Saturday, August 3, 2013

Chromecast - Initial Impressions

These are my initial impressions/notes on the Google Chromecast media streaming device.


The out of box experience is pretty simple. Plug in the Chromecast to an HDMI port on your TV, and the USB into power (I plugged it right into the USB on my TV).  A few short steps of configuration via wifi (either via phone/mobile app or PC app) include setting the Chromecast device name and wifi network connection options.   I should note that the app to configure the Chromecast connects via wifi directly to it, after which you then enable the device to connect on the network for streaming.

Casting (playback/streaming)

With my setup, the TV will automatically switch HDMI inputs when starting a cast.   This may be related to using power off the smart/Anylink USB connection on my TV.  I'll have to try using wall power at some point to see if it behaves the same.

Mobile Device

There are only a few apps that stream from mobile at the moment, including YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play Music/Movies.   However, a lot more are in the works coming soon or down the road.   With what I tried out, it all seems to work great.  Streaming YouTube for example automatically scales up the size for the TV resolution perfectly.  All the apps have a 'cast' button that you can use to start streaming.  Unfortunately Google Music wont let you cast 'sideloaded' music, so that means you cant play items locally stored on your phone.

PC/Laptop (via Chrome browser extension)

The default cast option is to display the current tab from Chrome.   It will show the tab in full screen on the TV.   Chrome will play videos from a Chrome tab in full screen, including audio! I did this simply by dragging a video file onto the chrome tab.  The double bonus of this is, you can minimize Chrome on the playing device, and it still goes full screen to the TV while you do other stuff on the casting device.

The Chromecast extension on the Chrome browser also lets you display your entire desktop as an option.  Seems to work great too, except for a couple things.  For one, it does not display the mouse.  Therefore you cant really use it to use your TV as a full screen browser, you still need the visibility of the pointer on the PC. You also cant display full screen apps, the cast will actually just continue showing the desktop/windows that are up 'behind' the full screen app.

Final thoughts

The Chromecast is a pretty slick device, and works quiet well at what it does, especially at the pricepoint it is offered.  I'm looking forward to the future where more apps and likely games will take advantage of it.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tablet Comparison: iPad2 vs Galaxy Tab vs HP Touchpad

I decided I wanted to get one of the best tablets on market right now, and after evaluating what I'd consider 3 of the "top players", here are my personal opinions after playing with each for a week or two.  I did not bother to do burn-in battery tests, extensive camera/photo compares or other hardware benchmarking, etc, as those things can be found online with ease - rather I wanted to see how each actually felt with typical, actual use over the course of a few days.  

Tablets tested:
GT10 = Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 - Android 3.1 (HoneyComb)
= HP TouchPad - WebOS 3.0.2
= Apple iPad2 - iOS 4.3.5 (8L1)

Below are some of the key things that stood out for me.  No doubt there are nearly infinite more ways to compare these tablets, but I'm going to keep it simple and to the point of what I felt mattered the most.

1) GT10
2) iPad2
The GT10 definitely has the cleanest looking screen, as well as the highest resolution.  Everything looks super sharp and clean.  The iPad2 isnt too far behind, but definitely lacks the resolution.  However, the iPad2 outshines the rest with viewing angles - you can see the screen almost as well when it is laying at an angle.  The viewing angles on all are more than adequate, but the iPad2’s is the best.  The HPTP screen looks almost as sharp as the iPad2, but the viewing angle is not as good, and thus it falls to last place.   All 3 are perfectly usable and pleasing to the eye, I had no concerns using any of them for extended periods.  

OS/desktop- Out of Box usability
2) iPad2
3) GT10

The usability of WebOS for a tablet is pretty innovative.  I found the ability to swipe/navigate between open apps, and quickly close them to be very handy and intuitive, and it worked perfect for me on a tablet.  The app folder was pretty straightfoward, and tho at first I was questioning why there are no desktop icons like Android and iOS, once I used it for a good chunk of time it made perfect sense due to the desktop-based app switching techniques employed.

The GT10 with Anrdoid 3.1 looks very sharp, definitely the best "out of box" android version yet.  However, it is a little less intuitive than the others here - I'd imagine moreso for those not familiar with the Android interface in general.  For me personally this was no problem, but I could see it being a minor issue for newcomers.  With no "big button" to press to take you instantly to the app locations, it does require getting familiar with the desktop before becoming efficient with it.   Long term of course, this really does not matter.

iOS feels much simpler, but it also feels very ready to go for basic work right out of the box.  Everything always works as it should for the most part, so there is little guesswork, and it is fairly intuitive.  It also has by far the best performance of screen orientation switching, with almost no delay at all.  Conversely, both Android 3.1 and webOS have a slight lag time rotating the screen.

OS/desktop - Post customization usability
1) GT10
3) iPad2
The biggest selling point for Android IMO is the customization you can do to the home screens/dash, and this certainly is the case here.  Once you configure the various desktops and dashboards on the GT10, it has far more potential than either webOS or iOS for doing exactly what you want it to.  This includes changing pretty much any functional behavior of the OS - including virtual keyboard layouts, using "live" desktop backgrounds, and even the dashboard functionality itself.   

For instance, Swift Key X tablet edition is a brilliant software keyboard - in landscape mode it splits the keyboard "natural" style, so you have easy access to half the keyboard for each thumb - while in portrait mode it keeps the keyboard normal.  This is just a small example of how much you can improve or tailor the android OS to your personal tastes.  That said, the OS is not perfect, and I found some slightly sluggish issues when dealing with multiple apps on a few occasions. But most of the time they were minor, so it did not detract from the experience overall.  

On the opposite end, both iOS and webOS seem to offer very little in the form of desktop customization.  You can change your preferred quick shortcuts and desktop background, and that might be about it.    As such, the rank stays as before for them, with Android leaping far ahead of them both.

