Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Streaming Device Shootout: Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Google Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV (Stick)

This post is in honor of Tax Day in the USA. If you're going to receive a tax refund this year, you're possibly going to spend it on stuff you don't need. That said, let me try to sell you stuff you don't need by comparing four major options for streaming Internet video onto your TV screen.

We will compare the Roku box, the Apple TV box, the Google Chromecast stick, and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Personally, the ideal streaming device will be compatible with my current subscriptions (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now), my purchased digital media (iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video/MP3), free network streaming (Watch ABC, the History Channel, etc.), as well as relatively obscure media sources. Of course, the ideal streaming device (of our four options), short of being a personal computer, does not exist.

ROKU

If I recall correctly, Roku's lineup of streaming boxes became popular as Netflix began its Internet video streaming service. I bought one of the first Roku models right before I started my Netflix subscription, about five years ago. My most recent Roku purchase was back in 2012, so maybe the most current box model (or stick model) has more functionality. In any case, with my Roku box(es), I can watch Netflix, Amazon Video (purchased and Prime), the History Channel (for Vikings), and relatively obscure, niche media, like denomination-specific religious programming. I've recently read that Google Play is available for the latest Roku products, but I haven't tried it out yet. I don't know if there is a Watch ABC app for Roku (for ABC's Marvel Cinematic Universe shows, of course).

Currently, HBO Now is only available for Apple iOS devices and personal computers (via browser, after having signed up on an iOS device), so Roku does not have HBO Now. Without the use of an external personal computer, and some fancy know-how, I don't think the Roku has immediate access to my iTunes account, either. These are a small amount of negatives for an otherwise solid line of products. Right now, the HBO and Apple stuff can be covered by ...

APPLE TV

In October of 2014, I mistakenly purchased a $25 Apple Store gift card, thinking it was an iTunes gift card. It was a silly lesson learned, with an otherwise useless, nice-looking gift card as a reminder of the silly lesson learned. Earlier this year, when Apple announced the Apple Watch and various upgraded products, they also lowered the price of the Apple TV to $69. When HBO announced the HBO Now service would be initially available to iOS devices and the Apple TV, I decided to take the plunge, use that pretty gift card, and spend an additional $44 on an Apple TV box. I am currently enjoying my first month (free) of HBO Now, with the latest season of Game of Thrones and other cool TV/film surprises.

Being an Apple product, the Apple TV can access all my iTunes purchases, videos and music, in the cloud. Admittedly, my past purchases of episodes of Lost and Supernatural are available on Netflix. I recently watched Up again, and it was as sad and funny as ever. Listening to music through TV speakers isn't ideal, so half of Apple TV's iTunes capability is a bit of a novelty.

Speaking of Netflix, like the Roku, Apple TV can stream Netflix. On the Roku, or at least my obsolete models, you have to search for various channel apps, then "install" them to the device. On Apple TV, it seems that all approved apps are already available to access from the get-go. In effect, Netflix, HBO Now, History, and Watch ABC are all available, and everything is awesome. Almost.

Apple TV doesn't seem to have either Amazon Video or Google Play, let alone any niche media. Most of these issues can be immediately rectified if one has an iOS (or latest Mac) device with AirPlay. I tried AirPlay with an iPad and Apple TV, and they pair beautifully. The potential for big screen TV Skype and/or FaceTime is fantastic.

With an old Roku box and a brand-new Apple TV, I have all my preferences covered, basically. Well, I'll have to see if the Google Play on Roku is a real option for me. If so, it seems the next two devices, both streaming sticks, are varying degrees of redundant.

GOOGLE CHROMECAST

I arbitrarily purchased the $35 Google Chromecast in early 2014. It's a curious device that requires a smartphone or tablet with the Chromecast app. For instance, a smartphone with the Netflix and Chromecast apps can "cast" the movie onto a TV with a Chromecast stick. The stick will do most of the processing, preserving the phone's battery life. As long as a smartphone/tablet app is compatible with the Chromecast app, you should, in theory, be able to stream that bit of media onto your TV. I haven't tested it yet, but Amazon Video might possibly be finally available for Android smartphones/tablets and therefore potentially Chromecast-able. Both Amazon Video and Chromecast apps are available for iOS devices, but whether they can play well together is unknown (to me, at least).

I think the Chromecast shines best as a YouTube-on-TV device. Both Roku and Apple TV have YouTube, but it is a pain to search for YouTube videos with a remote control. It's as slow as typing out a password on a game controller for an old school Nintendo game, like Simon's Quest. The smartphone/Chromecast combo will allow the viewer to search quickly on the smartphone's virtual keyboard, then shoot the streaming video over to the TV. It's fast, and it's fun.

