Google’s Chromecast Review Roundup

Google Chromecast

Last week Google released a HDMI dongle called Chromecast, a week later the entire tech fraternity are still talking about it – so what is it and why is it so important?

Basically Chromecast is Google’s answer to Apple’s Airplay, but with a few added bells and whistles. Designed to be cheap (just $35), and simple to use: all you have to do is plug a Chromecast into your HDTV and you can watch content from a range of apps on your TV. As well as that you can also send tabs from Google’s Chrome web browser and beam them onto your TV, whilst using your device – whether it’s a phone, tablet, or computer – as the controller.

To get it going is fairly simple: plug the dongle into a HDMI port, then you need to either plug the dongle into a power source, or alternatively you can power the device via a spare USB port you might have on your TV. Once you’ve done that you need to download the Chrome Extension, then the Chromecast setup app and then, finally, connect the dongle to your home Wi-Fi network.

Once setup is complete you can start sending content from your device of choice to your TV. When you hit the Cast button in a supported app, the Chromecast directly connects to the Internet and streams the video itself, rather than streaming the content from the device. At the moment the only apps that have a cast button are Youtube, Netflix, Google’s various Play media apps.

If you have a smart TV, media player or games console, all of this functionality might not seem like that much of a revelation. But what you’re actually paying $35 for is the ability to simply put content from your laptop, PC, phone or tablet onto you TV. And when it works, it works really well.

With the Chrome Extension you can load your favourite video content and beam it to your HDTV at the press of a button, then you can use your device as the controller. Google says the tab casting feature is still beta, and it kinda shows. High quality video playback isn’t perfect, with dropped frames and audio lag often ruining playback at times, and if you’re computer has seen better days then you might notice lag between controller and screen.

chromecast-dongle2

What have our fellow critics had to say about Chromecast?

“Could a small, plastic stick really deliver the type of functionality that so many other companies have failed to fully implement and utlilise? […] Once you select the Cast button in either app, Chromecast will play the video files while your device becomes the remote control. Since Chromecast is doing all the work, you can play with your device while watching TV. This means you can open and close apps and switch between tabs without disrupting your video. This also means you can switch platforms. For instance, when casting Netflix on Android, you could switch to iOS and continue managing your Netflix without a hiccup. To manage the currently streaming video, such as hitting rewind or pause, you have to use the original app (ie, Netflix, YouTube, etc) from which you “casted” the video. Google could easily circumvent this hassle by implementing playback buttons to Chromecast set-up app.” – Pocket-Lint

“The Chromecast basically offers two ways to get content onto your TV: from apps that support it directly, or by “Casting” content from the Chrome browser. […] It works well, for the most part. We had a couple of glitches at times, but 720p video streamed cleanly and there’s the option for 480p or 1080p depending on what headroom your network has. Switching between Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play takes a couple of seconds, no more frustrating than regular source-jumping on your TV.” – Slashgear

“Chromecast provides a much-needed low-cost means for migrating towards streaming services that immediately renders most of the recent advances in Smart TVs obsolete. […] The fact that Chromecast communicates directly with the cloud server means that once I load up a video, I can continue using my phone or tablet for other stuff without disrupting the movie. I can also queue up additional media directly to the TV so my mobile device doesn’t burn through its battery pushing the data from Netflix’s servers to the TV.” – Gizmodo

If you’re looking for a wireless solution to get your content from device to TV then Google’s Chromecast is a no-brainer for the price. Cinephiles would argue that the quality will never beat a traditional HDMI, and while that might true that’s not the point. Chromecast is all about convenience, and if Google can gets enough app developers onboard it could be a watershed moment for Google and it’s plans for the future of the TV, which so far haven’t exactly been all that great.

Pure’s Avalon 300R PVR: Hands On Review

pure-avalon-pvr

We were excited to learn at this years CES (doesn’t January seem like a long time ago?!) that Pure, one of our favourite audio gadget manufacturers, was branching out into the crowded market of Freeview set top boxes.

So when Avalon 300R Cpmmect was released; like all sensible men we started setting up without too much reference to the instructions. Easy to configure, the auto tune function got the Freeview HD side of things up and running, and apart from a tricky caps lock issue with the wifi password, the network connection was also up and running in double quick time.

Almost immediately, however, the box set about updating itself to the latest software, which once it had run, left the box in standby, mode which I hadn’t been expecting. Once back on, the network connection seemingly was forgotten, but resetting the network connections got everything back on track.

