PTJ 168: Watching Apple TV

Anybody with visions of cord-cutting probably has either a TV antenna (and a house wthin range of digital television signals) or a set-top box for streaming video. If you fall in the a latter camp, choices abound — Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Google Chromecast,  Roku’s line of boxes — so many ways to snag your shows. Oh, and there’s also the latest edition of the Apple TV, which now brings apps and games to the video party as well. On this week’s episode, Don Donofrio drops by PTJ HQ to discuss the pro and cons of Apple’s latest little black box.

PTJ 168 News: Reality Check

The world can be a very scary place and it got worse last week with multiple attacks on civilians overseas. As one might expect,  government officials from various countries (including France) are again calling for access into encrypted message apps.  Belgian officials have also said that prior to the Paris carnage, terrorists had been hiding their communication using online gaming tools like Sony’s PlayStation 4. The activist collective Anonymous announced on YouTube and Twitter this week that it was going after ISIS and stepping up its ongoing efforts to knock the group’s social media and websites offline. The chaos in Paris last Friday prompted Facebook to turn on its Safety Check feature but the site received criticism for not making the tool available to those who were in Beirut during the attacks there the previous day. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the issue on his profile page. Going forward, the company plans to make Safety Check available for other tragic incidents around the world. It’s becoming a common — yet depressing — aspect of modern life online.

Now, moving on to news that hopefully makes one less despondent about the state of the world…

Google has tweaked its search app to help it better understand the questions you ask it. According to a blog post on the Inside Search site, Google search now understands superlatives in questions as well as questions relating to data in certain points of time. Google is also on the hunt for people to legitimately review businesses and services for its Google Maps app and is offering one terabyte of Google Drive storage for those who contribute regularly to the Local Guides program. And the company’s $85 computer-on-an-HDMI-Stick Chromebit device is rolling out now.

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The Pandora streaming music service has bought parts of Rdio, another streaming music service, for $75 million dollars, acquiring its under-the-hood technology and design. While the deal is contingent on the acquired firm filing for bankruptcy, Rdio posted on its site that its customers would not see an immediate interruption, for the time being, anyway. Advertising Age reports that Pandora plans to start a subscription-based, on-demand version of its music-streaming service.

While Apple has often been lauded for its visual product aesthetic over the years, an essay on the Fast Company site says the fruit-themed toymaker is actually giving design a bad name. If you find user experience and interface design interesting — or find iOS 7 and later insanely hard on the eyes and mind — check out the essay.

Back to more privacy issues, but this time in regards to protecting your personal data from advertisers if you have one of Vizio’s smart TV sets. The ProPublica public interest site has a story on how Vizio Smart TVs track what you watch and sell the information to advertisers. Cable TV and video rental companies are banned by law from doing this sort of thing, and other smart TV companies like Samsung and LG have viewer tracking as an opt-in policy. Vizio’s so-called “Smart Interactivity” tracking is on by default, but there is a way to opt-out if you make the effort.

brownzuneAnd from the Department of We Forgot It Still Existed, Microsoft has now retired its Zune music service this past weekend. Once a challenger to Apple’s might iPod empire, the Zune hardware and software launched in 2006 and the hardware was discontinued in 2011.  Old Zunes will work as stand-alone music players and the four remaining Zune music service subscribers have been switched over to the Groove music platform.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 November Update has been rolling out to users. While the three-gigabyte download brings new features and big fixes, it has created some problems of its own, like deleted or changed default apps and other issues. While the Xbox One game console also got an update, Microsoft representatives said another big update in February.

Oxford Dictionaries has picked it 2015 Word of the Year and it’s not even technically a word — it’s the emoji called Face With Tears of Joy. Oxford University Press partnered with SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world, and Face With Tears of Joy was chosen because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015.

And finally, last week, Disney/Lucasfilm announced that Star Wars was going to be part of the Hour of Code this year and this week Microsoft announced it was adding a Minecraft coding tutorial to the event. Although Computer Science Education Week isn’t until Dec. 7th–13th, kids can jump in early with the Minecraft module, which is up and running now.  Go forth and code, folks, and lets build things instead of tearing them down.

