Acquiring a TV that can connect to my home wifi, more specifically a Samsung Smart TV, has proven to be transformative. Surprisingly so. I finally have a proper solution to a problem that has been bugging me for a long time, namely how to watch video podcasts on an HD TV. That is, as opposed to on a phone, tablet or computer, and as conveniently as if I were watching normal broadcast programmes. It’s not that I spend a lot of time watching video podcasts; currently I only watch three shows a week. Still, when I do take the time to watch them I want to do so in comfort and with a minimum of hassle.
Before arriving at the complete solution, there were a couple of false starts.
False Start 1 – Laptop and HDMI cable
Our Samsung Smart TV, bought for the master bedroom to replace a dying cathode ray TV, was not our first HD TV. We had already acquired a 42″ Toshiba TV for the living room, albeit not a Smart TV. My first attempt at “lean back” podcast viewing involved hooking up my laptop’s mini displayport, via adapter and HDMI cable, to the Toshiba TV, having used iTunes to download my video podcasts to the laptop over the home wifi. This setup did work, in the sense that I could sit back in my armchair and watch my podcasts on the TV, but it was hardly a slick solution, the downsides being:
- It was not trivial to get the laptop (running Windows XP) to recognise the TV and send a video signal to it
- The TV would cut out when I closed the lid of the laptop! If I left the lid open I could see the video in two places and found that disconcerting. After a fair bit of Googling and messing with the Windows settings I did manage to cure the problem
- I was forever having to use the TV’s own remote control to switch the picture size to “native” (as opposed to, say, “wide”) otherwise parts of the picture would get cut off
- I had no remote control for video playback! I was effectively using my TV as a PC monitor so found myself having to use the mouse for play/pause/rewind, etc. The HDMI cable was too short to allow me to use the mouse from the comfort of my armchair, so I had to get up to pause the video if the phone rang.
- I couldn’t really leave the laptop on and connected to the TV the whole time, so whenever I wanted to do some video podcast watching there was the faff of booting the laptop up, connecting the cable up, often having to wait for my shows to download and then having to disconnect it all afterwards.
False Start 2 – Android phone and MHL cable
When the Samsung Galaxy SIII was announced, one of the features that caught my notice was Allshare Cast. It allows you to mirror the phone’s display on the TV in real time, although you have to buy a specific Samsung accessory, a wifi dongle that plugs into the TV. This sounded like the ideal solution for my video podcasts, but I had by then already upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy Note which does not support Allshare Cast. The Note does, however, support HDMI out, or at least MHL over micro USB which amounts to the same thing. The bottom line is you can still mirror the phone’s display on a TV provided you get the right cable and adapter. A cheaper solution than Allshare Cast but the phone has to be located close to the TV, because of the cable, so again I was missing my remote. The beauty of Allshare Cast would have been that I could have kept the phone with me and used it, effectively, as a remote.
I had the idea of trying to use my old Android phone, an original Samsung Galaxy S, as a remote. I looked for apps that would allow me to control the Galaxy Note from the Galaxy S. The obvious choice would have been Droidmote, but that requires root and there is no way I was going to take a chance on rooting a Galaxy Note right near the start of a 2-year contract.
I also tried a curious app called Tablet Remote from Tournesol which uses bluetooth for inter-device communication and a custom keyboard on the “controlled” device to implement the transmitted commands without need for root. It is a bit of a fiddle to set up but did work very well for a day or so. Then the bluetooth connection started generating errors and there was no recovery from that. I did have a dabble at writing my own Android apps to do something similar but have parked that since I now have a satisfactory solution.
The solution – Samsung Smart TV, Allshare and Juice
I bought the Samsung 22″ 1080p TV because I needed a new TV, not because I had a fix for my podcast problem in mind. And I bought a TV with Internet connectivity simply because more and more new models are offering this and there seemed no sense in investing in older tech just to save a few coppers. In truth, I was not sure what the benefits of a Smart TV really were. Very likely a lot of people buy Smart TVs because they are the “latest thing” but then just proceed to use them with broadcast TV, satellite or cable, which is what they are used to, without ever taking the time to explore the additional options brought by Internet access. Samsung do at least recognise this by featuring a very large, colourful and conspicuous button, right in the middle of the remote, to activate the “Smart Hub” screen. It just begs people to ask “What the hell’s that button for?” and maybe give it a whirl.
In my own case I have made considerable use of the Samsung’s Smart TV capabilities but it is not really the Internet access that made the difference. Wifi connectivity to other devices in my house has been the key to my podcast viewing, allied with support for the DLNA protocol. Samsung don’t refer to DLNA explicitly – they use the Allshare brand - but it is just their own implementation of DLNA. Clearly they want you to buy lots of Samsung devices and connect them up using Allshare, which is understandable to a point, but this goes against the grain of DLNA which is all about ensuring interoperability between devices from different manufacturers for sharing of video, images and audio content over wifi.
The specifics of my podcast solution are as follow:
I have my video podcasts downloaded automatically to a selected folder on my desktop PC running Windows 7. Should anyone be interested, the shows I currently follow are from Leo Laporte’s This week in Tech (TWiT) network, namely “All About Android“, “Before You Buy” and “Know How“. They all come out weekly and the latter two are available in HD.
I’m using the Juice application, formerly known as iPodder. It looks a bit old-fashioned and clunky but it works very well. I have it set up to delete the files automatically ten days after download.
DLNA broadcast software
Surprisingly, all you need is Windows Media Player. If you activate the sharing feature, and include the relevant folder in your media library, then WMP will act as a DLNA server, making the files in that folder and its subfolders available for consumption by any DLNA client on the same wifi. Interestingly, I couldn’t make WMP recognise files sitting within the Windows “My Documents” tree, which is where my iTunes music and videos are located. That meant I couldn’t use iTunes as my podcatcher unless I changed the default iTunes folder and moved all the content across. It was easier to use Juice and pick a download location that WMP could access.
Accessing the video content
Even with the WMP application window closed, the DLNA service is running in the background. I can then press the bright, cube-shaped Smart TV button on my Samsung TV remote and wake up the Smart TV functionality. From there it is a matter of navigating to the Allshare icon, selecting it and navigating to the “videos” option. My DLNA-enabled desktop PC appears in the list of sources. I select it and navigate to the folder with my content and select the show I want to watch. It buffers very briefly then plays perfectly. Beautiful quality, no stuttering.
I now have not one but two remote options. I can use the Samsung TV remote to play, pause and FF/FR in 15 second steps. Unfortunately the 15 second interval is fixed. I can though navigate to any part of the show by using the “tools” button on the remote then selecting “time search”.
An even better option is to use my Galaxy Note as the remote. If I launch the Allshare app on that I can again select the desktop PC as source, navigate to the show I want and then launch it directly from my phone. I am presented with a dialog box asking whether I want it to play on the Note itself or send it to the Samsung TV for playback. If I choose the latter, it plays perfectly on the TV as before but I can now use the Galaxy Note as the remote. The advantage is that I get fine control of playback navigation. Instead of the 15 second forward/back, or the slightly clunky time search, I can navigate within the show to the second by swiping on the Note’s screen.
The upshot is that my podcasts are just there, available to be watched on my Samsung TV, very shortly after each episode is published. No faff, no hassle and I have full remote control for comfortable “lean back” viewing. Heaven.