Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

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How to Press your TV into Service as Video Podcast Player

October 21, 2012

Vista busy cursor  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:

Source device

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.

Podcatcher software

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.

Remote control

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.

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Sword & Laser YouTube Feed Fail

September 25, 2012

Vista busy cursor Frightening to think my last post on this site was back in April. I really have struggled to find time to nurture my blogs.

In that post I described how to use Yahoo! Pipes to create a pseudo podcast feed for the video component of the Sword & Laser show on YouTube. The method relied on identifying each episode of Sword & Laser by its YouTube tags. It was a less than reliable solution given that hosts Tom and Veronica were wont to be inconsistent in their use of tags from episode to episode. Also the feed would occasionally pick up videos from other sources which happened to refer to the Sword & Laser podcast.

It is all academic now because the last few episodes have not been tagged at all and the Yahoo! Pipes feed has gone dark, apart from the false positives. My guess is that this is deliberate. The Sword & Laser video is part of the Geek & Sundry stable and we the consumers of the content are supposed to embrace the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, subscribing to it and all that sails in it.

Well, I suppose that the expensive set, high production values, (minor) celebrity hosts and animatronic dragon all have to be paid for somehow.

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Buzz Off Google

February 12, 2010

Vista busy cursor Why on earth does Google think I want my main day to day email platform (Gmail) infected with social media? I use email to …. er, send and receive emails. Why would I want the normal flow of email messages to be lost among a load of twitteresque status updates and other social media frippery from people that I may have emailed in the past?

Email and social media belong in two different worlds.  They do not go together at all.  Email is purposeful;  you use it when you need to get something done or are dealing with important information you need to keep on record.  Social media is for transient casual entertainment and amusement.  A time-waster or time-filler when you are not in purposeful mode.  So the two should be kept well apart.

That’s not to say that I have a problem with social media.  Far from it.  But social media works best when everyone uses the same platform.  We already have Twitter and Facebook, and Facebook pretending to be Twitter. Google getting in on the act just risks fragmenting the social media space when what we need is integration.

Buzz is not for my benefit or yours.  It is Google’s play for a slice of the social media market, for its benefit. It’s to my disadvantage because it fragments social media and, because they are trying to do it by getting a leg-up from the success of Gmail, it threatens to adulterate what has up till now been a perfectly good email platform.

I’d rather Gmail stuck to email.  It has in the past been in the forefront of cloud-based email with helpful, innovative features such as conversation threading.  I wish Google had just focused on improving Gmail as an email tool by starting to introduce features from Google Wave instead.  Wave was supposed to be email reinvented for the modern age.  Well, right now it is heading for oblivion because no-one will make the jump and there is no way to get to critical mass. Better to give us Wave by transforming Gmail bit by bit until it looks like Wave, and keep the users on board.  And keeping me-too Twitter features out of it.

But if Google wants to start a social media war with Twitter and Facebook it can do it without messing up my email.

Kill the buzz, NOW!

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Keep taking the tablets

January 28, 2010

Vista busy cursor I had a bit of a “Doh!” moment when I finally discovered what the iPad was all about.  It should have been obvious long before Steve Jobs’s announcement yesterday.  My only excuse is the constant reference to the term “tablet” which I associate with devices that look superficially like conventional laptops but have swivelling screens.  I have one of those but they are in general regarded as a failed concept.

The iPad is not in that space at all.  It is not Apple’s answer to the tablet PC but Apple’s answer to the netbook and Amazon’s Kindle combined.

As ever, Apple pick up after a need for something new has already emerged and others have already created inadequate products in response. Usually those early attempts by others fail because they are trying to adapt something that already exists but the paradigm does not translate properly.  The tablet PC is a prime example.  Another would be every smartphone prior to the iPhone which was some unhappy marriage of PDA type device and conventional mobile phone, often involving use of a (ugh!) stylus.

Apple won in the smartphone stakes, improving on the earlier failed attempts by starting from a different direction.  They realised that they needed a device that was all touch screen but with an interface that did not need a stylus.  And not to try to do too much. Most users want to be able to get their media on there, browse the web and access their email, but not necessarily care about getting into the gubbings or hacking the device.  If they wanted to play games or expand the usefulness of the phone they would just download applications.

Similar story with the iPad. Netbooks have arisen because many people just want to browse the web at home or do their email but don’t want to wait ages for a PC to boot up.  They don’t need to do serious gaming or video encoding so something smaller, lighter, cheaper is fine.  To date the answer has been a smaller, lighter, cheaper laptop – ie the netbook.  Another need has been the eBook reader.  The Kindle has been successful but eInk is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Low contrast, slow page turning.  The only real benefit is a long battery life.

The iPad takes the paradigm that worked for the iPhone and reapplies it to the need to date met by the netbook and Kindle.  It brings the benefits of ease of use, touch interface without stylus and quick/convenient access to the lightweight tasks (web, email, reading a book, watching a movie) that most people actually want.  It will stretch to work type things but that is not its main market.