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PTJ 167: Virtual Insanity

Welcome to our first virtual episode. Ok, that’s a lie but we are focusing on Virtual Reality this week. El Kaiser explains just what Google Cardboard is all about and J.D. gives us a rundown on all the flavors of VR available to consumers. And of course, we have a heaping helping of tech news and shenanigans.

PTJ 167 News: Cracker Jacks

It’s been a week of hacking, cracking and more than a little tracking. For starters, Facebook, which is never shy about getting all up in the content you post on the site, is now testing its Photo Magic feature on its Australian users. So, what is Photo Magic? It’s a Facebook tool that jacks into your phone’s Camera Roll to look for pictures you haven’t yet posted — and then suggests that you send those images to the friends it recognizes through the Facebook Messenger app. Privacy advocates, start your engines.

Also in nosy news, a Belgian court has ordered The Social Network to stop using its special web-tracking cookie on visitors who are not Facebook members. And the Federal Communications Commission has dismissed a petition from the California-based Consumer Watchdog group that would have required big content-and-apps sites like Facebook, Google, YouTube, Netflix and others to honor the Do Not Track requests from browsers.

And from tracking to hacking, the same group that claims to have broken into the personal email account of CIA director John Brennan an few weeks back says it recently got into a law-enforcement portal site for arrest records, agency collaboration tools and other sensitive crime-fighting information. The group, known as Crackas With Attitude, let the world know of the hack of the Joint Automated Booking System over Twitter:

Pinterest has added a new visual search tool — which it describes as “crazy fun” — to help you find the things you want on sight. To quote the Pinterest blog, “When you spot something in a Pin that you want to learn more about, tap the search tool in the corner. Then select the part of the Pin you’re interested in, and we’ll show you Pins just like it. You can even filter your visual search results by topic so you find exactly what you’re looking for.”

Tumblr has added instant messaging for its users. Go, team!

No Internet connection? Google Maps has added offline navigation and search to its Android app. Oh, and in case you were waiting for it,  the Android app version of Apple Music is now out.Google also announced that as of April 2016, it was discontinuing Chrome browser support for on Windows XP and Vista, Mac OS X 10.6 to 10.8. So long, outdated operating systems!

Like video? T-Mobile has also added a new plan called Binge On that lets its users stream content from popular video services like Netflix and HBO Now without denting their data plans. However, some critics note that because not all streaming services are included in the Binge On plan, T-Mobile may have some net neutrality issues to work out with the FCC. bingeon Apple’s iPad Pro went on sale this week, with online orders starting Wednesday and the big slab hitting shelves a few days later. The tablet with the 12.9 inch screen has a starter price of $800 for the 32-gig Wi-Fi only version and the tags go north from there. Optional accessories like the $100 Apple Pencil stylus and the $170 Smart Keyboard, which turns your iPad Pro into a Microsoft Surface, also went on sale this week. And more reasons for Apple to be happy – a federal district court judge threw out a class-action lawsuit brought by Apple Store employees who wanted to be reimbursed for the time spent in the office bag-search line to make sure they weren’t nicking the merch.

Moving on to the exciting world of cable television, Time Warner Cable officially announced its TWC TV Roku Trial program in New York City. If you’re interested, you can sign up for the trial. Also in cable news, an internal Comcast memo that got leaked and posted on Reddit admits that the company’s 300-gigabyte-per-month data caps recently imposed on customers in several southeastern cities to improve network performance is not actually about improving network performance.

Meanwhile, up on the International Space Station, astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren took an almost 8-hour space walk late last week to do a little maintenance. A tweet from the International Space Station’s Twitter account described the chores as “serious high-flying plumbing and cable work,” while NASA reported the mission as the two “restored the port truss (P6) ammonia cooling system to its original configuration.” The Space.com site has an excellent rundown of the walk.

And finally, the Hour of Code is always upon us, but this year, there’s an even bigger push to get women and people of color into programming. To help lure the kids in, the Code.org site is teaming up with Disney/Lucasfilm to have Star Wars characters help with the learning. As explained on a Disney blog, “Students will learn to write code that allows them to create games using Star Wars characters.” This is all part of the third annual Hour of Code event that’s part of Computer Science Education Week, which takes place December 7-13 this year. May the Code be with you!

