Distraction Is Hurting Your Career

[Updated September 18, 2015.]

Yes, Virginia, advertising is hurting your career. Well, not just ads, but also crap content. You know, the Twinkies of text. Empty mental calories. It’s all serving to dull your edge and tarnish your chances of getting a promotion and that new BMW.

I know. It’s almost un-American to publicly proclaim one’s hatred for advertising. Maybe I’m weird. Or difficult to please. But I simply hate ads. In Don Draper’s world, he would have already paid someone to snuff me.

About ten years ago, my wife and I did the cord cutter thing, before anyone was familiar with the term or it was a trending topic. Removing Time Warner Cable from our home saved us $95 a month (which has added up to about $11,000 at this point, more than enough to pay for my fancy British speakers). More important, it also eliminated the obnoxious ads that used to emanate from our TV and derail our thoughts.

don-draper

Next, I quit playing the radio in my car. In fact, I’ve never played the radio in my current vehicle. As a music lover, it was easy to fall back on compact discs or plugging in my iPod. This freed time to think about career strategies and current projects or listen to educational podcasts, leveraging that valuable and quickly accumulating commute time…as opposed to being mentally jostled by mediocre voice actors trying to sell me carpeting or tires.

But what about those pesky web-based ads, like the stuff you see on Facebook and other sites? For a long time, I simply tolerated them. Crap about online games, celebrity cosmetic surgery blunders, and impossibly low insurance rates dominates the ads of many sites. They’re ugly, obnoxious, and—most significantly—distracting.

This advertising is very carefully crafted to appeal to basic human psychology and steal our attention. I’m typically not the smartest guy in the room, but I try to remember to plug in my brain each morning. I find these ads to be almost surrealistically insulting to my intelligence.

Everyone uses the web differently. Personally, I use it mostly for research. Sure, a bit of social interaction and certainly some entertainment (Netflix, HBO Now, and YouTube are always a click away). But most of my activity is doing research for my freelance writing and books. In this capacity, ads are especially painful because of their distraction.

I’m trying to get work done that directly impacts my career, not have my retinas barraged by frivolous promotions for products or services that in no way help me reach my goals. It’s highly ironic that my laptop and broadband connection, the “work truck” without which I simply can’t do my job, are laced with ADD-inducing ads designed, nay engineered, to derail me from my daily thoughts and work.

It’s as if I’m on a diet and, on every work commute, I lose control of the Ford F-250 I’m driving to the job site as it autonomously pulls into a Dunkin’ Donuts and someone at the drive-thru shoves a double glazed into my yap.

hammer

Thus, last year, I installed an ad blocker in my browser. The particular one I use is fast, effective, and doesn’t slow my computer to a crawl (like some products). But, most importantly, it eliminates hundreds of ads from reaching my eyes every week. No matter how subtly, those ads are very carefully orchestrated distractions designed to suck away my focus from the task at hand (in my case, research for writing projects). If I’m investigating solar energy, for example, I don’t care about Toyota’s latest subcompact or, worse, celebrity dieting tips.

Before you cry foul and accuse me of undermining American democracy or being anti-capitalistic, realize that I’m willing to pay for information services instead of receiving a slew of ads. After all, these companies have to pay the bills somehow—and I’ve never believed in the theft of intellectual property. Often, however, service providers don’t offer an ad-free, paid option.

Take Flipboard, for example. This popular media aggregation app for mobile devices is available free. Unfortunately, there’s no subscription option or method for avoiding advertising. However, the full-page national ads it features are tasteful and professional. There’s no creepy caffeinated car salesman screaming “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday…Everything must GO!!!” at the top of his lungs or the “10 Biggest Celebrity Bikini Disasters” lurking in wait to put me into an epileptic fit.

For those of you unfamiliar, Flipboard displays your hand-picked media sources (from a large collection, in categories like News, Sports, and Tech & Science) in a collage of square tiles that “flip” when they’re automatically updated. I’m pretty picky about my news sources; most are related to consumer tech (like Engadget, Ars Technica, and Gigaom).

