from three collections and the supplied Zipp came with the “Funky collection” – pepper black, plum purple and pineapple yellow. Additional covers are £39 which may seem expensive but the covers aren’t felt or fleece, they’re Italian wool. Here’s the Zipp in its different clothes.

Libratone Zipp Magenta

Libratone Zipp Mustard Strap

Changing a cover is easy – just unzip the cover, carefully remove it, fit the the new cover and zip it back up. There’s a small frame which fits around the control panel but it clips in firmly and helps get everything lined up. The panel’s neatly hidden behind the leather carry strap.

Libratone Zipp Mustard Strap Up

As a wireless speaker, the Zipp uses wifi rather than Bluetooth to stream music and until relatively recently, you would have needed Apple products to use AirPlay. Android users can now join the party as the Zipp now provides a DLNA interface which several music apps now support including Robin Davies’ 2player, which I used for this review. Sadly, many don’t, including Spotify, which is a shame.

The speaker can work in two modes, DirectPlay and WiFi Play. In the first, the speaker creates its own little wifi hotspot and the smartphone or tablet connects to the hotspot. This mode is used both for initial configuration and for playing music away from home, say, at a friend’s BBQ. With the WiFi Play mode, the Zipp connects to the same wifi network as the music-playing device, which is the way you’d use the Zipp at home.

Setting up the Zipp is a little fiddly but otherwise straightforward and only needs to be done once. Libratone’s free app helps with this but the steps are broadly turn on the Zipp, connect to the Zipp’s wifi hotspot, enter the main wifi key and restart the Zipp. It’ll then connect up to the main wifi network and the speaker will be available for music output.

Libratone App 2player Erasure

Obviously the Zipp is only a single unit, although it has an amazing capacity to fill a room. Libratone have developed a set of acoustic tricks called “FullRoom” which let the Zipp’s tweeters and drivers expand the sound, but you need to tell the Zipp where it is in the room to take full advantage. The Libratone app helps with that too. You can hear the impact of some of the changes if you fiddle with the settings while music is playing but much of the change is subtle.

Voicing Position

In addition to setting the spatial characteristics, the type of music can be enhanced through preset equalisations such as “Easy Listening” and “Rock the House”.

Aside from the interchangeable covers, the other cool feature is that the Zipp is portable and has a built-in battery which Libratone says will last about 4 hours playing music over wifi and twice as long using a cable. I didn’t try running the Zipp very long from a lead but the time seems about right for wifi. The Libratone app helpfully shows the battery level so you know when to recharge. There’s a small bag included in the box but Libratone could do with a dedicated Zipp carrying bag as it’s heavy to lug around – it’s portable but it’s not a travel accessory.  I liked the liberty that this gave as I moved the Zipp between rooms and was able to have music in rooms that didn’t normally have sound without using headphones.

Libratone Zipp Panel Libratone Zipp Top Control

The pictures above show the panel on the side and the top-mounted controller. The USB port on the side-panel can be used to power the music player (and for configuration when using Apple devices) when using the 3.5mm jack for the audio feed.

Generally the Zipp worked well. I did have the occasional problem with the Zipp not being recognised either as an output option in the 2player app or by the Libratone app when trying to change the FullRoom config. Usually a restart of either the app or the Zipp itself would sort it out but it’s a bit irritating when the dropout occurs halfway through an album. To be fair, the issue could lie with my wifi network or with the music app itself and I’ve no experience with other AirPlay devices for comparison. For now, it’s something to be aware of.

As a reminder, Android users needs to confirm that the apps that they want to use with the Zipp are AirPlay or DLNA-compatible. Unlike Bluetooth speakers, where the driver is at lower level and makes almost any app capable of outputting sound to a wireless speaker, the apps needs to be DLNA-aware to use the Zipp wirelessly. Searching the Play Store reveals several good apps that can be checked for full compatibility.

So….does the Zipp sound good? In short, it’s very impressive with music retaining clarity and detail even at higher volumes and the Zipp has a surprising amount of volume for such a small unit. Obviously any single speaker unit is going to be lacking in comparison with hi-fi separates but the Zipp knocks into a cocked hat any of the speaker docks that I’ve heard. Finally, it’s absolutely, definitely the best portable speaker that I’ve ever listened to. At GB£369, it’s not cheap but if you have a bijou pad that needs filled with sound, you should give the Zipp a listen. It looks great too.

Thanks to Libratone for the loan of the Zipp.

Roku Streaming Stick Review

This is Gonna Be FunRoku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.

Roku Box

What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.

Roku in Box

The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.

Streaming Stick and Controller

The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.

Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.

Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.

My Roku Channels

From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.

Channel Categories

Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.

US Local News on Roku

Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….

Geek News on Roku

To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.

Roku App Remote Control Roku App

But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.

One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.

MicroUSB Roku

Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.

Thanks to Roku for the review unit.

