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.

Kickstarter Team GB

Kickstarter LogoUs Brits are pretty good at inventing stuff. Telephone and TV; radar and jet engine; antibiotics and vaccination; pneumatic tyres and hovercraft; these are all great British inventions or discoveries. And don’t forget that new-fangled worldwide web thingy from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. We might be a nation of shopkeepers but we’re also a nation of cracking inventors.

Consequently, I’m delighted to see that Kickstarter is now allowing for UK-based projects, which if nothing else, will save on the typical $20 postage across the Atlantic. From today, proposers will be able to start putting together their Kickstarter projects for launch on 31 October (not October 31).

Intelligently, there won’t be separate UK Kickstarter site: all Kickstarter projects will appear together so brilliant ideas can be funded from across the world – you’ll just have to pay in pounds sterling rather than US dollars. I doubt this will reverse our trade deficit but every little bit helps.

The only obvious difference at this stage seems to be that payments won’t be made through Amazon but an unspecified “third party payments processor”.

I’m very much looking forwards to funding some truly British Kickstarter projects and I’ll keep GNC posted as I do.

(For pedants everywhere, I know that UK and GB are not synonymous but I really can’t be bothered explaining the difference to Johnny Foreigner every time.)

UK’s 4G – Common-sense or Cover-up?

Ofcom LogoThe launch of 4G services in the UK by Everything Everywhere today has been heralded by the majority of the tech blogs and news sites as a long-overdue success. But is this a victory for common-sense or has Ofcom simply managed to cover-up its own incompetence? (For those outside the UK, Ofcom is the regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries.)

Here’s part of article from GNC that I wrote in October of last year.
Ofcom, the UK’s regulator for the telecommunications industry, issued an update on its plans for the auctioning off of the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum bands. These are the frequencies that will be used for the delivery of 4G services.

There has already been one consultation on the auction of the frequencies but based on the responses received, Ofcom has decided to carry out an additional second consultation at the end of 2011 which will run for around 8 weeks. The outcome of the consultation and auction proposals will be published in the summer of 2012, with a delayed frequency auction expected in Q4 2012. More likely Q1 2013, based on their track record.”

So how is it possible that Everything Everywhere, or EE, as it is going to be called, can a launch a 4G service when the frequency auction hasn’t even begun?

The answer is that Orange and T-Mobile, the partners in EE, put a proposal to Ofcom that they should be allowed to use one of their existing frequencies (1800 MHz) to launch 4G services in the UK without waiting for the auction. Ofcom thought this was a brilliant idea and gave the go-ahead. As you can imagine, some of the other players in the UK’s telecoms market (Three, Vodafone, O2) were less than thrilled at Ofcom handing EE a 4G monopoly for at least six months. Imagine how tempting it would be to switch networks if a 4G iPhone 5 was available from EE and only EE.

Depending on your point of view, the launch of 4G in the UK is either a victory for a common-sense approach to available spectrum or else it’s a monumental cover-up over the way Ofcom has failed to manage the transition to 4G.

I’m in the latter camp and I won’t be buying a 4G device or service from EE.

 

Tech Coming to the UK

It’s a good time to be in a geek in the UK at the moment. Over the past week there’s been a raft of announcements for predominately US-based offerings making it across the pond so here’s a quick round up of the latest news.

NookBarnes and Noble are bringing the Nook to Britain and if the marketing is right, it could be hit. Public libraries are still popular and they offer ebooks in the .epub format, which the Amazon Kindle doesn’t support but the Nook does. Some shrewd money-saving marketing and the Nook could give the Kindle a run for its money. I have the original Nook which I’m hoping will be supported in the UK, despite it being no longer sold. Pricing for the current Nooks to be announced but Argos and John Lewis are on-board to sell the hardware.

