Category Archives: Streaming

Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote Review



Amazon Fire TVWhen it comes to media streaming via hardware, it’s a four way fight for your eyeballs between Roku, Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast. The most recent entrant, Amazon and the Fire TV, came to the UK in October 2014 and I reviewed one of the boxes back in January 2015. Over eighteen months later, Amazon’s Instant Video and Fire TV are more well known, with a large element of this courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson and the ex-Top Gear crew. To see what’s changed since then, Amazon kindly sent me a the updated Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote. Let’s take a look.

Fire TV Stick Box  Fire TV Stick in Box

The Fire TV stick comes in the usual flip open box used by Amazon for its electronics. Inside the box, there’s the Fire TV stick itself, the Voice Remote with batteries, USB power supply with cable, an HDMI gender changer and some slim instructions. As it’s generally expected that the Fire TV will connect straight into an HDMI socket, there’s no HDMI cable. There’s an unboxing video below if you’re interested.

Before getting started, my tip of the day would be to plug the microUSB end of the power cable into the Fire TV stick BEFORE you push the Fire TV into a spare HDMI socket. This saves too much faffing around the back (or side) of the TV and alerts you early to a potential problem. As the power connector is on the side of the stick and the cable comes out at right angles, it’s possible that this will foul against an adjacent HDMI connector. On my TV it was apparent that the Fire TV was always going to sit in the topmost socket. Alternatively, I could have used an HDMI cable along with the gender changer to locate the stick away from the sockets and avoid interference. YMMV, as they say.

The other end of the USB cable goes into the power supply and once all connected and powered up, it’s simply a case of switching to the right HDMI input and following the prompts. The setup begins with pairing the remote to the stick and then connecting to wifi. As with all devices bought from Amazon, it comes pre-configured with your account details.

Fire TV Stick Fire TV Stick Wireless

To make life even easier, there’s a set of cartoons to take you through some of the features of the Fire TV stick.

Fire TV Stick Cartoon Fire TV Stick Cartoon

With that all done, you’re dropped into Amazon’s Fire interface. It’s largely unchanged since I first reviewed the Fire TV but that’s not a bad thing given that it’s big, bright and intuitive. Click up and down with the remote to move between the media areas….TV shows, Movies, Games, Apps, Music and so on. Click right and left to scroll through the chosen area. The Home area summarises recent activity so it’s easy to get back to something that you recently viewed. The interface is generally responsive but there can be a little lag when going into a new area, such as Photos, where it’s checking to see if there are any new media. I assume that the lag will be inversely proportional to your network connection speed.

Fire TV Menu

There’s no doubt that the Fire TV is best used with Amazon Prime and other Amazon services – much of the promoted material is for Prime shows – but other media services like Netflix and Spotify are present via apps, and there’s a full range of catch-up services for UK’s terrestrial services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5). When I first reviewed the Fire TV a few of these were missing from the lineup so it’s good to see the extras. In addition to film and TV, the interface presents music purchased through Amazon as CDs and Amazon Music. If you use Amazon’s storage for photos, they’ll appear in a section too.

Amazon Fire TV StickVideo playback on the Fire TV can’t be faulted. I watched a number of shows through a variety of services, including Netflix, and the picture quality was unfailingly good. Programmes started quickly and got into HD picture quality within a few seconds. No problems here.

The Fire TV Stick supports apps as well, and these mostly offer other media services, such as YouTube, or games, such as…..well, loads including Crossy Road! It’s actually good fun playing mobile games on the big screen, though some require the Fire Game Controller (GB£44.99) rather than just the remote. Some games are tricky enough with just the remote, so if you are gamer, expect to stump up for the game controller. There’s something for everyone, as they say, and I played a fair bit of Lego Star Wars – The Yoda Chronicles. Overall, I felt there was a much greater range of games than last time and more of the headline titles were available.

