Monday, December 24

Roku 2 XS: Big upgrade

Some readers may recall I'm a longtime Roku owner -- I turned my family on to them the first Christmas the original model was on sale, I picked up a Roku XD a year or two later, and finally this month I upgaded to the Roku 2 XS.

I didn't need WiFi vs. Ethernet as I already have both options, and both work well. I was on the fence until I learned that my long-desired Amazon Cloud Player was only available on Roku 2 models with more recent firmware than my Roku XD, so the audio capabilities of the Roku 2 XS are a nice plus. 1080p vs. 720p resolution is of course a big bonus too, especially now that Comcast appears to have stopped shaping my streaming video traffic to the point of serious stream downgrades (think Web 1.0 pre-Flash pre-broadband video).

The new device is nice. It boots faster, it has a MicroSD card slot to increase memory/storage capacity -- older models like my XD have trouble handling a large number of channels. The interface itself is snappier, noticeably more responsive. The Instant Replay feature performs much better, much quicker, much less likely to pause due to a need to buffer when you hit it three or four times in quick succession. I have a 2 GB MicroSD card in the slot, I'm not certain what the max capacity is, or where the threshold of real benefits is reached for the unit vs. memory card size.

Perhaps most importantly, the Roku 2 XS does not have the completely random and intermittent audio cut-out problems I experience with the Roku XD. I had blamed my low-end Onkyo network receiver for this, as others have seen similar issues with the same Onkyo receiver model, but eventually I determined the audio issue only seemed to arise on the Roku input. Since going to the 2 XS, I have had no audio cut-out issues at all, over several days of heavy, near-constant streaming. The cut-out problem would happen repeatedly over the course of any given day, sometimes clumped together in very annoying bunches, so several days of no cut-out is a huge improvement for sure.

One improvement I was hoping for but am not seeing is in terms of overall system stability. These Roku media hubs seem to have a tendency, particularly after lengthy/heavy use, but sometimes also not long after a fresh reboot and a period of no use, to occasionally stop responding to remote input reliably, after which they freeze, and eventually reboot. This has happened once in the four days or so I've had the Roku 2 XS online. It would be nice if at least it were to happen less frequently than my Roku XD crashes, but that remains to be seen.

The new remote is nice, packed with better networking gear (no line of sight required anymore) and stuff like gyros and accelerometers. It's a heavy remote, and I have to wonder how long batteries are going to last. It's also something of a usabiltiy fail: in the semi-dark or dark of a TV viewing room, it's difficult to orient the remote in the dark, because it's overly symmetrical. The cord that designates the "bottom" is invisible in the dark and no use at all. A simple upgrade to the case design would make this a rockin' little accessory.

Game offerings seem to remain pretty limited. I played me some Angry Birds. It might be good for drunks at parties ... safer than the XBOX 360 with the Kinect going after the party gets started perhaps.

Finally, Amazon Cloud Player channel on Roku: freakin' sweet, and about dang time! I love having my entire music collection available without having to explicitly download it through a PC to my DLNA-capable QNAP NAS device. That being said, I will continue to, and recommend other Amazon MP3/Amazon Cloud Player customers do the same, download my entire collection to local physical media, just in case Amazon ever does something funky with my cloud collection, or something bad happens to the Internet.

Tuesday, November 6

My initial impressions of the Microsoft Surface RT

I've had a 32 GB Surface RT in my hands for about 18 hours now, 11 or so of them waking, 6 or so of them working, so apologies if this review is a bit light.

It's also not going to be overwhelmingly positive.

First, I'm very disappointed in the pre-order process. I placed my order the second day of pre-order, and was told my device would be delivered by October 26th, the standard message displayed when you went to pre-order. Nothing was said about backorder, yet I didn't receive shipping notification until Friday, November 2nd. Thanks, Microsoft, way to burn a fan. If I had known it was going to backorder, I would have bought it the minute the doors opened over at the Oakbrook Terrace Microsoft Store.

