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article imageReview: Tech for Christmas (part 5)

By Jack Kapica     Nov 25, 2012 in Technology
Internet entertainment: We expect our entertainment to come from all over the world, and for our local entertainment to follow us. There are new goodies in Satellite radio, local TV via long distance and filling your home with global sound
We used to call it high-fidelity before stereo came in, and we’re roughly at the same stage with online music. There are enough Internet radio stations out there to offer a decent variety of choices to warrant a good sound system, and the Sonos Play:3 fits the bill.
Variety of choice is important; I find that it’s difficult to stick with one choice of station for long, like you’re forced to do with domestic radio stations. I like variety. I found one really great Internet radio station, called GoodTunes Radio, which was a personal project from rocker Elvin Bishop (sadly underplayed in Canada, but you’re sure to remember Fooled Around and Fell in Love), who has collected a phenomenal set of records, put them all on digital, and played them on line. His tastes ran to old and newer rock, rough country (I got re-introduced to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen through this station), and some old bluesmen you just don’t hear much anymore. But Bishop isn’t young any more, and running the station on his own was too much of a drain on his resources and he shut it down earlier this year. I could have listened to his unique selections for years.
The trouble is that few online stations rely on the tastes of individual people with special connections to the artists themselves and a great knowledge of the music itself — Bob Dylan and E Street band member Steven Van Zandt are exceptions — while most online stations simply buy computer-generated playlists that advertisers want when addressing specific markets.
Sorry about that rant. It wasn’t until Elvin Bishop closed shop that I realized just how much I was addicted to his notion of great music.
And I wish I had the Sonos Play:3 sound system when I was listening to Bishop’s radio station. Sonos, which has been evolving since 2005, started off replaying music from networked computers, but as the variety of online stations expanded, Sonos started offering music services and concentrated on simplifying the networking problems associated with installing wireless music systems. Today, the Sonos Play:3 is not a set of standalone speakers, but what tech marketers call an “ecosystem,” meaning it’s an all-in-one wireless music player with integrated speakers.
The Sonos Play:3 (a more expensive version called the Play:5 offers five speakers) allows you to stream your entire music library, music services, and radio stations via your wireless network, which you can control wirelessly. You can start with one speaker, and expand it all over your home or office.
The system includes three speakers powered by dedicated Class D lightweight digital amplifiers (these are analogue-controlled with an analog input signal and an analog control system) that are powerful and energy efficient. They include a tweeter, two dedicated mid-range drivers, and a bass radiator tuned to use the energized air volume inside of PLAY:3 to provide a powerful bass sound in a small package.
The Sonos Play:3 is designed for those who have an existing stereo and want to add streaming music, and is controlled by your PC, Mac, Android or Apple iOS devices. In short, people who are part of the new digital music world but don't want to have to sit at their computers to play. The Play:3 is also touted as the first speaker featuring an accelerometer that dynamically changes its equalizer settings based on where and how you place it in a room.
The system includes a bridge, a little white box about the size of an Apple TV box that connects to a router and serves as the system’s wireless hub. Setting it up is painless, with most of the time spent waiting for the Sonos Controller software to install. The software walks you through the setup process, which involved pressing a "join" button on the bridge, then the mute and volume buttons on the two wireless speaker units.
The picky part comes when you have to use the Sonos software as a music manager. The software shows your connected devices, you queued music, the player controls, and a now-playing panel, with all of your music options on the side. There is a search option, but it's not search-as-you-type, and is a little awkward to use. Fortunately, the Sonos playlists are source-agnostic, meaning you can easily switch back and forth between music stored on a network-attached storage box, your computer and streaming services.
Speaking of music services, Sonos not only plays your MP3 files, it also works nicely with online music services such as Rdio, Slacker, Aupio!, Spotify and iTunes as well as the thousands of free online radio stations around the world. Just remember, you will still have to subscribe to some of the online services, which can add to your costs.
A word of caution here: The basic system is designed for monaural sound. For stereo, you'll have to team up a pair of Play:3 speakers. All you have to do is select “Create Stereo Pair” on the player. But the speakers are $299 each, so you'd be spending quite a lot of money for a system that sounds good, but not twice as good.
Still, despite the price, the system introduces the notion of serious music listening via the Internet. It’s bound to get much better as time goes on and music publishers relax about the threat to their profit margins.
The EA6500 router  for Linksys by Cisco
The EA6500 router, for Linksys by Cisco
I do wish Cisco had been in the residential router business back when I started my home network. The kind of effort Cisco has put into its Linksys line of routers would have saved me a lot of fretfulness. Its routers are now almost foolproof to set up, and require little extra expertise for more sophisticated work. And besides, they're now being made with home-theatre in mind.
This year Cisco released the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router AC 1750 HD Video Pro EA6500, which is too much of a mouthful so I’ll call it the EA6500, which is no bigger than the last few routers the company made, but leagues ahead of them inside.
It’s a tad expensive ($199.99) — yes, y0u can buy routers at half that price, but you’d have half the power of this one, and you’d have to know your way around wireless networking to make a decent go of it.
The EA6500 is a small upgrade from the earlier EA4500 router in that it’s the first Cisco router to use the latest 802.11ac wireless technology on its 5GHz frequency band. It also has two bands, 2.4 and 5 GHz. All of this means you have a router that’s stable and can reach more distant corners of your house or office. At greater distances, though, it’s slower than it would be if it were closer, but that’s the nature of wireless. There have been reports that the router slows down on the 5 GHz band, but you’d still need sophisticated equipment to calibrate its throughput.
