Making sense of TVs: “How big of a TV should I get?”

TVs are often a large part of the home tech experience. There are a lot of options for TVs (size, LED vs. plasma, smart features, inputs, etc.), and therefore, usually a lot of questions about these options. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at common TV options and some tips on what to look for. First up, “How big of a TV should I get?”

TV_sizeIn the old days, TV size was easy. The picture quality of TVs wasn’t very good, so if you sat too close, it looked bad. There were easy formulas about how close you could sit. Pretty much all of today’s hi-def TVs have excellent picture quality, so its a bit more complicated. If you trust the gurus at THX (THX worked with George Lucas to create theatre standards), they’d want you to multiply 0.84 by your distance to TV (inches or meters) to ensure a proper presentation. This ratio will keep you far enough away that you don’t see individual pixels as well. So if you sit 10 feet from your TV, you’d be looking at 120 inches x 0.85, or approx. 100 inch diagonal screen. Wow, that would be nice!

THX_recoSo what do you choose? A general rule is that a TV is never big enough when its on, and too big when its off. That may sound wishy-washy, but it outlines a common decision process when making a choice. Start with the largest display that you can reasonably afford. Chances are that you’ll still be disappointing the folks at THX (but the rest of us will likely be impressed!) If you have a dedicated room or really love your TV, then you may be done with your size decision.

Most of us don’t have a dedicated room or don’t want to have the TV as the main focus in, say, our living room. The next step is to make the trade off of how big you’re willing to live with when its not being used. Sometimes its as easy as fitting a TV into limited wall space. Sometimes its your mate putting their foot down. Once you narrow this down, try putting an outline of the TV size on your wall using masking tape. Of course an actual TV will be more of a presence in the room, but it will give you an idea. Maybe you’ll be willing to nudge it one way or the other in size.

Today, in general, TV size is mostly about budget, preference and aesthetics, as TVs are very clear even fairly close up. Hopefully this helps your decision process on TV size.

Tune in the coming weeks for highlights of other TV features.

Has Nest done it again?

The Nest Learning Thermostat is cool, so when Nest announced their new Smoke + CO Alarm it was a bit underwhelming for some. Perhaps the perception was that the Nest folks were going to introduce something spectacular. Let’s face it – a thermostat isn’t usually really exciting, but Nest managed to make it interesting. Maybe they can repeat with a smoke alarm.

The Nest thermostat is a very nice looking design with an Apple pedigree. Simple, smart thermostatIts also really easy to learn how to program. Actually, it just learns from you as you use it over several days – they call it a ‘learning thermostat’. If you’ve ever fought with a programable thermostat, you’ll appreciate that. The other reason its cool is its an easy and reliable way to get into home automation. They have mobile and tablet apps that allow you to easily setup more complex schedules and even control it when you’re not at home. Didn’t know you could master the ‘Internet of things’ so easy, did you?

Nest Smoke + CO AlarmPerhaps they can take home safety to the next level as well. Their Smoke + CO alarm (carbon monoxide is toxic) will tell you with a voice what the alarm is, plus a green, amber or red lighting to show the threat level. They claim it will also take care of the mundane and test it every night and let you know well in advance if the battery is low (goodbye annoying chirp!). If you set it off with something like burnt toast, you can forget frantically swatting it with a towel.  Instead, just wave at it to settle it down before it gets really loud. For a real issue, it will also tell your Nest Thermostat to turn off the furnace in case the furnace is part of the problem.

The Nest Smoke + CO Alarm is only available for pre-oder at this time, so it will be a bit before we will know if its worth the hype. With features like self testing and manageable false alarms, they may be on their way to making safety interesting too.

Streaming in a Sea of Music

Streaming Music Services

There are a lot of online music streaming services for those looking for some good tunes. Some say there will be a shift in that we’ll all just ‘rent’ our music library rather than buying songs or albums. Regardless of your opinion on rent vs. buy, online music streaming can be a great way to listen to music and hear new tunes.