Second, the activation process. Having Binged this a bit, I see I'm not the only one whose Surface refused to go beyond "limited connectivity" after being provided valid WiFi information. Connectivity couldn't be established without a restart, which as far as I know means you need to complete signing in before doing a restart via software. Therefore, I'm forced to create a new local user to sign in as, instead of using my Windows Live account like I did with my Windows 8 Pro installation process. You win no points, Microsoft, for the awkward WiFi and non-uniform sign-in and activation experience you thereby force on users.

Those are my big beefs. The rest of the experience is OK. I don't really understand the extreme PR around the hinge mechanism. It's OK. It's not great.

How do I see all active applications? How do I decide to kill/exit from an application? This is not obvious to me at this point in time. I feel like I leave a lot of applications running in the background. Maybe user deficiency here, remains to be seen.

The Maps experience is OK, could be pretty good ... but I wish it had GPS and 3G/LTE. How truly useful is a Maps application on a mobile device without GPS? And how useful is a mobile device with only WiFi connectivity? Microsoft needs to at least offer the OPTION to stick a SIM card in there, even if it's not a feature of the basic model.

The gestures afforded by the interface and software are growing on me, as is the screen sharing between apps. The gestures feel more intuitive to me than Mac trackpads and iPads I've used occasionally in the past.

The 1.0 MP cameras are disappointing.

The Windows Store experience is OK. The Office RT experience is OK but not great, not highly touch-centric.

I did two conference calls to a free VoIP teleconference services yesterday using Skype with a USB headset over 802.11n. Seemed like there was a fair amount of noise that was due to my client, other people on the calls said their ends sounded fine. I do Skype calls over the same Wireless-N access point using different hardware (HP laptop usually) all the time without these issues.

The fit and finish is pretty nice. The screen is pretty decent. The resolution seems pretty appropriate for the screen size, especially when held at arm's length. Video viewing at same distance was pretty good. Can't envision a lot of setting this up on a table and watching from a distance however. Will eventually explore the HDMI-out capability as well. I had thought it was supposed to be proprietary, but it looks like it's simple MicroHDMI?

The Touch cover is ok ... not loving it, but it may grow on me. Judgement not yet rendered. Not necessarily feeling better than typing on glass right off, but it's nice not to obscure the screen with a keyboard.

Finis for now.  If you have not, and you're in the US, please go vote today!

Wednesday, October 3

Crowdfunding: not a shortcut to personal dream fulfillment

Kickstarter, IndieGoGo ... crowdfunding is hot. Crowdfunding, with its low barriers to entry and inherently viral marketing facets, is making it possible for a whole new generation of ideas and causes to receive funding that might otherwise fall by the wayside. An innovative alternative to the well-trodden conventional paths to raising funds for a venture.

It's also bringing out the me-firsts among us. People who get turned down by, or do not bother with, traditional funding sources, because their idea is simply not a worthwhile, dollar-generating investment. Sometimes these are dreamers, sometimes these are people who are too blind or entitled to realize what they're expecting and demanding from people. Or, they simply do not care.

Don't get me wrong -- I love crowdfunding. I was an early Pebble backer on Kickstarter. A colleague of mine recently funded an exploratory trip back to his native Nepal so he and his team could lay the groundwork for building schools there in the coming years. I've funded a number of smaller, nichey ideas or products that intrigued me, some fitting a need I have, some simply tickling my gadget pickle. (Go ahead, laid that one out there for ya.)

Which brings me to: "hackert0wn:" "A pioneering educational center for clean technology and sustainability featuring the world's first marketplace for hackers." Basically a bunch of shipping containers glommed together, dedicated to everything from hacking to sleeping to machine shopping to retail to gardening.

1. Lose the l33t speak. Does anyone take that crap seriously? Especially when dealing with seven-figure sums?

2. The head dreamer is a guy who co-founded a hackerspace and has some sort of lifelong dream to put together a green building. If hacking spaces are so successful, why can't he bootstrap hackert0wn with his own funds from the hackerspace?

