Sky’s Now TV Box review round-up

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When it comes to the latest in audiovisual technology it wouldn’t be unfair to say Sky TV’s ageing satellite system is years behind the competition when it comes to streaming and catchup TV. And with the likes of LoveFilm and Netflix changing the landscape of TV consumption, Sky has finally realised that its current crop of set top boxes just can’t keep pace with the ever-changing world of Internet TV.

Step forth Sky’s Now TV box, a dinky little plastic box that you can pick up for less than a tenner, and upgrades your TV to a smart TV capable of streaming services like BBC iPlayer and access to Sky’s premium programming without the need of a satellite dish.

There are several reasons why Sky has launched the Now TV box. Firstly, their current raft of set top boxes just can’t compete with the Apple TVs and game consoles of the world. If you’ve ever plugged your Sky box into a broadband router you’ll know that catchup TV doesn’t really work with Sky’s legacy system. I tried it a few months ago and was prompted to download each show on iPlayer before I could watch them – hardly an ideal solution.

So it’s no surprise that their Now TV box looks to solve a lot of the issues Sky faces with its proprietary boxes: first up, the Now TV comes with built-in WiFi, which means Sky can now beam online content to consumers who don’t have a Sky dish. Now TV also grants access to a range of a free catchup services from likes of Channel 4’s 4oD and Channel 5’s Demand5 catchup service.

As well these free services you get access to Now TV’s Sky services, which offers a range of content from Sky TV including premium movies and sport. This mean Now TV is clever alternative for those who don’t actually have a satellite dish. At the moment a Sky Sports day pass costs £9.99, which gives you access to all of Sky’s sports channels for 24 hours.

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Sky Movies fairs a little better in the value for money stakes: the movies subscription costs a not unreasonable £8.99 per month for three months and £15 per month thereafter – better still there’s no yearly contract so you could subscribe for just a few months at a time.

There are downsides though: at the moment the Now TV is lacking quite a few apps you’d expect from an Internet TV service – so at the moment both LoveFilm and Netflix are missing in action. But you do get access to rudimentary versions of Facebook and Spotify – so you win some and lose some.

Techradar were impressed with the functionality on offer for the price during their hands-on review, but they too couldn’t forgive Sky for blocking out other services: “It should be pointed out that Sky is restricting some competing services from the library – and that means you can’t use this as a sneaky Netflix of LoveFilm box. Curses.”

Expert Reviews noted during their review that the set top box didn’t offer a value for money as an alternative to a full Sky Package but they did like the idea of a few friends chipping in for a big Premiership game using the system’s day pass: “At this price, it’s obviously not a replacement for Sky Sports on satellite for serious sports fans. Get a couple of mates to chip in and it’s actually quite reasonable.”

Expert Reviews weren’t enamoured by the quality of the streams either, which is limited to just 720p at the moment: “Unfortunately this the maximum output resolution the box runs at, and so though video quality is acceptable, it pales in comparison to 1080p content from Netflix or LoveFilm.”

Overall if you’re looking for a cheap way to add some smart functionality to an ageing TV, then Now TV is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for a box that supports both Netflix and Lovefilm then Now TV won’t serve you well for the time being – but for the price it’s hard not to be impressed by Sky’s first attempt at a fully-fledged Internet TV service.

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.

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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.

Life’s Good: LG 2013 Product Showcase

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LG invited us to take a look at their plans for our living room for 2013. Whilst we didn’t enjoy their choice of curtains, they had some amazing suggestions for audio/visual equipment.

The future’s looking pretty clever, with 90% of LG’s upcoming TV and AV roadmap Smart-enabled. Smartphones have really set the bar quite high for this version of artificial intelligence so it’s good to see manufacturers stepping up to this challenge. We covered LG’s magic remote when it was launched but it’s impressive having a first-hand play with the 3D gestures and voice commands. LG’s Smart TV platform still hasn’t quite make social media on TVs useful, but the automatic inclusion of streaming services such as iPlayer, LoveFilm and Netflix is delightful and speaks to a more modern way to consume content. LG were also keen to show off their range of second-screen options that enabled you to move your content around the house – the living room of the future may be the kitchen, or garden or wherever you happen to be. LG were keen to show off their monster 84-inch ULTRA HD TV (LM960V), which is available to buy in the UK now. The LA960W was far more modest at 47- and 55 inches and beautifully designed.