But then I noticed something funny: Articles were appearing from an undesired business news outlet I hadn’t selected (which I’ll leave unnamed, because it pays promotional fees to LinkedIn, the gracious home for my Pulse posts). Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of this news source and its use of click bait headlines, hyperbolistic language, and shoddy editing (and no, it’s not the Huffington Post).

ronco-pasta

In fact, respected tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jason Calacanis called this news organization “the masters of linkbait,” adding, “That’s what the link-baiting press does today: They literally make shit up to get you to click the headline.”

It’s this type of trash content that blurs our vision, steals our focus, and doesn’t plant intelligent thoughts. You don’t need to have a journalism degree to find such media sources a waste of mental bandwidth, many of which don’t even try to edit their content (do you hear me, Gizmodo?). Few would disagree that, intellectually, we are what we eat. Doesn’t the quality of our thoughts, spurred by what we read and hear, heavily influence our careers and livelihoods?

I’m not one to tell a business how to run itself. As I’m always preaching, I can easily dump Flipboard and adopt a competing service. The stealthy appearance of these unwanted, smarmy articles in my Cover Stories most likely means that Flipboard is receiving promotional fees from this media outlet. I didn’t select them. But they’re also not ads.

Very sneaky, guys.

Some media outlets get it, though, offering consumers the option of paying more for fewer ads or their complete absence. Hulu Plus, for example, the popular video streaming service that delivers current-run television shows to one’s living room or mobile device, recently rolled out a premium level that eliminates all ads. Customers content with commercial interruptions pay $8 a month, while those like me who value our mental liberation pay a measly $4 per month more to rid our entertainment of them. Now Parks & Rec is interruption-free. Ahhh, sweet bliss.

hulu logo-2

Pandora is another example of a service that provides consumers with an option. The free version of this uber-popular internet-based music discovery service delivers obnoxious local ads for dating services and car dealerships, but for a mere $36 per year, these ads can be eliminated entirely. A cheap price indeed to keep the music flowing and avoid the distraction and frustration of those obnoxious ads.

The combination of my ad blockers, Hulu Plus, and the fact that my other media and entertainment sources are already ad-free (like Netflix, iTunes, and HBO Now), means I now have a completely ad-free life, both professionally and personally. I have finally reached an ad-free nirvana.

Despite small setbacks like Flipboard (and the fact that my wife always leaves the radio on an obnoxious FM radio station whenever she drives my car), I’m happy that, in the year 2015, we’re able to so thoroughly eliminate ads from our lives. All while improving our work productivity, enhancing our home lives, and boosting our household budgets by cutting the cord.

Try to rid your life of distraction, in the form of ads and worthless click bait media content. You’ll be surprised how it allows you to focus on the things that really matter—like your work, career, and family.

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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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HBO Now: Completing Netflix

Netflix has garnished most of the media attention and praise in its pioneering—and very successful—effort to migrate consumer entertainment from coaxial cables to fiber optic internet connections.

While the company is certainly worthy of celebration and, with more than 60 million global subscribers, is making investors happy, HBO is quietly changing the way consumers purchase and pay for their TV programming.

HBO Sans Cable

HBO Now, a new product from the company, is a $15 per month subscription that gives customers access to HBO’s programming in a fully on-demand, Netflix-like interface. Want to watch the second episode of the third season of Game of Thrones? It’s a few clicks away.

game of thrones

Not content to allow Netflix to monopolize the market for online video streaming of high-quality content, HBO has done nothing more than open its catalog to those who may love its content—but aren’t willing to sign on for cable or satellite TV just to get it.

This service from HBO is superior to others in two respects: First, like all HBO programming, it’s void of commercials. While Netflix is also ad-free, Hulu Plus features plenty of ads. Second, HBO Now offers a significantly better selection of top movies than most of its rivals, including Hulu Plus and Netflix.

While Hulu Plus offers films, it’s a very small selection. Few subscribers are paying Hulu for their movies; it’s all about the network TV. One of the major criticisms of Netflix is the quality of the films it features. While the service increasingly pushes subscribers to binge watch their favorite TV series, its movie catalog (which is continually changing) has always lagged behind those available from one’s local video store or what’s on HBO.

