5th Anniversary Series Archive

5 Year Special–Entertainment In The Connected World

5 Years Special iconAnother major trend that has come about over the past five years is increasing interest in “connected entertainment”. This has been augmented with the role of smartphones, tablets and computers having access to online content services, typically through natively-coded client-side apps.

But it is also about a surge in the availability of traditional devices that are associated with entertainment being connected to the home network and drawing down online content from various sources.

Network-capable entertainment devices

Increasingly we are purchasing network-capable entertainment devices that are fit for use in the main living or family areas of our homes.

Panasonic VIERA AX900 Series 4K UHDTV press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Panasonic VIERA AX900 Series 4K UHDTV

Firstly, most TV manufacturers are supplying “smart TVs” that have network connectivity and access to online content services. Typically the manufacturers, primarily the “big-name” companies are offering this towards mid-range and premium models in their product lineups. This feature is also being extended to Blu-Ray players, “home-theatre-in-box” systems and the like so you can add this feature to existing TV sets which is important as TV sets last a long time and are capable of being “pushed down” to secondary viewing areas. It is also a key feature for any of the newer 4K “ultra-high-definition” TVs that show images that are sharper than the regular Full HD TVs on the market.

Cyrus Lyric 09 CD receiver

Cyrus Lyric CD receiver – a network-capable stereo system

Similarly, network-capable music-playback devices are reaching standards that befit high-quality music reproduction. Here, these devices are either as “wireless speakers”, integrated music systems or hi-fi components that can be connected to existing hi-fi systems.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

The “wireless speakers” are single-piece tabletop speaker systems that connect to the home network in a manner similar to what Sonos envisaged with their products. Here, you can have a group of these speakers that are connected to the same network play the same audio content without them being out of sync. Most of the setups may work in a “party-mode” setup where they play the same content whereas an increasing number of these speakers can allow you to set two like units up as a wirelessly-linked stereo pair for increased stereo separation or wirelessly link a subwoofer to the speaker to provide some extra bass. A trend that could easily come about is to have a wirelessly-linked multiple-speaker setup for surround sound, which could make this concept more appealing because of the absence of wires.

At the moment, Wi-Fi-based multiroom wireless speakers will work with other speakers that implement the same technology, typically by having the same or compatible chipsets. This is because no standard has been defined for these kind of speaker setups.

WD MyCloud EX4, WD MyCloud EX2, WD Red 6Tb hard disk

WD MyCloud EX Series NAS units able to benefit from the 6Tb WD Red

Another device that is being considered highly important for the “connected entertainment” world and is something that every home network will have to have is the network-attached storage appliance. These devices work as “always-on” media servers that can provide audio, image and video content and most, if not all of them implement UPnP AV / DLNA and iTunes / DAAP media-server functionality to do this on a level playing field. This means that you don’t need to run a desktop computer all the time to make the latest photos or the music you ripped from your CDs or downloaded from iTunes or similar services available to your smart TV or your network-connected stereo equipment.

Online Content Services

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio

Internet Radio

Previously, online content services were typically Internet radio services which offered global access to Internet-hosted simulcasts from various broadcast radio stations and networks. I saw this as the “new shortwave” because you could hear a radio station that is local to a particular city or town through this setup and these have been facilitatied by a few Internet-radio directories like TuneIn Radio and vTuner.

Now we have seen the arrival of the “global jukebox” in the form of music-streaming services like Spotify, Deezer and Pandora. These services allow you to legally stream an album, song or playlist via the Internet and work either for free with advertising or for a modest monthly charge. They are becoming a way to, for example, sample music you are interested in or even just listen to music for a modest cost or for free.

Spotify screenshot with album tracklist

Spotify, one of the most popular online music-streaming services

For music, the buy-to-download business model still exists courtesy of the likes of iTunes, Google Play, Amazon or most other online stores. There are some label-direct music stores that offer music on a “buy-to-download” basis. Most of these services offer the music as CD-quality 320kbps MP3 or 256kbps AAC files for each album track but some are offering them as master-quality FLAC or similar files. As well, most of these tracks are being made available as single tracks for pennies’ worth for those of us who want to construct the perfect playlist.

Netflix official logo - courtesy of Netflix

Netflix – the sign of on-demand video’s progress

This is also including music distributors and online retailers like Amazon who sell us vinyl records or CDs that come with “pre-ripped” MP3 files that are available to download. For most of us, this avoids the need to rip the CD or to copy the record to the computer’s hard disk so it can be heard over the network or on our portable devices.

Online video is mainly driven by the likes of streaming services like Netflix who are even producing their own content as well as licensing other parties’ content. They are also being augmented by “catch-up TV” services where one can view one or more previous episodes of a TV series “on demand” after it was shown. Because these services are yielding high-quality content, they have led to people in the US abandoning their cable-TV services and watching content on these services.

