Wizard World’s Cleveland Comic-Con kicked off its third annual show this past weekend, with a pretty good crowd. Fans gathered at the Huntington Convention Center in downtown Cleveland to get their fill of comics, art, toys and several celebs. Famous faces included: Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk), Gene Simmons (Kiss), Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things), Charisma Carpenter and Nicholas Brendon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Jewel Staite (Firefly), Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek) and more. Wizard World Comic Con Cleveland will return, March 23-25, 2018.
If you spend any time at all tinkering with computers, it’s inevitable that one day you will have a computer with one set of ports and a peripheral with a completely different set of ports. Back in early 90s, before USB, serial ports changed from 25 pins to 9 pins and you needed a whole bag full of adaptors and gender changers. Or SCSI, which went through a series of connectors faster than you could say Sun Microsystems.
Today, it’s usually video standards that cause the problem, with VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort and even USB C all trying to get in on the act. Often it’s an older VGA PC trying to connect to a newer HDMI flatscreen TV or an HDMI-only ultraportable wanting to use a VGA equipped data projector. In this case, it’s the former, as I take a quick look at the Topop VGA to HDMI Converter with Audio Support.
As you’ll see from the unboxing video, the converter comes in plain packaging and there’s no branding on either packaging or the converter. In the pack, there’s only two cables, the VGA to HDMI converter and a USB to micro USB cable which is used to power the converter via socket on the back of the HDMI part. The additional power is needed because there’s electronics in the converter to change the picture signal from analogue VGA to digital HDMI.
Getting going is simplicity itself. Plug the VGA end into the PC or laptop and then use a standard HDMI-to-HDMI cable to connect the other end of the converter into the monitor or HDTV. The 3.5mm stereo jack needs plugged into the PC’s sound card or headphone socket and finally the converter needs powered using the USB to microUSB cable.
Turn on the computer and the HDTV. If it’s a laptop, don’t forget to toggle the relevant function key to get the laptop to output to the VGA port. On the TV, switch to the right HDMI input if it doesn’t switch automatically, and Bob’s your uncle as they say.
For me, it worked perfectly first time on an old Toshiba Satellite Pro A120 running at 1280 x 800. The picture quality was good too. I wasn’t expecting much as even directly connected VGA can look a bit fuzzy on a bigger monitor but the Topop converter does an excellent job. Here are a couple of screen shots which aren’t really going to show off the picture quality but if you click through they’ll give you an idea. The converter had no problem keeping up with video either and I was able to watching Netflix and YouTube.
The converter has audio support so sound comes out of the TV speakers. Possibly the only downside of the converter is that the audio cable could be a little longer. It’s around 55cm, which seems fine, but if you have a laptop where the headphone socket is on the front, the cable has to come under the laptop rather than round the side. Other than that, it’s hard to fault and the converter seems well enough made – I tried a little wiggling and nothing came free so QC passed…
Note that this converter will only go from VGA to HDMI. It will not do the reverse, HDMI to VGA, so don’t buy it thinking that it might.
In summary, the Topop VGA to HDMI converter with audio support works well and gives a good picture on the screen. At GB£10.99 it’s well priced, especially if you want to prolong the usefulness of an older computer with a newer monitor. It’s worth it too if you occasionally want to show some digital photos on your big HDTV and like to keep it simple.
When 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.
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.
To make life even easier, there’s a set of cartoons to take you through some of the features of the Fire TV stick.
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.
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.
Video 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….
Back 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.
Roku 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.
The 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.
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.
Finally, 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.
The ever-versatile media-management Plex app launched a new DVR service earlier this month. Plex DVR works with any standard HDTV antenna and the SiliconDust HDHR series of digital recorders to create a true DVR experience on your favorite screen. Just use the Plex app to tell the hardware which shows you’d like it to capture, and the system will record those shows for free from local over-the-air TV signals. If you’ve been waiting to cut the cord to cable or satellite TV, Plex DVR might be just what you need to finally make that move.
Here are some Plex DVR highlights:
Full license from Gracenote to help pull in the necessary meta data for your DVR’d shows. This information is tailored to your geographic location to make it as accurate as possible.