While having loads of media is a good thing, it’s even better when there’s a search function to quickly find what you want to see. This is the Voice Remote version of the TV Stick and as such, the remote has a button at the top with a microphone symbol. When pressed and held, you can simply say what TV or film you are interested in, and the Stick will work it out and show you the options. Owners without the Voice Remote will have to laboriously type in the name of the programme. The voice recognition is accurate and the subsequent search recommendations are valid. Press the mic button, say “The Fall”, and the first programme it offers is the BBC drama (the one I wanted) followed by other films or TV programmes with the word “fall” in their title, such as “Downfall”.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like search has moved on too much. It is good at finding stuff but it still seems to only reference Amazon-hosted material. Take the above mentioned “The Fall”, which is currently showing the third series on BBC and aired episodes can be viewed for free on iPlayer. However, search on the Fire TV Stick would have you pay £2.49 for the HD version of episode 1 without mentioning the freebie option at all. More on this in a moment….

Amazon Fire TV ContentsBack in January 2015, I said, “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.” Here in October 2016, there’s not much to add except that it’s even better now than it was then; there are more broadcasters on-board, there are more games and the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote is cheaper at £44.99. It drops to only £34.99 with the standard remote.

But….since starting the review of this Fire TV stick, a new version has been announced, at least in the US, which addresses some of the remaining deficiencies, namely cross-media search. Obviously it’s not clear right now when that will arrive in the UK or which apps will be searched in addition to Amazon media. Interestingly, the new Fire TV Stick comes with Alexa so the voice interaction won’t be limited to only search but other queries too. I’m looking forward to it already.

Thanks to Amazon UK for providing the Fire TV Stick for review.


Roku Revamps Range with Express, Premiere and Ultra



ROKU LogoRoku have announced an almost total revamp of their streaming player range with new products filling five of the six slots in their line-up. The new models are the Roku Express, Express+, Premiere, Premiere+ and Ultra, with only the recently updated (April) Roku Streaming Stick keeping its place.

Roku ExpressThe new entry level, the Roku Express, costs only US$29.99 while providing 1080p HD streaming to HDMI-equipped TVs. If you have an older TV and need composite jack and A/V connections, then an extra $10 gets the Roku Express+ (US$39.99) and is exclusively available from Walmart. As you’ll see from the pictures, the Express model has moved away from the square-ish box to a more rectangular style.

Roku Premiere+For hi-def junkies, the Roku Premiere ($79.99) and Premiere+ ($99.99) offer 4K at 60 Hz, with the Premiere+ also supporting HDR and the Premiere+ remote comes with a headphone jack if you want to enjoy your content in private. Obviously a 4K and HDR compatible TV is needed to enjoy all the features of the Premiere streamers.

Roku Ultra RearFinally, the Roku Ultra at $129.99 supports the Dolby Digital Plus decoder with optical out (yay!) voice search and lost remote finder. Uniquely in the range, the Roku Ultra has a USB port for local media playback, though it’s not entirely clear where it’s located on the box.

Only the Ultra and Premiere+ have RF wireless remotes, with the Express, Express+ and Premiere remotes working with IR only. In most respects the remotes seem unchanged from previous Rokus.

The new devices have been announced for USA, Canada and Mexico with availability from early October. Further news for other territories (UK, Ireland, France) is expected soon.


Oi! I Was Watching That



bluraylogoStreaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Sky’s Now TV might have overtaken DVRs, DVDs and Blu-ray but I’ve discovered that physical discs have one major advantage…..no-one can take away the film until you’re finished watching (excepting small children and drunken relatives). 

Our family subscribes to a streaming service, and while I normally watch a film or episode in a single viewing, there are some that I don’t get through in one go, perhaps because friends call round unexpectedly (yes, I have friends). Recently I’ve twice had the experience of returning to a film only to find that it’s no longer in my queue. The first time I thought I was mistaken as I couldn’t find the film but the second time was no mistake. I was very annoyed.

Streaming services take on new content and drop old content regularly as they license films from studios and other copyright holders for set periods. I can understand this but what bothers me is that they don’t feel it’s necessary to either email or pop-up the deadline on-screen. I would have made a special effort to watch the ending if they’d dropped me an email to say, “Hey, I see you’re watching Spiderman. Just to let you know that film’s going away at the end of the month so you’ve three days to find out what happens.” How hard would that be?

Anyway, if someone could let me know if Spidey saves the world, I’d be grateful.


Twitch Introduces Cheering as a Way to Support Streamers



Twitch Cheer BadgesTwitch has introduced something new called Cheering. It is a way for people to show support for streamers and to celebrate exciting moments with the community. The system is currently in beta and can only be used with Cheer-enabled Partners. Twitch hopes to add “more cool stuff” in coming months.