Unlike Hulu Plus, which makes available new episodes of television shows on a staggered schedule following their original broadcast, HBO releases new episodes on HBO Now simultaneously to their original airing.

deadwood hbo for blog

HBO Now is specifically designed for cord cutters. Until now, HBO has been unavailable to this group of more than 25 million Americans who have opted to cancel their cable or satellite TV service for streaming options. Now those streaming options include the ability to watch top-rated shows like True Detective, Game of Thrones, and HBO’s back catalog, including Sex and the City, The Wire, and The Sopranos.

Will HBO Now make you happy? That’s certainly subjective. Just as many cord cutters today subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, many will opt to add HBO Now to the lineup. Those who are not interested in network television series might skip Hulu.

HBO Now is just one more reason for cord cutters to celebrate. Whether you like HBO’s shows and are planning to sign up or you say no thanks and keep your $15 per month, it’s good to have options. Cord cutters now have one more reason to be glad they cancelled their cable or satellite subscription.

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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.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 9

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age and covers more topics that often confuse both new and old hi-fi and home theater fans alike: Ethernet (hard wired, high-bandwidth computer and hi-fi gear networking), separates, and the role of a broadband internet router in a modern home theater.

The internet router is especially important for those who enjoy streaming media (like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu Plus) and have multiple mobile devices sucking down wi-fi.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics

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Curt Robbins


Ethernet

From Chapter 3: Components

Ethernet is a standard for connecting computers and home theater components to your home network. Unlike wi-fi, which is a wireless communications standard, it is a wired scheme that operates over special cabling. Like its cousin wi-fi, Ethernet enables audio and video to be streamed from the internet or a part of your network to your home theater. In terms of audio and video components (specifically receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes), Ethernet is a valuable feature that provides a better connection than wi-fi, but may involve more expensive installation of cabling in your home. (For more info, see the Ethernet section of the Connection Types chapter.)

ethernet-cablePersonally, I’d seriously consider skipping components that lack Ethernet. Why? Simply because it’s the best way to connect the pieces of your home theater to your local network and the internet, especially for streaming high-definition video. The media formats of today—and tomorrow—all flow more smoothly when transported via Ethernet instead of interference-prone wi-fi.

From Chapter 5: Connection Types

As you learned in the Components chapter, Ethernet is a wired connection technology from the computer networking world that is used in other types of components, such as home theater and home automation equipment. It supports relatively high speeds, has been around for decades, and is very reliable. Many, but not all, receivers and all major streaming media boxes feature Ethernet ports. This connectivity standard operates over special cabling called CAT5 and CAT6 (the current and most robust standard) and can reach lengths of more than 300 feet (100 meters).

Sometimes labeled “LAN” on a device’s back panel, Ethernet isn’t only reliable, it’s the fastest connection available. In a typical home network, Ethernet is roughly two to 20 times faster than wi-fi (when measuring real-world data throughput)! Although most components don’t take advantage of this speed, future standards—like true 4K video—will benefit from it. Another superiority over wi-fi is the lack of sensitivity to radio interference (such as from cordless phones and microwaves). In addition, Ethernet is much less prone to hacking or unwanted eavesdropping than wi-fi. Ethernet is simply the best connection option for computers and home theater equipment.

In most homes, wi-fi is obviously used by all mobile devices (iPod Touches, smartphones, tablets, and laptops). But your receiver never moves, so it doesn’t need the mobile flexibility provided by wi-fi. It does, however, need a fast, solid internet connection—and especially benefits from one that’s much more immune to interference and several magnitudes faster than its wi-fi cousin (helpful when streaming high resolution audio or video without interruptions or buffering).

For these reasons, I decided to connect my receiver and other home theater components to my home network (and the internet) using Ethernet. Because my components aren’t consuming wi-fi bandwidth, they aren’t competing with the mobile devices in my home. If you’ve already gone to the installation expense or invested DIY time to run CAT6 cable from your home’s internet router to your home theater components, there’s no reason to not supply Ethernet to all of your devices.