The interface moving from web based content (iPlayer or YouTube) to Freeview was a little clunky, appearing to power the box down and up again (as the tv displayed the “source lost” message), but after a few seconds it was back to the Freeview content.

A little irritation was that when you’ve viewed information on the screen regarding your program, pressing the “back” button removed the info but left a general channel banner, which if you try to remove with the back button, you end up changing channel to the last one selected (exit is the right button to remove the channel banner).

On searching for particular programs, and series linking where applicable, both were easy to use. The auto offer HD when available (a prompt that tells you if you could be watching in better quality) is a useful feature that really does add value.

Another quirky feature which we found strangely addictive (maybe because we hate the thought we’re missing something better on the other side!) was Avalon’s use of picture in picture. If you’re just browsing, you’re given the option to watch what’s on the other channel in a mini screen.

Now, I know you’re thinking picture in picture’s not that innovative, certainly been possible on Humax boxes for some time, but the design of the interface linking to channel browsing is certainly helpful.

pure-epg1

The EPG, or electronic program guide, appears a little cramped, with only 6 channels info showing at any one time, with the rest of the screen pretty much empty, which feels like a waste. There are animations on moving between channels (like flicking pages of a book) which are cute to begin with, but don’t offer any functionality, and leave the interface with a “gimmicky” feel.

As Bill Gates once said, “content is king”, and in the world of Freeview set top boxes, never has that sentiment been more appropriate. With no Netflix, Lovefilm or Now TV (Sky’s “lite” offering for consumers who are commitment phobic (their marketing speak, not ours!)) or even the free ITV or 4OD players, Pure does risk looking restrictive in this respect. Particularly when you consider that the content in these areas is expanding rapidly (Sky now offer Sky Sports via the Now TV platform), and Netflix ever growing library of box sets.

Pure’s entry into the market has two key features that will make it stand out; the Pure music subscription content service and built in wifi connect-ability. The Pure Connect interface was easy to navigate, and while it’s no Apple TV, we were able to get around with no problems. The Connect service, which allows users to either buy tracks or albums for playing on their Pure connected devices, or stream unlimited content for a monthly fee, is well established on the brands audio devices. At present there is no video content available to buy or rent via this service, although Pure say expanding on demand video offerings is an area they are working on.

Overall the lack of on demand providers at present make this entry look quite expensive at GBP349.95 for a 1TB unit, (YouView 1TB box is £50 cheaper; johnlewis.com), but if you’re already a subscriber to the music service, or want to take advantage of the wifi being built in and avoid another trailing wire in the living room, this maybe a great solution for you.

Hands On: Harvard’s View21 Smart TV Freeview+ HD PVR

view21-smart-tv-box

For the past few weeks we’ve been playing around with the View21, a set-top box developed by Harvard International who are probably better known for their Goodmans and iLuv brands. Although the View21’s design isn’t overly attractive (it reminded us of an oven dish!), it certainly packs a punch when it comes to features: pause, rewind and record live TV via twin HD tuners, store over 300 hours of recordings, enjoy free to air HD channels and, more uniquely in this crowded marketplace, the ability to interact and stream from the device using a nifty iOS app.

Check out this video where we unbox and setup the View21:

The View21 Play app enables you to stream and view content from your box as well as to control it. So this allows you to stream live TV directly to your iOS device over your home network. You can also watch recordings from your library without interfering with anyone else using the device. This is something that we’ve been keen to see Sky support and it’s nice to see a newer player beat them to it.

We had a quick play with the app in this video:

In terms of controlling your box, this is slightly less ground breaking, but nevertheless you can use your iOS device as a fully featured remote. Users can also download the View21 Photo app which enables them to push photos from your iOS device to be viewed on your TV screen.

The View21 box itself comes with a small selection of apps, in fact the company states that it’s the first digital box to integrate YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. While we can see the appeal of being able to watch ‘Harlem Shake’ on your TV, we remain less convinced by the current push by manufacturers to use social media through the telly.

View21 pride themselves on making user-friendly digital boxes and this certainly comes across in the device’s no-fuss design. The front panel contains no visual display and opts instead to use small lights to show its status: on/off, fast forwarding/rewinding and whether its currently recording. There are also some physical buttons to allow you turn it on, change the volume/channel, start recording and an “Ok” button to confirm menu options.

We found setup to be painless and straight forward – plug in the power, HDMI and aerial cables and connect it to your router. It was a nice to see the company include all the necessary cables as other companies, to save costs, often omit the HDMI cable.

