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Android on Plair 2 HDMI wireless streaming dongle

Plair beat Google to the punch with its wireless streaming HDMI dongle that was announced at last year’s CES, but had the wind sucked from it sails with the arrival of Chromecast. So, the company went back to the lab and today, it’s ready to reveal Plair 2, a dongle that looks the same as the original, but comes running a customized version of Android. That means instead of simply being a conduit for streaming video from the cloud, it runs most any app found on Google Play on your TV. It works via an Android companion app (for devices running version 4.3 or iOS 5 and up) that lets you connect the dongle to your home WiFi network and acts as a remote control for the device after setup’s complete. Oh, and with the added functionality comes a sizable drop in price — while the original Plair cost $99, this new version costs just $49.

Setting up Plair 2 is a simple affair. Just like the Chromecast, you simply stick the dongle into an HDMI port on your TV, plug in the microUSB power cord, then load up the companion app. The app prompts you to log the dongle into your home network, then switches to remote mode once your done — it takes no more than a minute or two. After that, your TV will load up Plair’s home screen, which displays a row of apps onscreen in a cover flow fashion. Navigation via the companion app’s accomplished via swipes and taps or a virtualized touchpad and cursor. Once you’ve chosen your content portal, the tablet version of that app is displayed onscreen, and you make your selections with the cursor.

While the remote app is a good idea in theory, we found using it to be a bit difficult. Swipes failed to register regularly, and scrolling up and down was often a dicey affair — scrolling down usually worked, but we often had to lift our finger off the screen and try multiple times to get it to scroll up. Additionally, while video quality is largely comparable to what you’ll see via Chromecast, buffering takes a bit longer, and we had playback issues during our brief testing with Plair 2. Hulu Plus and Netflix froze on us several times when trying to load content, and playback on Comcast’s Xfinity app froze a couple times as well. We also played a bit of Angry Birds on the device, and found the experience enjoyable. Control via the companion app worked well, and we experienced none of the issues we had when streaming video.

In short, while the Plair 2 costs $14 more than Chromecast, it also offers a lot more functionality. The ability to run any Android app or game is really handy, and well worth the additional cash outlay. In general, the fact of the matter is that Chromecast is less expensive, currently streams video better than Plair does and its native app control paradigm is superior to Plair’s proprietary remote. However, the ability to play games and run Android apps on the TV is valuable, and the company tells us that it’s working on improving the user experience. That’s good, because improvement’s needed if it hopes to carve out some market space alongside Google’s offering.

 

 

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UHD to the Home – Ultra HD over the Internet

As part of its presence at the Commonwealth Games, BBC Research & Development currently has a number of ultra high definition (UHD) television screens at both the Science Centre in Glasgow and New Broadcasting House in London showing live coverage of the games. These screens are open to the public for the duration of the Commonwealth Games and free to view for visitors between 10am and 5pm in Glasgow and 12 midday to 3.30pm in London.

The pictures and sound for these screens is being delivered over the internet – from capture, through the full production chain, and finally to decoders and displays in the demonstration areas. This entire process normally requires very specialised and expensive television broadcast equipment but in this case it is all being handled using normal IP networks and commercially available computing equipment. Below you can see a short video produced by R&D engineer Alia Sheikh which explains the work the department has been engaged with in this area and the reasons why BBC R&D thinks IP delivery is the future for TV delivery.

For the Commonwealth Games BBC R&D’s IP TV delivery infrastructure is spread over a number of different locations to demonstrate the flexibility that an IP based production system brings. While pictures and sound are being captured in the venues, the audio gallery providing the commentary is in London and the television production gallery is located in Glasgow. Below you can see how our IP based end to end infrastructure is spread across the UK to deliver UHD TV to our public demonstration areas.

While delivery of television by IP is on the increase, a lot of people still receive their television using traditional transmitters and receivers and will do so for some time to come. Not all of the UK has reliable high speed internet connections so alongside IP delivery, the department is also demonstrating the transmission of UHD content over the existing Digital Television Transmission (DTT) network. BBC R&D are working with the rest of the broadcasting industry to ensure that the standards exist to distribute UHD content to as many people as possible no matter the delivery method.

