Saturday, September 21, 2013

Google Chromecast: Great for Youtube and Netflix but not Ready for Prime Time

I was drawn to Google's latest consumer product, ChromeCast.  A $35 device that looks like a USB flash drive plugs into any TV with an HDMI input and allows you to easily stream internet content to your living room.  It doesn't come with a remote. Instead you use your phone, tablet or laptop for setup and control.  The short story is that I'm already using it all the time but feel that it hasn't quite lived up to its hype. While the advertising implies that it works from your iOS device, its useless on my iPhone and iPad for anything other than YouTube and Netflix videos. However this functionality alone makes it worthwhile for me. ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.

Here's a Google video showcasing their new product:

My three kids have grown up in the on-demand era; the majority of their TV consumption is based on recorded shows, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix and an ever increasing amount of online videos.  We enforce parental control by not allowing them to surf online unsupervised.  So before ChromeCast, the three of them would frequently huddle around a monitor in my study where I would select videos.  The other option was watching on the living room TV using our DirecTV receiver or DVD player, both of which have the ability to stream online content.  Neither solution was great; getting four chairs in my study was difficult and watching in the living room wasn't much better. It is slow and painfully inefficient to use a standard remote control as a keyboard and I couldn't queue up videos. The result was a poor browsing experience, especially with a three year old who likes switching videos every minute.

ChromeCast has solved both problems for me.  I can use my phone, tablet or laptop to search for YouTube videos and queue them up.  Worth noting that once you "cast" a video to your TV, the device you are using is freed up and the content is streamed directly to your TV.  So at that point you can turn it off, leave the room or continue to search without any disruption of what is playing. It supports HD so the picture is really fantastic even on a big screen TV if you have a cable internet connection. 

Setup is pretty easy with a slick way to install and select your WiFi connection, but maybe a bit too slick for its own good.  It failed the first time because I used my iPad 1 and halfway through it decided that it wasn't compatible with iOS 5. Should have taken a developer a minute to put that check up front.  On my second attempt with my iPad 3 it worked perfectly.  Here'a video that shows the process.  

Unlike any recent electronic device, it's dirt cheap at $35. For once you don't have to game plan how to convince your spouse. An Apple TV or Roku is $100 and both currently have more functionality and you can click here for a comparison.  However, its only a matter of time until ChromeCast can stream your local content and has wider device compatibility. If you are a Hulu customer and don't want to pay for Hulu Plus; a Chromecast and a laptop can let you stream your regular Hulu content to your TV.  

Google and other companies are also actively working to increase ChromeCast compatibility. By the end of the year we should see many more services supported. It's also small and portable.  I'm definitely taking it on trips and will be adding it to the list of questions to ask a hotel. "Do you have WiFi?  Is there a pool? Do your TVs have an HDMI input??"

Chromecast advertising implied that one could broadcast any content you can view by using a Chrome browser.  That is true for laptops, desktops and Android phones.  However, on my iOS device Google still hasn't released plugins for the iOS version of Chrome.  It also only supports iOS 6 and later; so I am unable to use my iPad or iPhone 3 with the device.  There is a Chromecast app in the App Store but it only lets you install the Chromecast. So, say I want to share Facebook photos on my living room TV, my only option would be to use my laptop. Beyond the limited iOS compatibility, the other cons are that you can't use it like an Apple TV to share your photos, videos and music.  There is no support of iOS 5 or earlier; I have no idea why they wouldn't support iOS 5 devices.  There is no technical reason to exclude iOS 5 devices.  If they want to be an Apple killer they have to do simple things like this.

In summary the ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.  Most TVs made in the last ten years have an HDMI input; if you don't have one then its time to get a new TV. If YouTube and Netflix content is not a current priority then there is no compelling need to get one and give time to mature.  

You can pick up a ChromeCast at Amazon or other retailer. At $35 it will definitely make for a killer Christmas present!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Six Features I Love about Apple iOS 7

Following my post from last week about iOS7 UI features I disliked I'm following up with what I love the most.  iOS7 is available globally on Wednesday, September 18.  The minimum requirements are an iPhone4 or an iPad 2 and it is a free upgrade.

1. Improved battery life!! I am seeing much better battery life, probably 20%-30% better, than I was previously getting.  My Iphone 4 is three years old and even after getting a new battery I had to charge it more than once a day. I was on the verge of throwing it out when I upgraded to iOS 7.  Since then the full charge can last me a day and a half and it makes a huge difference not having to run out of juice every day.  Apple has really worked hard to maximize battery life including minimizing the amount of data pulled by apps running in the background; their efforts show.

2. Things just work faster. I can't really quote any specific metrics but the new UI is snappier and much more responsive than before. Part of the credit has to be given to the new design, elements of which I criticized in my previous post.  It also works better even with 20 apps running in the background.  It really does feel like a new phone and most everything works faster than before.

