Life After DVD: As the death knell sounds for the disk, what are our alternatives?

Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, admitted in January that the company expects DVD subscribers to decline every quarter, “forever”. When the head of America’s biggest DVD rental company  – the US equivalent of LoveFilm – makes this kind of statement, that says a lot about the state of the DVD market.

Experts have forecast the fall of the DVD for the past few years and, as digital options increase, we take a look at a few of the alternatives.

Apple-TV

Apple TV

Billed as “A lot of entertainment. In a very little box”, Apple TV offers movies, news, music and the ability to share photos and documents on your computer through your TV. Netflix subscribers can access the company’s online movie streaming service and you can use an iPhone or iPod as a remote control. The box costs £99 upfront and movie rentals start at £2.49. The newly updated version now streams in 1080p.

iTunes Rentals

iTunes rentals provide a digital alternative to traditional video rental shops – without the late fees. Rented movies stay in your iTunes library for 30 days and, once you start watching, you have 48 hours to finish the film before it expires. Download rented movies onto an Apple device to watch away from home and, if 30 days isn’t enough, you can also purchase most movies to keep within your iTunes account indefinitely.

Lovefilm and Netflix

Lovefilm has been established for a few years as the UK’s leading online entertainment rental company. As well as sending DVDs by post, Lovefilm users can stream movies online. Netflix also recently launched their streaming service in the UK, providing some healthy competition in the paid streaming market. For a monthly fee, both services allow you to stream films for free, or pay a small amount to watch new releases.

New Kids on the Block

This year’s CES revealed a few new players that are enhancing the digital movie market. Syncbak, currently on limited release, is a system that enables you to stream content from the internet to smart TVs, mobiles, tablets and more. Meanwhile, the Roku streaming stick plugs in to your television, transforming your set into a smart TV and enabling you to stream content from your computer to the big screen.

With the offerings at this year’s CES, it looks like the DVD’s demise might not be long coming. Trends suggest our TV and movie watching is going mobile. With newer technology and formats undercutting DVDs in price and surpassing them in convenience, we can only hope it will be a quick and painless end, rather than a protracted and drawn-out struggle.

Is the iPad a viable alternative to the MacBook?

Firstly, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve become some what of an Apple ‘fan boy’ over the last few years. In my growing stable of all things Apple I can now count two iPhones (technically one belongs to work), Apple TV and a MacBook Pro. So it will come as no surprise that when I decided to look for an ultra-light laptop, it quickly came down to a choice between the MacBook Air and the iPad.

Having done some browsing, I started to favour the idea of going for the iPad as it appeared to cover most of what I required. One key factor was the availability of iPad versions of the main business software I normally use on my Mac; Pages, Numbers and Keynote. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and headed down to my local Apple Store and purchased a 16GB iPad. The sales guy seemed a bit unfamiliar with some of its features and also gave me the impression (at first) that the iPad would come with the business apps preloaded.

After turning on my new shiny iPad for the first time, one of the things that immediately struck me was the video playback function. Also the way it handles purchased video content from the iTunes store was mostly smooth, apart from a few impulse purchases which somehow ended up in ‘no man’s land’, neither in iTunes or the iPod area. This was quickly fixed by syncing with the Mac, but slightly annoying on the road. Nevertheless, going back and trying to watch a video on my iPhone (which I’d previously thought was more than adequate) now pales in comparison.

However, as you may remember, the main intention of getting a light weight device was to enable me to carry on working while on the road. Unfortunately my experience here wasn’t quite as positive as my video watching! Whilst it’s easy to use, in terms of text input, some of the applications take some serious getting used to. For example, with Numbers it took some time to discover all of the functions – all of which were very different from its desktop big brother (give example here?).

Furthermore, native applications are limited (there isn’t even a calculator, and Apple never includes “To Do” applications) which lowers the iPad’s “out of the box” usefulness. When you do buy apps that are “full function”, some important business features (such as track changes in word processing) are still not available. I also found the need to invest in a Bluetooth keyboard as it enabled me to use the less cluttered full screen view and improved the functionality of most apps.

As large web browser, book reader, or portable media player the iPad gets my thumbs up. However, as a full functioning business tool, the iPad has been less fulfilling and not, for me at least, a viable alternative to a laptop. In summary, the iPad should be seen as a unique device, as many app developers are doing, rather than a replacement for any other device.

Logitech Revue – at long last Google TV

Tech journalists were treated to their first glimpse of the first Google TV set top box in San Francisco and New York last night.

Google TV is designed to bring the web and television together, and this box – called the Logitech Revue – will simply be connected to your TV and your broadband connection to bring a new experience to the TV viewer. The Revue will be shipped with a wireless keyboard controller. American shoppers will be able to buy it – at a price of $299.99 – by the end of October.

