The Case for Home Theater Ethernet

3d1Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its wi-fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.

Many consumers don’t realize that there’s an alternative to wi-fi called Ethernet. Ethernet is a hardwired technology, meaning there’s nothing wireless about it.

To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called CAT5 or CAT6. Compared to wi-fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of wi-fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues wi-fi.

Wi-Fi For Mobile Only

Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using wi-fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why wi-fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses wi-fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.

The vulnerabilities of wi-fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, wi-fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.

The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is wi-fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.

ethernet switchIt should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single CAT6 cable from your internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single CAT6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds).

Ethernet Switches

An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).

Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed wi-fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over wi-fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.

One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of wi-fi is freeing wi-fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from wi-fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).

If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between wi-fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.

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While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your wi-fi and your Ethernet (a good example, and my personal choice, is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200, pictured here). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).

The Potential Downside

The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from wi-fi to Ethernet (costing you some money).

Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring CAT6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.

So yes, making the leap from wi-fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all; buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be wi-fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks wi-fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced wi-fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using wi-fi.

As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives

Of all the modern mobile devices available to consumers, smartphones surely grab the lion’s share of both headlines and water cooler chatter. Not even the revered new kid on the block, the tablet, can keep as much of our collective attention as its smaller cousin. However, this back pocket technology can be confusing for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, smartphones are such a dynamic and rapidly moving target. You can be a genius regarding the latest smartphone functions and technologies, but two years later you’ll barely be familiar with available models and won’t recognize half the acronyms.

Yes, stalwarts like the iPhone and top Android models like Samsung’s Galaxy, HTC’s One, and LG’s G3 will probably be around for years to come. They’re all great and can easily make you very happy. Most will serve loyally for the duration of a two-year service contract. If treated politely, they will last well into a second life as a hand-me-down for a teen or whoever buys it on Craigslist.

iphoneBut how do you cut through the marketing and product review hype, manifested as a thick fog of new age corporate babble, hipster imagery, and obscure acronyms, to purchase a phone that’s best for you and your lifestyle? How do you escape the primitive and illogical concept of a phone that’s “best” and instead seek out one that’s most appropriate—all while potentially costing you less than many competitors?

Simple. Determine your priorities.

In terms of a mobile gadget like a smartphone, these priorities pertain to digital media. Specifically, images and video. Smartphones are single-handedly crushing the camera and camcorder markets. Consumers are choosing to replace their point-and-shoot and even high-end, bulky DSLR cameras with svelt smartphones. This is a real validation of the fact that some smartphones are very good at capturing data, such as photos and high-definition video (including super-slick panoramic images). Premium models like the iPhone, Google Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (as well as many others) all capture high-resolution photos and high-definition video (sometimes with stereo sound). It’s the type of stuff that you can display on a huge 70-inch TV hanging on your wall and say “Wow, that looks really great.”

Smartphones are increasingly good at displaying a variety of media, specifically video and photos. Larger displays (even from traditionally conservative Apple) are allowing smartphones to better accommodate high-definition video sources from Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus. Stereo speakers are helping improve the audio portion of the equation, even though this is still the Achilles heel of mobile device media playback (and one reason headphones are so popular).

Choosing the best phone for your particular needs, and getting the best deal on it, is a matter of determining which function—capture or display—is most important to you.

Samsung-Galaxy-S5-3Personally, I favor capture, not display. However, I’m also the unofficial family archivist, an amateur photographer, and work out of my home office (where, if I want to consume video, I’ll use Chromecast or AirPlay to toss it up on a 60-inch plasma display with subwoofer-enhanced surround sound). I capture tons of video and photos and grab a few on nearly a daily basis. For me, the size of the display (the current obsession of the marketing efforts of so many smartphone companies) isn’t very important. Because most consumers upgrade their smartphones every two years, along with their service contract, a given model will typically provide only a couple years of service. However, the audio, video, and images captured by your smartphone will be archived for (hopefully) hundreds of years. (To learn how to preserve your data for centuries, check out my Understanding Personal Data Security book.)

Because I’m so picky about the quality of the media I capture and the memories of friends, family, and special events that are so precious, I really have little regard for the size of a smartphone screen. In fact, larger phones are more cumbersome and less comfortable stored someplace like the back of my jeans or in a jacket breast pocket. And less comfortable means I’ll be less likely to have the device on me. Meaning fewer Kodak moments.