Splitting Ethernet with a Switch

Sharing a single cable drop with multiple home theater components can be done easily and inexpensively using an Ethernet switch. Similar to a USB hub, this device simply splits and manages the incoming Ethernet signal from a single cable into multiple feeds (some switches provide five ports, while others offer eight or more). There are a few speed standards supported by Ethernet switches. It’s recommended that you get the fastest possible switch to help future-proof your system. This would be a gigabit switch, which is very affordable, with entry-level models costing only about $35. With even higher definition TV right around the corner, data consumption will only increase exponentially.

ethernet switchA friend of mine was recently shopping for a receiver. He had been plugging his cable box and Blu-ray player directly into his TV. He purchased a Chromecast dongle, but his TV features only two HDMI ports, both of which were occupied. Thus, he was forced to purchase a receiver to accommodate his three HDMI inputs (of course, he’s pumping much better sound to his speakers in the process). Instead of paying more for a receiver that featured wi-fi—he was on a tight budget—we simply ensured that the receiver had an Ethernet port. This allowed him to save $120 by purchasing a model lacking wi-fi—while at the same time delivering a considerably faster and more reliable internet connection to his receiver.

For non-mobile devices and when practical, always choose Ethernet over wi-fi.

Separates

From Chapter 3: Components

One thing this book doesn’t deal with in detail is what in the audiophile world is called separates. These are specialty components that handle specific tasks within your home theater, primarily multichannel amplification or surround processing. These are both tasks assumed by a standard AV receiver, although typically—by audiophile standards—at a lower quality level than can be delivered by separates.

It’s hard to argue with the benefit of different power supplies and avoiding any electrical crossover or interference between separate components. It is, in both theory and actual listening reality, an approach that’s superior to that of integrated receivers. But, as with all areas of life, common sense should prevail. There are poor examples of separates on the market, as well as integrated receivers that produce incredible sound and video with robust power (and better value).

As you might guess, separates can get alarmingly expensive. If you want to research separates on your own, check out Anthem, Bryston, Classé, Emotiva, Integra, Marantz, NAD, Parasound, and Rotel. With the exception of Emotiva and (sometimes) NAD, get ready for sticker shock. Even Yamaha joined the game in 2014 with a $6,000 pre-processor and power amplifier pair.

If I was buying separates today, I’d probably go with Rotel, NAD, or Emotiva. I like Rotel’s Class D digital amps and its reputation for clean, refined audio with a wide soundstage. I love NAD’s understated grey matte finish and its legacy for audiophile-quality sound at all volume levels. I also enjoy Emotiva’s engineering philosophy and how the company throws tons of watts at its separates (although other companies offer classier, more refined component styling). The company’s wattage-per-dollar ratio is off the charts. Unlike most separates manufacturers, Emotiva’s prices won’t motivate your spouse to begin Googling ways to kill you in your sleep.

Broadband Internet Router

From Chapter 3: Components

I know, I know, this is a book about home theater, not computers. But with so many streaming services delivered to your home theater via the internet, having a weak router can be more frustration than pleasure. Dropouts when listening to streaming music and freezes for buffering while watching internet video aren’t any fun (somewhat destroying the suspension of disbelief during engaging movies). While problems like this can’t be completely avoided due to internet traffic and server hiccups (issues completely outside your control), they can sometimes be dramatically decreased with a good dual-band router.

Think of a high-end router as serving the role of an internet traffic cop who not only likes to increase the speed limit, but also optimizes your network for the increasingly media-based data pulled down by your increasingly device-filled household.

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Not convinced of the importance of wi-fi in your home? Consider that Roku uses wi-fi even in its remote controls, while Nest sells a wi-fi-enabled smoke detector to complement its wi-fi-based smart thermostat. There are even various models of door locks and LED light bulbs on the market that require wi-fi to configure and operate. From your display panel and AV receiver to your laptop or your child’s iPod Touch, the quality and reliability of your wi-fi connection has never been so important, affecting every member of your family—and even your guests who bring their own mobile devices.

netgear nighthawk r700Better router models provide several advantages, including stronger amplifiers and dedicated antennas to enhance signal strength, range, and overall data speed. Consider that YouTube and Netflix together make up more than 55% of the overall volume of data consumed on the internet. In other words, most of the data streamed online is video—and sometimes HD video in Dolby Digital surround sound. This video consumes a lot of bandwidth, more than any other type of data on your network or the internet.