We found the View21 more than capable of handling the standard Freeview+ functions, such as rewinding and pausing live TV and setting recordings. The EPG (programme guide) was adequate and it’s clear that they’ve aimed to make it user-friendly. We found that it could lag slightly when initially scrolling through the schedule, but once fully loaded it was fine.

The View 21 app performed well, there was some stuttering for the first few seconds as the device buffered the content, but after that, the stream was smooth and good quality. The ability to go to another room and continue watching TV on your iOS device is excellent, as is watching the end of a recorded programme from the comfort of your bed – rather than nodding off on the sofa!

Our main gripe, and this applies to other ‘connected’ boxes, is that the View21 doesn’t come with built in WiFi. While you can buy a wireless adapter, or use a powerline ethernet adapter, it would be nice to see these devices working straight out of the box via Wifi, a la Apple TV.

All in all, if you’re not overly fussed about YouView and if you’re looking for a device that can easily stream live and recorded content to your iOS device, then you can’t go too wrong with the View21. At the time of writing the 500GB version is available on Amazon for £199.99 or £169.99 for the 320GB.

Humax Freesat freetime: Fixing broken TV

TV is in an odd state right now. I’m one of the those annoying people who will say “I don’t watch TV” even though I now – thanks to Netflix and other streaming services – watch more TV than ever before. But the idea of coming home and just popping on the “telly” now seems as antiquated as a rotary phone, or opposing gay marriage. More and more high-quality content coming direct from creators – amazing web series are springing up all the time. And non-traditional sources are supporting content – Yahoo worked with an amazing team to create Burning Love and Todd Glass, Bill Burr and Moesche Kasher all have specials out on Netflix.

Free-Time

So where does that leave hardware? Well it’s blindingly obvious that the future of TV is “connect” and the ability to control when and where you consume content should be the minimum entry requirement for any entertainment set-top box in this day and age.

Humax gave us a digital HD freesat+ box with <> to see what a modern set-top box has to offer. Installation was a relatively easy although it requires a wired ethernet connection rather than wifi. I get the logic (stable connections are important when streaming high-def TV) but running cable across a living room is a pain. They do suggest using Homeplug Adapters as an alternative but it’s already heading into “hassle” territory and “old world” technology.

The actual box is a little on the dull side but you’re supposed to be looking at the content not the device. Obviously there are HDMI connections but if you still have an older SCART etc device you can still get connected. I found the remote a built builky and plasticky but that’s probably because I’ve been spoilt by the frankly amazing remotes that come bundled with Samsung devices.

One you’re connected all the standard on-demand services such as the iPlayer, 4oD and itv Player. And all the regular Freesat programmes are there if you dish/antenna set up confirms to regulations.

Remote

The main feature of the box is it’s recording functions and dual-tuner Freesat PVR is easy to use. It’s also quite clever in the way it groups shows together making it pretty intuitive to work your way through Homeland or whatever the kids are watching these days. You can manually manage recordings and the box will automatically delete older recordings if you run out of space. For £20 over the 500 Gb base model you can get a 1TB internal HDD which is definitely worth it.

There’s a little USB port on the front for media playback and DLNA streamng is also supported with the system is able to handle HD MKVs if you’ve somehow aquired a bunch of those.

Humax-1000S

The standout feature of the unit however is it’s EPG which is a delight to use. Navigation is fast and fun and the slick interface is one of the better ones I’ve seen on this type of unit. Finding what’s on and saving things you enjoy is a breeze. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be an app to record remotely via your smartphone but I’m sure one is in the works.

Overally the freesat box has “a fresh spin on an old classic”. It won’t revolutionise the way you watch TV but if your viewing habits match 90% of the population you should fine something for you in here.

The Humax 100S is out now and costs £280.

Samsung’s BD-DT7800 Freeview PVR: Preparing viewers for the digital switchover

I have never quite understood why companies offer cashback on their products rather than just simply dropping the price. Perhaps it has something to do with improving the cash flow of the business, as the customer pays more money in the first place and companies have a few weeks to give the consumer the cashback via a check. Who knows? This is however a tactic adopted by Samsung, who is offering £50 and £30 cashback incentives to customers purchasing various Blu-Ray, Freeview and Freesat personal video recorders. Part of the cashback package includes the new BD-DT7800 Freeview PVR.

Samsung-BD-DT7800-Freeview-PVR

As of the 4 April 2012, the London TV region will start the switch over of its analogue TV to digital. Samsung claim the BD-DT7800 is the perfect solution for the digital switchover, as it plugs straight into the aerial to receive Freeview in high definition picture quality.