In Canada we don’t have as many music streaming options as our American friends. Some Canadians use VPN or DNS services to fake out their location, but let’s just focus on what’s available by default. There are basically two categories of services available: radio type services and playlist services.

First let’s look at the radio type. These are basically just like regular radio stations, but you tune in on the Internet. The Songza service has playlists made by ‘experts’ and you can dial in based on moods or activities. SiriusXM has a online subscription for their satellite radio – they have lots of music channels (and talk and sports too). There is also Galaxie which is free on a mobile app if you’re a cable TV subscriber (e.g. Shaw, Rogers, Bell, Telus). Deezer also has free streaming if you can put up with the ads. If not, you can pay for a Deezer subscription.

If you want to customize your experience, Rdio offers subscriptions without ads that allows you to take the tunes on your smartphone. Grooveshark also lets you create a playlist from their website for free. (They’re facing some legal action, so perhaps they won’t be free or around forever! UPDATE: yep, they’re now gone!) Also don’t forget that YouTube lets you create playlists, so maybe that will cover your needs.

There are other services beyond these as well. All offer various depths of music catalogues and subscription prices from free and up. The important thing to note is that all paid services have a free trial period, so by all means take advantage of the trial to decide if you want to shell out your money. Happy listening!

Highlights of iOS 7

Apple iOS 7

Apparently over half of iOS users updated their devices since last week’s release. Very impressive – the hordes even managed to overload Apple’s servers on the first day. This shows how interested people were with this operating system update. Regardless if you’re an Apple fanboy/girl, there were some features worth looking forward to.

Apple has done a great job at keeping most of the features compatible back to the iPhone 4 and iPad 2. This can’t be overlooked, as there aren’t many tech companies that show so much support for anything but the latest device. Not to ‘trash’ Android OS, but one of the main complaints is how fragmented the Android installed base is with various OS releases (please Google, fix this!). With no further delay, here are some highlights of iOS 7:

  • Look & Feel – When the preview came out earlier this year, there were a lot of people complaining that essentially a rookie designer could do better. The consensus now is that the interface is fresh, and more importantly, easier to use. Somehow Apple continues to improve on an interface that we iSheep already think is close to perfect. Thankfully they’ve gotten rid of skeuomorphism – designing apps to resemble their real-world things (e.g. Notes app looking like a yellow notepad, etc.). iOS 7’s functional layers help keep track of where you are – your app icons look to float on top of your wallpaper. Then the Notification Center and new Control Center (see below) are translucent layers on top. Very slick.
  • Control Center (swipe up) – The new Control Center iOS 7 Control Center
    consolidates features users need quickly – all in one spot: airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Do Not Disturb, screen orientation lock, brightness. music playback control, AirPlay, flashlight, timer, calculator and camera. Android users have this already, but Apple has caught up and then some. There is a lot of control in one swipe – incredibly easy and handy – even from the lock screen!
  • Task Manager (double click Home button) – This is a much iOS 7 Task Managermore intuitive way to manage you tasks than before. When you’re in the task manager, you can see what you’re doing in each app with a little preview. As before, you can touch it to switch to that app, or simply swipe it up to quit it.
  • Photos App – Your photos are now organized by Collections and Moments – organizing your photos by place and time automatically for you. It seems that Apple has nailed photo management on iOS 7, so perhaps they can now share that with iPhoto on the Mac.iOS 7 Photo App
  • Safari – First, the unified smart search and address bar is long overdue, but now that iOS Safari has it, all is forgiven. The new tab view is excellent. Not only is it a much easier way to see your tabs, the integration of your other devices’ open tabs via iCloud is sublime. Overall they’ve done a great job with usability including having the buttons disappear until you scroll to make them appear.iOS 7 Safari

iOS 7 will likely have some updates to smooth out a few wrinkles, but its very robust and ready for the masses. That said, there are more than a few apps that are experiencing difficulty in the new iOS, so you may want to hang back for a few more weeks. When you do update, you’ll likely be pleased with the work from the folks in Cupertino.