Also consider that this data isn’t consumed in short bursts, like traditional computer-based internet use involving a web browser or mobile apps for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Watching a two-and-a-half hour movie on Netflix or Apple TV requires not only good bandwidth, but a data stream that’s consistently reliable. Now recognize that there might be two, or even three, simultaneous video streams from the internet entering your home at certain times of the day (such as after school or work, during the evening, or on weekends). This is when most readers begin to understand the sheer volume of media streaming that occurs in their home and the pivotal role played by their wi-fi router.

When you sign up for internet service, there’s a good chance that your ISP, or internet service provider, will provide you a combination modem/router that includes basic wi-fi capabilities. This is the device that is both bringing the internet into your home via coaxial, twisted pair (telephone), or fiber optic cabling and then, as a second step, wirelessly broadcasting it to your home via a wi-fi signal. Any internet-connected device in your home relies on your router for the upload and download of all data.

The Free One Sucks

For companies like AT&T, Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner to make money, they obviously must keep overhead as low as possible. This means that the modem/wi-fi router box they provide with their ISP accounts isn’t the best available. Not by a long shot. Regardless of the inherent quality of these freebies, they aren’t giving you the best experience possible. With so many mobile and home theater devices in your home demanding a robust and full-time wi-fi connection—and typically streaming bandwidth-hungry audio or video—the role of your router is more important than ever.

Buy Dual Band

First, be sure to purchase a wi-fi router that’s dual-band. This will include support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, essentially putting them on different networks and boosting the bandwidth provided to all devices by helping prevent bottlenecks and streamlining data flows.

A benefit of a dual-band router is that you’re guaranteed to have the latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ac (sometimes called gigabit wi-fi). This gives you the fastest wireless connectivity, helping provide the best possible performance, especially with new devices that enter your household that probably support this standard. Routers from ASUS, Cisco, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear are recommended because of their quality, affordability, and long track records with consumers and enterprises.

Buying the best router possible for your home in 2014 is a $130-$280 endeavor. Check out the $200 Netgear Nighthawk R7000 (my personal pick and a PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice, pictured above), the $130 ASUS RT-N65U or $220 RT-AC68U, or the $230 Linksys EA6900 (another PC Magazine Editors’ Choice recipient). Also consider the top-shelf $280 Linksys WRT1900AC. Another nice contender is the $175 TRENDnet TEW-818DRU (street prices will typically be lower on most models). Not chump change, but by the end of the operation you’ll know you have the fastest, most reliable, and most manageable wi-fi on the block.


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.

Streaming Media Stick Wars

3d1It began in August 2013 when Google introduced the Chromecast. A small, Rubenesque HDMI dongle that allows you to stream music and video to your TV or home theater, the $35 Chromecast was an instant hit. This groovy petite player allows popular media services like Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix to easily be sent to your home theater from any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet—and even laptops and desktop computers.

Then, in the spring of 2014, Roku introduced the $49 Streaming Stick, a slick little purple dongle that, like Chromecast, plugs into a TV or AV receiver’s HDMI port to bring you music and video streaming from the internet. Roku likes to tout how its dongle is “perfect for wall mounted TVs”; as are all of these svelt mini-streamers. Although slightly more expensive than its competition from Google, Roku’s streaming stick offers a dedicated remote control and so many more channels it isn’t even funny (like, um, 1,700 more, something Roku fans love).

Recently, the market for these mini-streamers got more crowded when Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick, the $39 dongle that falls between Chromecast and Roku in terms of price. Like Roku’s Streaming Stick, it features a nice, ergonomic remote. Unlike its competitors, Amazon sells a $40 game controller for the Fire TV Stick that allows you to play more than 200 different games. If you’re a casual gamer (as opposed to someone who needs an Xbox or Playstation to engage in their favorite first-person shoot out), the Fire TV Stick, with optional game controller, is a unique solution. It’s also pretty much the least expensive way—at $70 total—to get gaming into your living room.

rock streaming stickFor the most part, these inexpensive media streaming devices are more similar than different. They all plug into HDMI ports and require a dedicated power supply (they can’t get their juice from the HDMI port), so you’ll need a spare outlet around your TV or home theater gear. They all use wi-fi to ride on your broadband connection and suck down their audio or video stream from the internet. And they all offer major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and a handful of streaming music services.