If you’re a person who travels a lot or, for whatever reason, spends lot of time sitting around sucking down a variety of media, a smartphone with a larger, higher-quality display (OLED technology is a big winner among the Android phones) and a nice set of in-ear headphones might best serve you. If, however, you’re more like me and it’s all about the media you capture and plan to keep forever, a phone with a smaller display—but superlative camera and camcorder functions (like the iPhone 5S and 6 variants)—is the ticket. After all, what you capture amounts to more than mere photos and videos. These are the digital heirlooms that you’ll pass on to your children and grandchildren.

As the PR machines choke and sputter and everyone gets excited about the latest generation of the most popular smartphones in our annual hypefest of product introductions, remember that sometimes smaller is better. All you really care about might come down to capture quality, not video playback. Besides, think of all the money you can save buying last year’s model instead of that fancy new-and-improved toy, ala nothing more than a bigger display that’s helping write all the headlines for lazy journalists and bloggers and eating up your disposable income.

Happy shopping and choose wisely, grasshoppa.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

The Efficiency of Flipboard

flipboard logoWhen I got my first iPad, the third iteration and first model sporting a high-resolution “Retina” display, there was an app I was really psyched to install: Flipboard. Flipboard is a highly customizable news aggregator, or “newsreading” app, that has become an indispensable part of my daily news gathering, reading, and social media consumption. This media aggregator can also be leveraged for targeted research (which I commonly do for my consumer tech books). Flipboard is the pinnacle “go to” app for tens of millions of mobile technology consumers. I’m obviously a big fan.

Flipboard is one of those great apps/media services that is not only super-easy to configure and use, but could even become a part of your obsessive daily regiment of screen tapping. With more than 100 million users, it’s one of the most popular news aggregators to land on a smartphone or tablet (you can now also access it from its website). You can connect your Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook feeds to the service, keeping you uber up-to-date and embracing the one-stop shopping philosophy and efficiency that top-shelf news aggregators so capably deliver.

Minimal, Attractive Ads

I don’t typically like advertising-supported apps, but Flipboard features professionally designed national ads sprinkled on just lightly enough that they never seem to get in the way. However, this volume will surely increase; Flipboard’s ad burden could become unacceptable, especially to overly sensitive fans of ad-free subscription pricing models (like me).

Now you know why Netflix is so popular; it’s not the semi-stale selection of movies, but rather the lack of commercials. It’s currently impossible to rid your Flipboard feed of ads. Unfortunately, paid subscriptions aren’t available. It would be nice if, in the future, the service offered both a free, ad-supported version and also a feature-enhanced, ad-free paid variety (like the Pandora music streaming service).

I rely on Flipboard to such a great extend that I began using one of the neater features of this service, its magazines. A “magazine” is basically just a collection of articles found via any Flipboard media source. Magazines are available to everyone on Flipboard. You simply tag an article for inclusion in one of your magazines (you can maintain several) and it instantaneously appears within its pages, or boards (thus the name of the company).

flipboard capture

Even nicer, there’s a few Flipboard extensions for the Chrome browser that allow you to add virtually any web-based article or content to a magazine (I use + Flip It; also check out Add to Flipboard). Simply click the Flipboard icon on the Chrome toolbar, choose the destination magazine, and viola! It’s there until you choose to remove it. This can be done from both the desktop and mobile devices, like your iPad.

Magazines Are Great

A Flipboard magazine can be updated as frequently—or infrequently—as the owner prefers. Magazines don’t cost anything to create or maintain and provide a wonderful service to the Flipboard community: Member-curated content. Articles found in magazines often touch on eccentric niche interests and major trending topics alike, providing a very filtered view of the millions of highly dynamic articles offered by Flipboard.

We get enough content curated by corporations; it’s a refreshing change to consume what a peer of mine, i.e. another member of Flipboard and probably just some middle class shlep like me, has collected. One of my Flipboard magazines, Middle Class Tech, is a collection of a few hundred articles from news sources like Ars TechnicaThe Atlantic, Transport Evolved, GigaOM, CarNewsCafeEngadget, Teslarati, and many others. It focuses on affordable technology that touches the lives of middle class consumers, especially early adopters and cord cutting nuclear families.