Come on people, use a good passcode on your smartphone

Lock ScreenStudies have shown that about half of smartphone owners don’t lock their phone with a passcode. This is quite shocking considering how much of our lives are tied to our smartphones.

Even if you don’t have tons of banking info and such in your phone, it’s likely that you wouldn’t want your messaging and Facebook personal life open to some thief that takes your phone. It’s also important for teens, as bullying or even a practical joke can get way out of hand, “What do you mean I sent you a love SMS Mr. Science Teacher?”

OK, so now you’re on board with having a passcode – let’s make sure it’s a good one. Below is a table of the top passcodes – not very secure, eh?

Common Passcodes

Yes, any thief or savvy kid knows these. Besides easy numbers, easy patterns and birth years are ‘popular’. Choose a passcode that’s easy for you to remember but is something someone wouldn’t easily guess. Maybe its the address of your childhood home or dog’s Birthday. Think out of the box, and use something someone else wouldn’t know.

Most phones or add on apps will allow longer sequences or even patterns. The new iPhone 5S has a finger print reader if you are looking to upgrade. That said, a decent four digit passcode is infinitely better than nothing, so choose something that works for you and use it.

How to get better Wi-Fi

A lot of people complain that their Apple TV doesn’t work well, as they wait forever for
music or video to start.  Sometimes it’s that their tablet gets Internet in the living room, but not in the bedroom. This is often a Wi-Fi issue rather than an Apple TV, phone or tablet
problem.  Unfortunately wireless networking isn’t always straightforward.

Wi-Fi not workingYou see, at lot of us think that we just set up our Wi-Fi router somewhere and our home has a magical wireless networking blanket snuggly wrapped around it. For some lucky folks, this may be the case. For most of us though, there are a plethora of issues that can make Wi-Fi less than ideal. These issues include home size/layout, building material, router location, router and interference (microwave ovens, neighbour’s Wi-Fi, etc.).

You may not notice Wi-Fi issues with light Internet browsing or email, but try heavier use like Netflix or iTunes streaming video and you’re experience goes from OK to down right aggravating. Or perhaps some rooms are two thumbs up, but others are left in Wi-Fi wasteland.

So what can you do? Here are some things to try:

  • Wire it: As a general rule, if you can plug in an Ethernet cable, then plug one in.
    Going wireless should be a last resort. If your home is not pre-wired for networking, see if its reasonable to run a cable from your router. If you’re lucky enough to be building or renovating your home, plan out your wired networking to match your needs. Plug in an Ethernet cable whenever possible
  • Change the channel: Most if not all Wi-Fi routers allow you to change the channel being used for your Wi-Fi. You can use a Wi-Fi analyzer tool (see below) to see what the Wi-Fi looks like in your home. Then use a channel that is least used. Some routers will also let you turn up the signal power.Select a Wi-Fi channel
  • Move your Wi-Fi router: Your Wi-Fi router should be close to the centre of your home or near devices like iPads that need wireless networking. People often want to put their router out of sight, but often it’s really bad places for wireless such as in the basement or under a bed. As a general rule, metal around a router, like heating ducts, pipes, wires and box frame mattresses are death for Wi-Fi signals. Metal studs in the wall and old plaster can be bad too.Choose a good location for Wi-Fi router
  • Get a new Wi-Fi router: That $19.99 Wi-Fi router looked like such a bargain in theASUS RT-N66U flyer, but you’ll pay for it in different ways. The same goes for most Wi-Fi routers that Internet providers include with their service. A great Wi-Fi router truly makes a huge difference. Our current favourite is the ASUS RT-N66U (or ASUS RT-AC66U is you’re looking for 802.11AC). Its pricey, but its a real beast (and we mean that in a good way).
  • Try power line extenders: Power line extenders allow your to use your home’s
    D-Link_powerlineelectricity wiring for your computer network.  Older generation power line extenders were quite horrid, but the new ones like D-Link’s are pretty good with decent data flow. That said, they don’t work in all cases such as homes with multiple breaker panels or really poor power circuits. Many manufactures also provide adapters with Wi-Fi access points build in (see next point).
  • Add a Wi-Fi access point: To better cover a large or a problematic home, you can add one or more Wi-Fi access points like a Linksys or Apple Airport Express. (As a bonus, the Airport Express can be used for AirPlay music.) To be clear, we’re talking about adding an access point connected with an Ethernet cable. The devices that just rebroadcast your Wi-Fi signal are temptingly simple, but they will likely only cause you grief in the long run. (They may help get a Wi-Fi signal further, but they really are one of those interference devices mentioned above.) You can also set up an access point with the same Wi-Fi name and passcode, so your devices can simply choose the best signal.Wi-Fi Router with wired Wi-Fi Access Point

