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.

Belkin turns your iPad into a Media Player

Belkin, a company who has been known for its routers, is branching out into other areas, not for the first time. Now the company wants to turn your iPad into a personal media player that you carry around. Not that iOS was not already capable of that, but Belkin want to enhance it.

The device comes in the form of a case and much of what it does is enhance sound level and quality — something Apple seems to struggle with. Although, to be fair, many other mobile devices do as well.

The cover, named the Thunderstorm, not only adds an enhanced speaker, but also a stand, to help with your movie viewing. The case is available now, although the Lightening Connect version is not. It retails for $199.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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WD TV Live at The Gadget Show Live

WD TV LiveWestern Digital’s TV Live series of media players has been around for a couple of years and they’ve gained a sizeable following with over 3.5 million devices sold. The 3rd generation WD TV Live has been released recently and Daniel Mauerhofer was kind enough to give me an interview at The Gadget Show Live.

The new WD TV Live model introduces wi-fi connectivity which was absent on the previous model and it’s now been localised for the UK market with the inclusion of iPlayer and Spotify. Coming in two models, one without an internal hard drive (£99), which is available now, and a second which will have a 1 TB drive and will be available later in the year (approx. £129).

As ever, there’s a complementary remote control app for Android and iOS devices, which looks pretty useful; it’s certainly more than just a button-for-button replacement of the IR remote control.

My personal pet peeve in this area was that media players seemed either play from the local network or stream from the Internet but it was a rare device that could do both. The WD TV Live does both so it’s a thumbs up from me.

Diamond Wireless Range Extender and Set-Top Box Preview

Diamond Wireless Range Extender WR300NI remember building a PC many years ago and at that time, Diamond Multimedia was one of *the* graphics card companies. I even seem to remember that it was VL-bus card, so that dates it to a pre-Pentium era. Anyway, it’s great to see that Diamond is still around when so many others have fallen by the wayside. Todd interviews Louis Kokenis from Diamond Multimedia on the latest products.

The Diamond Wireless Range Extender has three functions in one. First, it’s a wireless repeater that eliminates deadspots in wireless coverage. Second, it’s a wireless bridge that will connect a wired network device to the wireless network and third, it’s a standalone wireless access point, creating wireless hotspot from a single network point. With regard to the last mode, the WR300N’s small size means that it’s great for travelling and creating a wireless network in a hotel room. On-sale now for around $60.

Diamond will be introducing an Android-based TV set-top box that combines web browser, media player, ebook reader, game console, anything that can be downloaded from the Android Market. It won’t be tied to any particular media provider as it will either be able to download an app, e.g. Netflix, or else it will be able to browse to any website and play media directly. Sounds cool, especially if it runs ICS.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central and Steve Lee of NetCast Studio for the TechPodcast Network.

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Sony Connects Up At CES

Sony LogoSony‘s CES focus this year is on electronics, content and network services combining to deliver high quality entertainment anytime and anywhere. Supported by a slew of product announcements, new connected devices range from TVs, Blu-ray players and A/V receivers through to tablets, smartphones and PCs and on to camcorders and mobile music players. Sony is combining these with online services for music, video and game delivery, creating a great user experience (as they say). TVs, PCs, smartphones and tablets are key to this experience as the four main devices used for entertainment.

Sony is committed to designing technologies for every aspect of consumer entertainment – in or out of the home, on the go, in the air, at work, at play, or wherever life takes you,” said Kazuo Hirai, Executive Deputy President, Sony Corporation. “When these products are combined with Sony Entertainment Network (SEN), which offers innovative services like Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited, as well as PlayStation Network, the user experience is truly unmatched and only made possible by a company like Sony.”

The Bravia TV line has been expanded in all three areas; entry level BX, step-up EX and flagship HX. Brightness and contrast levels have been increased and picture quality improved with Sony’s X-Reality and Motionflow video technologies. In particular the latter helps to reduce blur caused by rapid camera movements which is often a problem with LCD screens. Sony is sticking with the Google TV platform with a new network player and Blu-ray player featuring Google TV. Certain Bravia models will link seamlessly to these devices to provide Google TV features directly on the TV.

Sony Xperia ion smartphoneSony’s Vaio range of computers will continue to be updated with more entertainment feature and new designs that fit with consumers’ needs and increasing mobility. At CES, Sony will be demonstrating new technologies and prototypes for a range of technologies including glasses-free 3D.

In the smartphone space, the Xperia brand has done reasonably well, but increasing the smartphone share in North America is now one of Sony’s highest priorities. Sony Ericsson will be subsumed into Sony Mobile Communications and all new phones will carry Sony branding. The latest addition to the Xperia line-up is the Xperia ion, Sony’s first LTE smartphone coming with an HD 720p display and aluminium body. Also new is the Xperia S which comes with 3D image capture.