Google-TV-revue-logitech

The Revue lets viewers organise, search and watch broadcast TV, along with content stored on other home devices and across the internet.

The Revue uses Logitech’s Harmony Link hardware to connect to the TV, PCs, smartphone and entertainment devices. It also features a Chrome browser with a built-in Adobe Flash 10.2 plug-in, and offers applications (including apps from Napster, Netflix and Amazon) that allow access to web content. The Revue will offer access to the Android Market next year.

Along with the included keyboard controller (which can be bought separately and used with a Google-enabled TV), another $129.99 will buy a handset-sized mini remote called the Logitech Mini Controller. There will also be remote control apps for iPhone, iPad and Android.

A video camera will sell for $149.99 and enable users to make video calls over the TV screen. It features a wide-angle lens, stereo microphones, a digital zoom, and lighting controls that will compensate for the low light conditions found in the average living room.

Logitech’s announcement beats Japanese giant Sony to the pass, which is still to officially announce its Internet TVs with built-in Google TV functionality.

In the UK, we’ll have to wait until next year before we get the chance to see the delights of internet-enabled TV for ourselves, but with Apple’s Apple TV service announced in the US last month, it looks like the contest to control the future of television has only just started…

Dune high-end media powerhouses

It’s tough times for high-end media centres. TV’s are shipping with more functionality, video components for computers are getting cheaper, games consoles are getting smarter and even tech giants Google and Apple are crawling under the TV. So can Dune’s dedicated media centres, decidedly rammed with features, still compete?

Well, we hope so. There’s something beautifully retro about Dune’s design that shouldn’t be cosigned to history. Sharp corners, glossy black casing and a blue LED display – it’s a media centre for eighties’ bachelors.

Dune-Media-Centre

Dune HD Max

The alpha male of Dune’s new line-up, the Dune HD Max pumps out Full HD (1080p) video, plays CD/DVD/Blu-Ray discs (on a silent optical drive) and lets you plug-in various external storage options: SD cards, up to three USB 2.0 flash drives and a 3.5″ SATA HDD.

Like a true alpha male, it can also muscle its way into your business and hook up to to your network, playing content directly from the PC or a network server over SMB, NFS, UPnP or HTTP.

Then there is the huge number of A/V connectors, masses of audio output options, a huge range of playable video content, DVD upscaling and RealD, for watching 3D videos.

Honestly though, the only way to do justice to the Dune’s versatility is with a big ol’ fashion list:

  • Video codecs: MPEG2, MPEG4, XVID, WMV9, VC1, H.264; support for very high bitrate video (up to 50 MBit/s and higher)
  • Video file formats: MKV, MPEG-TS, MPEG-PS, M2TS, VOB, AVI, MOV, MP4, QT, ASF, WMV, Blu-ray-ISO, BDMV, DVD-ISO, VIDEO_TS
  • Audio codecs: AC3 (Dolby Digital), DTS, MPEG, AAC, LPCM, WMA, WMAPro, EAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), Dolby True HD, DTS HD High Resolution Audio, DTS HD Master Audio, FLAC, multichannel FLAC, Ogg/Vorbis; support for very high quality audio (up to 192 kHz / 24-bit)
  • Audio file formats: MP3, MPA, M4A, WMA, FLAC, APE (Monkey’s Audio), Ogg/Vorbis, WAV, DTS-WAV, DTS, AC3, AAC
  • Subtitle formats: SRT (external), SUB (MicroDVD) (external), text (MKV), SSA/ASS (MKV, external), VobSub (MP4, MKV, external SUB/IDX), PGS (Blu-ray, TS, MKV)

If all of this isn’t enough, it also has room for two extension boards, letting you add things like satellite TV. It also supports torrents, so you can set your illegal video to download straight to the box. It’ll set you back around $499, or €499

Dune HD Smart

The HD Smart is actually an umbrella term for Dune’s modular system. Taking inspiration from high-end stereos, with the Smart you can choose a base unit with one key function, and add to it when you’re feeling more rich/needy. The base unit options are:

Dune HD Smart H1: a 3.5’’ SATA HDD rack with hot-swap support

Dune HD Smart D1: a digital info display and an expansion bay to connect a 3.5’’ SATA HDD

Dune HD Smart B1: a low-noise optical disc drive (CD/DVD/Blu-ray)

All three units have also got three high-speed USB 2.0 ports, an SD memory card slot, an eSATA port for external drives and a ethernet port for hooking in to your network.

They also have the same myriad of playback options as the Dune HD Max, which means that if playing a range of content from the internet is important to you, the Dune HD Smart is the most affordable option.

Each base unit costs between $255 and $299, which has (strangely) translated into €265 to €309. Dune’s media centres are clearly more advanced than their calculators.