You can test out the Wi-Fi in your home using free tools like InSSIDer for Android devices. Sorry iPhone and iPad folks there isn’t a version for you, but there is for Mac and PC. If you use these apps there is no hard threshold, but if you’re seeing something around -80 or less, you’re likely having a pretty poor time with your Wi-Fi. Walk around your home and test Wi-Fi strength for different router locations.Good & bad Wi-Fi signal power

If you need help with any of this, reach out to us and we’d be happy to help plan and update your home’s networking that fits your needs and budget.

 

Case Study: PNE Waterfront Townhouse Gets Savvy

This fun and hip urban couple wanted seamless home tech in their new townhome.  As often is the case, although the home was recently built, it wasn’t well thought out for home tech. The plan was to smarten up the home while maintaining a modest budget. For this project, we worked with Tamara of Philosophy Design to realize the couple’s vision.

The tech updates had three focus areas; the living room, master bedroom and office/spare room. The overarching principles for this update were simplicity, clean lines and minimized tech footprint. As with any update, it was also important to provide a home network to connect all the gear.

The home’s living room is an ideal entertaining hub as it flows from the dining room and
Living Room - TV & sound barkitchen. Here we mounted an awesome and affordable Panasonic 58” TV and Harman Kardon sound bar over the fireplace. The other gear was discretely tucked away in the funky console and the wireless subwoofer hidden. This was nicely tied together with a Harmony remote. Now the homeowners can watch TV, stream from their Apple TV or listen to music from their smartphones throughout the ‘great room’.

Master bedroom - mounted TV & sound barThe master bedroom has similar functionality. A Panasonic 42” TV is tidy on the wall with a matching sound bar. Again the TV set top box and Apple TV were hidden away, but this time on a tiny shelf in the walk-in closet behind the TV.

The office space, which also doubles as a spare room, has similar touches with another Panasonic TV and sound bar. A PS3 was desired instead of an Apple TV, so the PS3 and TV set top box were again tucked away in the closet.

We used the office as the hub for wired and wireless networking. The building developer had put the TV, phone and networking panel in the ground floor entry room. This would have been fine, but unfortunately only one networking wire was installed when originally built! Luckily it went to the office/spare room, so we used this to branch out the Internet connection. Desk power & EthernetPhysical network wiring in the office maximized performance there, and we put an excellent Wi-Fi access point to ensure solid Internet access for all the homeowners’ wireless gadgets through the living area. When it’s time to get some work done, a handy grommet is built into the office desk providing power and wired Internet.

Nest learning thermostat & Power2U AC/USB wall outlet A few thoughtful touches round out the home. A Nest Learning Thermostat provides simple temperature home automation including smartphone control while away. Combination USB and power outlets were installed in the kitchen and bedroom for i-device charging convenience

This home tech update provides streamlined TV, music and Internet experiences the savvy couple wanted without breaking the bank. As they just welcomed twin girls into the world, it will also provide a solid base to grow as their digital demands expand.