The Current Reality of Virtual Reality

The media world was buzzing this weekend as The New York Times jumped into a new dimension. The company gave out Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers to its home subscribers and pointed them to the new NYT VR smartphone app for Android or iOS to see special videos that accompanied certain stories in the Times Magazine.

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As with other virtual-reality systems, once an Android phone or iPhone was placed in the back of the cardboard contraption and the required content downloaded, the user got a much more immersive experience than watching a 2D clip because  the whole thing had a panoramic feel to it. (Shooting a film in virtual reality can be technically challenging as well, but viewing one puts you in the middle of the action; the How Stuff Works site has a good explanation of the virtual-reality experience.) The NYT website helpfully included a frequently asked questions page for users new to the VR scene, as well as a video showing how to fold together the Cardboard viewer.

The Times got a lot of buzz for busting the move, but virtual reality has popping up all over the past year. On the high end of the spectrum, the new Facebook-owned Oculus Rift virtual reality system has been kicking around for years and is scheduled to finally make a commercial debut early next year. The $99 Samsung Gear VR system, (shown below) also powered by Oculus technology, is now available for pre-orders and works with Samsung’s newer Galaxy devices; older Samsung VR headsets are also around. Microsoft’s HoloLens system, which is advertised more as an augmented reality system as opposed to virtual reality, may also jump into the mix when it officially rolls into town next year.

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So, what do you need to see the new virtual reality? You need a virtual-reality app that can display the videos on the appropriate format. To get the most of the experience, you also need a Cardboard-style viewer and a pair of headphones to immerse yourself in the audio. These range in price online from about $4 up to $30 for the sturdier, fancier models that look less like pieces of a packing box and more like sophisticated binoculars.

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And, along with the hardware, you need content to look at. The Google Cardboard site has a list of VR apps that work with the viewer. But much more content is coming or is already here. The Wall Street Journal announced last week that it, too, was adding virtual reality content to its video app. Facebook is said to be developing its own virtual reality videos app and YouTube’s blog just announced last week that the site had added support for VR, including a The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience, (shown above), a trailer from the Apollo 11 mission and many others.

If you don’t have the viewer, you can also watch some videos in standard mode on muse smartphones or in a desktop browser. While you can just turn your head to get a panoramic view with a viewer, you can usually drag your finger or mouse around the frame to see more of the surroundings on the home screen or video window.

Is VR the future or just a fad? Time will tell, but people are testing out the format in all sorts of places. Last month’s Democratic debate on CNN even had a virtual reality version, although viewer response to the experiment was mixed. Some things, after all, may be better off in their own reality.

PTJ 166: Let’s All Go to the Movies

It’s that time of the year when the big, ‘splody summer tentpole flicks are making their way to Blu-Ray and DVD for holiday stocking stuffing, making room for the Oscar bait to unspool at your local movie megaplex. J.D. has a Hopefully Helpful Hint about how to catch up on what’s coming up on the silver screen. Also on the show, Pedro is not a happy Kaiser as his beloved media center suffers a serious blow. And of course we have a heaping helping of the latest tech news.

PTJ 166 News: Finding Space

Microsoft is very disappointed in your behavior, people. The company once grandly promised unlimited OneDrive cloud storage to its Office 365 users — but is now taking it away because a few users got a little greedy and backed up more than 75 terabytes of data each to Microsoft’s servers. New, lesser data plans are on the way for everyone now. Microsoft is also leaning on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users to hurry and just upgrade already to Windows 10. Windows Update is pushing out the new operating system as an automatic update that could sprout on your system, if your PC is configured to install certain types of updates on its own.

Social media companies had a busy week: Snapchat is the latest service to revise its privacy policy and then scramble to explain itself in the user backlash.  Instagram has started its own curated video feed to snag eyeballs; themed clips are hand-picked and available under the Explore tab. And Twitter is following Facebook and changing Favorites to Likes, with a heart replacing the star icon.

Activision Blizzard is acquiring King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion dollars. Call of Duty and Candy Crush are in it together now.