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But great looks are nothing without great sound and LG had a range of home cinema options for us to play with. The BH9430OW is a classic surround sound set-up, the kind which I actually see less and less of these days. Bundled with a 3D BluRay player, the system cranks out 1460W of power through aramid fibre speaker cones, for crisp sound. The two rear satellite speakers are wireless, which is a boon for those hoping for a clutter-less environment. The 3D sounds is impressive, but it’s hard to gauge if it’s a distraction or part of an immersive experience in a media showcase setting. The NB4530A was LG’s take on the increasingly popular soundbar. At just 35 mm the 310 W soundbar can comfortably blend into most homes and can wirelessly sync with your TV or smartphone and even comes with a wireless subwoofer (we’re keen on anything that cuts down on cable clutter!).

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As music lovers, we also enjoyed the CM2630DAB, even though a CD playing hi-fi system felt incredibly old-fashioned, despite the inclusion of Bluetooth streaming and USB connection. Our modern-minds felt much more at home with the ND8630 Dual Docking station, that works with Android and Apple devices. The ND8630 has Bluetooth and Airplay streaming and NFC connectivity, all so you can access its 80w of rich sound.

CM2630DAB:£199
NB4530A: £349
BH9430OW: £699

Image courtesy of Twitter user @jegarharp

Rdio launches Vdio for TV and movies on demand

Vdio

Music streaming service Rdio has launched a new Vdio site for streaming TV shows and movies on demand. Unlike Rdio, Vdio adopt a pay-per-item approach rather than a monthly subscription model, with content available to buy or rent. The service is currently only available to existing Rdio Unlimited subscribers, or those who sign up in the next 60 days, who each receive £20 worth of credit to spend on Vdio. A more widespread roll-out is expected in the near future, though an exact date has yet to be specified.

It’s been a busy couple of years for on-demand video in the UK. Netflix jumped over the Atlantic at the start of 2012, while the Tesco-owned BlinkBox has been busy expanding its catalogue of content for those who prefer to pay as they go. Long-standing DVD rental firm Lovefilm, now run by Amazon, also offers a comprehensive collection of television shows and films to stream to your computer or mobile device, and on top of all this are the services offered by the traditional channels (Sky, the BBC, ITV) and the big players (Apple’s iTunes and Google Play).

As with Rdio, there are aspects to Vdio to help you manage your favourite films and programmes, and discover new material easily. “It’s not just that we’ve got amazing content,” wrote the Rdio team in a blog post, “but that the experience is now geared to get you from searching to watching faster. We’re introducing the notion of Sets — playlists for TV shows and movies — so anyone can make and share lists of their favourites, making it easier than ever to discover new stuff. Or, you can just check out what your friends are watching in the moment and jump in.”

Vdio is Web and iPad-only for the time being, though there is the promise of support for more platforms down the line. Log into the site at www.vdio.com and you’ll find some big headliners, including Argo, Skyfall, Breaking Bad, Doctor Who and The West Wing, though the catalogue currently lacks depth — only seasons 1 and 4 of Mad Men are available, for example. As with Rdio, the Web app is slick, well-designed and intuitive, and if Vdio can get the right content in place it could be a serious challenger in an increasingly crowded field.

One For All: Indoor Aerials to Tackle 4G Interference

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Everyone has gotten terribly excited about the emergence of 4G – and for those who live or work in central London and other cities, much has been made of the fantastic upload and download speeds you can already see on your smartphones.

But one of the downsides of the progression made in data speeds is that the rollout of 4G across the 800MHz spectrum this year could lead to up to two million UK homes suffering interference with their Freeview signal. So say aerial makers OneForAll, which pinpoints homes near a 4G transmitter, blocks of flats with one aerial and places where the Freeview signal is already weak as those most likely to have issues with reception.

To combat the problem, One For All has produced a pair of indoor aerials that feature built-in 4G LTE filters designed to cut down interference from the 4G signals. It works by cleaning the transmission received by yourset-top box, which means that any signals above the 790MHz spectrum are filtered out.

SV9395

The top-of-the-range aerial is the SV9395, an amplified indoor antenna for the best TV reception up to Full HD and also in 3D. It features 360-degree multi-patch technology, which increases reception capability, allowing the aerial to be positioned flat, standing or on the wall. It has a touch control digital amplifier up to 51dB and is DVB-T/T2, Freeview and DAB compatible.