DJI Multirotor Copters at The Gadget Show

Quadcopters and multi-rotor copters were very much in evidence at the Gadget Show, from the Parrot AR.Drone to tiny nano quadcopters. DJI had one of the most impressive ranges at the show, along with a flight demonstration area on the stand.

The newly launched Phantom 2 Vision+ is a quadcopter with a digital video camera payload and the capabilities are impressive. It can stream video from the camera to your smartphone while in flight using wi-fi, record 1080p HD video to a microSD card, hold position above the ground in winds up to 25 mph and fly for around 25 minutes. The batteries can easily be swapped, so a spare battery will get the quadcopter flying again immediately. The remote control unit lets you clip your smartphone to the handset so you easily see what the camera is recording while flying the aircraft. What you get for your money is incredible – an entry level model is GB£349 and the Vision+ is £915.

DJI Phantom

Four rotors not enough? DJI has six and eight rotor variants for professional users.

Six Rotor Copter

Eight Rotor Copter

Andy takes me through the features of the new Phantom 2 Vision+ at the Gadget Show. I want one!

Optoma Pico-Projector at The Gadget Show

Optoma specialise in digital projectors with a range going from personal pico-projectors all the way up to professional stacking projectors for large-scale installations. Here at The Gadget Show, Optoma were showing off their  ML750, an ultra-compact LED projector about 12 cm square and 4 cm deep. The picture below doesn’t get over how small the unit is.

Optoma ML-750 Projector

James from Optoma runs through the features of the ML750, which with the addition of a small wireless dongle (the little white object in the top left of the photo) allows presentation and streaming directly from the tablets and smartphones over wi-fi to the projector. The feature works with both Apple and Android devices using a downloadable app.

The native resolution is 1280×800 but will show 720p and 1080i video sources. It’ll even do 3D with additional active shutter glasses, though I’m not sure anyone is interested anymore. Still, the feature’s there.

I’m not a big projector expert, but at the event the ML750 was showing a series of film clips and it was very watchable. Obviously nothing like an HD monitor but for a portable device showing a 32″ display, it was impressive.

Available online for GB£400.

Livestream Reveals Boldest Product Update in 7 Years

Livestream LogoLivestream has revealed their biggest, boldest, broadcasting tool update in their 7 year history. The Livestream website has a new look and experience, and so does their iPhone app. At NAB 2014, Livestream had demonstrations of Livestream for Glass, Livestream Studio Control Surface, Livestream Studio HD510, Livestream Studio HD1710, and Livestream Studio.

Livestream for Glass enables Glass users to produce hands-free, live streaming video, from their Google Glass. It is the first broadcasting video app for Glass. First, you need to install Livestream for Glass. Next, pair it with a Livestream event. To open the app, say “Ok Glass, Livestream.” Tap the side of your device and you are live!

Livestream Studio Control Surface is a modular control surface with 5 assignable tracks. It has a T-Bar and audio mixer and a USB connection to Livestream Studio. Tactile controls give you quick access to critical functions, including full motorized audio mixing and assignable triggers for current and future Studio features. Studio Surface is compatible with any hardware or software edition of Studio.

Livestream Studio HD510 is the ultimate portable live production switcher. It has a built in touch-screen display and unique form factor. The HD510 gives you flexibility and performance on the go. It can be carried on a plane using the provided carry bag.

Livestream Studio HD1710 is a supercharged rack-mount switcher with bundled control surface. It is designed for control rooms, production trucks, venues and studios where rack mountable form factor is a must.

Livestream Studio has had an upgrade. The free version is now available with multi-camera support and audio mixing. Studio Version 2.0 was previewed at NAB 2014. The full release will become available in May of 2014.

Canon Legria Mini at The Gadget Show

I have to be honest, I was completely unaware of the Canon Legria Mini digital camcorder until I spotted it at The Gadget Show. Canon describe it as a “Digital Creative Camcorder” and it’s very much designed for bloggers, artists and the selfie generation who want to record themselves doing what they love. It’s different from a normal camcorder as the Legria Mini is designed to be setup and used by the subject of the recording: the 2.7″ flip-up touchscreen is clearly visible by those being recorded and the wide-angle lens captures more of what’s going on. There’s a flip down stand on the bottom as well to help get the Mini perfectly positioned.

Canon Legria Mini

Obviously the Mini can be used as a normal camcorder and specwise, it’s full HD at 25p 1920 x 1080. There’s streaming to smartphones and tablets via wi-fi, with a complementary remote control app on both iOS and Android. Still photos run to 12 megapixels (4000 x 3000)

There are two variants, the Mini and the Mini X. The latter is a “pro” version with CD-quality sound, AVCHD recording in addition to MP4 and SD cards instead of microSD.

Canon Legria Mini X Streaming

I’m sold and Eno gives me a demo at The Gadget Show. Available now on-line at around GB£200 for the Mini and GB£350 for the Mini X.