As stated earlier, Roku and Apple TV cover my media consumption preferences. The Chromecast, while a bit redundant, is icing on the cake with its smarphone-plus-YouTube ease of use. This renders our final device as the odd one out.

AMAZON FIRE TV (STICK)

For a short period of time in late 2014, Amazon sold the Amazon Fire TV Stick for $20, 50% off its usual price. I knew this device would be redundant, but at that price, I had to buy it, just to try it. Because it was a redundant device, I finally got around to opening it a couple of months ago, in early 2015.

If Amazon developed this device years earlier, perhaps it would have been as good as the Roku. History is on Roku's side, especially when it comes to niche media channels. Perhaps Amazon Fire TV might catch up one day. I really haven't explored the Fire TV as much as I should, but it definitely covers the basics -- Netflix and Amazon Video. Of course, much of the interface's real estate is dedicated to Amazon Video. Netflix is an app that you have to find and install. My Amazon Music library (purchased and Prime) is also available for streaming via Fire TV. My Roku has that capability, in theory, but its lack of RAM or some hardware deficiency defeats the potential. Then again, music through tiny TV speakers is not ideal. Amazon Echo does a better job with Amazon Music.

I can't say for sure, but there's probably a good chance that free network streaming apps, like History and Watch ABC, are available for Fire TV. I'm sure that iTunes isn't a possibility, since Fire TV is not an Apple product. You'd have to be an tech wizard to have Google Play on Fire TV, in some sort of roundabout way.

Amazon Fire TV has a "casting" function similar to the Chromecast and Apple's AirPlay. It's called Miracast, and it is available for Fire smartphones/Kindle HDX tablets, as well as Android tablets/smartphones. I tried to pair a late 2013 Kindle Fire HDX with a Fire TV Stick, and it worked ... eventually. It was a slow pairing process; perhaps an up-to-date Kindle and a Fire TV box might have done a faster job. An Android smartphone pairs with a Chromecast more quickly, as does the combination of an iPad with Apple TV.

CONCLUSION

All of the four streaming devices are Netflix-ready. None of the devices have all the functions I want. Depending on your own streaming media preferences, one device could be enough, and that one device is a toss-up between Roku and Apple TV. If you just want to stream Netflix, then it's a toss-up among all four options, as long as you have a smartphone/tablet for Chromecast. If you don't have a tablet or smartphone, then Chromecast is not for you.

For me, both the Roku and Apple TV are necessary, with Chromecast as a fun addition. Alternatively, an iOS device combined with Apple TV would render the Chromecast redundant. Amazon Fire TV can't compete with Roku's niche channels, Apple TV's HBO Now, or Chromecast's smartphone-required simplicity. If your media consumption tastes are similar to mine, then you'll need at least two streaming devices, possibly including a smartphone/tablet, for your streaming needs. Here's the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) rundown:

(Keep in mind that the Google Chromecast requires a smartphone or tablet with the Chromecast app installed, to actually stream media.)

Roku + Apple TV = Better than good enough.
Roku + Apple TV + Google Chromecast = Ideal.
Roku + Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay YouTube, etc. = Ideal, fewer devices required.
Roku + Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay + Google Chromecast = Ideal, but a bit redundant.
Roku + Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX or Android device = Almost ideal, but Miracast seems slow.
Roku + Google Chromecast = No HBO Now (but perhaps in the future), no iTunes.
Roku + Amazon Fire TV = Redundant, no HBO How, no iTunes.

Apple TV + Google Chromecast = If Amazon Video is Chromecast-able, then almost good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video = Good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video + Chromecast = A bit redundant.
Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV = Almost good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video + Amazon Fire TV = A bit redundant.
Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX or Android device = Almost good enough, but Miracast seems slow.

Google Chromecast + Amazon Fire TV = Not enough features, and redundant.

Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX = No HBO Now, no iTunes, mysterious status of Google Play, and fewer niche channel options.

That pretty much covers as much as I can cover, as confusingly as possible. If you have a tax refund, remember that you overpaid your taxes at the beginning of the year. Since you have your money back, go ahead and buy stuff you don't need. Or food and shelter. Whatever you choose.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Netflix's 'Derek' Is Either an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist, or a Lost Series of 'Doctor Who'

I've been binge-watching shows on Netflix recently. It's to make up for lost ground; for several months in the past, I paid the $7.99 monthly fee without even watching one show or movie. Last month, I watched all of Parks and Recreation in a couple of weeks. This past week, I watched all 13 episodes (two series and one special) of a Ricky Gervais mockumentary-style comedy-drama called Derek.

Set in an English retirement home, this show is about kindness in a world full of sadness and cruelty. The main character is Derek Noakes, whose physical quirks and tics imply an ambiguous disability. But any diagnosis of disability is irrelevant for Derek, whose purpose in life is to create happiness for those around him -- his saint of a boss Hannah, the elderly residents of the retirement home, and his equally quirky friends. You could say that Derek actually has a superhuman capacity for empathy.