The SV9385 is a smaller antenna with active noise reduction filters including the innovative 4G LTE filter and a GSM-block filter. It offers dual-patch technology that offers gives it a 180-degree reception angle and has an adjustable digital amplifier up to 47dB.

Both have gold-plated coaxial cables and will work up to 15 miles from the nearest TV transmitter. You can check your distance from the transmitter at the OFA . Follow the steps for Aerials.

The All In One SV9395 (£49.95) and SV9385 (£39.99) can be found at Currys, Amazon, Maplins and Tesco. For more information go to OneForAll.

But before you splash out, check out the at800 site. Ofcom made it part of the bidding process in the 4G auction that the winners would fund an organisation to help any homes affected. That organisation is at800 and it should proactively identify who is affected and what can be done to help them. They will provide filters for aerials to tackle the problem – but only one per household so you may have to purchase more. Where the filters are not strong enough to work, the organisation will cover the costs of moving your TV service to cable or some other solution. You can register your interest to be kept up to date with developments on the website.

Ultra-HD TVs: Why It’s Actually Good News For 3D

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In the tech world a general rule is: more is usually always better. And that’s certainly the case with Ultra-HD TVs which have 4 times as many pixels than current HDTVs – but before you considering spending a cool £25,000 on one (yes, the price of a medium saloon car) there’s a few things you should probably be aware of.

Before the term Ultra HD was decided upon, they were originally known as 4K, thanks in part to Sony, but the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), a group of industry experts, was setup in 2012 to inform and educate consumers on the new screen technology, and decide on a roadmap for the new tech.

When HDTVs first made their way into homes 5 years ago, there was a lot of confusing newfangled terms like HD, HD-Ready and High Definition being banded around. Basically, it took a couple of years to get a unified minimum standard that all manufacturers would need to adhere to for their TVs to be labeled as HD-Ready, much to the confusion of consumers.

The recent decision to rebrand 4K came about after the CEA conducted research into what term would be best to differentiate between current HD and 4K. The research found that the term “Ultra-HD” was the best performer in terms of helping consumers understand the technology compared to current 1080p HDTVs.

The CEA decided for a 4K screen to quality as Ultra HD it must have at least 8 million pixels at a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 in a 16:9 aspect. It would also need at least one digital input able to handle a full 3,840 x 2,160 resolution without relying solely upon up scaling.

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So why is Ultra HD So Important?
Well, there’s no denying that a TV with 4 times as many pixels is going to produce a mind-blowing picture compared to current TVs. But it’s actually 3D that going to see the biggest benefit from the extra pixels.

When viewing 3D content, the new resolution will to be able produce two 1080p pictures for each eye, which will make a significant difference to the illusion of 3D, eyestrain and the overall quality of the picture.

There are, of course, pros and cons for Ultra High Definition TVs, but it seems as if this new technology has already begun to overshadow 3D in recent months.

But before anyone should consider an Ultra HD TV there’s the small matter of content. There actually isn’t any content available to consumers yet. Another major stumbling block in future is distribution. Will Ultra HD films come on a new physical disc medium or will consumers download content? No one really knows. It’s thought that a new revision of Blu-Ray will finally be nailed down next year, but until then, no one really knows how content will be delivered.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ultra HD TVs have no place at the moment. Most TVs today are 1080p, but spend comparatively little time actually outputting 1080p content.

This is mainly because our time is spent watching cable, satellite or basic streaming services like Netflix or LoveFilm. That’s all medium-high definition at resolutions of 1080i or 720p. Then your TV up scales that video to 1080p, and if they do it well, the results can be incredible.

For the first crop of Ultra HD TVs to succeed they need to be fantastic at up scaling and several manufacturers at CES seem to recognise this, and are touting their products’ video processing prowess as key factor to their early success.

The most important reason Ultra HD TVs will be more significant than 3D is because is it will have a greater potential to impact upon image quality. 3D isn’t out of the picture by any means, but it will take Ultra HD TVs for 3D to truly realise its potential.

Haier at CES: Finally a good reason to shout at the TV

Ooh! Ooh! It’s exciting CES news time! Haier does indeed hold innovation very close to its heart, and that’s really very exciting, not in a cheesy way either, this lot are on it like Donkey Kong!