One thing all three of these streaming dongles have in common is being the little brothers to full-fledged “set-top box” media streamers from each company. Google’s new Nexus Player, the Roku 3, and Amazon Fire TV, all priced at $99, take streaming media to the next level, offering more robust features and functionality. Apple is the standout in offering a similar ($99) set-top streamer called Apple TV, but no HDMI dongle variant. One of the biggest advantages of these full-fledged media streamers—with the glaring and inexcusable exception of Google’s new Nexus Player—is their ability to connect to your home network and the internet via Ethernet hard cabling, eliminating the interference and connectivity problems inherent in wi-fi.

Google’s Chromecast is the odd man out in terms of bundling no dedicated remote. Not that there isn’t one: It’s your mobile device. Because this trend-setting device is platform agnostic, it matters not if you use an iPhone, Android smartphone, Samsung tablet, or the venerable iPad. Any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet works with Chromecast.

chromecastBut let’s be realistic, it’s all about the content. As sexy as the candy wrapper might be, what we really care about is the chocolate. Roku’s Streaming Stick offers all 1,800+ channels that its more robust sibling Roku devices deliver. This is, hands down, the largest selection of content offered by any company selling streaming devices. If you’re one of those consumers who blows away the average four hours of television programming consumption per day and desires the largest availability of channels possible: Stop reading this, look up the Roku Streaming Stick on Amazon, and click Add to Cart.

However, this plethora of channels isn’t all peaches and cream. Roku’s lineup offers hundreds of arguably crappy and often obscure channels, many of which are foreign language-based. According to PC Magazine’s review, “…individual channels are still a mish-mash and many aren’t integrated into the search feature, so you have to wade through a lot of things you might not want.” However, Roku wins the agnostic award for not twisting your arm to rent or purchase content from a particular ecosystem, unlike Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.

Speaking of the Fire TV Stick: This newcomer is perfect if you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime and love to get your entertainment from Prime Instant Video. Like Apple TV, both Apple and Amazon do their best to push you into their respective iTunes and Prime Instant Video ecosystems.

fire tv stickGoogle’s Chromecast differs in terms of channel availability. Instead of serving up a canned set of channels, Google has created a platform on which other media streaming services can jump in if they choose. Thus, the Netflix and Hulu Plus mobile apps have been updated to support Chromecast. When running these apps, you simply tap the Chromecast icon and, voila, you’re watching it on your TV or home theater. The only problem—especially compared to Roku and Amazon—is that only about 35 streaming apps currently support Chromecast. However, if you’re like my cord cutting family and consume most of your entertainment from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Pandora, these major services all support Chromecast (in addition to Watch ESPN, HBO GO, Songza for music, Vevo for music videos, and, of course, iTunes wannabe Google Play Movies & TV).

So there you have it. Unfortunately, the game-friendly Fire TV Stick won’t be available until January 2015, so forget Santa leaving you one in your stocking (smooth timing, Amazon; what are you smoking out there in Seattle?). It’s nice to see the market for uber-affordable streaming media devices getting competitive and catering to different entertainment ecosystems.

And it’s only going to get better.

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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.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


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.

Home Theater Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

pioneer av receiver

Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

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Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


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.

Understanding TV Aspect Ratios

3d1Many of you probably purchased or received as a gift a display panel TV this holiday season. Welcome to the 21st century. Of all my tech gadgets, my Panasonic plasma displays are among my favorite. Regardless of whether you have an LED, plasma, or OLED display (lucky dork), you need to understand aspect ratios and letterboxing.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6: Display Panels / TV, from my Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

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Curt Robbins


A TV’s aspect ratio is a comparison of the width and height of the picture displayed. Why is this a concern when this book doesn’t unnecessarily delve into technical matters? Because there’s consequences to a mismatch between the aspect ratio of your display device and that of the content you’re viewing.

Old TVs used to sport an aspect ratio of 4:3, the origins of which date back to 1909 with the standardization of 35mm film in cinema and the emergence of Hollywood. A 4:3 aspect ratio meant that TVs were four units wide and three units tall (regardless of the overall size of the display). This worked well back in the days when TVs displayed only over-the-air content, nearly all of which was broadcast in 4:3—meaning the aspect ratio of the content precisely matched that of everyone’s display unit. Ah, the good ol’ days. Things have gotten a bit more complicated in terms of the aspect ratios supported by both Hollywood and display manufacturers.