I liked the show. I liked the quirkiness and the overbearing moments of sadness and the fleeting bits of joy ... and some, okay most, of the crude humor. I've read that some critics and viewers don't share my approval of the show. I can imagine how frustrating it could be to watch Derek one episode per week, over the course of six weeks per season, for two years, with a Christmas special at the end of the third year. Derek is definitely a show for binge-watching, not for traditional must-see-TV-type viewing.

In any case, there are two major criticisms for the show. The first is a negative response to Ricky Gervais' depiction of Derek Noakes. On the surface, in trailers and commercials and photos, it seems like Derek is a cruel parody of people with disabilities. The solution to that criticism would be to watch any episode of the show. Derek is good and kind and true -- and a hero that's totally out of place in the television zeitgeist of anti-heroes.

The major second criticism is that the show is emotionally manipulative: The elderly characters die, Derek gets sad, there's a lot of crying, and the sad piano score gets heavy-handed -- and there's actually one instance of Coldplay's "Fix You" as the soundtrack for a sad scene in the show. Yes, the sadness of the show can get overwhelming -- the (spoiler!) fate of Derek's favorite dog Ivor comes to mind -- but is this show emotionally manipulative?


Yes. Derek is as emotionally manipulative as any other story told properly. Storytelling is, by definition, emotionally manipulative. You root for the hero, and hate the bad guy, because the storyteller wants you to root for the hero and hate the bad guy. If you root for the bad guy and hate the hero, then the storyteller either wanted to be ironic or told the story poorly. If a story is not emotionally manipulative, you're probably dealing with a geometric proof of some sort.

The first part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist." The overall tone of the show is bits of joy in an environment of sadness. Derek and mostly everyone else in the home are like family, and they try to be kind to one another, which brings much joy in the retirement home. Because it is a retirement home, however, the residents will eventually die, and there is this overall tone of melancholy for the show.

Derek is basically Limbo in Dante's Inferno. If I recall correctly, Dante's Limbo is a happy place, full of virtuous pagans and unbaptized babies, with a nagging bit of sadness -- the fact that Limbo isn't Heaven. The retirement home in Derek is a mostly happy place, with a nagging bit of sadness, due to the inevitability of death.

We just had Easter last weekend, and I guess I'm obsessed with the theological-mythological (depending on your denomination or belief system) story of the Harrowing of Hell. Basically, on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter Sunday, Jesus rescued the souls in the Limbo part of Hell. Those non-damned souls were able to leave Hell and enter Heaven.

I usually imagine the Harrowing to be an action movie, with fire and demons and Jesus with a sword, but perhaps the story could be told better with goodness and kindness instead. Virtually all the characters in Derek love Derek Noakes for his kindness and goodness. If you mash up Derek and Dante, it seems that Derek Noakes is Jesus in Limbo on Holy Saturday. It's a metaphor, of course, but perhaps not the one that atheist/humanist creator Ricky Gervais intended.

The second part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... a Lost Series of Doctor Who." The character Dougie, the caretaker/Jack of all trades for the retirement home, has a Northern English accent with a moderately baritone pitch. Karl Pilkington's (Dougie) voice reminded me of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, who also spoke with a Northern baritone. So that got me thinking -- headcanon time! -- that a freshly-regenerated Ninth Doctor suffered from so much depression due to the destruction/disappearance of Gallifrey, that he could bear to live anymore. He didn't want to kill himself -- that would have only triggered a premature regeneration -- so he used a chameleon arch pocket watch to stop being a Time Lord.

This chameleon arch was special because it had a chameleon circuit. The Ninth Doctor kept his voice (approximately) but his cropped hair became bald with too much hair on the sides, and his eyesight got worse. And so, for a time, the Ninth Doctor hid from the Time War by being a curmudgeonly caretaker of an English retirement home, named Dougie. Dougie ... Doctie ... Doctor?

Dougie could fix almost anything, with a regular screwdriver. Eventually, with the kindness of Derek, Dougie started to realize there was something more to his mundane existence. Being overwhelmed by the stresses of the home, and being electrocuted at the beginning of the second series of Derek, Dougie remembered about the chameleon arch pocket watch.

Dougie quit his job and was never seen again. He resumed being the Doctor, with a more aesthetically pleasing haircut (and hairline), which made his ears a bit more conspicuous. The Doctor then knew he had to clean up the fallout of the Time War, starting with the Autons in 2005 London.

If I edited a series of screen shots for Tumblr, perhaps this Dougie/Doctor headcanon would find an audience. In any case, I must figure out what to binge-watch next. No, who am I kidding? The fifth season of Game of Thrones premieres on Sunday! I'll have to take that show one week at a time ...