Check It Out

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, but a user of mobile tech, I recommend checking it out. Then again, I’m a Netflix-addicted cord cutter who doesn’t watch the local newscast or read a newspaper (I want it all on my tablet or smartphone). Beyond the basic ability to choose the media outlets from which you want to receive articles, Flipboard’s magazines provide you with a look inside the hobbies, interests, and passions of fellow users of this service. This is the next generation of the RSS reader, and so slick you’ll never look back.

Flipboard_two_imgs

I even use Flipboard for article and book research. In fact, I’ve created six different Flipboard magazines for topics ranging from SpaceX to hydrogen fuel cell cars. It allows me to easily collect and archive articles about these topics so I can conveniently access them on any mobile device in the future—like when I’m writing a freelance article or developing a book related to those topics. You may find similar uses for magazines that you, or others, create.

Be Self-Centered

Typically, Flipboard  promotes its magazines as a way to act as a curator and make your collections available to others. Which is certainly true and the primary purpose. However, these magazines are so easy to create and maintain, you should seriously consider creating some soley for your own use. The fact that others can check them out is just icing on the cake.

Regardless of whether you latch onto Flipboard’s magazines as either a curator or consumer, I encourage you to check out this 21st century method for collecting up-to-the-minute news from dozens of media sources, including long-form articles and your social media accounts.

[This article was originally published on August 27, 2014 and updated on September 18, 2015.]

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his automotive articles on CarNewsCafe, his AV-related posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma

3d1[On October 28, LG announced that it is ending plasma display panel production. As you will learn below, LG was the last major manufacturer of plasma displays. Thus, this announcement effectively kills plasma display tech as we know it. Let’s hope OLED prices fall quickly for those who are in the market for a new TV.]


In early 2014, Panasonic—the Japanese manufacturer of what many reviewers and consumers considered to be the best collection of plasma display panels on the market—announced that it would cease production of these videophile-satisfying models. In official press releases, the company said this move would allow it to focus on 4K (Ultra HD), advanced LED designs, and next-generation OLED. The company cited low demand for plasma models and a need to refocus resources on future standards.

This was the 2:00 am last call at the home theater hobbyist’s saloon. Hard core videophiles quickly revamped their upgrade plans, examining their budgets and trying to decide if they wanted to purchase one final brand new Panasonic plasma TV before none were left to be had.

Later, in July 2014, Samsung announced that it would also cease production of plasma displays, similarly citing low demand and a desire to focus its resources in other areas. LG, the last man standing and lone producer of plasma panels, at the time said in official statements that it would continue to produce plasma sets “as long as there is a demand.” I see. Well, it just so happens that a couple of months earlier, in May, president of LG Electronics Japan, Lee Gyu-hong, explained in an interview with a Japanese news outlet that the company might stop making plasma TVs altogether if sales continued to slump.

This is the sad reality of the marketplace. Unfortunately, home theater hobbyists and quality-sensitive movie buffs—the type of folks who typically would choose a plasma display over its technically inferior LED cousin—aren’t the majority of the market. Despite their liberal spending habits for items like home theater receivers and widescreen display panels, this demographic was simply too small a slice of the pie to influence the few remaining manufacturers of plasma displays to continue production.

In the spring of 2013, I purchased two Panasonic plasma units, a 50-inch model and a 60-incher. They were 2012 models on which I got a killer end-of-model-year deal at one of Best Buy’s Magnolia stores. I’m extremely happy with these units, whether they’re playing streaming video from Netflix or true 1080 content from a Blu-ray disc. After only a year-and-a-half of ownership, and with a viable catalog of readily available 4K content still more theory than reality, I’m not yet compelled to replace either of these TVs.

plasma display panelWhile I’m sad to see plasma depart retailer showrooms, I also know—from the technology industry and Silicon Valley culture overall—that it’s just a matter of time until something becomes affordable that blows away both LED and plasma. And that technology would be OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode, or Organic LED).

OLED sets can be amazingly thin. We’re talking 4 mm thin, like the spine of a magazine! When it comes to video, OLED models feature better everything. Black levels, refresh rates, color uniformity, off-angle viewing, color saturation…you name it, it’s better on OLED. These models can also produce a nearly infinite contrast ratio (if you want to see this with your own eyes, take a look at one of the OLED-equipped smartphones from LG, HTC, or Samsung). OLED is simply the next step in the evolution of home entertainment display technology. I can’t wait to fill my house with OLEDs. (If you want to learn more about OLED and how it stacks up to other display options, including front projection, check out Home Theater for the Internet Age.)