Amazon rolled out its Android Appstore to UK residents and parts of Europe, presumably for the as-yet-unannounced launch of the Kindle Fire. Coming with the Amazon Appstore is the App of the Day, which will have some great apps for nothing so it’s worth keeping an eye out for those. I’ve installed Appstore on my tablets already and have downloaded a few apps – all looking cool so far.

If you are looking for a small tablet, I think UK readers will be spoilt for choice with the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire and Nook Color / Tablet all likely to be available soon.

AmazonLocal Finally, Groupon has some competition in the shape of AmazonLocal, offering similar group deals. At the moment it seems to be focussing on London with a few national offers. Presumably city or regional deals can’t be that far away. There’s a 2 hour flying lesson currently on offer for £99 which looks fun. (As an aside, I always thought Groupon was a rubbish name until someone pointed out it was like group-coupon. Duh!)

All round, it’s good news for geeks in the UK.

Ulster Aviation Society Open Day

The Ulster Aviation Society is having an Open Day this coming weekend (25th August) to celebrate 70 years since the USAAF 8th Air Force arrived in Northern Ireland to fight in World War II. The UAS has an impressive collection of 15 aircraft, including a U.S.-built veteran of WWII in the shape of a Grumman Wildcat fighter, which is under restoration. Subject to weather, visitors will see a helicopter fly-in, as well as a wide assortment of military vehicles and displays dating back to World War II.

Given the global nature of Geek News Central, I don’t normally post this kind of local event but what made this a little special was the photo a friend sent along showing the Society’s aircraft hangar.

Ulster Aviation Society Hangar

It’s like my garage, only with bigger toys.

For bonus geek points, name the aircraft in the picture in the comments – there are ten in total. I’ll start off with the plane in the foreground: it’s an English Electric Canberra bomber. You can click through to a hi-res version of the photo for more detail.

Picture courtesy of John Martin.

Breffo Spiderpodium Review

The Breffo Spiderpodium is an extremely flexible gadget holder that can be used in a multitude of situations. Arachnoid, it’s eight rubberised flexible legs attached to a grey base and it’s easy to bend the legs to grip, to hold or to simply stand. Take a look at some of the pictures – it’s much easier to show than explain.

Breffo Spiderpodium Naked

Twisted Breffo Spiderpodium

Breffo Spiderpodium with Tapwave Zodiac

Yes, that’s a Tapwave Zodiac playing Doom II in the Spiderpodium’s embrace. The eight legs give a great deal of flexiblity in the positioning and orientation of the device. Standing, hanging, upright, tilted, it’s all possible. There’s just the right amount of stiffness in the legs to keep the Spiderpodium in the right position without making too difficult to shape. There’s a bigger version for hold tablets and heavier devices too.

But I’ve a confession to make….I haven’t been using the Spiderpodium for my gadgets at all. I’ve been using it as a clothes hanger in my gym locker to stop my shirt and suit from getting creased. That’s how handy the Spiderpodium is.

Breffo Spiderpodium Coat Hook

A bargain at £14.95 or $19.99, available direct and in a range of colours. It’s also designed and manufactured in Britain, so support local innovation and industry.

Disclosure – I won the Spiderpodium in a contest organised by Breffo in Twitter.

O2 Offers 12 Month Smartphone Lease

O2 LogoIn a change to the mobile phone contract status quo, UK mobile telco O2 has announced a 12 month smartphone leasing service. For £55 per month, you get a 16 GB smartphone, 750 minutes, unlimited text, a paltry 500 MB of data and insurance. Allegedly unique in the UK market, both consumers and business will be able to take advantage of O2 Lease.

If you are wondering what the difference is between a 12 month lease and 12 month contract, it’s simply that the smartphone doesn’t belong to you and must be returned in reasonable condition at the end of the lease. That’s why insurance is included in the cost of the lease so that the smartphone can be replaced in the event of damage or loss.

