Category Archives: Streaming

Roku Heads To 4K at CES



Roku LogoArguably the market leader in the media streaming market, Roku hasn’t been resting on its laurels. At this year’s CES, Roku has announced a raft of news reinforcing its platform’s position for both Roku TV and the move to 4K transmission.

After announcing Roku TV at last year’s CES, 2014 has seen Roku TV available on both TCL and Hisense TVs available from major retailers like Walmart and Best Buy. For 2015, TCL is going to release 12 models over the year with Roku TV built-in, which is good news from one of the fastest growing brands in the US.

Extending the availability of Roku TV, two new partners have been unveiled – Haier and Insignia. Insignia TVs with Roku will be on sale in the spring exclusively in Best Buy, with Haier models arriving in the summer. For non-US readers, Insignia is a Best Buy brand.

The Haier Roku TV 4 Series Smart LED TVs will be available in sizes ranging from 32″ to 65″. The 40″ to 65″ models will come with Full HD resolution and a Sound Chamber that produces enhanced sound quality, with superior dampening, improved mid-range response, cleaner and deeper bass, as well as overall richer sound texture.

The Roku TV OS has been named a 2015 CES Innovation Awards Honoree in the Software and Mobile Apps category and TCL Roku TV will be displayed in the Innovation Showcase located at CES Tech West, Booth #75545. The new Insignia Roku TV models will be shown tonight at Pepcom’s Digital Experience media event.

Finally, and this is the kind of news the geeks have been waiting for, Roku has announced the availability of a Roku TV 4K reference design for Roku TV manufacturing partners. TCL is the initial partner working to deliver a Roku TV 4K model in the future and Roku is working with Netflix to provide 4K content for streaming on the Roku platform.

As one of the first streaming services to offer 4K Ultra HD content to our customers, it’s important for Netflix to work closely with partners like Roku to give consumers more streaming options,” said Neil Hunt, chief product officer of Netflix. “We look forward to bringing Netflix 4K Ultra HD content to Roku customers.

While there’s no news on a new flagship Roku box, I think we can assume that there will be a Roku 4K in the not too distant future. Fingers crossed.


Amazon Fire TV Review



Amazon Fire TVAmazon has been building the Fire brand over the past few years, starting with tablets, moving to media players and streaming sticks, before most recently producing a smartphone. The Fire TV media player has been on-sale in the US for some time, but only came to the UK back in October. I’ve been playing with Fire…..TV for the past couple of weeks. Let’s take a look.

Amazon FireTV Top

The Fire TV unit is an exercise in minimalism, not straying far from the sharp black box look, apart from the Amazon logo on the top and a white LED on the front fascia. Round the back there are five ports for power, HDMI, optical audio, ethernet and USB. Only the PSU is supplied in the box with the Fire TV and an HDMI cable will need to be bought if needed. Although not needing a port, the Fire TV has built-in 802.11n wireless to connect up when ethernet isn’t available.

Amazon Fire TV Rear

To control the Fire TV there is a stick-style remote control in the box along with batteries. The minimalist aesthetic continues with an Apple-esque control wheel and a small number of buttons, all in black with white labels. The picture makes the remote look longer than it is, which is only 5″ or 12.5 cm. The remote uses Bluetooth to connect to the FireTV and comes pre-paired.

Amazon Fire TV remote

Getting going is straightforward – connect the Fire TV to the HDTV via (not supplied) HDMI, insert power, turn on and follow the prompts. To make it as easy as possible, the Fire TV is preprogrammed with the Amazon account of the purchaser but if connected wirelessly, the main setup step is to choose the wifi SSID and enter the password. There’s a short introductory slideshow which introduces the features of the Fire TV include the voice search, which will be covered later.

There’s no easy way of taking screenshots on the Fire TV, so I’m afraid that the pictures below are taken from the TV itself. Sorry.

The overall view is of key areas listed down the left with content on the right. Home, Prime Video, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Music Library, Games, Apps, Photos and so on. On the whole it’s easy to navigate; select the main content area from the left and then move down through subsections on the right until the desired content or app is visible. The interface is lovely and smooth, especially when scrolling and I never saw any stuttering or glitches. I guess that’s the quad-core processor earning its keep.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the content is heavily Amazon-media centric focussing on Amazon Prime and Instant Video, though it’s not a closed shop, with Netflix and Spotify available for other subscription services, and catch up TV is provided by UK-centric apps for iPlayer and Demand 5, though 4oD and ITV Player are noticeable in their absence. Strangely, STV Player is available which caters for the Scottish part of ITV, so with a Scottish post code much of ITV’s most popular programming can be viewed. There’s a Flixster app for those with UltraViolet DVDs and Blurays.