It connects to internal networks at speeds up to 1 Gigabit Ethernet, and is backwardly compatible with almost all previous routers. It’s also ready for IPV6, for when the Internet gradually switches over to the new communications technology, and even offers sophisticated parental controls to keep the kids honest when online. It also has two USB ports for printing and storing data, and an amplifier to boost communications signals to other computers on the network.
The router is compatible with smartphones, tablets, e-readers, PC and Mac machines, wireless printers, game consoles, smart TVs, wireless cameras and Blu-Ray players.
Using the EA6500 has been overhauled to make it look like an online device — which it is — a kind of “cloud” device in your own home. And, in keeping with so many tablet devices these days, it offers various apps you can install.
Setting it up means using a system Cisco calls Cisco Cloud Connect, which requires users to get a free account with Cisco or use an existing one to manage it. Cisco Cloud Connect is a much better approach to installing and managing your home network, but it might pose some small problems for those who used the previous routers and had become accustomed to the Web interface the older routers used. When you want to change the settings, you can sign in via the CCC portal or via the Cisco Connect Cloud mobile app, which is currently available for both Apple’s iOS and Android’s devices.
SiriusXM gos the app route
SiriusXM gos the app route
SiriusXM Satellite Radio has ported itself to smartphones and tablets with new apps for Apple’s iOS systems and Android devices.You still need to spend $15.99 per month for the subscription but you will also need to spend an extra $4 per month to use those apps.
SiriusXM has redesigned both the iOS and Android apps to offer new features. TuneStart, for instance, allows you to listen to the beginning of any song regardless of when it started playing on the actual station. Start Now is a five-hour buffer that gives you a chance to record the last five hours of a particular station (the device caches it on until you move onto the next station).
SiriusXM has also added On Demand content, which means fans of Howard Stern are able select shows going back a couple of months, but the company doesn’t allow you to listen to the most recent four or five shows.
The company still offers Sirius and XM subscription plans separately, so you have to subscribe to one based on the content you prefer. Most music stations are the same since XM merged with Sirius a couple of years ago, but sports and some talk shows are still exclusive to their original networks.
So fans of Howard Stern, the NFL, Nascar and Martha Stewart should subscribe to Sirius; fans of Oprah Radio, MLB and NHL games and Opie & Anthony should go with XM. And for an extra $4 per month, you get the Premier version of each, which offers samples of “taste” of the other network.
I’m of two minds about satellite radio. For instance, I’m no fan of shock jocks (Howard Stern or Opie & Anthony, who I know attract millions of listeners with tastes different from mine) and I dislike paying a subscription fee to music programs that repeat themselves at the same time and day for one of two weeks. The service was clearly designed for people who travel a lot in their cars — such as commutes of more than an hour each way, or long-distance drives — so anyone with short commuted won’t necessarily benefit.
It all boils down to what kind of radio you want and how much you’re willing to pay. There are worthy arguments for both sides.
The Slingbox 500 (top) and the Slingbox 350
The Slingbox 500 (top) and the Slingbox 350
Sling Media
Some people move around a lot yet are addicted to their TV sets for such things as local news or sports they can’t get to see on the road. I suspect this is a small market, but Slingbox, a device that allows you to operate your personal video recorder over the Internet as though you are sitting in front of it, has been selling well enough to suggest the market is larger than I had imagined.
Sling Media, maker of the Slingbox, has two new devices available, the Slingbox 500 ($299.99) and the Slingbox 350 ($179.99) that succeed the older Slingbox products, the Solo and the Pro-HD. The 350 model adds 1080p streaming, while the 500 model adds SlingProjector, which lets you take photos stored on your iOS device (iPad or iPhone) or your Android tablet or smartphone and send them to your television at home. The Slingbox 500 will be able to play content on USB-attached media storage, but that feature not yet been activated yet.
The SlingPlayer apps have also been refreshed, adding reminders and an easier way to share the Slingbox with friends.
The new Slingbox 350, which sits at homeand is connected to your TV, is actually a box that has connections on the back, with HD inputs, an infrared (IR) output and uses an external power supply. There is a danger that people at home might be using the system while the roaming user wants to record something, so there are LED indicators including one for power, another for network connectivity and an upside-down "U" to let you know when someone is using it.
The Slingbox 500 is not a box, but rather looks like a box which someone hit with a baseball bat on an angle, so opposite corners are higher or lover, depending on whether they were hit. It’s an odd but interesting shape, with one disadvantage: You can’t use it to stack anything else on it. Input and output connectors resemble the ones on the 350 model, while the 500 model adds an HDMI input and output to the mix. Moreover, the 500 model adds WiFi of the 802.11a/b/g/n, 2.4/5GHz variety. In fact, the 500 actually has a remote, which you can use to access content on the TV to which the Slingbox is connected. A future revision to the box is a promise to provide access to content stored on a USB-attached drive, as well as content from services such as Netflix.
Setting up requires a little thinking and knowledge of how wireless works in the home. It requires unplugging your set-top box (and any other video source) from your TV and plugging them into the Slingbox. Then you connect the Slingbox's outputs to your TV. As a result, it’s best to rehearse your moves and test it thoroughly well in advance of using it for real. The setup can also get tricky when you start to use the integrated infra-red (IR) blaster, when you need to have your wits about you and have some knowledge how IR works.
The configuration is done by a Web that sends you to a URL, is fairly straightforward. The 500 model gives you an optional on-screen setup using the included remote. The Slingbox works from inside or outside your home network, so you have to open a few ports on your firewall, again a tricky thing tol do fore people who have never done something like that before.
The major drawback of this is that if someone at home is playing with the setup, the family member of the road won’t be able to use the system properly, because they will end up fighting the Slingbox for control.
More about Cisco, Router, SiriusXM, Slingbox
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