3. Quick access menu! The new quick access to settings, pictured below, is something I started using daily from Day 1. I can quickly and easily access and toggle settings such as WIFI, the alarm, rotation, bluetooth, and brightness.  The one thing missing is a quick link to the 3G/2G setting, which I am continuously turning on and off to save battery life since 3G and 4G eats away at it. 

4. Camera features.  Built in filters, square images and other effects that, previously, you had to use an app like Camera+ or Instagram. It also just seems to take much better images and that logic was
 improved upon.  Also the feature that lets you browse through images is definitely a huge time saver if you take lots of images on your iPhone.

5. Safari and multiple tabs. I was using Chrome on my iOS devices just because it was better than Safari at handling multiple tabs.  However Chrome does crash quite often and I was looking for new options. Safari in iOS 7 has been vastly improved, is really stable, and comes with a wonderful graphical way to quickly flip through your tabs, just like you would with your album collection in iTunes.  Even on an iPhone it works quite well and you can quickly see what is on each tab.  A maximum of four tabs are displayed at one time but you can easily scroll through if you had more.  

6. Folders can finally have more than 9 icons! Having used iOS devices since 2007, I probably have a couple of hundred icons and apps.  And even using folders in iOS 6 I still had at least four or five screens of icons that I inevitably had to thumb through to find my rarely used apps. In iOS7 you can put more than nine icons in a folder. It still only displays nine icons but the 10th icon onwards is accessible by simply swiping to the left.  In the screen shot below you can see how my News folder has more than 9 apps, noted by the two bullet points at the bottom. This feature saves me tons of screen real estate and I was able to easily get all my stuff on two screens of icons and that's made it much more functional for me.

So those are the features that appealed to me the most. The common theme is that each item highlighted saves me time in some way. I could care less about new features such Air Drop, the compass and the iTunes redesign.  If I was going on a hike in the wilderness I would just stick to a real compass. Overall a solid upgrade and I suspect many existing iPhone 4 and 5 users will benefit from the software and will feel less of an urge to go out and buy a new phone.  F
or a full review of iOS 7 features there are several great videos on Youtube such as this one below.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How Directv Sunday Ticket Addicts can Cut the Cord and Save Money

As a devoted SF 49ers fan who has watched almost every game since 1983, a staple of my television watching is Directv and the NFL Sunday Ticket package. Since I don't live in the Bay Area, Sunday Ticket gives me access to all NFL games. The only black out exceptions are when the game is on a national network or if the local team does not sell out a home game.  Living in Los Angeles which does not have a pro football team, the latter is not an issue. Since Directv has an exclusive deal with the NFL, I've been forced to be a subscriber. At $250-$300 per year its not cheap and recently I've been looking for ways to "cut the cord".  For those trying to save money or looking to cut the cord, here are three different approaches.

1. Slingbox.  Slingbox is a device you set up that streams the TV content over the internet.  It needs both TV and internet connections and HD is no problem as long as your internet connection can handle it on both ends.  To use it to get football games you obviously need to know someone in the NFL market where your team plays.  So you call up parents or Aunt Ethel or anyone who doesn't mind you setting up the device in their house.  Once set up you can stream the game over the internet to your location and you are golden.  The only caveat is that the person at the Slingbox house has to watch the exact same content that you are watching.  So if Aunt Ethel doesn't like pro football, see if she has an unused cable connection in the guest room or other you can use.  Slingbox come in three flavors - Slingbox Solo, Slingbox 350 and Slingbox 500, ranging in price from $100 to $300.  As long as the cable and ethernet are close together the lower end devices work perfectly.  If they aren't the high end, Slingbox 500, has WiFi and solves this issue.  You can find the whole range of products on here and elsewhere, starting at $60 for used devices.  

Pros: Cheap - one time set up of cost 
Cons: Requires Internet, at the mercy of the host, cannot watch all NFL games

2. Google Chromecast and Madden 25. This is a limited time option but if you are looking for the cheapest solution for the 2013 season then look no further.  Chromecast is the cool Google gadget that costs $35 and lets you watch HD internet content on any TV with an HDMI connector.  Madden 25 costs $100 and you have to buy it on Amazon to get the NFL Sunday Ticket internet package as well.  Note that if Amazon has sold out of the Madden 25 package then you can find copies on Ebay from $100 and up. And if you are trying to get it as cheap as possible you can always sell the video game.

Pros: Cheap - $40 for NFL Sunday Ticket, enables you to leave Directv 
Cons: Requires Internet, not a long term solution.

3. Negotiate with Directv.  Don't sign up for the package until the very last minute.  In my experience the negotiation window is in your favor right before the second game of the season. For whatever reason, that is when they count how many subscribers and they are most open to discounts.  With their marginal cost of adding you being close to zero, you might be able to negotiate them down to $100 for the year.

