Why not stream art or photos on your TV when not watching it?

Many of us have a TV screen in our living rooms and other living spaces, but often it’s left as a black void when we’re not watching it. Today’s 4K TVs are thin, have very tiny frames and consume less power, so they open up other possibilities. For those who have Samsung’s Frame TV, they may already have photos or art showing on it, but what can the rest of us do to stream art?

Devices to stream art

If you have an Apple TV or other streaming device like a Roku (available both as a separate device or pre-installed in some TVs), then you have options to show photos and stream art. For example, Apple TVs have built in photo viewing for your photos and cool aerial screensaver videos. Otherwise, you can look for other services to let your arty side show.

Apps to stream art

There are third party art apps, such as Art Authority, artcast, LANKA, loupe and Mochi. These range from classic museum paintings to modern art. Some are free, and some have ads or require a paid subscription to stream art collections. There are many options, so you can search for one that matches your taste and style. Currently it looks like the Apple TV has the most options, but some TVs like Sony TVs allow for these apps via the Google Play Store.

If you want stream art or show off your photos, then your TV might be just the tool you need. If you don’t already have a media streaming device like an Apple TV, you can add one relatively affordably. These devices consume power, but they’re low enough to guiltlessly stream art when you want to get arty.

Hands on Chromecast

Google ChromecastWe’re always excited to try out new devices that promise a simple user experience, so with Google’s Chromecast media streamer now available in Canada we dove in.

Like any streaming device, the Chromecast was easy to set up – plug into a media room TV’s HDMI input and a power outlet. As a cool feature, the Chromecast can also be powered from a USB port on your TV if you have one – this saves finding room on a power bar. Once it’s running, you simply follow the on-screen instructions to get the Chromecast mobile or tablet app and configure for your Wi-Fi network.

Chromecast compatible apps are limited, but there are Netflix and YouTube apps. Unlike other media devices like the Roku 3 and Apple TV, you use your smartphoneNetflix or tablet as a remote – you’re not streaming directly from it. (In fact, the Chromecast doesn’t come with a separate remote.) If you use Google’s Chrome Internet browser, you can also get the Chromecast plug-in to allow you to see the Chrome browser on your TV.

Although Chromecast works well to watch the likes of Netflix, YouTube and web content, it’s a pretty limited experience otherwise. Even though our friends in the States have more options like HBO Go and Hulu Plus, the Chromecast is missing other functions like mirroring and photo & video viewing that competing systems offer. (There is the Photowall app for doodling and beaming photos to it, but that Google “Chrome Experiment” was pretty flakey for us.) It should be noted though that for what it does, Chromecast works well with Apple and Android devices.

Google’s Chromecast is really affordable at $39, but the trade off is functionality as it only supports a handful of streaming apps. Its a small, cool and affordable package, but we’re also always leery of devices that rely on Wi-Fi for media streaming, as we prefer to have the option to plug into a wired network in case your home’s Wi-Fi isn’t up to snuff. Unless you’re a savvy Google type, you may be better served by spending a bit more on a more flexible device like the Roku or Apple TV.  An Apple TV is especially great if you’re an Apple device home. It’s likely that Google will augment Android to better mesh with the Chromecast as well. It will be interesting to see what Google adds to their cool little Chromecast device to make it more attractive to the mainstream.

Digital Media Players

Roku 3

Digital media players or streaming devices are available from many manufacturers. If you’re not already using one, these are great way to get programming to your media room TV from the Internet or your computer. As mentioned last December, they are also great to stream content right from your smartphone or tablet.

The Apple TV and Roku are the most popular, but they are also available from the likes of Western Digital, Netgear and Asus. Sizes vary, but most are the size a hockey puck or two. These small devices sit near your TV and plug in a HDMI input. Features vary, but most of these devices have:

  • A dedicated remote with different capabilities depending on the system. For example the Apple TV’s is simplified barebones, while the Roku 3 allows headphones to be attached. Of course most players allow control using your smartphone or tablet as well.
  • Streaming apps like Netflix. Most have the top streaming apps, but some offer more choices for more unique tastes. As with apps built into smart TVs, you should research which ones appeal to you.
  • Ability to play content from your computer or NAS (Network Attached Storage – if you use one in your home). While the Apple TV is fixed to only play media from iTunes library, others allow more flexibility. iTunes makes it easier, but as with most things Apple, there are limitations on what they think you should be able to do. This is either a plus or minus depending on the individual.
  • Streaming and mirroring from your smartphone or tablet (as mentioned above).

There looks to be a new category of these media players forming up – the dongle. To catch you up, a ‘dongle‘ is a small device that connects directly to a computer or TV. The new Roku Streaming Stick HDMI version joins the Google Chromecast dongle that’s already available in the US. These are similar to a regular media players but with reduced or streamlined featuresRoku Ready Stick. They are focused on using your smartphone or tablet to play content (only certain Android devices for the Chromecast). We can take a closer look at these when they are available in Canada.

The great things about digital media players are that they are about $100 or less and pack in a lot of features. Not only do they smarten up any TV with an HDMI connection, they will make the idea of having to load Blu-rays or DVDs seem so passé. Happy streaming!

How to use your TV with your phone or tablet

Apple AirPlay

Playing media on your TV from your smartphone or tablet is a handy home tech feature. Perhaps you want to show vacation photos or play the latest YouTube hit for your friends so all can see at the same time. Or maybe you just want to watch your stuff on a bigger screen. There are two families to stream media: AirPlay and DLNA.

Apple created AirPlay for their products. You can stream content from Apple iPhones, iPads and Macs to an Apple TV. In iOS, you can use AirPlay by swiping up from the bottom of your iPhone or iPad screen to access its Control Center. On newer Macs, you access AirPlay from the menu bar at the top. You can use your device for streaming (playing from your iPad or iPhone) or mirroring (mirror its screen to the TV). AirPlay is extremely simple to use, but relies on a solid home Wi-Fi network to ensure audio and video play smoothly. If you are able to connect a network cable to your AppleTV, that would be best, as iPads and iPhone can only connect using Wi-Fi.

Samsung Instal-Play

If you’re an Android user, you too can stream media, but its usually a bit more involved. There are many versions of Android and compatible TV devices including PS3 and Xbox. They make use of the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) protocol. Streaming from your Android device to a TV can range from simple to beyond frustrating depending on your device and TV. For example if you have a premium Samsung phone and a compatible Samsung TV, you’ll have a fairly seamless experience using their apps. As there is a nearly endless array of Android devices and compatible TV devices, there are too many variants to cover here. Some Blackberry and Windows devices also support DLNA, so you may have compatibility with those devices as well. If you have a hodgepodge of devices, game consoles and TVs, you’ll have to get cozy with Google to figure out the magic steps to get them to play nicely together. As with AirPlay, a good experience with DLNA requires a solid Wi-Fi network.

Although Apple’s AirPlay is mainly for Apple devices, there are apps like Twonky Beam that allow you to use an Android device with an Apple TV. The experience isn’t quite as seamless and flexible, but you should be able to get by. Some audio brands are AirPlay compatible (check out fav #4), but Apple may allow them to include video streaming in the future.

People often have strong opinions that Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android is better, but in general its usually best to stick with one or the other unless you’re tech savvy. Regardless of your tech device religion, get the most out of it including streaming to other screens.


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.