Possessing twin HD tuners, viewers can watch a programme in high definition, whilst recording another. Viewers can then even edit their recorded programmes via a 500GB built-in hard disc drive. A ‘scene searcher’ feature allows users to fast forward or rewind scenes in films or in programmes by simply clicking on the thumbnail shots.

Having the ability to interact online and engage in social networking sites is an almost inherent component of new technology, regardless of its form. With Samsung Smart Hub built-in, the BD-DT7800 enables users to chat with contacts on Skype, Facebook and Twitter, as well as giving them access to thousands of films online, and, with a built-in Wireless LAN, users can connect to the Web, wire free.

The BD-DT7800 can also act as a storage device as it can back-up files from other sources. Not only this but Samsung’s new Freeview PVR can create an immersive 3D experience, by, via a pair of infra-red powered 3D glasses, converting 2D content into 3D.Quite a package really, makes me wonder why Samsung feel the need to resort to cashback incentives.

Kid-proof your PVR: Tv-onics DTR-Z500HD Freeview+ HD recorder

It wasn’t that long ago that my dear son snapped the lid off my MacBook (and no I didn’t have him adopted, though it was a close-run thing), so I well know the perils that face the latest gadgetry in the homes of people with small people running about.

TVonics

One suspects that the good folk at TVonics may have had the same problem, as they have just come up with a new PVR that it claims can stand up to the rigours of family life.

The DTR-Z500HD Freeview+ HD recorder is a chunky looking smooth-edged box in black, which does look as if it is pretty durable. It’s based on its predecessor, the Z500HD, but has the added benefit of a new aluminium casing, which as well as protecting its innards from your rugrats, also makes it pretty sturdy if you’re short on space and have to resort to stacking your TV-related gadgets.

Other features include HDMI switch technology which lets you connect two HDMI devices (a DVD player and games console perhaps) to the TV with fewer untidy?cables, series and trailer recording to make recording programmes a bit simpler, and two USB ports. It also delivers Dolby Surround Sound, and has Parental Control features.

Andy Carr, CTO, TVonics, commented: “Anyone with kids knows that nothing, especially gadgets, is safe when they’re playing. TVonics has therefore designed the DTR-Z500HD to withstand family life.”
?TVOnics will also be launching a new software upgrade for new owners and those who have the DTR-HV250 to include a Dolby Surround Sound upgrade and EPG upgrade. It promises more upgrades in the near future.

The TVonics DTR-Z500HD Freeview+ HD costs £224.99 from John Lewis and Comet as well as the TVonics’ web store, where you also get a two-year?warranty.
www.tvonics.com/product_support/

HD-FOX T2 – Humax’s first Freeview HD PVR

If you want to experience the thrill of high definition television but don’t want to spend wads of cash on a cable or satellite subscription, try the new Freeview HD box from Humax.  It’s the first HD set-top box in the UK, and likely to be a trendsetter as demand grows for the pin-sharp detail and vibrant colours of high definition programmes.

For a one-off payment of around £179, Humax’s HD-FOX T2 gives you the usual 50 standard definition channels and 24 radio stations, plus the two existing free HD channels from the BBC and ITV in 1080p full HD.  You can also use it to view photos and videos, listen to MP3 players, and set up home networking via its Ethernet port.

Freeview boxes tend to be refreshingly easy to use and this one is no exception.  Taking just minutes to set up, the instructions are clear enough for even the most dedicated technophobe to get right first time. Automatic channel updates mean that once it is set up, it pretty much looks after itself, and no subscription means that you can forget about it once it’s installed.

However, for all the positives, there are drawbacks.  You only get two extra channels and, when you consider that the price of a standard Freeview box starts at about £20, the extra cost makes those two channels very expensive indeed.  But the good news is that more free HD channels are expected, with Channel 4 and S4C Wales being added imminently and others sure to follow in due course.

The other downside is the level of HD coverage at the moment.  Right now, you are only able to pick it up if you live around London or in the Granada region, made up of Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and North Staffordshire.  However, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham and Cardiff are due to be added by the end of March; check your local area before you splash your cash by clicking on www.freeview.co.uk/availability.

Overall, the HD-FOX T2 is an ideal choice for anyone who is curious about the benefits of HD but wary of getting tied into a long-term contract.  It is also a good option for those in rental properties who are not allowed to install cable or a satellite dish.  And although there are only two HD channels at the moment, more will follow, and at least the existing two will keep you entertained throughout a summer of sport.