Aspect ratios can be expressed as either ratios or decimals. The “standard,” or non-widescreen aspect ratio of 4:3 from the old glass tube TV days, can be expressed as 1.33 (or 1.33:1, a “decimal ratio”). This means that the display is 1.33 units wide and one unit tall (decimal aspect ratios always assume a height of one unit). The common 16:9 aspect ratio, for example, is a decimal of 1.78 (again, shorthand for 1.78:1). Most modern movies are produced from 1.85 (just a smidge wider than 16:9) to 2.33, 2.39 (often indicated as 2.40), and sometimes even ultra-wide 2.59.

Letterboxing

Preserving the aspect ratio of any content wider than 1.78:1 (16:9), when displayed on a 16:9 display panel, results in letterboxing—the black bars above and below the video. The letterboxing necessary for 1.85 format films is so slight that many consumers simply don’t notice it. It is easily perceived in films that are 2.33 or wider. Conversely, vertical letterboxing, or pillarboxing, is employed when 4:3 content, which is more narrow, is displayed on a 16:9 TV.

Pan & Scan

Pre-digital TV stations that broadcasted widescreen films (originally intended for commercial cinemas) back when everyone had 4:3 aspect ratio TVs sometimes employed letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. More commonly, however, movie studios engaged in pan-and-scan, a process of applying a 4:3 aspect crop to a widescreen or even ultra-widescreen film (thousands of which feature aspects ratios in excess of 21:9, or 2.33).

plasma display panelAs you can imagine, this pan-and-scan process discarded sometimes significant amounts of the movie display, severely bastardizing the intentions of thousands of movie directors and producers. Why? Simply because people wanted to watch widescreen content intended for movie theaters on their non-widescreen home TVs. Back in the day, when most people viewed tons of Hollywood films on their small and fuzzy TVs, they rarely saw what directors intended. On the rare occasions when letterboxing was employed, the image was too small on a common 19-inch TV for comfortable viewing from regular seating positions. No wonder grandma was into knitting, grandpa worked on motorcycles, and the words “home” and “theater” never found themselves in the same sentence.

Aspect Ratio Evolution

Aspect ratios have evolved within the worlds of display devices (TVs and movie theaters) and content producers (Hollywood) at a variety of competing and typically confusing ratios. At the most narrow, this includes the original silent films at 1.33, or 4:3 (1909-1937). This was, as you might have guessed, the aspect ratio that was adopted by consumer televisions that persisted until after the turn of the century; such old school TVs can still be found in some homes.

Other popular aspect ratios included 1.37 (Academy Ratio, beginning in 1937), 2.59 (Cinerama, from 1952 to 1974), 2.35 (CinemaScope, launched in 1953), 1.85 (VistaVision in 1954, nearly identical to today’s 1.78, or 16:9), 2.20 (Todd AO and Super Panavision 70, beginning in 1955), and the ultra-wide 2.76 (a format called MGM 65 that was around from 1957 to 1966). Why all the widescreen format introductions in the 1950s? It was Hollywood’s way of competing with 4:3 television programming, which was keeping people at home and out of movie theaters.

Since 2009, the majority of TVs sold have been 16:9, with all current television programming produced in this aspect ratio (some older content featured on Netflix and other services is in 4:3, revealed by the vertical letterboxing on widescreen TVs). Modern cinema differentiates itself with wider-than-16:9 aspect ratios produced at a few different levels.

The most popular cinematic aspect ratios today are 1.85 (almost perfectly suited to 1.78 widescreen TVs) and 2.39. 2.39 is the widest film format in common use today; it looks best in movie theaters, where it can fill the screen. Thus, by owning a widescreen TV, you can view both movies and TV shows as they were intended—it just might involve a bit of letterboxing.

[See also Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma.]


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.

Cutting the Cord

cord_small (1)It’s 2015, and most of us have at least heard the term cord cutters. They’re consumers who have chosen to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in favor of internet-based streaming media (or simply popping old school discs into their Blu-ray players).

