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Archive for the ‘Apple TV’ Category

DIY Smart TV

If you have a bang-up-to-date expensive Smart TV – just ignore this. Otherwise if you’re on Sky HD you might find this useful.

For some time now, having given up on toys such as the Apple TV box and similar and while pondering the new Android box, I’ve been running a laptop (for lack of noise – and immunity to power glitches) next to the TV to run Plex – which has to be one of the best free Media players on the planet. Running on a laptop it gives you access to all your media using a standard Microsoft-type remote IR control. I’ve trained up a “One-For-All” to handle the Sky HD box, the TV and the laptop. My media is held on a Netgear ReadyNas – a black box with disks in it which reliably stores and makes available my pictures, music and video to the home network.

PlexPlex is a fine, easy to use software interface to your media and has available loads of plug-ins such as YouTube, Ted TV and lots more. With the laptop plugged into one of the TVs spare inputs, switching between Sky and Plex is a simple button press. The laptop is set to run external monitor only and hence can run without heating up or using it’s internal display.

With the likes of the BBC iPlayer and ITV’s equivalent it has for some time been possible to catch up on TV you’ve missed – the only problem being the players are not integrated into Plex so you have to fiddle with a keyboard and mouse – not ideal in a living room– and the quality is not as good a modern HD TV.

Along comes Sky On Demand according to the ads on TV. On pressing the RED button on my Sky remote,  I seemed to have only a small subset of what I’d expect – only seeing material that has already been automatically recorded on the “reserved” space on the HD box (this happens all the time – and explains why you don’t have as much room as you’d expect on your Sky box). Incidentally if you have the original Sky HD box you really should consider upgrading (either upgrade – or you can replace the hard drive yourself with a little work) as modern HD materials EAT disk space and so the latest units have larger hard drives – One Terabyte is good. I realised that Sky was choosing what it thought I would like (wrong) and storing them in a reserved part of the hard disk- but that’s it. No ability to do REAL on-demand from the Internet.

Typical 5-port routerLast night I decided to investigate and On-Demand is actually free – but you have to register for it on the Sky website. But first things first – you need a wired network connection to the Sky box – I’d not even think about wireless considering the amount of data we’re talking about downloading. 

I swapped my wired network connection from the laptop to the Sky box and sure enough – recognised immediately. As it happens I’d bought a TP-Link 5-Port Gigabit Unmanaged Desktop Switch from Amazon for £15 and so I simply plugged the network lead into that – giving 4 remaining outputs – one for the laptop, one for the Sky box and 2 spares. Perfect.

Now armed with broadband to the Sky box, going through Sky’s rather convoluted website www.sky.com/ondemand I was convinced I was going to end up paying more while signing up – but sure enough… no. After 5 minutes checking on the web I was still kitted out with Sky Anytime stuff as before and the promise now of the FULL package. But pressing the RED button produced nothing new – all I had were the same few inappropriately pre-recorded programs I’d always had available. To make matters worse, Sky have two access points on their website, the other being www.sky.com/tvondemand – which is confusing but turns out it’s the same thing and can be ignored.

Having signed up on the web, I gave up late last night, resigning myself to ringing Sky today to ask why no On-Demand… but when I got up this morning – lo and behold…. an overnight update left me with the full works. BBC iPlayer, ITV player, Channel 5 player and a host of icons for Sky stuff – all with no extra cost.  How it works? Simple – so for example I wanted a copy of the Harry and Paul Episode 3 from a couple of weeks ago on the BBC (I never watch BBC live and didn’t even know the program was on). Clicking the iPlayer icon I selected the episode – and a download began. 1.2Gig is needed for this 30 minute episode (see what I mean about broadband – this is going to eat up a LOT of data) and after about 10 minutes, despite the download being only 20% complete, a “Play” icon appeared.

I pressed Play and sure enough, not the normal web-streaming medium quality but the full, crystal clear HD playback stored on the Sky HD box just as if I’d scheduled a recording in the normal way. For reasons best known to the BBC this recording will only be available to me until part way through December but by then I’ll have watched the best bits of this superb episode to death. Harry’s Scottish accent “Everything is much, much better in Scotland than England, oh yes” and Paul’s Gypsy woman “I curse you” are the funniest thing on TV IMHO.

Add to this Apps for iPhone which not only let you set recordings on your Sky HD box from anywhere on the planet but also talk directly to the Sky box over the WIFI when you’re at home and let you control the box as if you were using the remote control (but better). There’s an iPad App but it kept failing on me and the Android equivalent right now does not give you local WIFI control. but given a little time these apps are going to be superb– the iPhone version works really well now and is FAR better than using the normal Sky remote for selecting material, but the larger screen of a tablet would be my choice as the TV programme guide is so limited compared to what you can do on a tablet.

And there you have it. A sparkly new Smart TV is one way, but not the only way.

Watching your Favourite Movies on Holiday

tmpBCCFSince the release of NetFlix in the UK (for American readers – we know – we’re miles behind on this) I’ve been avidly catching up on movies I’ve missed and old TV shows. How? Well, Netflix is a streaming video service which not only has movies like LoveFilm but also has many hundreds of TV series – yes, not just shows but entire series..

Given half-decent bandwidth you can watch stuff in pretty high quality on your iPad, iPhone or Apple TV – even Android has "an App for that".

The first hurdle however comes when you try watch your favourite American shows on NetFlix – guess what – we don’t have them. Some of the best stuff is unavailable to a UK audience and worse, when you go on holiday, let’s say, for the sake of argument, SPAIN…


The same of course applies to the BBC iPlayer. Now, I understand copyright… we can’t have the Spanish watching stuff for which they don’t have an agreement. BUT.. HEY BUDDY – I PAID FOR THIS ALREADY.   I paid my TV licence which means BBC content is as much mine as any other Brits… and I’m paying £6 for NetFlix – so why CAN’T I watch my shows?

