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 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.