Motion Blur – The Challenges of UHD

Beyond the challenges of delivering UHD content to people’s homes there’s also the issue of how to get it working properly once it gets there. One challenge is that with higher visual definitions motion blur becomes more of a problem for video images, especially with fast moving subjects like the athletes at the Commonwealth Games.

One solution is to increase the frame rate of the television (the rate at which the image on screen is refreshed) from 50fps to 100fps. To sharpen motion, you can also shorten the camera shutter speed, but at conventional frame rates this leads to judder. A frame rate of 100 fps enables the eye to fuse motion in a realistic manner, even with a short shutter opening and is also high enough to avoid visible flicker. BBC R&D is involved in ongoing discussions with other European broadcasters to create standards for UHD frame rates. The image below shows a comparison of shutter speeds of 1/100 and 1/300 of a second.

Exciting New Opportunities

Along with the technical challenges IP-delivered UHD TV presents to the engineers at BBC R&D, it also provides a host of new production and editorial opportunities. One major advantage of building an IP based system is how configurable it is.

A television studio is a collection of very specialised pieces of equipment, very often with only one purpose each – a vision mixing desk for example or a preview monitor. Moving from a hardware to a software based system means that devices can be reconfigured to the needs of different production teams quickly and at little expense. The gallery production equipment in R&D’s experimental IP based television production gallery uses consumer computing hardware so a tablet can be a production schedule one day and a sound mixing desk the next. Or both. This reconfigurable nature of IP based production drastically reduces cost and increases working flexibility.

The BBC has always delivered high quality crafted television, first in black and white, then colour, using both analogue then digital delivery methods and most recently moving from standard definition to HD. UHD TV and IP based production are another evolution of the art form that provides the organisation with yet more exciting opportunities to make the best television we can and deliver it to audiences in increasingly cost effective ways. BBC Research & Development’s work ensures that when the UK is ready to switch to UHD, the BBC will be as well.

To take a look behind the scenes at a working IP television production gallery please visit us at the Glasgow Science Centre between 10am & 5pm for the duration of the Commonwealth Games. You can also watch live UHD coverage of the Commonwealth Games delivered both over IP and using digital television transmitters. Finally you can get hands on with some of the exciting new experiences that UHD video and IP delivered TV make possible including a chance to look around a 3D live video of the Hydro Stadium using the Oculus Rift headset.

 

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Top 4K TVs Compared

Both Netflix and Amazon stream in 4K. Cameras like the Sony a7S and the Panasonic Lumix GH4 can shoot in 4K. Even smartphones have been getting in on the act, with handsets like the LG G Pro 2 and Sony Xperia Z2 capable of recording 4K video. So with the amount of 4K content available increasing every day, you may have been thinking about buying a 4K set so you too can bask in the glow of 3,840 x 2,160 resolution. But 4K sets don’t come cheap, and you’re going to want to do a bit of research before dropping that much cash. While we don’t really review televisions here at Engadget, we’ve done the next best thing, compiling the opinions of trusted critics from across the web. Which set offers you the most bang for your buck? Do bells and whistles like a curved screen make a difference? Check out a few members of the 4K Class of 2014 below.

Panasonic Life+Screen AX800

At first blush, the Panasonic AX800 series has a lot going for it. It’s a nice-looking set that PC Mag says is “minimalist and unique,” suited for both TV stands and entertainment centers. Turn it on, and the picture is equally impressive, delivering what AVForums calls “rich textures and nuanced lighting,” while Reviewed.com thinks this LCD could stand toe to toe with a good plasma set, due to its “good black levels, accurate colors and reliable screen uniformity.” But if you’re looking to sit down and enjoy some House of Cards in beautiful 4K, you’ll be disappointed — Netflix on the AX800 is limited to 1080p (and lower). Given the relative scarcity of commercial 4K content, the inability to watch a major provider like Netflix is a big ding on an otherwise stellar UHD set.