O2 extols the benefits of a 12 month lease, tying it into the upgrade cycles of the smartphone models and giving you the latest model without a long contract. The choice of smartphone models isn’t mentioned but O2 offers all the premium smartphones – Apple iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Nokia Lumia 800 and Blackberry Torch. 32GB models cost an extra £10 per month. Update – O2 Lease is specifically mentioned against the iPhone 4S here.

If you really want the latest phone and you’re a big talker or texter, this scheme might be worth considering but the tiny data allowance really makes it all a bit of a farce. My monthly data usage is between 600-800 MB and I don’t think that I’m a particularly heavy user. Yes, I might download the odd podcast but it’s mostly email, web browsing, Twitter and RSS feeds.

Personally, I tend to buy my smartphones SIM-free as there are far better tariffs out there and you can easily sell the smartphone after 12 months to part-fund your next purchase. Do the maths for yourself and see what works for you.

The full press release is here.

Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker – Alan Turing

German Enigma MachineGeeks in the UK may be interested in “Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker” on Channel 4 tonight (21 Nov) at 9pm. Described as a drama documentary, the programme follows the life of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who was instrumental in breaking the German Naval Enigma code during World War II. His achievements were overshadowed by his homosexuality and two years after being convicted for gross indecency he committed suicide in 1954 aged 41.

According to the notes, the programme will feature “contemporary experts from the world of technology and high science, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Set your PVR now.

(The notes also say that the programme will be available on 4oD shortly after transmission, but this is usually only available if you are in the UK or Ireland. 4oD is Channel 4’s on-demand Internet streaming service.)

Starbucks’ Free Pick of the Week

Starbucks Coffee CupI’m possibly a bit slow on the uptake here, but Starbucks in the UK are offering a free “Pick of the WeekiTunes download. Some weeks it will be a music track, other weeks it will be an e-book, some will be well-known, some will be up-and-coming.

I came across this freebie last week while frequenting my local coffee house but after checking on-line, it looks like the promotion has already been running for a few weeks.

You’ll find little credit card-sized vouchers with a download code on the back close to the tills. I picked up The Damned United by David Peace. Enter the code into iTunes / iBooks and it’s added to your collection. Easy.

Trading Tough for the UK Big Boxes

Best Buy LogoFrom recent news in the UK, the tough economic conditions appear to be hitting the technology and electrical particularly hard with Best Buy and Comet in the front line.

After losing nearly £50 million in the last six months, Best Buy is going to close all 11 stores in the UK after just 18 months in   operation. Best Buy Europe was a joint venture between Best Buy, Inc and Carphone Warehouse, with Best Buy purchasing half of Carphone Warehouse’s retail division for over $1 billion. Over 200 stores were originally planned but now 1,000 jobs are at risk.

Roger Taylor, CEO of Carphone Warehouse said, “The eleven Best Buy UK ‘Big Box’ stores have performed exceptionally at the level of customer satisfaction, but they do not have the national reach to achieve scale and brand economies. Due to the lack of visibility of an acceptable rate of return on historical and future potential investment we have decided against rolling out more ‘Big Box’ stores and we will be closing our existing stores, subject to consultation with our employees. Our immediate focus is our people and we are confident that the large majority will be offered alternative positions elsewhere in our UK business.

Today, Comet has been sold for just £2 to a holding company “Hailey” after revenue in Comet fell 22% over the summer. A further £50 million will be invested by Comet’s parent company in the holding company. 17 stores are already earmarked for closure with a further nine to be reduced in size.

In guarded comments, Bob Darke, Comet managing director said, “We are encouraged by today’s announcement and – with shareholder approval – absolutely committed to a smooth handover. For our customers and our people, it is business as usual and we are 100 per cent focused on delivering a successful Christmas trading period and great business performance into 2012 and beyond.

DSG Retail with its Dixons, Currys and PC World brands is the main player in the UK market but even it saw a fall of 7% earlier in the year. The next set of results isn’t due for a few months and it will be interesting to see what they show.

Overall, it’s not looking good for the big boxes in the UK.