The brand is changing the 3D TV experience and it’s awesome to watch it all unfold. Haier’s glass-free 3D TV removes the need for wearing 3D glasses, thus making the experience more enjoyable and convenient…b…e…a…utiful!

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In a further development, Haier is showcasing its newly upgraded mind wave technology. This completely and totally revamps the interaction between viewer and TV by giving users the power to control the TV – from changing channels to volume level – with their mind. With their mind! We thought that might need some repetition; emphasis and all that…imagine reading that like an echo.

So, yeah, basically guys, you’re going to be using your eyes to change channel, or perhaps even simple brain waves – with technology developed in partnership with NeuroSky. Also on offer are voice and gesture controls, but really, when you think about all the other stuff that’s on offer here, it’s a bit boring isn’t it? Sorry, but err, yeah.

Man, these guys are unstoppable! They’ve unleashed their damn powerful connected TV. Yes, sir! Once you plug the delightful new Android Dongle to an HDMI and a USB port. Using the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon quad core S4 Prime series MPQ8064 chipset, featuring game-console quality Adreno 320 GPU and running Android 4.2, the HXT products will enable the user to access an infinite number of apps, thus opening up for the living room console gaming experience without the mess of separate cables and equipment. One of the most interesting features here, is the “smart box” which includes an embedded camera that is easily mounted on an existing TV, transforming it into an all-singing-all-dancing piece of awesome kit. What’s more, the Haier Android Dongle comes with a remote control equipped with gyro to make navigation fairly simple – it’s a point and click deal, and that’s just fine with us.

In a thoughtful move and for extra ease, The HXT comes with a Wi-Fi Direct connected remote that is great for everything you do with your TV. Why is this important? C’mon! This means you can be covered for all the trivial stuff that people forget about; like changing input and channel to more advanced functions such as searching streaming content using QWERTY keys, to (and yes, this bit excites us the most too), console-type gaming using motion or joystick control; this super-remote sure promises a lot, and we reckon it’s gonna deliver, too!

Worth noting as well is that, Haier also announced that it will be launching its first Ultra HD TVs, with 50-, 65- and 64-inch 4K televisions on the horizon and offering up 3840×2160 resolutions.

Haier on fire, fo’ real! There’s some excellent stuff to come from this lot in the early part of ’13!

LG Magic Remote: Pick Witch channel to watch

Just as he who controls the Spice controls the universe, he who controls the remote controls the living room. And if you’ve seen My Neighbours the Yamadas you’ll know the almost magical power the remote control can have in the living room. LG are aware of the levels of reverence necessary for the device and have announced an all-new Magic Remote for its CINEMA 3D Smart TV range.

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“Magic” seems a bit farfetched for a plastic stick with a couple of buttons on it. Fortunately the remotes does much more than that and utilises voice, gesture, point and wheel control to exercise commands.

Apple raised the bar for voice technology, simply by claiming that Siri was magic and putting the (often disappointing) technology in the hands of millions of eager customers. Voice recognition is fast being integrated into all manner of devices and expectations go far beyond barking simple commands like “Shields Up!” or “Engage”. LG Magic Remote uses new Natural Language Recognition software makes giving voice commands as easy as regular speech – users can simply say “Show me Gangnam Style video” and the new Magic Remote will understand that you are about to show off your horse riding dance skills to your mates.

“LG is committed to providing innovative home entertainment solutions and the Magic Remote is a key pillar of the CINEMA 3D Smart TV user experience. Building on an already impressive feature set, the latest version boasts accurate language recognition and its gesture, wheel and point control options makes the Magic Remote stand out amongst its competition as a truly intuitive device.”
Havis Kwon, President and CEO of the LG Electronics Home Entertainment Company

Too many remotes clutter the desks and tables of people around the land so it’s a relief to know that devices ranging from Smart TVs, set-top boxes, sound bars and Blu-ray players can be effectively managed with just one Magic Remote in the living room.

With the point feature, the LG Magic Remote becomes an extension of the human body, making it an ideal motion-based video game controller. The wheel control is perfect for scrolling up and down web pages or zooming in and out when using applications such as Google Maps. And by making specific gestures with the remote, users can quickly access oft-used menus or perform frequently needed functions, which might be a little faster but is also a fun gimmick.