Cheering functions sort of like a microtransaction. People start by clicking on the Bits icon that appears next to the emote button on channels that have Cheering enabled. Right now, you can get 100 Bits for $1.40 (and the prices go up from there). Twitch is using Amazon Payments as their payment technology, but appears to be considering adding additional local payment methods and currency support in the future.

After you have purchased some Bits, you can use them to support a Cheer-enabled Partner on Twitch. Type “cheer” into the chat, followed by a number. It will show up in the chat with a special Bits Emote icon. Those who do a lot of Cheering in a specific channel can earn a Cheer Chat Badge.

What does this mean for people who stream on Twitch? Only Cheer-enabled partners are able to make use of the Cheering system. In one of the blog posts that Twitch created to explain Cheering, it says:

Twitch provides participating partners a share of the revenue Twitch receives from Bits equal to 1 cent per Bit used to Cheer for them, subject to certain terms and conditions such as our Bits Acceptable Use Policy.

The same blog posts states that this is the first version of Cheering. Twitch expects that Bits will also be available through promotions and as rewards for activities on Twitch. They are also working to provide additional benefits to broadcasters that people Cheer for. Again, it is still in Beta, so there could be a lot of changes made before it is finalized.


Sony Ends Ustream Support on PS4



Playstation logoSony has decided to terminate support for Ustream features on the PlayStation 4 (PS4). It announced this news in a support notice, and tweeted a link to that notice.

As of August 1, 2016, users of the PS4 will no longer be able to broadcast their gameplay to Ustream. They will also no longer be able to view Ustream broadcasts from “Live from PlayStation” on the PS4 system, PlayStation App (PS App) or PlayStation Vita (PS Vita).

This isn’t entirely the end for those who enjoyed streaming their gameplay, or watching other people’s gameplay, via the PS4. Players will still be able to broadcast gameplay via YouTube, Twitch, and dailymotion, and can continue to enjoy viewing these gameplay broadcasts via “Live from PlayStation”.

Sony has not given any specific reason why they chose to terminate support for Ustream features on the PS4, PS App, and PS Vita. Engadget reported that the announcement could be Sony’s way of letting users know that the partnership between Sony and Ustream had ended.


Fasetto Link Packs in the Features



Fasetto LinkNormally a wireless NAS unit wouldn’t merit a second look, with plenty of choice from big OEMs like Seagate to small crowd-funded efforts. But when this wireless NAS unit is the size of a matchbox, holds 2 TB and weighs 4oz, it’s definitely worth another viewing. Marlo and Nick examine this miniature marvel with Luke Malpass from Fasetto.

The Fasetto Link is a small waterproof cuboid just 48 mm by 23 mm, yet holds a 2 TB SSD along with 802.11ac wireless connectivity. Able to connect to 20 devices at the same time, it can stream to seven of them at once. It has a write speed of up to 1.5 Gb/s so it’s entirely feasible to have multiple wireless action cameras recording simultaneously to the Link. If that’s not enough, it uses Qi wireless charging to recharge in less than an hour.

Now this doesn’t come cheap – the 2 TB version US$1,449 but the price does fall with the capacity and a 256 GB version is only $349. The Link will be available in Q4 2016.

Marlo Anderson rounds up the latest technology news at The Tech Ranch and Nick DiMeo is a video producer at F5 Live: Refreshing Technology.

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Datavideo Makes Products That Help People Do Shows



DataVideo logoWhether you are just getting into video production and live streaming, or if you are a seasoned professional at it, you are going to need the right gear to help you get the job done. DataVideo is a live production manufacturer that creates products that help people to do shows.

Don spoke with Managing Director of Datavideo Craig Moffat. They discussed two of Datavideo’s multitude of products: The DAC-70 and the NVS- 25.

The DAC-70 is an up/down cross converter. It has been described as a “Swiss army knife” and is their most popular product. It is made of durable aluminum. The DAC-70 converts from one format to the other: from SDI to HDMI or from HDMI to SDI. It can slide into a rack, and a studio can use multiple DAC-70 converters if they need to.