Pros: Saves you a few bucks 
Cons: Success can fluctuate widely from year to year

In summary, the Slingbox solution is the cheapest option long term if you can find the right partner in crime. Either of the first two options enable you to watch the games wherever you have an ethernet connection; so a good solution if you travel or aren't always at home on Sunday.  I decided to go with the Chromecast/Madden solution just so I could watch all the games and will report back on the experience later this season. I would love to hear about other suggestions - beyond going to a bar - to watch NFL games.  Go Niners!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Top Six Things I Hate about Apple iOS 7

For my inaugural blog post, I’m going to give my assessment of the Apple's new iOS 7 user interface changes.  iOS 7 is scheduled to be released later this month but as a registered iOS developer I've been running the new operating system on my iPhone 4 and iPad 3 since the beta was released in June. I am currently running the Release 6 beta.  Changes to the design were a cornerstone of the new version and, like some of you, I listened to Johnny Ive's comments about the design and quote, "true simplicity" of the new operating system which I have included here (roll video):

I should add that I've owned both an iPhone and an iPad since the day they were released in 2007 and 2010, respectively, so my comments will be most relevant to long time Apple mobile users.

1. Apple has replaced many of the icons we have gotten used to.  What happened to my favorite icons?  The Settings button doesn't look the same, neither does Notes and Contacts; it's totally different. If you have read anything about iOS design philosophy you know that Apple is moving from the current skeuomorphic, aka raised buttons design, to flatter, more realistic and minimalist icons.  I’m all in favor of the flattening of images because they lend themselves to various form factors – from your desktop monitor to your smart phone to your future smart watch.  They do look different for the first few days but you get used to it. My issue is that I was forced to spend time trying to find icons I have grown familiar with over the last six years. Couldn't these icons have been flattened and yet still retain the same color schemes??  All I can say is that my eyes were off the road for several seconds in the weeks after I upgraded. I won't be surprised if the accident rate goes up a notch in the first few weeks after its release. 

Many icons look different

2. The gesture to get to Search is now a downward swipe.  For six years I have been swiping left to right on my home screen to get to Search.  Six years!  Now all of a sudden that doesn't work.  It’s now a downward swipe. The win is that it works on any screen, not just the Home Screen.  But be careful; swipe too close to the top and you get the Notifications drop down. 
Since left to right swipe on the Home screen does nothing now, my solution would have been for Apple to simply leave left the left to right swipe on the home screen and allowed us to get to Search the way we always have. 

3. The settings upward swipe affects scrolling.  This is a new feature, pictured in the image on the right below, that gives you quick access to frequently used settings. But it ends up displaying the frequently used settings way too often. For example when I am scrolling through any long article or other piece of content that has a scroll bar.  Unless you are being careful, you will often "accidentally" swipe too high or too low.  
 In general the swipes need to be improved or it becomes an exercise in futility, especially when reading articles on the small screens of your iPhone or iPod. My solution for both up and down swipes would be to limit the area to the middle part of the screen.  By having it work right up to the right most edge, swipe up and swipe down needlessly affect scroll bars.

4. There are two different color schemes for ON and OFF.  The settings section of iOS 7 is pretty clear; green means ON and white means OFF.  But in the quick access area, black means ON and white means OFF.  You can see the differences in the screen shot below.  Why not just stick with good old green and white in both places and be consistent?  Months later I still have to remind myself which color means ON…black or white.

On/Off icons are inconsistent

5. Shutting down an app requires a new gesture.  Double click the Home button and just like before a list of apps that are running appears.  But the little red Close button in the top left of each app window is no longer there.  Instead, in order to get the app to close, you have to swipe the window up and away.  Now this action might be simpler to Johnny and his band of merry UI purists, but to me it takes more finger motion and therefore more time to close an app.  And more time to do anything plus increasing the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome trumps design. Would it be that difficult to keep the little close app button instead of getting rid of it?  

6. The minimum brightness is still not dim enough.  Okay, I admit it, this is nothing new with iOS 7.  But just for once can we get dim to go dimmer.  Does no one on the Apple design team ever read their email or surf the web in a pitch black situation?  I tend to read my email 24/7 and definitely when I wake up overnight.  Even at the dimmest brightness level my iPhone and iPad it is so bright that I have to squint plus it disturbs my wife.  It's like a freaking flashlight.  Seems like allowing super dim would be super easy, save battery life, and something they would have resolved by now. Would make this dimwitted person happy!

So that's about it and the common theme is most of these changes made me less efficient.  I also have four iOS devices at home and some can't be upgraded, so that doesn't help either.  What I’ve always loved about Apple iOS devices is their simplicity; as a user I've never had to read a manual when a new device or a new patch has been released.  With iOS 7, several things that have worked a certain way for years have suddenly stopped working. Having to spend time finding something or actually having to look up the solution is mildly annoying.

I could ramble on about other things that bothered me. But I would be remiss if I failed to mention some great improvements.  So please join me next week when I comment on what I like best.