Do I want one?  Hell no, but I do think it will be successful.

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The TWiT Podshifter saga: A plea to Lina

December 24, 2009

Vista busy cursor I am eating humble pie after suggesting that Leo Laporte might have acted deliberately to prevent This Week in Tech (TWiT) network podcasts from being speed-shifted, using the PodShifter service, when dowloaded via iTunes.

It turns out that Leo, or his staff, did take action which prevented PodShifter working on TWiT podcasts, but that was just a side effect. The intention was quite different and entirely innocent. Leo was gracious enough to respond to my earlier post to explain it all.

Specifically, the TWiT RSS feeds were modified by adding a new iTunes feature, the <itunes:new-feed-url> tag which is described here. The tag is there to help podcasters change feed URLs, or deprecate old URLs, without breaking existing iTunes subscriptions. The TWiT feeds have started using this tag to standardise all their feed URLs. Unfortunately, because PodShifter preserves all iTunes tags when it creates the shifted podcast feeds, iTunes just follows the URL in the <itunes:new-feed-url> tag and effectively replaces the shifted podcast feed with the unshifted original feed.

Leo became aware of my post thanks to Lina Calabria of Investling who is one of PodShifter’s backers and had, presumably, been scanning twitter for PodShifter related tweets.

Lina, I have a request for you. Having tried to get my mind around this, this is my take on what should happen next. While I understand that PodShifter (to quote one of your own tweets) respects iTunes tags, that really doesn’t make any sense in the case of the <itunes:new-feed-url> tag. People only use your service because they actively want a speed-shifted version of a given podcast. By preserving that tag you are causing them to get a normal speed podcast and so thwarting their wishes.

PodShifter should not ignore the <itunes:new-feed-url> tag, rather it should use it, if present, to identify the correct URL of the podcast to be shifted. This is in keeping with the spirit of the tag because it resolves issues over changed or deprecated URLs, which is why the tag was introduced in the first place.

Having thus updated the target URL, if applicable, PodShifter should work its speed-shifting magic in the normal way but NOT then pass on the <itunes:new-feed-url> tag. There is no need, because the purpose of that tag will already have been realised in the updating of the URL prior to shifting.

That way, the benefit of the tag is not lost (and in that sense it is still “respected”) and the end user still gets a shifted podcast to listen to, which is what they were trying to achieve. So everyone wins.

So what do you say, Lina? Could PodShifter customers have this change as a XMAS present? Please bear in mind that right now it only seems to be affecting TWiT, but Leo may just be quick off the mark. As more podcasters discover the use of the new tag the more PodShifter users will find their podcasts delivered unshifted and the vast majority will be at a loss to understand why or to do anything about it.

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Screw you, Leo, I’m back up to speed with my podcasts!

December 23, 2009

Vista busy cursor This is the second post on the spin that I find myself having a pop at Leo Laporte.  It’s in no way personal.  I admire Leo greatly and enjoy listening to most of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) podcasts.

But I do have a genuine gripe, and it has to do with his blocking of the PodShifter web application when used with TWiT podcasts.  [Author’s note added 24/12/09: since posting this an innocent explanation has come to light – see the comments to this post including response from Leo] Podshifter is a tool that speeds up podcasts, to help podcast listeners get through more of them in the available listening time. Podshifter changes the tempo of the audio while preserving pitch, so that Leo and his co-hosts don’t end up sounding like something from Alvin & the Chipmunks.

It is very use to use. If you have already subscribed to the original podcast in iTunes, you right-click to copy the podcast URL then paste it into the box on the podshifter.com home page.  Next choose a target tempo;  I usually opt for 1.2x or 1.4x the speed of the original.  Click the “shift it” button and the tempo-adjusted podcast is created with a new URL which is displayed for adding to your preferred podcatching software.  Or you can just click the link to have it added automatically to iTunes.

Note that you can’t in general download each new podshifted episode straight away, because it takes a while for PodShifter’s servers to carry out the audio processing from the time that the original episode is first published.  No doubt some heavyweight Digital Signal Processing is required, probably involving Fourier Transforms.

Ironically, I first heard of Podshifter on a TWiT podcast, the Daily Giz Wiz.  Co-host Dick DeBartolo read out a listener’s letter which mentioned it.  I recall Dick and Leo having a good laugh about it, deliberately speaking very fast or very slowly, in a  mock effort to trick anyone listening to a podshifted version.  But Leo also immediately spotted the threat posed by PodShifter. Downloads of podshifted podcasts would not count towards the iTunes official TWiT podcast download numbers which drive Leo’s advertising revenue.  Ouch!