Of course, no module system is complete without its expansion options. There HD Smart has three:

Dune HD Smart HE: adds a rack for installing a 3.5” SATA HDD with hot-swap support

Dune HD Smart ME: adds two slots for extension boards (also compatible with Dune HD media players)

Dune HD Smart BE: adds a low-noise Blu-ray drive

While it is great that Dune are giving its customers choice, surely any reasonable-minded soul will simply buy the Blu-Ray version and use the USB slot to plug-in a cheaper external hard drive, rather than buy a whole new expansion model for a 3.5″ HDD?

Dune HD Lite 53D

If the HD Max is the alpha male, the HD Lite is his incredibly cute child. The one you look at and think, how did you spawn from that? Gone is the glossy black, gone are the hard corners and gone is the bulk of the Max.

What’s stayed are the huge number of supported video and audio formats, the connectivity options (two USB-ports, SD slot, eSATA), network connectivity and torrents. They’ve also added the option to plug in a 2.5″ SATA HDD, for oodles of space without compromising the cutesy form.

The HD Lite is Dune’s best chance at competing with the other technologies encroaching on the media centres territory. It features all of the playback and connectivity options that make Dune such an attractable proposition, and it doesn’t take over the living room with its gigantic form. It’s also the most affordable option, at $169 or €169.

Apple TV review roundup

The new Apple TV was revealed on September 2nd by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and reaction to the set-top box has been generally positive across the board. On first impressions, it is hard to argue with these reactions.

Apple-TV-

The first thing one notices with this second generation model is the size. It’s 75 percent smaller than its predecessor, measuring a mindboggling 0.9 x 3.9 inches. Connections are kept to minimum, and it comes with a remote, at a compact 0.25×1.2×4.7 that PC MAG says feels better in your hand than previous white Apple remotes and has the familiar click wheel (it presses in four directions, but has no touch-sensitive scrolling), plus Menu and Play/Pause buttons. They do bemoan the lack of volume control which means so you’ll have to use your normal TV remote for that, unless you are an iPad, iPhone or iTouch owner (which you probably are). These lucky folk only need to download the recently updated, free Remote app, and they will be able to control everything from their device of choice on the onscreen interface. Engadget have the final word on this when they say: the way the ATV was meant to be controlled, as far as we’re concerned.

The bods at Apple have managed to achieve such miniscule dimensions by removing almost all internal storage for the Apple TV. As a result, everything you watch or listen to is a stream. About film and TV, pocket-lint says this:

The menu breaks down into Movies, TV Shows, Internet, Computers and Settings. The Movies and TV Shows essentially pulls content from the iTunes Store. Of course this is where Apple will be able to make some money, because you’ll be paying for your content, renting movies and TV shows. HD films will start at £3.49 and SD films will be from £2.49, with prices varying – new releases will be more.

You can also watch YouTube on the device, though one area where they do fall down slightly (something which all the reviews agree on) is the limited partnerships Apple currently have with TV networks- currently only ABC, Disney, Fox and BBC (half of which are irrelevant for us Brits), and they don’t necessarily have access to the best content. On this, Engadget is a little cynical :

Apple doesn’t have a complete handle on its partners, and for the most desirable (or lucrative) content, the studios are most definitely still pulling the strings.

Of course, there is an element of supposition in this, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Content from your other Apple devices can also be shared through yet another ingenious Apple gimmick called Airplay. Although not quite ready for launch (it’s coming in November). In a nutshell, this means you can start watching a video on your iPhone, then sync it up to your TV and finish it on there. With this the possibilities would appear endless. Indeed, this (admittedly American) reviewer for FOX said:

Apple told me the company has opened this feature to third-party developers, and that’s where my imagination runs wild. Think of the possibilities! Imagine the apps you could be flicking back and forth across all of your iDevices: NPR, Netflix, YouTube, MLB, Hulu, Internet Radio, Pandora, the list goes on. AirPlay could be the most important Apple announcement in years.

Screen quality is sound, with most films in HD 720p. About this, pocket-lint enthuse that they saw Apple TV streaming live video content in 720p HD and it seemed to be fast enough to get going, while sound-wise Engadget said sound quality was also superb — standard stereo was rich and wide, while 5.1 was as crisp and encompassing as you’d expect.

All in all reviews seemed to be positive about Apple TV, with the only general scepticism being about the content available via the streaming service. This, unfortunately, is the one thing that can only be properly reviewed in time. Other than that, it seems like a worthwhile addition to any digital household.

Apple revamps iPod range, iTunes and Apple TV; eats a little humble pie

Apple have been hard at work and yesterday Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtleneck owner and Apple CEO Steve Jobs launched a totally revamped Apple iPod range, a new Apple TV and a music based social network, Ping.