Price: $2,300 and up

Samsung U9000

Walk into a room and the first thing you’ll notice about the Samsung U9000 is its curved screen, which CNET says adds a “unique, futuristic look” to a set that is overall “drop-dead gorgeous.” It says the picture is equally stunning, offering “deep black levels, accurate color and great bright-room viewing qualities.” But what about that curve? Though it’s meant to create a feeling of depth and immersion, CNET found it “didn’t have any major effect on the picture aside from reducing reflections somewhat,” and Reviewed.com found it actually made some reflections worse, such that “lamps and lights are occasionally stretched across the entire arc of the screen.” It’s worth noting that the U9000 also includes an improved Smart Hub experience, but you can also find other Samsung sets that are a lot cheaper (and less curvy).

Price: $3,297 and up

Samsung U8550

The Samsung U8550 is a set that eschews the curved screen of its high-end sibling U9000 in favor of “trim bezels and a very narrow panel” that Reviewed.com says “lend this television a modern air.” The picture also does it credit, with LCD TV Buying Guide complimenting its “brilliant images in 4K,” while Sound+Vision was impressed with the “crisp detail and the clean, smooth clarity” of its upconversions. As on the U9000, the Smart Hub has been upgraded with “subtle improvements” that “hit the mark” according to LCD TV Buying Guide, and Reviewed.com says it provides “all of the streaming content and web-browsing functions you’d expect for the price.” And that’s a price that undercuts the competition by $1,000, leaving you some extra cash for an awesome sound or gaming system on the side.

Price: $1,597 and up

Sony X900B

At first glance, it’s clear that the Sony X900B is very different from other UHD sets, and even many regular ol’ HDTVs, due to its huge set of front-facing speakers. The sacrifice of a slim bezel is well worth it, though, as What Hi-Fi compliments its “rich, open and detailed sound quality,” while CNET calls it the “best sound of any TV we’ve heard, bar none.” The picture is also up to the challenge, offering quality that HDTVTest calls “spectacular” and CNET says is the “best picture quality of any 4K TV we’ve tested so far.” Sure, the X900B isn’t as cheap as some other sets, but unlike the AX800, it supports Netflix and, with those massive speakers flanking the screen, you won’t need to fork out the extra dough for a quality sound system.

Price: $2,998 and up

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Epson 3LCD Laser Projectors

Epson has caused quite a stir at CEDIA Expo with the launch of its Pro Cinema LS10000 and LS9600e 3LCD projectors with reflective laser technology.

The LS10000 is a 4K model, while the LS9600e is a wireless 1080p projector. Both use a laser light source to deliver “unprecedented Absolute Black contrast ratio and one of the industry’s largest colour gamuts,” says Epson.

The 4K unit can project images with up to 1500 Lumens of colour brightness and the same for white brightness, while the Full HD one delivers 1300 Lumens.

Advantages of the laser light source are said to be rapid warm-up and cool down, high-speed contrast control for bright and dark scenes, and up to 30,000 hours of use. The ‘Instant On/Off’ function means pictures appear on screen or shut down with virtually no wait, says Epson.

Bright 3D Drive is designed for greater brightness when viewing 3D content, and both projectors can handle Full HD 1080p in 2D and 3D.

Operation is said to be “whisper quiet”, and on the LS9600e a WirelessHD transmitter connects up to five HDMI devices simultaneously. It also has MHL connectivity to display content from compatible smartphones and tablets.

Both models have 2.1 x power zoom, power focus, lens shift up to 90 per cent vertical and 40 per cent horizontal, as well as a lens position memory that can store up to 10 settings for 16:9 or 4:3 projection areas.

Epson says its new Pro Cinema projectors will be available in the US this autumn for prices “below $8000″.

Also new from Epson are three 3LCD Full HD/3D projectors: the Home Cinema 3600e ($1999), Home Cinema 3500 ($1699) and Home Cinema 3000 ($1299).

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