Finally, ever been overseas and gotten yourself annoyed at foreign adverts on your browser, or perhaps Google comes up in the wrong version… same issue… read on.

Answer part ONE: There are solutions for these issues and more. All of these country checks rely on your IP address to figure out where you are in the world.. and if they spot that you are not where you should be – you get messages like the one above…. so what you need is something that gives you an IP address of the country you’re supposed to be in – so in the case of the iPlayer, the UK and ideally for NetFlix – the USA.

If you don’t know what an IP address is, it’s a number you’re given when you connect to the Internet. PCs don’t use names for addresses, they use numbers, the net naming system is just for our benefit.

VPNs (virtual Private Networks) can be used for the purpose of pretending you are somewhere else  and, in fact, any broadband router worth a light (so that excludes BT routers) will have VPN capability built in – so in theory on holiday you could route back into your own home in the UK… but there’s a catch. Your home broadband would no doubt pull in the movies at high speed – but it’s SENDING (upload) capability is probably RUBBISH… typical UK upload speeds are less than 1 meg – not good enough.

tmpEE3ESo what you need is a package of high-speed VPNs in various countries – without breaking the bank. HIDEMYASS does this – and so now, sitting here in Spain I have access to VPNs all over the place, England, France, USA etc. All I have to do is connect my iPad to the Internet, run up the VPN for say America – and Bobs your uncle – I look like I’m in the USA so NetFlix puts up the right information.

And that’s wonderful, PC, iPad, Apple TV and…. erm, no.  Over here the broadband speed is not that fast, it’s 1 MByte or so in each direction, being a WIMAX setup with an aerial on my window and a very LARGE aerial in the village below.  Add to that the slight drop in using the VPN and the quality is awful.

Answer part TWO: While it is customary to knock old fashioned PCs and even more old-fashioned FLASH, the fact is that while newer formats such as that found on the iPad and Apple TV offer GREAT quality, they are not so clever on limited bandwidth.. The humble Windows 7 PC when running Netflix and the iPlayer uses FLASH and it’s actually quite reasonable on rubbish bandwidth.

Plugged into a large LCD TV we’re sitting here enjoying the best of American and British TV and movies without a Spanish advert in sight… the only thing that’s missing is a handy remote control. Ok you’re not going to get the latest Sky series but they’ll end up Netflix eventually – just a matter of time.

Fist thing I’m doing when I get back is looking for a half-decent second hand laptop to be the new media centre – with these new tools (and CatchupTV) it’s finally possible to manage without a satellite or aerial – not before time… and as broadband speeds increase, it can only get better.

Planning a trip abroad? Like your TV – now you know how to get what you want, where you want it.

One of Those Days

I thought yesterday was bad enough… the twin car batteries I use for handling mains drop-outs here in Wark had been acting up for some time and I’d been getting unexplained drop-outs where our broadband router would just drop out for no reason – but it wasn’t until yesterday I put it all together – the batteries were dry as a BONE. I’ve refilled them but I’m thinking it may be too late for them. But today has been FAR more interesting.

It certainly has been one of those days. The Merc collapsed last night – front legs gave up altogether. Maureen woke me up to announce that it was sitting on the front driveway with the front wheels buried in the wheel arches. Merc in their usual “make a mountain out of a molehill” manner managed to come up with a bill of around a grand to fix this. Can you imagine… you could buy a brand new motor scooter in Carrefour for that amount of money.

tmp6C97Fortunately they’ve come up with a loaner – I say fortunate as I have 3 days of meetings ahead of me and I desperately need a car. I’m sitting here late at night writing because I was just enjoying a superb episode of FRINGE on Sky (if you’ve not watched this excellent sci-fi, you are missing out) and I noted some upgrades for the iPad (not, sadly the eagerly awaited 4.2 operating system upgrade which is now looking like Friday depending on who’s rumour-mill you read) but an upgrade for a long-forgotten program called SharePlus.  If you’re familiar with office systems, I’ll just say that this seamlessly handles SharePoint – no matter what kind of authentication you use. I’ll leave it at that as this is not really a technical blog.

So an expensive start but at least an interesting end. And now I think a book. I’m trying to see if the iPad will really work for reading books so I have one of the few Arthur C Clarke books I’ve not yet read ready and waiting. Now here’s the trick… had I bought a Kindle – I’d have been stuffed because Maureen is already asleep and turning the light on is not an option. Stanza on the iPad on the other hand is backlit and a simple slide of the finger turns the brilliance up and down – a soft glow is all I need to read with (practiced as a kid, my mother always wanted my light turned off so I must’ve read thousands of DC comics by streetlight).

I’ve been getting to grips with Apple TV having bought one of their miraculous new black units this week. Essentially you plug the black box into your TV and Bob’s your uncle – streaming videos for rent, streaming video, sound and pictures from any of your PCs which have iTunes on them and from this weekend, fingers crosses, streaming directly from your iPod/iPhone/iPad to the TV… I can’t wait. May as well relax how, I have 3 very busy days ahead – and at the weekend it’s upgrade time for the gadgets. Add the Apps called StreamToMe into the mix which lets me watch my PC-based movies etc. on the iPhone or iPad… and I’m just about all set… been trying to get a setup like this for years with the PC and never quite made it. Marvellous.

(Update – car’s all sorted…. can’t use Apple TV until Apple get their finger out with the iOS 4.2 updates.

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