Networks– Wire It!

If you want the best performance out of your home network, and the best possible streaming for your TV shows, movies, and games, then you really should bypass your wireless access and connect everything with ethernet cables.  But why, WHY would you use those yucky wires, when WiFi is just so easy and cool?

Because, even in the best of circumstances, there’s just more that can go wrong with wireless connections.  Interference, signal drops and even the walls themselves will try to get in the way of your wireless connections, whereas a wired connection works consistently every time.  This is particularly important if your internet connection isn’t that great, or you’re trying to make the most of an inexpensive bandwidth plan.  If you can’t get a better internet connection, get everything you can out of the one you have!

In a previous blog entry, I gave some tips on how to set up your router to keep it out of the way.  Now I’ll give you some tips on how to connect to it via ethernet.  Actually, compared to Wireless, setting up a wired connection is very easy… you just snap a Cat-6 cable into your device, and then into your router, and you’re done.  The only real problem is in making sure you don’t get ripped off buying the cables.

Don’t buy ethernet cables at places like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or Target.  These things are sold at huge markups there.

Instead, do your shopping online.  What you need depends on how far your device is from your router, and remember to err on the side of length, so you can snake the cable around things if need be.  5-Foot cables are good for connecting devices nearby, 6-inch cables are good for connecting devices sitting on top of each other (great for connecting a modem to a router, for example), and 25-foot cables will do the job if the device is on the other end of the room.

Suppose you’re sold on the need to hard-wire everything, but still don’t want to deal with the cable mess, or your router is in a completely different part of the house?  Well, then what you’d want to do is actually install an ethernet wall jack.  Run the cable from Point A to Point B, fish it through the wall (or ceiling or floor) and slap a plate on it.  It looks really pretty when it’s all done, and then you just plug your device into the wall the way you used to connect a landline phone.

 

Things You’ll Need:

…notice that you can get everything on that list for well under $200.  If it’s a small project, you can probably score all this for under $150.  This does NOT have to be an expensive project!

Really, all you’re doing here is cutting open the cable, pushing the strands into the appropriately-colored pins, and then trimming them with the razor blade.  If you need some extra guidance, try this tutorial, or for the visual people, try the following video:

 

 

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SideClick Remotes – Review

Like a lot of people, I’m in remote control overload.  One remote for the TV, one for the audio, one for the BluRay player, one for the streaming box, and yet another for an HDMI switch to tie it all together.  And not only is this setup convoluted, but it’s not even that unusual. Everything comes with a remote these days, and too often you only need one or two buttons on each for your daily life.

Lots of solutions have been posed for this problem, but so far, I’ve not been satisfied with any of them.  Cheap Universal Remotes tend to not support peripherals like switches, and they can’t be truly programmed– they only choose from existing sets of codes.  Smartphone remote apps are cumbersome, have no physical buttons, and expect you to dedicate your phone to TV use while you watch.  And programmable Harmony remotes might be the ideal solution, but there’s no way I’m paying $300 for a remote control.

All I need is a set of buttons to which I can map the InfraRed pulses of my choice.  Why can’t someone make this, and make it cheaply?

Well, someone has.  A Kickstarter project has resulted in a new remote control concept called Sideclick.  Rather than be an over-engineered monstrosity, Sideclick is genius in its simplicity.  Sideclick takes the remote for your streaming device of choice and wraps it in a new shell with buttons that can be programmed for your TV controls, or whatever else you’d like.


Now, that last part is worth saying again.  You can program the remote with whatever signals you want.  So, if you want it to emit the “Power On” signal for your TV, but use the “Volume Up/Down” signals from your amp, and still use the “Channel Up/Down” signals from your tuner box, you can do that.  You’re not picking from a list of pre-programmed settings, you point your old remote at the Sideclick, give it the learn command (three buttons) and Sideclick learns and mimics whatever commands you want, from as many remotes as you want.

And on top of all that, there are three additional buttons for you to program in whatever you’d like.  Setup is a breeze– I opened the box, assembled my Sideclick, and had all eight buttons programmed within ten minutes.  And although it looks kind of bulky, the end result is no bigger or heavier than a cased iPhone.

When you’re done, you have the buttons you’ll need most often all in one remote, and without even needing to switch between “modes”, and it’ll all be next to your streaming media player remote, which is probably the device you use most often anyway.  Sideclick offers different shells for AppleTV, Roku, Nexus, and FireTV.