Naim UnitiQute 2 on dressing table

The Naim Uniti!Qute 2 – a high-quality network-connected music system for that small room

Most such services are nowadays being delivered via set-top boxes that connect to your home network and implement a native front end to these services. But, as smart TVs come on the scene, anyone who offers a video-on-demand service has to provide a native front-end for the main smart-TV platforms.

In some parts of Europe, ADSL and fibre-based next-generation broadband is being used to deliver pay-TV. This is more so as part of telecommunications companies offering a “single-pipe triple-play” service to their customers where one connection to the customer’s home carries broadband Internet, landline telephony and multi-channel pay TV.

They have also implemented a “hybrid broadcast broadband” platform for television where it is becoming feasible to provide TV content services, including interactive TV, by interlinking traditional broadcast TV with content available via the Internet. Broadcasters primarily use this to deliver a supplementary video-on-demand service such as a catch-up TV service to the main TV set.

At the moment- there isn’t a level playing field for providing video content on an “electronic sell-through” or “download-to-own” basis in a similar way to what is being used for audio content. There are still issues with digital-locker services or digital-rights mechanisms binding users to particular content platforms or the risk of people losing access to the content they bought if an electronic-sell-through platform ceases to exist. They are not at a point where you could buy a movie or television series online and download it to a NAS for viewing at home knowing that you still have access to the movie even if the vendor goes off-line.

Conclusion

It will take some time to bring some video content-delivery services to the home network in order to have it accessible on the main TV set, but the home network has become an entrenched part of our entertainment lives/

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5-Year Special: Portable Computing is Mainstream

5 Years Special iconThis is the first of a series of posts to celebrate the last five years of the connected lifestyle which has been covered on this Website.

Laptops

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible Ultrabook

Over the last five years, the 15”-17” clamshell-style laptop computer has overtaken the traditional “tower-style” desktop computer as become the preferred computer style for most households.

There are even users, some of whom I know, who will operate these computers in conjunction with an external screen, keyboard and mouse for their primary office-based computing locations while being able to use just its built-in screen, keyboard and mouse for computing while “on-the-road”. In other cases, the laptop bas brought with it the appeal of the dining table or kitchen bench rather than a home office or a desk in the corner of the family room as a workspace due to the ability to stow it away when you are using that space for other activities like meals.

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – an example of a mobile workstation

With this class of computer, there has been the rise of “workstation-grade” and “gamer-grade” laptops that are tuned for increased performance, especially with graphics-intensive tasks or even “full-on” games. This has also displaced the desktop workstation computer or “gaming-rig” for these applications and allowed for increased portability when dealing with CAD, multimedia or games.

Windows 8 with its tile-based “Modern” user interface has legitimised the touchscreen as a control surface for the computer and has opened up a plethora of touchscreen-enabled laptop designs. For example, the Sony VAIO Fit 15a that I reviewed last year underscored the concept of adding touch abilities to a 15” mainstream laptop even as I let a friend who works in enterprise IT play with this machine when I had visited him.

This has also led to the arrival of convertible and detachable computer designs that switch between a traditional laptop design and a tablet design. There are even these convertibles that have 13” or, in some cases, 15” screens which may be considered too large for tablet use by one person but are the right size for creating content. In some cases, this size can appeal to those of us who want to let another person have a look at the same content.

The trend has led to a fusion of regular desktop-style computing and mobile computing with some laptops running Android whether standalone or on a dual-boot method. As well, some small tablets are being sold with Windows 8.1 as an operating system and it is being harder to differentiate between mobile and regular-grade computing capabilities.

Mobile computing

One main trend over the past five years has been the arrival of platform-based mobile computing, which was commercialised by Apple with their iPhone platform.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – an up-and-coming Android smartphone

It is where devices like mobile phones and tablets are built around an operating system which has many third-party programmers writing software for these devices. Typically the software is supplied through “app-stores” operated by the company who develops the mobile-computing platform and these “app-stores” are typically one-touch away from the user. The software, which is referred to as “apps”, typically ranges from productivity software like email clients or note-taking software, through utility programs like calculators or unit converters, and mobile front-ends for online services to games for whiling away those train journeys.

Google Play Android app store

Google Play Android app store

If the programmer wants to monetise their creation, they have the ability to sell it through that app-store which has an integrated e-commerce setup, sell modules for that software through “in-app purchasing” where the user can buy the option within the app’s user interface but via the app-store’s storefront or make use of an in-app display advertising setup.

Some of these app-stores or the apps available in them provide access to content-retail services where you could buy music, audiobooks, e-books and videos to enjoy through your device. For example, the e-book has appealed mainly to women who like to read romance fiction without that “tut-tut-tut” from other people about what they are reading.