Subscribe to TV shows and never miss an episode.
Easily follow your favorite sports teams as Plex DVR records all of their televised games.
Sync DVR recordings to mobile devices or the cloud. Use Plex mobile apps to watch DVR shows on any device, no matter where you are.
Keep a fixed number of unwatched episodes for a show, or only recent episodes. Plex DVR also has the ability to sort individual shows by newest or oldest episodes and list all episodes at once regardless of season.
The promise of smart, connected devices is that they give us functionality beyond what a “basic box” can offer. Consumers have been adding internet-based entertainment options to TV sets for years, usually thru external devices like Chromecast, Roku, or Apple TV. In recent years, television manufacturers began adding native apps that run inside their TV sets. These apps allow users to access different services right there on their TVs. But these types of native apps aren’t usually updated as often as their set-top box counterparts.
Media-streaming technology is constantly changing, so it’s very important for these types of apps to stay current. In an unfortunate turn for some Sony Bravia TV owners, the company announced it will no longer update its native YouTube app:
It has been confirmed that the “New YouTube on TV” app on 2012 Sony BRAVIA TVs will experience symptoms of “Black Screen and Freezing”, or an “Error Message will be displayed and the video will stop playing”.
The symptoms being experienced are not a failure of the TV, but are as a result of specification changes made by YouTube that exceed the capability of the TV’s hardware.
As a result, Sony have decided to remove the YouTube icon for the 2012 Bravia TVs on 30th September 2016.
The YouTube application will no longer be available for the 2012 Bravia TVs after 30th September 2016.
If you’ve been enjoying YouTube on a 2012 Bravia TV, you’ll need to look for another way to get those videos.
I recently moved my one and only television, a Samsun 52″ LCD HDTV, from the front room of my home into the back room. In doing this, I lost the connection to a TV antenna I had mounted on the outside of my home. While I don’t watch a lot of over-the-air TV, it was nice to have access to the channels I could get. I tried a basic set of non-powered rabbit ears to pick up some channels after the TV move. But it didn’t pick up anything. I figured for sure I’d either have to move my external TV antenna (not a fun task) or just give up on over-the-air TV all together. Luckily for me, I was offered the chance to review a 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna.
The 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna comes with everything you need to use it: The antenna with built-in ten-foot coaxial cable, the inline amplifier, A/C adapter for the amplifier, three double-sided 3M adhesive pads, and the product manual. Installation is pretty straightforward. Connect the amplifier to your television’s antenna input, connect the antenna to the amplifier, connect the amplifier to the A/C adapter, and plug the adapter into an available power outlet.
Thanks to a handy guide from AntennaWeb, I know that most of the TV transmitters in my area are positioned to the northwest. My first attempt with the 1byone antenna was to hang it as high as possible in the northwestern-facing corner of my room.
I ran the auto program feature on my TV. It didn’t pick up any channels.
In the antenna’s manual, it states that if you have trouble getting TV signals, you should place the antenna as high as possible and/or put it near a window. For good measure, I moved the antenna to the opposite corner of my room, ran the auto program sequence and again, came up with nothing.
I then moved the antenna next to a window and tried again. This time, success!
With the antenna next to the window, I was now able to receive six channels. A nice improvement over the other attempts. The HD picture and sound were crystal clear and the stability of the signal was rock solid with no dropouts.
I know some readers will see the result of six channels as unacceptable. But, I think it’s great. I don’t live in a major metropolitan area, and even with my external antenna, I didn’t get many more channels than this. The 1byone Amplified HDTV Antenna promises a range of up to 50 miles. I’m certain that if you live in the orbit of a large city, you’ll be able to easily pick up many more chances with this antenna.
1byone describes this antenna as “paper thin” and they’re not kidding. The antenna is very thin and light. It’s easy to move about the room and try in different locations. I’d recommend using one of the supplied double-adhesive pads until you’ve found a permanent place for the antenna. It’s light enough that one adhesive pad will hold it on the wall, but you’d probably want to use more than one to hold it in place long term.