Making sense of TVs: “Should I get a Smart TV?”

viera-wt60TVs 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. We’re looking at common TV options and some tips on what to look for. Last time we looked at: “Do I need Ultra HD?”, this week: “Should I get a Smart TV?”

Smart TVs are all the rage these days, or at least they’re advertised as such.  Smart TVs are TVs with built in functions or apps that use the Internet.  In the old days, like five years ago, the only built in TV function was that it could tune in channels.  These days most of us use cable boxes, DVD/Blu-ray players or streaming devices.  As TV viewing habits and content sources are changing, TVs now have other built in functions like Netflix, YouTube, Facebook and more.

Should it effect your buying decision when looking at a new TV?  The answer is maybe.  If you use a TV with a cable set top box, DVD player or something like an Apple TV, then the TVs smart features won’t budge your decision one way or another.  It doesn’t hurt to have the smart features, but put your money first towards TV picture quality and size.

On the other hand, if you want to use Netflix without connecting a streaming device, then a TV with built-in Netflix would be handy. Below is a partial list of available apps to give you a sense of what’s available in Canada (our neighbours to the south have even more options).

  • Sports: MLB.TV, NHL GameCentre, MLSSamsung Smart TV
  • Special Interest: BollywoodHungama, NFB, Crunchyroll, Times of India, c|net
  • News: The Weather Network, WSJ Live, Huff Post Live,
  • Social: Skype, Twitter, YouTube
  • Convenience: smart phone streaming, Internet browsers, voice control

You can also look at TV manufactures smart functions such as Samsung’s smart TV offerings. Perhaps you can see yourself using something like Skype, checking the weather or streaming to your TV from your smartphone, so a smart TV might make sense to you.

If these types of smart features appeal to you, ensure that your short list of TVs also include apps that are important to you.  Remember that when you get it home though, you’ll need to have a stable Wi-Fi or wired network to fully enjoy the smart features as most require an Internet connection.  Happy viewing!

 

Know your Wi-Fi

Asus's premium router: RT-AC68U

Wi-Fi routers are how most of our devices connect to the Internet and home networks, but unfortunately they are often marketed with jargon and tech specs. The current top Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, but that doesn’t tell us much. Although Wi-Fi routers have many features and important settings like security (hint: use WPA2), two key attributes are data rates (speed) and frequency.

So what should you know about data rates? The table below shows different Wi-Fi standards and advertised max data rates. Keep in mind that these data rates are best case and your experience will vary – you’ll be lucky to get half of the advertised rate. As mentioned in How to get better Wi-Fi, there are lots of reasons your data rate will be less. Most of us just care that we’re connected with enough speed for what we’re doing. To give a baseline without really needing to know what ‘bits per second’ is, an average music file is about 128 kbps (128,000 bits per second) and Netflix video is about 5 Mbps (5,000,000 bits per second). If you’re reading email, a slower date rate is likely fine. If you’re watching a movie on Netflix, you’ll be looking for more speed. The newer and better Wi-Fi standards usually give the higher data rates under the same home conditions. This is accomplished by using improved technology and methods, but we can leave that to the Wi-Fi equipment designers. Note that 802.11ac hasn’t been officially been passed, but with the likes of Apple selling products with it, it should be OK. The long and short of it is to try to buy and use the latest technology, but don’t worry about upgrading to the latest and greatest unless you’re having particular issues.

802.11 Data Rates

The other buzz term with Wi-Fi these days is Dual Band – 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. These refer to frequencies and not data rates. Dual Band Wi-Fi routers can operate at both the ‘old’ 2.4 GHz and ’new’ 5 GHz frequencies. If Wi-Fi frequencies were like a piano keys, 2.4 GHz would be the lower notes and 5 GHz the higher notes. 2.4 GHz is much more common and often over used. If you live in an apartment building with lots of Wi-Fi networks from your neighbours, it’s like everyone is pounding on the lower piano keys – its really hard to hear what you’re playing! In this case, using 5 GHz might help, as being the newer technology, less people are playing the ‘high notes’. This will change as more people start using 5 GHz, but it should be less crowded for quite some time. The issue with 5 GHz is that the signal doesn’t go as far. Just like a neighbour’s music’s bass pumping though the walls without high notes, the 5 GHz frequencies get absorbed easier by walls, etc. You can also be selective on which devices use which frequencies. For example if you’re stuck with using Wi-Fi for your Apple TV (vs. running a network wire), you could dedicate 5 GHz for it, and 2.4 GHz for your other devices. This should allow for better media streaming as your Apple TV doesn’t have to ‘fight’ with all your other devices for that data speed.

Beyond data rates and frequency, many manufactures beef up their devices with other features like more antennas. Although some models are over priced, often for features you may never use, you usually get what you pay for in Wi-fi routers. If you have basic networking needs and a smallish home, you may be fine with a cheaper model. If you have more intense networking needs or a large complex home layout, you may have to pony up for premium Wi-Fi routers. You should check Internet reviews on Wi-Fi routers, but remember that everyone’s needs and homes are different. If you need help navigating your home Wi-Fi coverage, feel free to reach out to us at Simpleer as well.

Making sense of TVs: “Do I need Ultra HD?”

Sony 55” 4K Ultra HD TV

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. We’re looking at common TV options and some tips on what to look for. Last time we looked at: “How big of a TV should I get?”, this week: “Do I need Ultra HD?”

Ultra High Definition Television (Ultra HD TV or UHDTV), is the next generation of televisions. There are two Ultra HD formats: 4K TV and 8K TV, but 4K TV will likely be the predominate one over the next several years. 4K TV has four times the resolution of current HDTVs (8K has 16 times!). The increased resolution comes from more pixels packed into the TV. Pixels are like tiny coloured lights that make up a TV’s picture. Ultra HD also has more colour range, or colour depth – essentially video should look more ‘real’. Ultra HD paves the way for some very large TVs with great picture quality.