The performance calbre of these mobile-computing devices is approaching that of the regular computing devices, especially when it comes to playing hardcore games or watching multimedia content. Here, we are seeing mobile devices being equipped with 64-bit ARM-microarchitecture RISC processor units or some Android devices being equipped with IA-64 microarchitecture chips similar to what most laptops are equipped with.

Smartphones

These devices have changed since the arrival of the iPhone with customers being spoilt for choice in device capabilities, operating systems and even screen sizes.

Firstly, you can purchase smartphones with a screen size of up to 6 inches and these are the same size as an advanced-function pocket calculator such as a scientific or financial type. As well, some of the premium smartphones, especially those from the Samsung stable, even implement the OLED display which is a different self-illuminating display technology to the LCD display which requires LED backlighting to illuminate it.

As well, there are smartphones that run Android or Windows Phone operating systems available from many different manufactures. For that matter, the smartphones that are considered “cream of the crop” nowadays are most of the newer Android phones made by Samsung, Sony or HTC.

Tablets

Toshiba Thrive AT1S0 7" tablet

Toshiba AT1S0 7″ Android tablet

The mobile tablet has been made commercially viable thanks to Apple with their iPad lineup. Here, we are now seeing tablets at various different price ranges and screen sizes courtesy if intense competition. Some of these units, when paired with a Bluetooth or USB keyboard have been able to become a viable alternative to “netbook-size” small laptops.

Firstly, I had seen the arrival of the 7”-8” mini-tablet that could be stuffed in to one’s coat pocket. These have appealed as units that can be useful for reference-type applications when you are out and about and have effectively displaced the e-reader as a device.

Secondly, the 10” tablet has become more of a household content-consumption device especially with video but also has served some basic computing tasks like checking email or Web browsing. Apple and Samsung have raised the bar for this product class by improving the display calibre with the former using a high-resolution “Retina” display on their 3rd-generation iPad lineup and the latter offering an AMOLED display on a 10″ mobile tablet.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10" tablet - Press Photo courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10″ tablet

But, as I said earlier, the tablet and laptop are bridging together as a portable computing solution. This has been brought about with the convertible and detachable computers that can be a tablet one moment or a laptop another moment. Similarly, Intel and Microsoft have pushed the classic desktop microarchitecture and Windows 8 in to the field of the small-sized tablets with chipsets optimised for portable computing and the availability of Windows 8.1 for free with small-screen tablets.

Moble-Platform apps

The mobile platforms have seen a cottage industry of developers write programs or “apps” for these devices that can fit in with our lifestyle. Some of these apps have become mobile “on-ramps” to various online content services like social networks. As well, the e-reader has been displaced by the “e-bookstore” apps written for the mobile platforms so one can use a tablet or smartphone for reading whatever they want to read without worrying.

Recent controversies have arisen regarding how these apps are sold such as the issue of “in-app” sales of downloadable content or virtual currency for games that appeal to children or ad-funded apps that may host advertising that “commercialises” childhood like the sale of toys or junk food. As well there have been issues raised about the quality of apps sold through the app stores with computing “old-timers” relating them to the download sites, bulletin boards and magazine-attached disks of yore.

Wi-Fi an important part of the home network

For that matter, the most important feature of any network, including a home network, is a Wi-Fi wireless-network segment. This has enabled us to do more around the house with laptops, tablets and smartphones yet use cost-effective fixed broadband Internet.

These networks have increased in speed and security courtesy of newer technologies like 802.11n, 802.11ac and use of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The setup procedure has been simplified for these networks courtesy of WPS-PBC “push-to-connect” setup and the upcoming NFC “touch-to-connect” setup technologies.

Increasingly more networked devices are being designed to work primarily or solely with the Wi-Fi network segment because of the “no new wires” concept that this technology provides. This technology also appeals to the mass-market retailer as an easily-saleable “backbone” for the home network even though there are issues with the radio-network performance.

Mi-Fi devices and the portable Wi-Fi network

Another class of device that is becoming popular is the “Mi-Fi” router which is a portable battery-operated Wi-Fi router for a mobile broadband service. These have appealed to those of us who use temporary network setups with Wi-Fi-only tablets and laptops or simply want to run a mobile-only communications setup.

This has also extended to the arrival of portable NAS units that work as extra storage for smartphones, tablets and laptop computers but work as their own access points for these devices. Manufacturers are even pitching them as a way to store video content on the mobile NAS unit and having people like children view the content on their tablets via the small network that is created by these devices.

The next part of this 5th-anniversary series will liook at the concept of “connected” communications and entertainment and how the home network is playing a strong part in these activities.

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