About nine years ago, after struggling with Time Warner Cable for years—and the company spending literally thousand of dollars trenching new coaxial at our curb in an effort to remedy our digital cable woes—my family cut the cord. We’ve never looked back. We were paying about $90 a month. That equals roughly $10,000 in savings. Wow.

It was a relatively daring and unusual move a decade ago. Our motivation wasn’t simply to rid ourselves of the quality headaches we were experiencing with Time Warner, but also to alleviate the pain of commercials. Our children were young and we felt good about virtually eliminating their exposure to the incessant stream of ads that run on television. Admittedly, it would have been challenging if we had been big sports fans (today, services like MLB.TV and NFL Now help ease that pain).

It’s estimated that only 6.5% of Americans (about 20 million people) are cord cutters (according to Experian Marketing Services). While still small as a percentage, this rapidly growing market segment has caught the attention of some tech and media corporations. TiVo, for example, recently introduced a DVR aimed at cord cutters that will record shows for those lacking cable TV. Features of established entertainment channels, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime—while they don’t cater specifically to cord cutters—help bridge the gap between conventional cable or satellite TV and the mobile device-toting cord cutter lifestyle.

In June 2014, the Leichtman Research Group reported that nearly half of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime (or, as is often the case, a combination of these services). In 2010, this number was only 24%.

rock streaming stick

A study released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in 2014 supports these numbers. The organization claims that 45% of American households watch streaming video from the internet on their TVs. In 2013, it was only 28%. Something is trending, folks. While the CEA study revealed that only about five million American homes rely on internet TV exclusively, 10% of all TV-consuming households said they’re probably going to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in the next 10 months. Should Comcast, Cox, and AT&T be nervous?

More proof of this trend? In May 2014, The Verge reported that 500 of those ubiquitous Redbox kiosks we’re all so acclimated to seeing will disappear this year. Americans want to stream a significant portion of their entertainment content—regardless of whether they’re cord cutters or not.

Britain’s The Guardian recently surveyed North American cable and satellite TV customers who had chosen to cut the cord. A former Comcast customer in Marysville, California stated, “After a traumatizing series of bad customer service experiences, I decided I’d rather sit in a dark cave than give [Comcast] another dime. Not one regret.” A disgruntled former Shaw Communications customer from Alberta, Canada, said, “I didn’t want to be the person who stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the magic bullet blender commercial over and over and over again.” An ex-cable subscriber in St. Louis echoed this sentiment: “I have a busy life and sitting through commercials is something I am not interested in.”

One of the biggest complaints of consumers is paying for hundreds of channels on cable, but watching only a few. Advocates of TV reform have called for a la carte channel packages for years. A recent study by Nielsen reported that the average U.S. home receives 189 cable channels. And how many of those do they actually watch? Only 17 (that’s less than 9%). In addition, The Guardian survey revealed that only 3% of cord cutters would consider going back to cable if providers began offering a la carte pricing. The lack of a la carte is obviously only part of a much larger discontent.

fire tv stickBut let’s be fair: Cutting the cord doesn’t simply erase your cable bill. Consumers often are compelled to spend more for better internet bandwidth and a streaming video device or two (like a Roku or Apple TV) to compensate for their lack of cable or satellite service. There’s also subscription fees for services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and rental costs for iTunes or Vudu.

So let’s do some quick math. I got rid of Time Warner Cable at $90 a month and later subscribed to Netflix ($9 a month) and Hulu Plus ($8 a month). I spend $10-20 per month at my local Family Video store (because you can’t feed anything to your home theater better than a Blu-ray disc). A few times a month, my family also rents movies or TV episodes from Google Play Movies & TV or iTunes at $3-6 a pop. But we never spend $90 a month. And the commercial interruptions we tolerate are light (basically just Hulu Plus, which features far fewer than conventional TV).

No, cord cutting isn’t free. For that, you’ll need a rooftop or desktop antenna to pull in your local affiliate stations. But the value proposition of cord cutting is so great that it’s hard to ignore. The fact that it’s less expensive than cable and features few or no commercials makes cutting the cord an increasingly appealing alternative for middle class consumers.

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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.

Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

pencil for blog

Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

tesla model s replacement for blog

The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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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.

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.

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.