Home Screen

Video playback was good and clear, especially in HD, whether from Amazon or other apps, such as Netflix or iPlayer. However, the Fire TV does have a trick up its sleeve where it starts to download the video stream in anticipation of playback so the programme starts much faster with far less initial buffering. It only works with Amazon Prime and Instant Video but it’s a neat feature and makes the Fire TV experience more like switching channels on a TV.

Music-wise, the Fire TV offers all the albums and tracks purchased via Amazon, sorted by artist, album, genre etc. The album art is visually attractive and the optical audio out can be used to keep the sound quality as high as possible when connecting to an audio amplifier.

Disappointingly, the Spotify app only offers Spotify Connect functionality which means that a tablet or smartphone is needed to choose what music is to be played. Opinions may differ but I think that’s a bit rubbish and I’d rather see a proper Spotify player which works with the Fire TV on its own.

I tried plugging in a USB stick with some MP3s but I couldn’t figure out how play them so I’ve no idea if it’s possible to play from physical media. There is a Plex client available for those wanting to stream from a PC or NAS, though I didn’t try it out as I don’t have a Plex server.

Fire TV Albums

For folk who upload pictures and photos to Amazon’s Cloud Drive service, naturally the Fire TV can show the snaps on the HDTV and it can also handle personal videos. There’s a nice screensaver that kicks in when the FireTV isn’t in busy and it’s easy to set the screensaver to show photos from the collection.

So far the Fire TV ticks all the boxes for a streaming media player. Movies – check, music – check, photos – check. Where the Fire TV goes to the next level is with apps and games, especially games. The Fire TV can download apps as if it was a smartphone or tablet, but the apps have to be specially prepared by the author for the Fire TV as the user interface is different without a touchscreen. At time of writing, there are over 850 apps for the Fire TV and these can be reviewed on Amazon. There’s approx 8 GB of storage available for apps, though some is already used up by the Fire OS.

Apps and Games

For games, the Fire TV has its own Fire Game Controller for serious gaming action which is purchased separately for a penny under £35. It’s comparably priced to wireless controllers for the PS4 or Xbox but it feels a little overpriced: something closer to £25 would be more in-line with expectations. Purchasers do get a free game, Sev Zero, which is worth £4.99 to sweeten the deal.

Fire TV Games Controller

The Fire Game Controller has the expected collection of analogue sticks, D-pads and shoulder buttons in the standard configuration, with a few extra Fire TV specific buttons. The controller needs to be paired with the Fire TV on first use but after that the game controller can be used alongside the normal remote to control the Fire TV user interface as well as games.

The games selection includes thinking games such as Quell and Machinarium, arcade games like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Sonic the Hedgehog and first person action games like GTA and flagship title Sev Zero, which is given free to purchasers of the game controller. Here’s a long-term favourite, Quell, and this can be played with the standard FireTV remote.

Quell

For arcade racers, there’s Asphalt 8: Airborne. It’s fun but the Fire Game Controller is required.

Asphalt 8

Finally, the Fire TV has one innovation that isn’t usually seen on on media players and that’s Voice Search. Simply press the microphone button on the remote, say what you are looking for, confirm the recognition and the Fire TV will look for content. Here I look for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Kids, ask your parents.

Voice Search

It’s both brilliant yet flawed. It’s brilliant because the voice recognition works surprisingly well but it’s flawed because the search only indexes Amazon’s content. Press the Voice Search button and say, “Despicable Me” and it’ll show me all the variants of the film – the original, the sequel, theatrical shorts – all available on Amazon Prime and Instant Video. But what it won’t show me is the Ultraviolet copy I have in Flixster. It would be truly brilliant if all loaded apps could contribute into the search, even the catchup TV services like iPlayer and Demand 5.

That’s it. Overall the Amazon Fire TV compares well with the competition and if you are into Amazon’s ecosystem, then the Fire TV is a no-brainer buy at the current price of £64 giving easy access to familiar photos, music, movies and games. Even if you aren’t a fully paid-up member of the Amazon fan club, there’s still plenty to recommend with the current selection of apps and games which will undoubtedly grow over time as more broadcasters and app developers get on-board.

Thanks to Amazon for the review Fire TV and Game Controller.