The NVS-25 is a video streaming server/recorder. It lets you stream any video source. It functions as a dedicated server that encodes your video and streams it. Point it towards the URL of wherever you stream at. Turn on the NVS-25, and it will always go to that site. There is also a drop down menu you can put your URL into. It takes ten minutes to set up, and you don’t have to set up more than once if you are always streaming at the same URL. You can attach a USB storage device to the front of the NVS-25 and record your video onto it.

The DAC-70 is available now at the Datavideo website at MSRP $500. The NVS-25 is also available now at the Datavideo website at MSRP $800.

Don Baine is the Gadget Professor and he holds classes at TheGadgetProfessor.com.

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Roku 2 Media Streamer (2015) Review



Roku LogoMedia streamers are hugely in vogue at the moment with products from Roku, Apple, Google and Amazon, and good a few of these are going to appear under the Christmas tree in a few day’s time. Although hard numbers are difficult to come back, it’s generally thought that the market leader by a good way is Roku, with Google, Apple and Amazon following in roughly that order. Once the figures are in for the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales, this could all change. Regardless, on review here is the UK 2015 version of the Roku 2, which now sits in the middle of Roku’s British line-up, between the Streaming Stick and the Roku 3. Let’s take a look.

Roku 2 in Box

In the box, you get the Roku 2, remote control (with batteries) and power supply with four plug adaptors, including UK, US and continental. There’s no HDMI cable.

Roku 2 inside box

As with the previous Roku 2 models, it’s in the “hockey puck” style, though it’s a little bit more rounded than the earlier Roku 2 models. The remote is the usual candy bar, but this model uses IR signal transmission rather than the WiFi and Bluetooth of predecessors. This may be of interest if your Roku normally lives round the back of the TV as you’ll need to bring it into view.

Roku 2 Front

Looking round the 2, there’s the trademark fabric tab on one side, with a USB port on the other. At the back you’ll find HDMI, network and DC power sockets, along with a microSD card slot. In addition to the Ethernet, the Roku 2 has dual band wireless.

Getting started is straightforward. Plug everything into the Roku 2, put the batteries in the remote and sit back on the sofa with the remote. The Roku 2 steps through the setup in a straightforward fashion, though putting in long passwords or WiFi keys can be a bit laborious. Regardless, you can be up and running within minutes.

Roku offers over 1,500 streaming entertainment channels which are great for followers of niche programming, whether travel, sport, kids, health & fitness or faith/religion. However, the vast majority of UK buyers will be interested in the offerings from the main terrestrial broadcasters plus the well known video-on-demand services. Naturally, Roku has them all. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, Sky Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play Movies and YouTube. For audio fans, there’s Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, TuneIn and Vevo. Newshounds will like the BBC News and Sky News channels. I could keep going but in summary there’s lots there and no-one will ever be able to say, “There’s nothing on the TV”.

Roku 2 RearOn the other hand if you have your own media, the Roku Media Player will play from USB storage and DLNA servers, and a Plex client can be installed too. I streamed ripped movies from a Buffalo Linkstation and while picture quality can be subject to network speeds, I had no problems at all and enjoyed HD footage without glitches from all the services that offered HD streaming. The Roku 2 has a HD optimised processor and I think it shows. The microSD slot can’t be used for media storage but can be used to boost the internal memory of the Roku 2 for extra channels.

If you’re a real film buff, you’ll be interested in Roku Search and Roku Feed. The former searches through top channels by title, actor or director to find your favourite programming and the Roku Feed automatically updates you when new films become available for streaming (or if the price changes).

The Roku 2’s main user interface is a simple menu driven affair and it’s not nearly as sophisticated as Amazon’s Fire, which combines media from multiple sources. Part of this is because the Roku doesn’t have the integrated cloud-based ecosystem behind it in the style of Amazon or Google, but part is to keep things straightforward and easy to use, much like an ordinary TV. The channels such as Netflix then have their own interface. Frankly, I prefer the channel approach as you know what you are getting, e.g. BBC programming, Netflix’s catalogue, YouTube video. Channel or app sophistication varies hugely. Most are good, especially from the big names like BBC or Netflix, though Spotify’s channel is a bit disappointing.

Roku RemoteThe remote is easy to use with a directional pad falling easily under the thumb. Other buttons function as home, back and menu controls. There are four shortcut buttons for Netflix, YouTube, Rdio and Google Movies, which is great if you use those services, but a waste of space if you don’t. It’s a pity they aren’t more generically labelled, e.g. Films, Music, News, Sport, with a configuration option for each button. Even better would be to print and label your own buttons!

