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Google Chromecast road test – initial thoughts

We recently started trialling Google Chromebook laptops at Rokk Media. The verdict from staff is that they are a really viable alternative to Windows or an Apple Macbook Pro for general business use (particularly as we are a company-wide Google Apps user) – but only when dedicated applications outside of the Google universe aren’t needed to be run from the device.

Google have recently rolled out its Google Chromecast device in the UK which adds additional value to Chromebooks by allowing streaming of onscreen content directly to an HDMI enabled monitor or TV. This is perfect for running presentations or simply sharing browser based content for example.

The Chromecast is being promoted showing various content on a TV screen from YouTube, Netflix, BT Sport etc., so a would-be purchaser would be forgiven for thinking that once connected these would be ready to watch out of the box in the same way as, say the Apple TV set-top box, or an internet-ready TV set , but this is not the case. In essence the Chromecast works in harmony with an existing and separate device acting as a bridge between the device, content running on it, and the TV or monitor. It contains no content itself – in fact it doesn’t even come with a remote control.

Google are working with third party content providers to ensure as many of their apps can stream to the Chromecast as possible for putting content on your TV. At the time of writing that includes Netflix, YouTube, BT Sport, BBC iPlayer, Vevo and others (in the UK – other countries do differ, particularly the US). So – and this is the really important point, as well as the Chromecast itself (around £30 direct from Google or Amazon) you will need local wifi and a device capable of running the compatible third party apps. As the Chromecast is from Google you would correctly assume it works best from an Android enabled device including smartphones and tablets, but most of the partner apps are also available on other devices such as iPhone and iPad – and these work perfectly as well also.

As well as mobile devices you can also stream directly from any PC or laptop running the latest version of the Google Chrome browser as long as you are happy to install Google’s platform-specific browser plugin that is. The exception to this is of course with Google Chromebooks where access to the Chromecast is baked in and designed to work seamlessly from the off.

Is it worth getting one? Well, given that every internet enabled television, gaming system and set-top box available today already has most of the content currently available to Chromecast built in, including the headlining Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube apps, if you have any of these devices and that is your only goal there isn’t any real point. However, if you are looking for a way to stream photos and videos from your Android device (not possible currently outside of a Google app on your iOS device other than loading each individual file into the browser window one by one) or to show content from your computer’s Chrome browser window on a TV or monitor, then this is a very affordable solution when compared to an Apple TV for Mac OSX or Windows.

It’s worth also noting that it is possible to stream local content from a Raspberry Pi in the same way – and the device is still a few pounds cheaper (with lots of other potential uses), but it’s still very much an enthusiasts kit and nowhere near as easy to configure and get up and running as the Chromecast.

So, in summary, don’t be confused into thinking that the Google Chromecast is a set-top box, as it isn’t. You will need at the very least a mobile phone or laptop to use it with the end result simply being a way to share content with more than one person, or on a bigger screen than the one you are streaming from. If that sounds like it solves a particular need then it’s a very affordable solution that works extremely well.

Also read the Rokk Media blog post:  ‘Is Google’s Chromecast Better Than Apple TV’

Sony Announce PlayStation Now – why I’m not convinced

Sony reveal PlayStation Now at CES 2014

Sony revealed the much anticipated PlayStation Now at CES yesterday. A game streaming service based on the Gaikai technology they purchased for $380m.

Initially for US only this will enable Sony PS3 games to be played on PlayStation consoles (and eventually TVs and mobile devices) across the internet without having to have the physical disk.

Sony will provide this on a pay per game or subscription basis with other territories live before the year end.

All sounds good. But here is why I will almost certainly let this pass me by.

In the UK I rent games from Boomerang Game Rentals (www.boomerangrentals.co.uk). They are the only dedicated game rental service left in the UK after LoveFilm pulled out and Blockbuster block busted!

For £10-£15 a month ($20) I can rent any game for as long as I want, in any console format, get an original disk with no limits on how long I keep it and they cover the postage.

PS Now is probably going to cost something like £10-£20 PER GAME to rent (why cannibalise their sales market by renting them out cheaper? Movies are typically rented for half to a third of sale price of DVD) or £35-£50 per month to subscribe (based on most people not being able to get through more than two games a month anyway).

It will be limited to a PS3 games library – which will suck for PS4 owners inside a year, will be limited to 720p but in (truth feel nothing like it), suffer from lag and compression artefacts and be Sony content only – which apart from a few obvious titles will contain a lot of dross (note what’s available on PS+!)

So in short I’ll take a look nearer the time but don’t anticipate moving from Boomerang any day soon! Having access to an extensive multi-platform library at a reasonable price makes a big difference. And although Sony or Microsoft may move to halt rental (as was originally mooted regarding sale of second hand games), user outcry will keep this at bay for some time to come yet.

Scott Joplin – to Infinity and beyond

If you have played Bioshock: Infinite you will have found yourself humming a beautiful melody that plays while levels are loading throughout the game.

Although a familiar tune to me, I was keen to find out what it was and using the very helpful SoundHound for iPhone the answer soon came: Solace by Scott Joplin. A name as familiar as the tune, but in the same way I was annoyed that I didn’t have any actual knowledge to justify the familiarity. Further investigation was urgently needed.

Research called on two more of my favourite apps – Spotify and Wikipedia.

Spotify revealed a positive treasure trove of recordings – so many of them songs that have punctuated all of our lives through popular media, yet the origin had passed me by. Who was this genius? Surely a highly educated, classically trained musician – probably from an affluent middle class white background. How wrong could I be.

Wikipedia introduced me to a story that couldn’t be more different and incredibly inspirational.

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Scott Joplin was the son of former slaves, born in Texas less than a couple years after the abolition of slavery. Although from a musical family, their labourers income could not stretch to affording quality musical instruments but the young Joplin was fortunate enough to have access to a piano (owned by a local white family), with which he taught himself to play.

Through his life he perfected the early jazz ‘rag time’ style that is so evocative of the era, and arguably wrote the soundtrack to turn-of-the-century America, that went on to be featured in well known movies and TV shows such as the Oscar winning The Sting.

Although in his life time Joplin achieved reasonable success, it was not huge, and tragically before he eventually died from dementia in a mental institution in 1917 aged just 49, his biggest regret was that he felt he had not achieved his ambition to be the most successful African-American songwriter of his time.

In the decades after his death however his music was to become incredibly popular, achieving astounding success. Performed and recorded countless times across the world, literally woven into the fabric of popular culture and ultimately to make Scott Joplin posthumously achieve his dream by some considerable margin.

Listen to the oldest surviving recording of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, recorded I’m 1906.