Steam Launches Beta for Steam Broadcasting



Steam Broadcasting beta logoSteam has launched the beta for Steam Broadcasting. I think it is clear that this will put Steam in direct competition with Twitch for both viewers and streamers of video gaming content.

Steam Broadcasting is currently in beta. As of December 2, 2014, people can watch their friends play video games on Steam “with the click of a button”. The beta is open to everyone on Steam who wants to participate in it.

To get started, all you need to do is opt-in to the Steam Client beta through the Steam Settings panel. For now, concurrent viewing may be limited as the beta is scaled up to support a broader audience.

To watch a friend’s game via Steam Broadcasting, visit their profile and click on “Watch Game”. Or, you can use the Steam Client Friend’s List to open a window into a friend’s gameplay. Watching someone else’s game play through Steam Broadcasting does not require the viewer to own the game. There are no special fees attached for viewers, and it does not require the use of any additional app.

You can automatically broadcast your gaming session through Steam Broadcasting. Streamers get the option of choosing how open they want their stream to be. It ranges from allowing “anyone” to watch your games to limiting your viewers to only the friends that you specifically invite.

Steam is looking for feedback and suggestions on how to make Steam Broadcasting better. Visit the Steam Broadcasting Discussions forum if you would like to report a bug, ask a question, or share your experience with the Steam Broadcasting beta.


Devolo Launches Gigabit Powerline with 11ac WiFi



Devolo LogoPowerline networking is a great way to spread data connectivity around a home via electrical sockets instead of Ethernet, and today Devolo announced the UK availability of its first gigabit Powerline adaptor with built-in 11ac WiFi: the dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac. The gigabit speeds make it perfect for households that stream 4K and 3D content to multiple wired and wireless devices.

At 1200 Mb/s, the dLAN 1200+ more than doubles the speed of the previous generation 500 Mb/s Devolo dLAN WiFi adapters. The new high speed adaptor features two gigabit Ethernet ports allowing users to hardwire multiple devices to one unit, from games consoles to NAS home servers, while the adaptor is also a wireless access point for laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Borrowing techniques from the wireless industry, the gigabit speeds are achieved using MIMO technology (Multiple Input Multiple Output) which simultaneously uses the live, neutral and earth connectors in the electrical cable. On the WiFi side, the dLAN adaptor uses both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies which is great if the lower frequency channels are busy. Transmission rates are 300 Mb/s on the 2.4 GHz band and 867 Mb/s on 5 GHz.

Devolo dLAN 1200 plus WiFi ac_productpicture_classic_sgl_uk_print_01

Heiko Harbers, CEO of devolo AG said:  “We have launched the dLAN 1200 WiFi ac to accommodate the multiple internet compatible devices people have in their homes today, and in response to the increasingly widespread availability of superfast broadband. All connected devices can now work to their full potential regardless of where they are located in the house. We placed particular emphasis on easy installation when designing the 1200 WiFi ac including the ability to establish a WiFi connection at the push of a button.

The dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac is fully compatible with previous Devolo products from the dLAN 200 onwards and all Powerline adapters that comply with the HomePlug AV(2) standard.

Available now, the dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac is available to order online with a starter kit priced at GB£159.99. A single dLAN 1200+ WiFi ac adapter to expand an existing dLAN Powerline network costs GB£109.99 RRP.


Twitch Would Like You to Wear Clothing



TwitchTwitch updated its Rules of Conduct section to make it clear that streamers are expected to wear clothing. That may seem like a “no-brainer”. In general, dress codes are not put into Rules of Conduct unless there have been problems. I’m not aware of anything specific that may have prompted this change, but it seems to me that Twitch must have had reasons for making it.

The new change to their Rules of Conduct includes a section called “Dress…appropriately”. The key portion says:

Wearing no clothing or sexually suggestive clothing – including lingerie, swimsuits, pasties, and undergarments – will most likely get you suspended, as well as any full nude torsos, which applies to both male and female broadcasters.

It goes on to says that “you may have a great six-pack” but suggests that you share that at the beach instead of on Twitch. The new rule is directed at both male and female streamers, but I kind of doubt that Twitch has had too many problems with men wearing “lingerie, swimsuits, pasties, and undergarments”.

In case that wasn’t clear enough, Twitch went ahead and offered some advice to help people to stay within the boundaries of the rules. If the lighting in the room is too hot, get fluorescent bulbs. You can crop the webcam so that it only shows your face. Move your Xbox One Kinect closer to you as a means of cropping your image. Or, you know, you could always turn it off.


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 Davis’ 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.