Side-by-Side app compare: Angry Birds
1) GT10
3) iPad2

One of the few identical apps across all 3 platforms of course is Angry Birds, which makes for a perfect comparison app. The browsers, email clients, etc all vary across the 3, so there was not much to do a true apples-to-apples comparison with besides this game.
They all played well enough, I did not get lag on any of the devices.  When lining up all 3, Angry Birds by far looks much crisper, cleaner, and more "HD" on the GT10.  While both the HPTP and iPad2 have "HD" branded versions, neither look nearly as good.  And for some reason, the iPad2 version is slightly blurrier and oddly enough, does not zoom in as far as the others.  Now granted this is a 3rd party app and not the judging tool of a tablet, but as mentioned it was about the only thing to line up across all three - plus it is popular enough that almost everyone will have it.   

2) GT10/iPad2

This one is a no brainer, with the HPTP on a "firesale" at $99/$150 for the 16GB/32GB respectively, it is far and away the best "bang for buck" deal to be had - compared to the $500 entry fee for the 16GB models of the GT10/iPad2.  Finding one is the really the problem, as they are currently sold out everywhere.  However no doubt you will be able to find one near cost or at a small markup fairly soon, as the massive amounts people purchased to flip start to saturate the market.

While the HPTP is a discontinued product, HP has promised to keep supporting WebOS.  And the fact anything is discontinued these days does not matter - who really keeps these types of devices long enough for that to make a difference?  Like cell phones, the next best thing will be out by the time it would even be a concern.
Overall feel (caseless)
1) GT10/iPad2

This was just too close to call for the #1 slot.  Both the GT10 and iPad2 are very sleek and feel great to hold, as well as feel solid and well constructed. The GT10 is slightly lighter and thinner, yet the 16:9 formfactor seems a bit less ideal than the 4:3 of the iPad2 and HPTP when in portrait mode.  Landscape mode feels mildly better on the GT10, except for maybe watching movies where it would definitely excel. Overall the GT10 felt like the most technologically advanced of the 3, but the iPad2 feels a tiny bit more solid, perhaps due to the more metal feel of the backing.  The GT10 has a nice brushed aluminum back, which is both good looking and pleasing to the touch, and also gives it a lighter/softer feeling.

A distant third, the HPTP feels more bulky and hefty in direct comparison.  It is much thicker and a bit heavier than either the GT10 or the iPad2, and the design is not nearly as sleek or styled.  Appearance isnt always everything of course, and the HPTP is still comfortable to hold or prop up for long periods of time.  In fact, all 3 are quite usable and I did not feel any discomfort in using any of them for extended periods.

OEM cases
1) GT10
3) iPad2
While cases arent really a deciding factor for a tablet, I figured I might as well cover the OEM cases for each one, since they do affect handling the device, and most people buy them.   I found that each one definitely has its pros and cons.  No single one stands out far above the rest, but the key differences were definitely enough to get a solid ranking.  

The iPad2 gets props for the neat "smartcover" magnetic case, which will automatically wake or sleep the device when you open it.  Unfortunately that is about all it has going for it - for one, it is not as comfortable to hold with that case on, and feels less sturdy than the HPTP when stood up on the folded cover.  It also does not protect the back of the iPad, which being metal feels like it is prone to scratching on rougher surfaces.  Both the GT10 and HPTP covers completely surround the device, however only the GT10 cover has a nice magnetic flaplock to keep the top cover in place.

The HPTP's cover is definitely the most sturdy of the 3 when locked into the 'stand' mode via the velcro hookup, tho it takes an second of effort to lock it in initially (no big deal really).  Also worth mentioning, the HPTP's "touchstone" charger offers a neat wireless charging dock that will undoubtedly continue to get more and more common with future electronics.  Finally, the GT10's cover was by far the best fitting and most comfortable, but it falters a smidgen on the 'stand' mode, it was just a little more awkward to deal with.  For carrying purposes it is by far the best of the bunch, and it has the best fit and ergonomics as well.


After all was said and done, I found the GT10 to be my desired tablet out of the 3.   I really think you cant go wrong with any, and it probably boils down to a personal choice of OS behavior and formfactor... but for me, the GT10 just nosed out the others with overall features and feel.   If the HPTP's hardware design was better, it may have notched up a bit, as the OS is well designed for how I personally use a tablet - but the lack of customization and app support puts a damper on that.  I find it odd a company would release such a bulky tablet in today's market, but then again aside from the GT10, most the newest Android tablets are still heavier and thicker.  Ironically the iPad2 was my initial favorite, but after using them all over extended periods of time, it actually slipped down to last - the flash and style wore off after a few days of actual use.  While worth noting that the iPad2 probably does have the coolest single app of the bunch (Flipboard), one app does not a tablet make.   If price is an issue however, the HPTP is definitely the most bang-for-buck, as it costs roughly 1/5th of the cost of the others if you can snag one at the firesale price.

Down the road, the long term viability of Android is definitely there due to the customization that can be done.  No doubt Apple will update the iPad2 to the latest iOS sooner or later, and while webOS is great out of the box, the future is uncertain.  Also worth noting, people are already working on hacking Android to the HPTP, but IMO, if you want to go the Android route, the GT10 has far superior hardware, but you will pay $$ for that nicer hardware.  In the end it may all be moot, because much like cell phones these days, the latest and greatest will be out in 2-3 years and no doubt most people will be looking to upgrade to some new 'must have'.

Worth mentioning as well, I found the battery life to be fairly comparable on all 3 tablets, so I did not include a comparison section on that.

On a final note, I am also looking forward to the upcoming 7” Kindle Fire from Amazon, which should add an interesting competition into the mix.