Of course, nobody in the middle class is going to be filling their homes with OLED display panels until the costs come down. Originally priced at close to $20,000, Samsung and LG are currently selling OLED sets for $10,000 for a 55-incher and $7,000 for a curved 55-inch model, respectively (ironically, LG’s flat 55-inch OLED model is more expensive at $10,000). LG also sells a 65-inch 4K curved (yuck) OLED model for $12,000 retail. This is the first 4K OLED model to break the 55-inch barrier. (It’s been very difficult for manufacturers to produce mass quantities of defect-free, larger-size OLED panels. This explains why the display tech was introduced in devices featuring the smallest, most easily manufactured screens: Smartphones.)

Slowly, but surely—especially as more 4K content becomes available and manufacturing processes improve yields—4K OLED models will come down in price. Just like the chicken and the egg, baby step by baby step, OLED models will become more affordable. For a short period, 1080 OLED models will be offered at very enticing prices. However, I recommend that you forego these killer deals for a true 4K OLED TV that will future-proof you for years to come. It’s going to be a long time before an affordable technology superior to OLED emerges and a resolution greater than 4K becomes standard.

Why no 4K plasma models? Unfortunately, the marriage of Ultra HD and plasma is, from a practical, profit-making manufacturing perspective, very difficult. In a nutshell, it’s cost-prohibitive for companies like Panasonic, Sony, LG, and Samsung to produce plasma sets at the higher resolution of 4K. In fact, 4K is the primary reason that every manufacturer is abandoning plasma production. 4K is their mantra—and plasma doesn’t go there.

Yes, cry a tear for resolution-impaired plasma tech and, if you’re so inclined, sob over the loss of your favorite Panasonic or Samsung model. But don’t fear a lack of innovation among display manufacturers or a slowdown in the evolution of consumer display technology. As long as you have a 1080 plasma (or LED) TV that makes you happy for the next three to five years, hold out for a 4K OLED panel in the size you want. Don’t jump on a 4K LED set, which is really just a half-baked bridge technology intended to help keep display panel manufacturers funded until 4K OLED TVs—the ultimate destination, in my humble opinion—become affordable and go mass market. And when that happens, OLED will make all other display technologies obsolete.

See ya, plasma. It was great knowin’ ya. But don’t fret for me. OLED and I are going to get along great. We just can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood right now.

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Curt Robbins

[Originally published August 23; updated November 9.]

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Social Media’s Anti-Socialization Myth

Last November, I was visiting my in-laws in Maryland for Thanksgiving. After dinner, during a kitchen table conversation regarding the effect of internet-connected mobile devices and social media on the six grandchildren in her house, my mother-in-law asserted that these elements were detrimental to the face-to-face socialization opportunities and practices of the ten to fourteen-year-olds scurrying around her.

She was concerned about the amount of time they were spending using their iPod Touches, iPads, and Nexus tablets to engage in social media using services like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Kik. I’ve heard this exact perspective shared by others—often older folks or those who engage with technology less than the average bear. There’s also those who simply don’t share the wanderlust of modern millennials toward their back pocket smartphones and wi-fi-connected touchscreens.

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With all due respect to my mother-in-law, I say pshaw and call BS on this perspective. It’s an attitude and fear that is increasingly pervasive among paranoid helicopter parents and those who spent the bulk of their lives without this technology (whether it was the result of poverty, preference, or simply the lack of its existence). Unfortunately, ignorance breeds fear. The myriad online virtual communities, especially when combined with broadband bit rates, are not corrupting the social skills and manners of our children. In fact, I contend that they are enhancing these brick-and-mortar skills.

Before you call BS on me, let me explain. Via school, marching band, volunteer activities, neighborhood friends, shopping, the library, and other activities, I believe the average middle class child of today gets plenty of face-to-face socialization. Instead of replacing in-person interactions, mobile device-based social media are actually supplementing them. We’re augmenting what we’ve always done as humans. We’re still sitting around camp fires telling scary stories, but we’re now also telling those stories on Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter.

