September 16, 2011

Bonus – How to show off your photos (and more) on the big screen

I very nearly crippled myself in pursuit of this blog post.

I was all ready to talk about the days of the FotoMat, when you’d take in a roll of film and it’d take a couple of weeks to get it processed, and even when you did that, half the shots were blurry/grainy/overexposed. I even had a second paragraph mapped out where I’d say “isn’t it great that we can just put all our photos on the Interwebs and share them with our friends.” Finally, I’d wrap up by showing you three ways you could take those photos from your small screen, to your big screen.

Yeah, that would have made a great article. Except, as I was halfway through the daydream of how I was going to put it together, I dropped a 55” flat panel TV on my feet. That’s right. I had a new TV perched on the end of its box, ready to plug in so I could test the photo apps for this blog, when the thing slipped, dropped five inches and landed squarely behind my toes.

They may hurt like hell now, but I got a good story out of it. Actually, I got three good stories out of it. You see, there was a time when streaming photos, TV shows, movies and music to your TV was an absolute pain. I should know. My basement is a graveyard of mismatched solutions, from a cruddy Motorola product from 2001 to the original Xbox, hacked to run a Media Centre.

Thankfully, it’s not that hard to stream to your TV anymore. In fact, there are three really good solutions out there worth checking out:

Our goal around this house is simple – stream our stuff when and where we want it. So if the tweens want to watch Netflix in the living room, they can. If the smaller fries want music before bedtime, they can have that too. That’s the primary reason we’re an Apple house – you plug one gadget into the ecosystem and it works.

I’ve futzed and fiddled with dozens of solutions for streaming in my digital life and Apple TV – the 2.0 version, not the original – is exactly what we need around here. No frills. Connects to the computer to stream, plus YouTube, Vimeo and loads of online radio stations. We find ourselves using it at least five times a day – and it uses photos as a screensaver, drawing from an online library.

Drawbacks! To stream your content, you need to have a Mac that’s on and running iTunes. It’s super convenient for setup (less than 5 minutes), but a pain if you have your laptop on the road while the kids wanna watch Spongebob back at home. It could also do with a few more apps, which is something I didn’t expect to say – until I played with the Smart TV a little while later. One more thing – it takes awhile to download HD content from the iTunes store, so be warned.

My colleague Tej Babra got the chance to play with Intel’s Wireless Display technology earlier this summer and he was very impressed. Intel bakes the technology right into the chip, allowing you to connect your laptop to a WiDi enabled TV lickity split. WiDi mirrors your screen, so if you can see it on your laptop, you can see it on your TV. He streamed a whole lot of high definition stuff – YouTube, Vimeo, even Blu Rays – with amazing results. It works well and it’s easy to set up.

A few disclaimers. WiDi is a PC only product (no Macs need apply) and you have to be sure your computer comes with it built in. Best Buy recently put up a post that gives you a little more insight into how it all works. Tej found WiDi to be eventually plug and play – after he updated firmware and drivers across the board.

Smart TV – Way better than I expected.
I think the TV jumped on my feet on purpose. It was like it knew that I was thinking “Why bother take this out of the box. It’s just going to suck like pretty much every other home media streaming thingy.” The drop then, became a smackdown that said “don’t judge before you try.”

Good thing I didn’t because the thing is really solid. I got a 55” Samsung 7 Series (7900) that comes with a bunch of apps, from BBC News to the standard stuff – YouTube, Netflix, Facebook. The interface is reasonably well organized and launching into stuff is simple and straightforward. I had a YouTube clip up and running, four minutes after plugging the thing in.

It’s also killer good for photos. There are apps for Flickr and Picasa, plus you can access photos on Twitter or Facebook. It’s pretty impressive.

But it’s not perfect. More apps mean you’re going to have to sign in and signup for just about everything all over again. It helps that the Samsung comes with this funky double-sided remote (traditional remote on one side, keyboard on the other). Organization is good, but could be better. There was some lag in the HD YouTube clip I downloaded. That’s not a tonne of testing, but it is something of which to be aware. 

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