First Impression: Amazon Fire TV Stick

My wife and I decided to pre-order an Amazon Fire TV Stick for her parents, which we gave to them for Christmas. While visiting with them I had the opportunity to setup the device and use it for an extended period. Overall, I’m impressed. The cost is relatively low, performance and stability seemed good (at least during the time I was using it) and the interface was easy to use.

We were both impressed enough that we decided to order one for ourselves, though they’re currently on back-order so it may not be until the end of January before ours ships to us. I was able to pre-order the Stick for my in-laws for $19, but it regularly retails for only $39.

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My Experience with Google Chromecast

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A few months ago I picked up a Google Chromecast from Best Buy. I was curious about them for a while and at $35 I wasn’t going to be out very much cash if I didn’t find it useful.

It turns out that $35 is an excellent price point for this product and, compared to most similar devices, I think you may actually get a bit more than you paid for. In some cases it can be very convenient. If you already have a device such as a Roku or Apple TV this may not be very impressive, but that all boils down to how each person chooses to use it.

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Toshiba Blu-ray Player (BDK33)

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Last weekend I made a couple of purchases for the living room, which I’ve been planning for a while. One of these purchases was a Toshiba Blu-ray Player (BDK33). We’ve been able to watch Blu-ray movies on the PS3, but it’s in a different room and I’ve been wanting to be able to also watch Blu-rays in the living room (the other room has a larger television but it’s currently lacking comfortable furniture).

I looked at several different models in Best Buy and Target. I didn’t bother with checking Wal-Mart this time. I was surprised to find a real deal in Best Buy. It’s rare that they have anything, aside from movies, that I would purchase there.

It only costs $59.

I considered it a good deal because it has wifi capability built-in (unlike many that are “wifi ready”, meaning you’ll need some kind of adapter to use them on wifi). It also supports Netflix, Hulu, and some other services.

I was actually just looking for a plain Blu-ray player without those bells and whistles. After all, I already have an Apple TV in the living room. The price convinced me to go ahead and get it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a regular Blu-ray player even for $59.

So far I’ve been happy with the purchase, though I haven’t used it much. We’ve only watched a single Blu-ray movie and though I do have it on the wifi network I haven’t tested Netflix or Hulu. It’s connected to my older 32″ TV via the HDMI switch. The movie played without any problems and it looked great on my older HDTV.

Netflix Takes a Dive

This is one of my more rare opinion posts. I usually try to provide useful information, but I can’t resist publishing some comments about the recent changes to Netflix. I think the change in their business model is unfortunate. Netflix was positioned to remain a leader in streaming and rentals, but I’m very doubtful that will continue to be the case.

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Reducing Streaming Video Quality (Netflix and Hulu)

A few weeks ago I adjusted our Netflix Instant Watch streaming quality to the medium setting. My ISP doesn’t have a data cap, at least not yet, but I figured it might not hurt to conserve bandwidth.

Today I logged in and changed it to the lowest quality setting. It’s possible that the Apple TV is ignoring the setting, but as far as I can tell the quality is actually still good. I’m going to try leaving this setting in place and wait to see how it works out. Going from the medium setting estimated to use about .7 GB/hour down to the low setting of .3 GB/hour may help keep our video streaming under our ISP’s radar, which is a greater concern now that we use video streaming in place of cable/satellite TV.

Last week I reduced the quality of video from Hulu, though it had less to do with conserving bandwidth and more to do with the fact that our Tivo seems to have trouble maintaining the Hulu stream from time-to-time.

Updated 10/09/2011: I’ve been using these settings for several months and have hardly even noticed a difference.

ASUS EeeBox PC (EB1006), Boxee and Netflix Experience (Unacceptable)

I have three projects for the ASUS EeeBox PC that I have yet to spend much time on: speech recognition, text-to-speech, and serving media files as an HTPC. Tonight I finally spent a few minutes with Boxee. This was the first night that I attempted to play any kind of video using Boxee and in this case I only used the Netflix app. I have yet to try ripped DVDs or other video content in Boxee, iTunes, or XBMC.

The Netflix Boxee app didn’t perform well on my system. The audio didn’t sound great, though I had set Boxee to play audio through the HDMI connection but for some reason it only used the speakers. The video streaming was very bad. It was choppy and stuttered a lot.

It’s difficult to know whether the problem is the Boxee Netflix app, using Boxee itself, or simply the fact that the ASUS EeeBox PC just may not have enough horsepower. After all, the ASUS isn’t a high-end system and running additional software on it probably doesn’t help.

I’ll continue this experiment and post updates as I learn more. However, I may jump ahead to working with XBMC and go back to Boxee if I don’t like the results.

Updated 08/24/2011: I briefly tested Netflix Instant Watch from Internet Explorer on the ASUS EeeBox PC and it seemed to run fine. The streaming problem I experienced appears to be limited to Boxee or the Netflix plugin for Boxee. There may be other factors involved, but it’s unlikely I’ll spend any time in the immediate future to identify the specific problem.

Slow iTunes Rental Downloads on an Apple TV (2nd Generation)

The Short Version: My Apple TV (2nd gen) downloads were requiring far more time than necessary. I narrowed down much of the problem to a setting on my Apple Airport Extreme Base Station. By switching it over to “802.11a/n – 802.11g/b” from “802.11a – 802.11g/b” I noticed an immediate and significant improvement. 

A little while ago we tried to rent a movie from iTunes to watch on our 2nd generation Apple TV. The download was agonizingly slow. On average the load time showed it would be one and a half hours before the movie would be ready to watch. Obviously, this was an issue and made even more annoying considering it was already past 9 PM on a weeknight.

To make a long story short, I made three changes and though I’m not absolutely positive which one actually made the difference I think I know which change worked.

I came across several posts where users had improved their download speed by changing their custom DNS settings to instead use their ISP provided DNS servers. That did match my situation so I went ahead and set the Apple TV to use my ISP’s DNS. However, that didn’t seem to make a difference.

I also changed the iTunes rental preferences to only download SD (instead of renting HD when available). Considering I had already started the download of whatever format was available for the movie I don’t think this change made a difference and I may go ahead and set it back.

The one change that seemed to make an instant difference was to change my Apple Airport Extreme Base Station to use “802.11a/n – 802.11g/b”, instead of the “802.11a – 802.11g/b” configuration that it was apparently set to. This probably was the problem considering that the Apple TV does support 802.11n. Perhaps it just wouldn’t work properly on the wireless without 802.11n support enabled.

Updated 06/27/2011: Ever since I made these changes the rentals have started immediately. We’ve rented two TV episodes and three movies and all have worked great. I didn’t set the quality back to HD. Everything I’ve viewed has looked great at the SD setting and usually saves about a dollar per rental so I haven’t bothered to change it back.