Are there missed opportunities?  Perhaps one.  It’s a shame that a remote that offers this level of customization doesn’t offer the ability to program in Macros, as in, setting a button to emit a series of different signals.  Perhaps that was a bit much to ask, but that’s literally the only thing missing.

Verdict:  I’d strongly recommend Sideclick remotes.

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Rabbit Ears and Red Faces

This is going to be one of those stories about life in the 21st century.  Or more to the point, how in a world that offers seemingly unlimited technology, sometimes we can’t even get the basics right.

Like many cord-cutters, I use an over-the-air antenna to get local HD channels.  Since the digital tuner in my TV doesn’t seem to work, I’ve opted to use an external tuner.  I’ve been using a $30 box by a company called HomeWorx.  Well, this weekend, the box croaked after about a year of use.  Since I was never especially crazy about how it worked (it has a really funky layout and it’s just one more remote to lose), I decided to explore some other options.

So, I need something to feed an antenna signal into my TV.  What are my options?

I could buy a new TV with a functional digital tuner.  Ehh… not really wanting to spend that kind of money right now.

I could get a Tivo Premiere.  Ages ago, when I had cable, I had Tivo as well, and loved it.  Now they have a special box just for cord-cutters.  Of course, you have to buy their service to use the box, which is $20 a month.  Sorry, Tivo, but the whole point of cutting the cord is to get rid of monthly fees.

I could use the Xbox One OTA adapter, essentially turning an Xbox One into a digital tuner.  Problem is, I don’t have an Xbox One, and really have no interest in the console.  I don’t want to invest in a console if I’m not going to be interested in the games, I made that mistake with the PS3.

Hey wait, I could use the tuner for the PS3!  Oh wait, no I can’t, because I’m neither European nor Japanese.  It seems Sony was “strongly discouraged” from releasing the PS3 TV tuner in America.  Probably got a nice bribe from the cable companies.

Okay, well, how about the Xbox 360?  I have one of those.  Is there a tuner for that?  Kind of.  If I have a computer running Windows Media Center, I could install a TV card in there and stream my TV signal over the network from the PC to the 360 to the TV.  If that isn’t the most over-engineered and convoluted solution possible, I don’t know what is.

Hey, I’ve been flirting with the idea of using an AVR.  Can you get one of those with a tuner?  Apparently not, for reasons I cannot fathom.  You can get receivers that include support for HD radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth, Wifi, any streaming service you can name, and even some that still think mp3 capability is some awesome thing worth bragging about… but they don’t offer a TV tuner.

So, in the end after weighing half a dozen equally terrible options, I opted to just buy a new HomeWorx tuner.  Yes, the interface is clunky, and yes, I only expect it to last another year.  However, $30 is about the right price for a disposable device, and for the task I give it, it seems absurd to spend more than that.

It’s funny how a world of options can sometimes mean absolutely zero real choices.

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Streaming Boxes – Because 500 Channels is Kid’s Stuff

The most intimidating part of cutting cable TV is figuring out how you’ll get all your favorite shows.  Oh, intellectually, you probably understand they’re all available “online”, but how do you reconcile that with your brain, which is used to picking up your remote and just cruising through 500 channels?  Online programming is offered through a variety of services with silly-sounding names, like iTunes, Hulu and Netflix.   What does it take to access these services just as easily as you used to access the cable box?

You need some sort of internet-enabled setup for your TV.  One of the most heavily-marketed solutions is the “Smart TV”, which I’ll rule out right away.  These are consistently the worst possible ways to access streaming services, with clunky designs and poor long-term support.  In addition, it’s just a flawed concept: I don’t want my TV to be smart, I want it to be as dumb as possible.  It only has one job, to display whatever content I give it.  Let the boxes underneath do all the thinking… and for this task, I nominate four different choices: the Home Theater PC, the Modern Game Console, the connected Blu Ray player, and the set-top box.

T925-2290-mainHome Theater PC – The option that literally can’t fail, if you’re willing to put the work into it.  Small form-factor PCs and HDMI compatibility have finally made it easy to slap a full-fledged desktop computer under your TV, giving your TV access to any programming that could be streamed through a PC (read: everything), the wide world of PC gaming, and even a large chunk of console gaming via the legally ambiguous path of emulation.

The weakness of HTPCs is, unfortunately, that for all their strengths, you’re still ultimately using a Desktop PC in the living room.  Some people can’t get used to forgoing the remote control to use a keyboard and mouse (I’ll admit, after trying it for 5 years, I just found it to be more trouble than it was worth).  Then you have all the hassles of PC use, such as software updates and virus checks, thrown into your TV time.  Believe it or not, a lot of the general public still struggles with basic PC skills, so asking them to adopt the HTPC is a giant step backward in terms of their enjoyment.