3. The timeline is ludicrously short - starting sometime between now and February 2013, and ending by October 2013. I doubt even half the permits would be acquired in that time, much less the containers, much less the associated infrastructure, much less equipment, much less finishing details on interiors, much less the people required to keep such a project running day-to-day.

4. What's the goal, other than to satisfy one guy's green dreams? What is the requested $1.5 million going toward, really, other than one guy's giant sandbox?

I'm sorry but crowdfunding is not the answer to getting rejected by banks and VCs. I'm quite confident that this project will not be funded, but I find it simply audacious that any rational adult would go out and ask the public for one and a half million dollars to do little or nothing more than fund his dream to begin with. What real benefit is realized to the funders? To the community? If there's a true need for something like this, then it's something that should be capable of being funded in a conventional fashion with conventional expectations around business plans and an actual return on investment. An expectation of fiduciary responsibility.

As it stands, hackert0wn, and a growing number of other crowdfunding projects like it, come off smelling like selfish, entitled, clueless beggars who are hoping to get lucky off the stupidity of mobs. Don't ruin a good thing, ya jerks.

Friday, August 24

My day was made today by someone "paying it forward"

About 5 or 6 years ago, I was just a little kid playing on the internet. I wanted a domain name, and you got it for me and let me host it on your server. Just wanted thank you for that, and let you know I'm paying it forward and doing the same for some other kids in my community. Much love and many thanks, James

Thanks James, that's awesome to hear! And you're still quite welcome.

Monday, January 30

Cutting the cable: mission accomplished

After thinking about it for a couple years, after having had my options multiplied significantly between netflix, Roku, redbox, Amazon, Kindle Fire, Hulu Plus and Vudu, and probably more that I am managing to overlook, I disconnected cable and my beloved DVR about two weeks ago. $80 a month for a time suck with mostly crap, commercial-filled content, erased.

It has not been as rough as I had feared. I miss CNN, but that's about it. I wish CBS shows like Big Bang Theory and CSI were on Hulu Plus -- the non-HD versions available from the CBS website are not adequate, and buying TV seasons via Amazon is pricey.

I'm considering Amazon Instant Video TV Passes for the few TV shows I really like and cannot get for $8/month through Hulu Plus, like The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels. It's a hard sell though: $2.99 for HD per episode, ~5% off if you buy the TV Pass. Yikes, that adds up! I find it pretty nuts that some "half-hour" (read: 21-23 minutes) shows are also $2.99 through Amazon -- looking at YOU, Big Bang Theory. No way am I paying $3 for 20 minutes of entertainment.

A lot of Fox stuff is available on Hulu Plus, but not everything, which is a bit of a disappointment. Almost everything on Fox seems to be available on Hulu basic, but that's not HD, and you can't stream it through your Roku or direct to TV with capabilities. Stupid licensing deals and other such BS.

Hulu Plus seems to occasionally bug out my later model first generation Roku. Wish that did not happen. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have always behaved pretty flawlessly, why can Hulu not get it right?

I'm utilizing my netflix DVD subscription more efficiently now, rather than letting discs sit around. I'm hitting the redbox kiosks at the grocery store and office which is a great, affordable option, as long as I remember to return the discs a night or two later. If I keep them out any longer it is roughly the same cost, but more convenient, to rent via Amazon Instant Video or Vudu.

Finding some watchable stuff in netflix and Amazon Prime all-you-can-eat streaming options, but frankly, not a lot of great content. Old TV. Older movies. Direct to DVD movies. Some diamonds in the rough, but neither of these options' libraries really appeals to me greatly.

What I really miss is a 24x7 newschannel. I find myself watching Fox News and Al-Jazeera thanks to their part-time or partially-available livestreaming. CNN Radio news is available via Roku Newscaster, which is great, but not long enough to serve as ongoing background noise one occasionally dips in to throughout the day as one works. You do not want to stop every two minutes to browse to new news content -- just feed me! Roku Newscaster's design could be improved, but the content just doesn't seem to be there to provide a continuous stream.

I may pick up an HD antenna for local news, but so far, not really feeling the need.

All in all, pretty happy having cut the cable, and wish I had done it sooner.