How to get better sounding music

We’ve come a long way from those first horrible sounding MP3s from the Napster era, but many of us don’t realize that our digital audio has room for improvement.  I’m not one to get all teary eyed nostalgic for CDs or even vinyl, but we’ve traded sound quality for convenience on our mobile phones and iPods.  Don’t get me wrong – I’ll gladly take it this way as it allows me to listen to music everywhere.  But I’ll definitely accept better…

In a nutshell, MP3 and Apple’s AAC format assume people can’t hear all the music so it FLAC audio codecdoesn’t need to keep it all (therefore its ‘lossy’), and they’re often used with lower quality settings to save space.  There are lossless formats like FLAC that keep CD quality, but then there are those that argue CDs aren’t good enough either.

Of course there is something better – High Definition Audio (HD Audio).  HD Audio is becoming more available, and not just for the Beethoven set.  Many artists like Daft Punk and Green Day are available in full HD glory from places like HDTracks.  HD Audio sounds amazing – even with modest gear (see below).  HD Audio uses more data (more bits and higher sampling rates: bigger music files) to better reproduce the music.  FLAC, which can also handle more data, looks to be the most popular format for HD Audio.

My current setup uses my computer with a Digital to Audio Converter (DAC) connected by Cambridge Audio DAC MagicPlusUSB.  A decent DAC will make any music source sound better (even MP3s), but it’s required for the bit rates that HD Audio uses.  My Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is an affordable DAC and sounds great.  It can also be used with headphones so you don’t need a full stereo system.

My next step is to find an affordable and convenient way to enjoy HD Audio all around my home until the Apples of the world make it ubiquitous for us all.  You can use streamers like Roku, but they don’t allow for full HD Audio streaming.  Of course there is audiophile grade equipment available, but my goal is to get HD Audio streaming from network storage at a modest price point.  I’ll update with my progress, but in the meantime for those interested I recommend you try listening to your current music through a DAC for improved sound quality and test out a favourite album in glorious HD too.

How to mostly drop your landline

Landline telephoneWe were like many families as we still had a landline, but almost exclusively used our mobiles.  We wanted to cut the cord and save money, but there were still a few hold outs that called us on our home number.

We decided to cut our home phone service but with a safety net of not giving up our old number completely.  There are services that allow you to move your home number to an Internet phone service.  We went with Fongo as it seemed the right combination of free and decent user reviews.  They will set you up for a one time $25 fee, and voice mail, caller ID and calling to major centres in Canada is freeCalling elsewhere and long distance is very reasonable, and there are other features at low cost if wanted.  I set up our account on my smartphone, and set my account to ring simultaneously on my wife’s smartphone as well.  Boom – ‘home phone’ no matter where we are.  People use it to save money on mobile phone minutes as well.  (Note that it will use your mobile data when you”re not on Wi-Fi though.)

What about quality you may ask.  Call quality is about as good as you’d expect from an Internet phone service.  Its not crystal clear, but very acceptable for free!  Also sometimes the calls don’t ring out as long and the caller ID isn’t perfect, but again acceptable in my books.  I’ve been using it for a couple months and besides being free, I really like the features and flexibility of the Internet phone service.  We don’t get or make many calls on that number, but its still there for us.  If you’re thinking of cutting your landline home phone, it might just be the step you want.

Mini Review: Sound City – Directed by Dave Grohl

The Sound City documentary from Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) is engaging – even if you’re not a music nerd. The journey is built around the Sound City studio’s Neve mixing console Grohl is buying before the studio is demolished. But its also about the people who recorded great albums there including Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rick Springfield, Nirvana, and many more. Its fascinating to see the ups and downs of the studio told through conversations with the artists.

When the console is moved, Grohl hammers out an album with his musician cohorts, including Sir Paul McCartney showing how easily its done (if you’re Paul McCartney). Although we’re huge music fans, we expected this would be a self-absorbed, dry affair. It turned out to be much about what makes us human. Not bad for a rock guy’s doc. The film and soundtrack, Sound City – Real to Reel, are well worth a watch and listen. The film is currently the movie of the week on iTunes for $0.99 rental if you want to check it out there.