Sony Bloggie LiveOn the imaging front, no less than 13 new Handycam camcorders are being unveiled. A new image stabilisation system called Balanced Optical Steady Shot has been developed that controls the complete optical path from lens to sensor as a single floating unit. This reduces handshake blur by up to 13 times compared to the previous models. There’s a new camcorder model with a built-in video projector that has improved brightness and enhanced audio. The trusty Bloggie range now has a “Live” model which will live stream HD video over a Wi-Fi connection and there’s an unboxing over at sister channel TPN.tv. Of course, Sony has a bunch of new Cybershot digital still cameras.

Z Series Audio MP3 PlayerFinally, it wouldn’t be CES if Sony didn’t announce a Walkman or two. The new Z series of MP3 players comes with an application interface and connectivity to both Sony’s Music Unlimited and the Android Market. Content can be played from Z series devices either wirelessly using DLNA or via HDMI to Bravia TVs. To further improve the audio experience, no less than eleven new Balanced Armature earbud-style headphones are now available as well.

That’s it – a quick overview of the products on show at CES by Sony and they all look like fun.

Miro 4.0

Miro just came out with version 4.0. and its a clear hit. If you believe in supporting open source application, you have to try Miro. Miro is a open-source music and video player. It has been around since 2005 and was originally known as the Democracy Player. It is a part of The Participatory Culture Foundation a nonprofit foundation. You can use it download, watch, and listen to video and audio podcast. You can also add sites such as YouTube and Ustream and watch them within Miro. It is available for the Mac, Windows, and Linux.

With the newest update to Miro 4 it has become even better. The ability to buy mp3 and applications directly from the Amazon or the Google store within Miro has been added. Music stored in your Amazon Cloud Player can also be played within Miro. You can also add your iTunes music and movie library to Miro. Adding these libraries to Miro has no effect on ITunes, Miro simply points to the appropriate folders. If you have an Android device you can convert and sync music and applications to these device from Miro. I can see Miro being use with any Android device as iTunes is used with iOS devices. You can play almost any video format within Miro including HD video.  You can also use Miro to convert videos into mp4/h264 formats which are playable on most portable devices. If you have Miro installed on multiple computers within the same network you can now stream and transfer media between these computers. YouTorrent is built right into Miro and is really fast. You also have access to media that is available from ClearBits which provides hosting and distribution for open license media.  These are just some of the features that are available within Miro.

When upgrading from Miro 3.5 to Miro 4 I did run into a problem, when I added my ITunes library. It imported the library itself rather quickly, however it did take awhile to import the metadata. In fact it froze up a couple of times, if you have a slower machine like mine (Mac Mini 1.66 Ghz Intel Core Duo) I would recommend deleting the application and then downloading Miro 4. This seemed to fix the problem. Before you do this make sure you export your podcasts as an opml file, so they are easy to add back in. I have been using Miro since before it was Miro and I have always liked it, and it gets better with each version.

 

Innovation or Death in the PMP Market

Every single day sees the launch of numerous, unremarkable, and short lived portable music and media players.  Shiny black, white, red, glossy screened players with a shelf life of about 14 days.  If you watch very carefully you may even see one in use by someone in the general public.  Maybe.

Since Apple invented the iPod it has cornered innovation in the personal media sony-pmx-m70-pmp-4player market.  Surely Apple is not the only company with innovative ideas.  What are the keys to innovation?  Finding a need and filling it.  Finding a problem and solving it.  Finding a market that is untouched or with room to grow.  Innovation is more than copying the features of a competitor and adding a slight twist.  Have we reached the end of innovation in this market?  What more can be added to the music, video, wifi, phone, recording, and camera gadgets?

Perhaps the next wave of innovation will come in content and delivery.  iTunes could use a revamp in the search and listing functions of it’s free media.  Hulu.com is gaining more and more traction, but is fighting Boxee at every step.  RSS may be really simple, but few people use a RSS reader or podcatcher.  The Amazon Kindle has brought a library into the home, but focuses on paid content.  The problem with most of these?  They are either proprietary or to complicated for the average consumer to implement.  I want to watch video on my PMP but how do I get it, do I have to resize it, compress it, etc.  This is a nice shiny gadget but what now?  That is why you seldom see one of the dozens of new PMP’s on the street.

Innovation is there for the taking.  Competition is fracturing  and flooding the market instead of uniting it.  The physical PMP gadget market is reaching a point of critical mass.  Wikipedia defines critical mass as a “socio-dynamic term to describe the existence of sufficient momentum in a social system such that the momentum becomes self-sustaining and fuels further growth”  Who will be the people to cause this tipping point?  What will be the next idea to pull the market through to another few years of exponential growth?   You may have the answer.  Let’s hear it.