I saw that as Leo’s problem.  For my part, I valued the saving in time.  I have a lot of podcasts on my subscription list, many of them from the TWiT network, and only so much time in which to enjoy them.  Even after reluctant pruning of the least essential listening, I was still struggling to fit my podcasts and audible books in, and my audible.com credits were starting to mount up.  PodShifter made a big difference. Even  just sticking to 1.2x freed up 20% listening time and some podcasts are perfectly listenable at 1.4x.

It is surprising how well the human ear tolerates the speeding up effect. I guess we can listen to and absorb the spoken voice at much higher speeds than people normally speak.  We can’t ask Leo and friends to speak (and think) faster but we can keep up quite comfortably when a machine does the speeding up for them.  I tend not to go beyond 1.4x because it starts to become less comfortable and I don’t want my podcast listening to become hard work.  Some podcasts really can’t be sped up much because of the gabbling co-hosts. You can listen to Leo quite effortlessly at 2x or more thanks to his polished radio voice, but Gina Trapani on This Week in Google naturally speaks like a machine gun out of control and 1.2x is the absolute limit for TWiG.

The Podshift Party had been doing the business for me for a number of weeks when Leo decided to step in and spoil the fun. I guess he felt he had to try to limit the erosion of his official download numbers.   It looks like TWiT has done a behind the scenes deal with iTunes so that URLs pointing at shifted versions of TWiT podcasts get replaced automatically by the official unshifted podcast streams.  No warning.  It just happened.   I had copied the latest batch of podcasts to my phone one morning and started to listen on my car journey to work. The theme tunes were playing at the right speed.  Very odd. And the voices sounded plodding.  Back at home I checked iTunes and discovered the URL substitution.  I tried creating new podshifted streams.  In all cases shifted TWiT podcasts were replaced by the URL for the original unshifted stream. Other podcasts were not affected.

Happily I found a work-around, using a desktop podcatcher application called HappyFish. It accepts PodShifter URLs for TWiT podcasts without substituting for the originals.  I am back up to speed.

Now I understand Leo’s concern about PodShifter but I think he’s wrong on a couple of counts.  The first is that he is guilty of the same “put the genie back in the bottle” thinking that he berates “Old Media” for, and Rupert Murdoch in particular.  You can’t fight innovation with protectionism.  Blocking PodShifter on iTunes is an example of Murdoch Mentality and it doesn’t work.  He would have done better to work with both PodShifter and his advertisers to get the Podshifter TWiT stats counting towards the advertising totals.

The second point relates to a comment Leo made in the most recent episode of TWiG.  He suggested podcast consumption numbers had stopped rising because with the proliferation of podcasts people couldn’t easily find new ones they’d like to listen to.  Too much out there to find the right podcast for you.  He saw it as a search problem. I disagree.  From the perspective of a dedicated podcast listener I can tell Leo that I get plenty of “leads” for interesting new podcasts just from listening to the existing ones.  That’s not the problem.  It’s just that I’m maxed out on available listening time.  You can only spend so much time driving to work, walking the dog or at the gym.  After establishing a list of favourite podcast subscriptions you tend to stick to it.  I don’t try out any more new podcasts, however tempting, because I struggle to find time for the ones I already subscribe to.

The irony is that PodShifter is actually a potential solution to that problem.  An opportunity to achieve an expansion in the size of the podcast market.  So listen up, Leo.  Don’t try to kill PodShifter.  You’d do better to give them a helping hand.  They could be your best bet for getting your business growing again.

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Leo takes leave of his senses

December 3, 2009

Vista busy cursor Interesting, Chief TWiT Leo Laporte has openly decided to appropriate voluntary contributions to the This Week in Tech podcast network for his personal income.

This is in the name of establishing a direct link between his income from TWiT and his consumer approval rating, measured by said consumers’ voluntary contributions which were originally solicited as needed to help with the running costs of the (then infant) TWiT network. This arrangement replaces whatever income he would otherwise be drawing from TWiT. He promises to be transparent, and publish his income based on the contributions.

Despite my tongue in cheek opening paragraph, I don’t think Leo is attempting to do anything underhand but neither am I sure it makes a whole load of sense. I rather suspect that Leo is embarrassed about being perceived as rich. It recently became public knowledge that TWiT is turning over around $2.5m per annum. Listeners are aware of Leo acquiring no end of gadgets, going on expensive holidays and buying pricey cars, because he hardly makes a secret of any of these things on his various shows. Put that together with the turnover figure and suddenly Leo appears to be coining it.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. TWiT now has a staff of 7 full time employees, considerable running costs as it gets technologically more sophisticated, and a good part of the advertising income presumably goes to pay co-hosts on the different shows. All the same, I can’t help wondering whether Leo is doing this to pre-empt criticism that he is making a mint from TWiT, not that there is anything wrong with that. He has been successful on merit – why can’t he reap the reward?

Maybe he has been given a big raise on his “old media” radio show and decided he can come over all frugal and responsible at a time when many are heading towards a recession-hit XMAS.

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