Bottom line:  This option can give you anything, but it asks a lot of you as well.

ps4Playstation/Xbox/WiiU – Video game consoles are, on paper, the absolute best design for streaming.  Heck, nearly every console since the original Xbox was designed to be an online media center.  It sounds great in theory, because the interface is already designed for a living-room setting, and the hardware is the most powerful you can get without going the route of building a HTPC.   There really should be nothing you could ask of a console that it wouldn’t be able to deliver on.

Where these things fail is on execution and focus.  Game consoles are sold as “media centers” early in their life cycle (which is usually about 5 years), but soon after the games become the main focus.  There’s no real incentive for the publishers to continue to grow and develop the multimedia features when the console itself starts to reach the end of its shelf life.  That’s one reason the Wii-U’s TVii feature has been largely forgotten, and the Xbox One’s OTA tuner isn’t supported on the 360, even though it would be trivial to do so.  If you’re using a console as a TV device, you need to get used to the idea that you will never be a priority.

Bottom line:  Game consoles are relatively short-lived formats compared to TV standards.  The two simply don’t have compatible schedules.

pSNYNA-BDPS3100_main_v500Connected Blu-Ray Player – I’m probably going to get a few scoffs and perhaps even a guffaw at this, but I steadfastly refuse to ever give up on physical media.  For all the advantages streaming gives us, I contend that there are equal and complimentary advantages to owning your content outright.  So I always suggest having a BluRay (and by extension DVD) player under your TV.  As an added bonus, most of them do offer streaming services like the game consoles, but often in a much more streamlined fashion.

Unfortunately, the features tend to follow the same dynamic as the game consoles: offered enthusiastically at first, but gradually forgotten as time goes on.  They also tend to be limited to what features are installed out of the box—unlike HTPCs or game consoles, software updates on BluRay players are comparatively rare, and usually are done to fix bugs instead of add features.

Bottom line: A lot of the same flaws as the game consoles, but still a solid contender.  Much cheaper than a game console as well.

roku-3Set-top box– Enter the new hotness: the Roku, FireTV, AppleTV, and ChromeStick.  Granted, they’re unimpressive technically, obviously designed just for streaming and only streaming, but what they lack in specs they make up for in ease of use.  The worst of the worst of these boxes is way more intuitive than any cable box I’ve ever had to use!  Not only that, they’re CHEAP!  At under $100, in some cases, under $50, you can try any and all of them out to see which ones fit your needs the best.

If there’s any disadvantage to these, it’s that each manufacturer seems to have a vested interest in using their box to push their own services: the AppleTV is first and foremost an iTunes portal, FireTV is a vessel for Amazon, ChromeStick for Google, and so on.  This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it’s just worth considering when you wonder why no single box seems to offer every service.  It sounds nice in theory, but economic reality makes it unlikely.

Bottom Line: Even if they’re imperfect, the low price and ease of use make having at least one of these gizmos highly recommended.

Conclusion: Pick two, any two.

Obviously no one solution is going to cover all the bases, and that’s unlikely to change soon.  However, most TVs offer at least two HDMI ports, so find the two choices that appeal to you most and run with them.  At first, it’s likely to be a bit confusing trying to remember which device provides what feature, but after a while you’re likely to start to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each.  For instance, in our house, each TV has an AppleTV and a BluRay player (granted, one of the BluRay players is a PS3).  Between the two, we have access to iTunes, Amazon, PBS Online, and YouTube, which seems to be all we really want.   No one ever said you had to settle on just one.  Instead of surfing 500 channels, 490 of which mean nothing to you, grab two solid options and start actually enjoying TV again.

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No Summer Lull Here

In the Bossig household, there is no “summer slump” in between TV seasons.  Summer is the time when we start catching up on shows we’ve missed or re-watching old favorites.  Why suffer through endless reality shows when you can watch a quality show, uninterrupted, at your own pace?  Time it right, and you can watch the whole series between June and August.
Here’s what’s on tap for us this summer:

  1. Outlander
  2. Star Trek: Enterprise
  3. Batman (1966)

Personally, I’m a big fan of buying my favorite shows outright, but Netflix and Hulu are fantastic alternatives too.  Summer’s just getting started, so if you’re frustrated at cable TV’s offerings… Seek out something better!