Keen observers will have noticed Apple tacitly admitting 3 mistakes, as they restored buttons to the iPod shuffle, removed video from the iPod nano and switched to an all streaming model for the Apple TV. With convergence slowly killing off the PMP as a device category (no mention was even made of the iPod classic, the device which helped Apple rebuild their empire) it’s interesting to see what the market leader and more often then not, trend setter Apple had to say on the matter.

iPod-family

The new iPod shuffle has buttons (yay!), 15 hours of battery life and now works with Genius playlists. The iPod nano had a much more interesting makeover, removing the ho-hum video camera and playback facility and, most importantly the scroll wheel. The nano is now a small square of mulitouch glass and looks like a baby iPod Touch. Promising 24 hours of battery life the nano seems to run a version of iOS and has a similar homescreen – with icons for playlists and Nike+. It’s possible that apps could be developed for the platform in time – simple games and the like, although nothing was mentioned.

Apple’s flagship PMP the iPod Touch also received a major overhaul – although to even call it a PMP seems disingenuous as Apple were keen to point out it is a major player in the mobile gaming device market and the casual gaming ecosystem developing on App store is growing at an impressive pace. The Touch has been dramatically slimmed down and its new svelte form features the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, A4 chip, gyroscope, front and back facing cameras and 720p video recording. The camera isn’t quite as good as the iPhone 4’s but until we get some hands on time with it we won’t be able to compare.

iTunes was also revamped and now includes a socially driven musical recommendation engine- Ping. There are approximately 160 mn iTunes accounts floating around and the interface is light and Facebook-esque so it could work reasonably well. It reminded us of mflow – the Twitter-meets-iTunes service we looked at here. (Incidentally Twitter have finally updated their iOS client for the iPad and it’s pretty neat.)

Finally, Apple at long last revamped the Apple TV, shrinking it dramatically, painting it black and abandoning syncing for streaming. But did they make it useful? Well Netflix integration and iTunes streaming for TV shows and movies certainly goes a long way. It only streams in 720p, which makes streaming fast and bandwidth friendly, although I’m sure video enthusiasts will be furious. In the UK things are a little less clear. The USD99 US apple TV gets Netflix streaming and 99c HD TV shows. The UK version seems to lack the HD TV shows and nothing has been mentioned about Lovefilm or iPlayer integration. It is also GBP99. It’s not being released for about 4 weeks so hopefully there will be a little more clarity then.

Google set-top box: Rumour round-up

It’s been rumoured as far back as 2007 that web giant Google is looking to move into the digital TV market, but solid facts have been painfully slow to materialise.

The strongest indication yet that the company are developing a web-enabled set-top box, which could arrive in living rooms sooner than we think, was recently reported in the New York Times. It claims the company is planning to launch the product in a joint venture between themselves, Intel and Sony. The system is likely run on the same type of operating system Google uses for their phones, Android.

Google-Logo

Reporter Nick Bilton revealed last week the details he has managed to uncover about the highly-secretive project. He writes:

“The Google TV software will be open source at its core, meaning that device and TV makers should have broad access to it. Sony, however, hopes to gain an edge over competitors by bringing out the first appliances and possibly TVs running the software, perhaps under a new brand.
Google’s move would potentially set it not just against established set-top box makers like Scientific Atlanta and TiVo but also strictly Internet-oriented media hubs like the Apple TV and Roku Internet Player. With full app support, Google TV could not only access most web-based services but also get custom software tailored to particular experiences.”

The NY Times also claims that “a person with knowledge of the Google TV project said that the set-top box technology was advanced enough that Google had begun a limited test with Dish Network, but other commentators are unsure how advanced the product really is:

The Guardian’s Joseph Tartakoff wrote: “There are some big caveats and unknowns: It’s unlikely that the service will come to market soon, since the Wall Street Journal makes a point of emphasising that the tests are limited for now to a ‘very small number’ of Google employees.

Also, no set-top boxes that run on Android are currently on the market. But as far back as November 2007 there were rumours that Google was working to build an app platform for set-top boxes. Nothing has come of that, although that effort would presumably be related to this one in some way.”

Meanwhile, Claudine Beaumont, The Telegraph’s Technology Editor is doubtful of whether Google will be able to succeed in such an ultra-competitive market: “The web-enabled set-top box space is becoming increasingly crowded. Apple already sells Apple TV, which allows users to directly download movies and TV shows to their television, as well as access Flickr and YouTube, but it has been dismissed as a ‘hobby’ project by the company.

As for Google themselves, well, they’re not saying anything. A Google spokesman simply stated that the company does not comment on rumour or speculation.

So, while the general consensus is that the product will almost definitely see the light of day, there’s no news on precisely when this will happen, either in the US or elsewhere. The price tag is also open to speculation, although Gizmodo reports that Roku have indicated the box could retail for around $200 (£133).

Although Google are entering are taking a bold step into the unknown, their unrivalled global dominance of web-based products, holds them in excellent steed. But whether this sterling success will transfer smoothly to the silver screen, simply remains to be seen.