The good news is that the cost of Ultra HD TVs are coming down faster than it took for HDTVs. The bad news is that the rest of the industry needs to figure out how to give us something to watch. For example Sony has an Ultra HD media player and YouTube has some clips, but there isn’t a whole lot Ultra HD stuff out there.

There are top brands making great Ultra HD TVs, but there are also lesser manufactures making poor ones. Some Ultra HD TVs may have the specs on paper, but perhaps the colour isn’t quite right or the picture quality isn’t even across the whole screen. You should be careful when you stumble across a ‘deal’ on a Ultra HD set. Ultra HD allows for a more detailed picture than HDTV, but it doesn’t give quite the sense of a huge step up as HDTV did against old standard definition TVs. Ultra HD is definitely better, but its not like HDTV is unwatchable after you see Ultra HD.

Do you need an Ultra HD TV now, probably not. If you are currently in the market for a TV, and don’t have a big budget, then you’ll likely be well served by a HDTV for quite a while. If you have some extra cash and want to be ready for the future, then perhaps a Ultra HD set is for you – especially if you’re buying a huge TV. The masses will likely start buying Ultra HD sets once prices come down and there is more content available, especially sports.

Wireless basics: cellular vs. home data

Cellular data vs. home dataA cellular data usage question recently came up, so it never hurts to review data usage strategies.  A new mobile phone owner was getting data overage charges from her carrier.  She had a 1GB limit, so there was surprise she had overage charges.  Her Blackberry Z10 was being a data hog, but regardless of the reasons, we should consider using Wi-Fi whenever possible on our smart phones.

Perhaps you’ve just got your fancy new smart phone, or maybe you’re a salty veteran that is ramping up mobile data usage.  There is so much content available and things like video can chew through data at an amazing rate.  Mobile carriers are starting to provide decent data limits, so you should review your plan as sometimes a new plan will give you more for the same monthly bill.

Either way, this is a reminder to use your home Wi-Fi when possible – just go into the settings on your iOS device, Android or even BlackBerry Z10 to get it on your home network.  There is also free Wi-Fi almost everywhere these days, and if you use Shaw for Internet, you can use their Shaw Go Wi-Fi service that is included with your service.  Just be aware that any Wi-Fi data, especially public Wi-Fi, could be watched by particularly nerdy criminals, but for casual Internet use you’re likely OK.  (If you’re concerned with improving Internet security, you can look into a VPN service like Private Internet Access.)

You should also be aware that home Internet data plans also have data usage caps.  These are huge relative to cellular plans, so unless you’re really into BitTorrents or other heavy data use, you should be fine for now.  For example, Shaw’s 25M plan has 250GB included.  If you’re a Telus customer, they technically have limits and its only a matter of time before they too enforce them.

With the explosion of Netflix and other video services, caps may be a problem for all of us though.  Its a good idea to understand your mobile and home data use and what your plan provides.  It takes a bit of extra work, but shopping around can save you money too.

Should you buy a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One?

You may have heard the hype about the next generation of gaming PS4consoles. This Friday Sony launches the PlayStation 4 ($399) and Microsoft will release Xbox One ($499) on Nov. 22. Gamers probably have already decided which one they’re getting, and the hard core ones are likely buying both as they have exclusive games that they just can’t miss out on. The question for average home owners is more toward should they get one at all?

XBox OneThe decision was similar at first with the last round of consoles. The PS3 offered a Blu-ray player and full media streamer at the same cost of a standalone Blu-ray player (remember this was before ubiquitous Apple TVs and smart TVs). The Xbox 360 had a HD DVD player and streaming capabilities too. When the Blu-ray format beat HD DVD, non gamers had a pretty straight forward decision. And those who just wanted a simple, fun gaming box bought a Nintendo Wii.

This time around both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One offer incredible performance for gaming enthusiasts. For the rest of us, its the other stuff like media playing and home integration that matters, and well, that’s unknown at this time. So we can sit back and let time determine which is the best console for our homes. What we have, if anything, will hold us for quite a while longer. Both Microsoft and Sony want to intertwine themselves into our lives, so there should be some cool entertainment offerings on the home tech front. Stay tuned.

 

Cloud Storage Wars

Cloud StorageCloud storage is a great way to share files like photos and documents, but its also an easy way keep important data safe from disasters like hard drive crashes.  In the spring we looked at cloud storage as part of home tech trends.  Back then it looked like Microsoft’s SkyDrive had good compatibility and generous free storage, but we’ve since experienced some issues opening up large files so we’ve dropped it as a recommendation.

We’ve continued evaluating Dropbox and Google Drive.  Both have been flawless across many devices, but Google is very aggressive on free space and pricing when you need more space. They currently offer 15G of free storage, and about $5/month for additional steps of 100G.  That’s pretty hard to beat. As with most of Googles ventures, they likely see it as a means to an end to their data mining/advertising empire.

That said, if you rely on a certain device or application, you should test compatibly.  Mainstream consumer devices like Android, iDevices, Windows PCs and Macs are well covered, but Dropbox currently has slightly better compatibility including Linux.  Google likely won’t stay behind for long though. One thing also worth noting is that its pretty much a given that your data will be stored outside of Canada regardless of the service you choose.  Usually it will be on servers in the US.  For most people this shouldn’t be an issue, but you should be aware of this.

The best part is that you can try these services for free to see if they work for you.  So go ahead and try it, you’ll likely find it easy to manage and share your files.

 

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.

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!