To play media from smartphones and tablets, Roku offers a complementary app (Android, iOS and Windows) which can be used to not only manage and control the Roku 2, but also cast media from the mobile device to the screen. It’s great to show the photos you’ve just taken on the TV.

There’s no doubt there’s strong competition out there for the spot below your TV but the Roku 2 performed well and without issue. Pricewise, the Roku 2 has an RRP of £69.99 but can be found on-line for £10 less which is good value especially at the lower price. Of course, if you don’t need to play from local storage, consider the Roku Streaming Stick which is £20 cheaper (RRP £49.99). Overall, I think the Roku is a good choice if your intention is to “watch TV” without being distracted by unnecessary features. Go on, get one for Christmas.

Thanks to Roku for providing the Roku 2 for review.


DisneyLife is Disney’s New On-Demand Streaming Service



DisneyLife logoTo us geeks, it seems obvious that eventually all media will become on-demand and streamable over the Internet. But the large media companies that are often the gatekeepers to the content we want have been slow to adopt this method of distribution. Rumors have been circulating that Apple is working with TV and cable providers to try and “unbundle” the cable/satellite TV model, effectively creating an a-la-carte system where consumers can pick and choose the channels they want, instead of being forced to pay for a bunch of channels they don’t want in order to get they ones they actually like to watch. We’re probably still a few years away from that happening. Still, some content providers are stepping up and releasing their own apps that allow for on-demand streaming now. The latest high-profile name to jump into this arena is Disney.

This week, the media giant announced the launch of its DisneyLife streaming service. DisneyLife allows a family of up to six members to gain access to a comprehensive collection of Disney media including movies, TV shows, music, audiobooks, and e-books. It’s unclear at this point just how deep the DisneyLife library is. But considering how much intellectual property the company controls, DisneyLife’s potential seems almost infinite.

For now, DisneyLife is only available in the UK. There are plans to expand the service into other markets. Disney currently has licensing deals in place with Netflix for some of its properties, which probably explains why DisneyLife isn’t launching right away in the States. But it seems like only a matter of time before the service is available everywhere.


Roku 4 Delivers 4K for UHD



ROKU LogoApple, Amazon and Google have all recently announced their refreshed streaming TV media players and today market leader Roku has responded with the latest iteration in the Roku series, the Roku 4. In a happy numbering coincidence, the Roku 4 will deliver UHD 4K content for the latest ultra high definition TVs. As you’d expect given the relative rarity of UHD TVs and content, the Roku 4 will work well with normal HD TVs too.

Key features of the new Roku include a quad core processor to drive 4K streaming at 60 Hz. HDCP2 2.2 is supported and there’s optical audio out for the AV amplifier. For connectivity, there’s a gig network port along with 11ac MIMO Wi-Fi.

Roku 4 Streaming Player

The Roku 4 will run Roku OS 7, the latest update to the streaming OS which boosts previous features, particularly the Roku Feed and it now allows owners to track films, TV shows, actors and directors to receive automatic notifications about pricing and availability. In a response to a much requested feature, OS 7 can now work with wireless networks where login credentials are required.

At launch, there’s a handful of 4K channels including Netflix, M-Go, Amazon Instant Video, ToonGoogles, Vudu and You Tube, though there will be some variation depending on geographic region.

The Roku remote control has the previously-seen voice search and a headphone jack, but new to this version is the remote finder, which will help owners find the remote when it’s stuck down the back of the sofa. It’s worth buying for this feature alone!

The Roku mobile app for Android and iOS has been updated too, offering full device control including playing photos, videos and music on TV from the smartphone. A big bonus for me is “pinch to zoom” on photos which will bring out the detail from the snaps. The new app offers other Roku features such as Search, Feed, Remote Control and Play on Roku.

The new Roku 4 goes on pre-order today at roku.com for US$129.99 with delivery later in October. Pricing for other countries has not been announced yet.

If you are already a Roku owner, OS 7 will roll out to current-generation Roku players in the U.S., Canada and the UK, and Roku TVs in the US and Canada through a software update beginning in mid-October and is expected to be completed in November.