My 13-year-old daughter can slam out text on her iPod Touch faster than any human I’ve witnessed. She owns the iOS keyboard on that little four-inch screen, making it beg and whimper as she hits a words-per-minute level that’s probably in the top five percent of her peers. But this mastery doesn’t come cheap. Practice makes perfect, as my grandmother used to say, and this girl has spent more time locked into her mobile device and sucking down virtual companionship and cultural enrichment from our 20 Mbps AT&T broadband connection than I’d care to estimate. (See? Even a middle-aged tech zealot like me echoes the theme of overindulgence among teens when it comes to social media.)

Considering the huge investment of time and effort she’s made in these app-based networking services, are my daughter’s social skills lacking? Hardly. She’s probably the most social member of our family. I contend that she has twice the social skills of some Amish kid cruelly deprived of technology and modern social media. She can pull it off in-person with a cute charm that will make even a jaded curmudgeon smile, while also maintaining a dynamic and complicated world of relationships on social media. And yes, Aunt Mildred, that’s all without negatively affecting her grades or volunteer activities.

Not only does social media not put a ding in the real-world social skills of these kids, it often directly enhances them. My daughter, when using Instagram to communicate her love for a particular pop band, made a friend in Canada who actually paid us a visit in the States. OMG, social media benefited the real world! People enjoy making black-and-white arguments and ignoring the thousand shades of grey that compose any issue of serious consideration and its real-world ramifications (and effect on our loved ones). The virtual, i.e. social media world feeds our “face-to-face” reality, and vice versa. Ignoring such a detailed dynamic gets a Luddite button pinned to your chest and moves you painfully close to those who believe the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Southern California.

riley for framing 2This is like arguing whether women or men are better athletes. To address roughly fifty percent of 7.2 billion people in a way that assumes they all have similar attributes or qualities is simply foolish and shows that more of these misguided souls need to take basic stats and psych classes in college. Some kids are really social, and it will show in both their physical and virtual social worlds—which will surely interact. Other kids are shy or introverted, and they will probably exhibit these characteristics in both their online and real-world personas.

In fact, if anything, a virtual or social media-based existence allows those who may be somewhat agoraphobic or simply lack the self-confidence of the average person (sometimes common among teens) to engage with likeminded others in a way possibly too intimidating if performed face-to-face. Working with social media “training wheels” may actually help young people engage in real life, proving to them that they can successfully conduct and gain enrichment from interactions with others—regardless of the forum. Having options is good. Today, our kids have more varied and dynamic social opportunities than at any time in the history of humans.

Another criticism of modern social media is the detrimental effects of the spasmodic multitasking that often accompanies a teen’s use of several different services at once. I would actually contend that juggling a variety of social media helps teens learn the reality of modern life and its requirement of multitasking. The merits, costs, and benefits of multitasking can be argued until the cows come home. Regardless of the inherent effects of multitasking, kids who are active in social media are going to, on average, be better suited to the realities of a task-juggling world—especially fast-paced work environments and cubicle farms, which are largely digital and screen-based (even for non-technical jobs).

Let’s not allow the pros and cons of multitasking (or any element of modern internet-based culture) to obfuscate the fact that the United States is so lacking in competent high-end technical skills that it must import them from countries like India and Pakistan. I would argue that social media often help children and teens to gain an acceptance and comfort level with technology, inviting them into a world where they desire to understand and maybe even create and manage the technical underpinnings of their incredible mobile devices and hyper-dynamic internet-based social networks.

Our children’s socialization skills are surely critical as they mature and enter educational institutions and eventually take on careers and families of their own. But assuming that social media, multitasking, and virtual online communities are somehow nefariously harming the face-to-face lives of our children is bogus. For sharing ideas, educating themselves, being entertained, seeking mentoring, chatting with peers, and otherwise engaging with likeminded people, social media brings an efficiency and cost/benefit ratio that is often impossible in the real world. This is especially true for those separated by great physical distances, like a kid in Tokyo who wants to talk about the TV show Supernatural or the band Panic! at the Disco with a kid in Cleveland.

Is negatively criticizing young people for harnessing the opportunity to dynamically interact and share ideas—across borders, cultures, and stigmas—really the approach we want to take?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Tweetin’ ‘Bout My Generation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.