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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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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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What’s So Great About LED-Backlit LCDs

 

ledpicshd1

LED-backlit LCDs are where TV’s future and present meet—they’re the best LCDs you’ve ever seen, but they’re not as stunning as OLED displays, which will one day dominate all. They’re not cheap, but they’re not ludicrous either. Most importantly, they’re actually here.

I’ll CC You in the FL
With LCDs, it’s all about the backlighting. This defines contrast, brightness and other performance metrics. When you watch plasma TVs, OLED TVs or even old tube TVs, there’s light emanating from each pixel like it was a teeny tiny bulb. Not so with LCD—when you watch traditional LCD TV, you’re basically staring at one big lightbulb with a gel screen in front of it.

The typical old-school LCD backlighting tech is CCFL—a cold cathode fluorescent lamp—which is an array of the same kind of lights that make people’s lives miserable in offices around the world. The reason they aren’t the greatest as backlights for TV watching is that they light up the whole damn display. Because LCD is just a massive screen of tiny doors that open and close, light inevitably leaks through the closed doors, when they’re trying to show black, resulting in more of a glowy charcoal. Check out this shot from Home Theater mag to see what I mean:

ledpicshd2LEDs (light emitting diodes) are different from say, an old school incandescent bulb, which heats up a filament to generate light, in that they’re electroluminescent—electricity passes through a semiconductor and the movement of the electrons just lights it up. Instead of having one lightbulb in the bottom of the screen, shining up through all of the LCD pixels, you can have arrays of LEDs that shine through smaller portions of the LCD screen, leaving other portions in the dark, so to speak.

OLED—”organic light emitting diode”—is slightly different. Since the electroluminescent component is organic and not a chip, each point of light can be much tinier. That’s why an LED TV still needs the LCD screen in front: there’s no way to have a single LED per pixel unless the screen is huge, and mounted to the side of a building in Times Square. OLEDs don’t: HD OLED displays are made up of red, green and blue dots, no LCD panel required.

LED Is As LED Does
So, Samsung’s term “LED TV” is more accurately—and more commonly—described as an LED-backlit LCD. But not all LED displays are created equal.

ledpicshd3There are two major kinds of LED backlighting: Edge-lit and local dimming. Edge-lit displays are what they sound like—the LEDs are arranged in strips running along all four edges of the TV, like you can see in this gut shot from Cnet. A light guide directs the glowyness toward the center of the screen. The advantage of edge-lit displays is that they can get incredibly thin, are 40 percent more power-efficient than regular LCDs and are a bit cheaper than local-dimming TVs. But because they’re still shooting light indiscriminately across the LCD panel, they can’t pull off the black levels that a local dimming backlight setup can.

LED backlighting of the local dimming variety is how you build the best LCD TV in the world. It’s called local dimming, as you probably guessed, because there are a bunch of LED bulbs—hundreds in the Sony XBR8—arranged in a grid behind the screen. They can all be dark or brightly lit, or they can turn off individually or in clusters, making for the actual Dark Knight, rather than the Grayish Knight you’d see on many cheaper CCFL LCDs. Sets with local dimming are pricier than edge-lit—the Samsung’s local-dimming 46-incher started at $3,500, versus $2800 for one of their edge-lit models. They are thicker too.

What Color Is Your LED?
The color of the LEDs matters too, separating the best LED-backlit LCDs from the the merely great. Most LED sets just use white bulbs. The reason Sony’s XBR8 started out at $5,000—as much as Pioneer’s king-of-TVs Kuro—is because it uses tri-color LEDs in an RGB array. In each cluster, there are two green bulbs next to one red and one blue (greens aren’t as bright). The result is high contrast plus super clean, incredibly accurate color.

LED displays are getting cheaper, more quickly than originally expected, so we could see them go mainstream sooner. You already see the lower-end edge-lit LED tech used in mainstream stuff—MacBook Pro and Dell’s Mini 9 to name a couple. Which is a good thing, since the prophesied ascendancy of OLED in 2009 completely failed to happen. So we’ll have to make do with LED in the meantime. Just be sure to find out what kind when you’re buying.

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