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Mozilla just released Version 42 of the Firefox browser and touts the new privacy and tracking protections built into it. (Don’t panic.)

If you get lousy 4G LTE reception with your T-Mobile device, the company has a way to make it up to you. Big Pink is offering 4G LTE CellSpot mini cell-towers to its customers.

Amazon is going from clicks to bricks and opening up its first physical bookstore in Seattle this week. But while Amazon is getting physical with the retail, several sources report that Google is ditching plans to open its own store in New York City. Rents in New York are rather impossible these days, you know.

smartreplyGoogle took to its blog this week to say, no, no, no, we are not killing of the Chrome OS in favor of Android for laptops. The company also announced a new Smart Reply feature that actually answers mail for you with one of three calculated responses. Google’s Project Wing — better known as its drone-based package-delivery service — is scheduled to launch in 2017. The announcement came as part of an air-traffic control convention being held in Washington. Project Wing (not to be confused with Project Loon) was revealed last year. And while we’re talking about drones, aerial tech company DJI has just announced a new embedded computer designed for drones. It’s called the Manifold and it runs on Ubuntu Linux. Go, penguin, go!

Fans of the Plex media server will be happy to know there’s now a free version of the software that now works with the latest Apple TV. You can find it in the Apple TV app store.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of astronaut occupation aboard the International Space Station. Time flies — and so do the shuttles and cargo craft keeping the ISS going.

stAnd finally, we knew it wouldn’t stay away forever, but now Star Trek is returning to television — but in a new way. Instead of exploring space through standard network or syndicated broadcasts, this new show will be shown on the $6-a-month CBS All Access service. Will enough Trekkers pile on board to let CBS give Netflix, Hulu and Amazon a run for their money in the original content department? We’ll find out in 2017 when the series leaves port. The Star Trek franchise celebrates its 50th birthday in 2016, having debuted back in 1966. Yes, Star Trek will soon be eligible to join the AARP — and that roadside assistance may come in handy when the timing belt snaps on one of the Enterprise’s  impulse engines out in the middle of nowhere.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Trailer Park

The heart of the Geek Movie season traditionally runs from late spring through the summer, with the superhero films and action flicks rolling into theaters for the warm-weather months. There are exceptions, however: The adaptation of the final installment in the The Hunger Games series arrives later this month and there’s a little flick called Star Wars: The Force Awakens that opens in mid-December. Still, the last two months of the year traditionally see the serious films, aiming for Oscars and more viewer attention span with people taking time off around the holidays. If you’ve lost track of what else is on the way to your local cineplex, here are a few sites to keep you in the loop.

ComingSoon.net not only features trailers for a huge selection of upcoming theatrical films headed your way, you can get sneak peeks for upcoming TV episodes, home video releases on DVD and Blu-ray and even videogames. ComingSoon.net also has the latest Hollywood box-office figures as well as industry news and is really a one-stop shopping trip for entertainment information. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and RSS feeds keep you up to date.

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imtApple’s iTunes Movie Trailers collection focuses mainly on theatrical films, but also sports exclusive clips and early previews. The site also has a Twitter feed and RSS to alert you to new material, plus a Top 25 list. You can view the trailers on the Web, but if you have an iOS-based gadget, you can use the official iTunes Movie Trailers app. You can also watch through the Apple TV’s app. Both feature a calendar view that places each trailer on a grid, which can be helpful for planning your weekends.

YouTube, repository of almost all online video, has a trailers section with links to a lot of clips – and YouTube channels from other trailers sites.

If your tastes run toward more independent efforts, check out the IndieWire site. It does cover the mainstream movie and TV culture, but gives the smaller productions a bigger share of the spotlight.

And if you’re feeling nostalgic and have a few hours to kill, visit the Archives at Movie-List.com to see many of the Generation X Classics as they were first presented in trailer form. Airplane!, Escape From New York, Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, WarGames…they’re all here in one convenient place, waiting to take you back to the 1980s, when movie tickets were cheap and a bucket of popcorn was affordable.

And with the trailer buzz for Star Wars: The Force Awakens still echoing, how about a nostalgic trip over to the trailer for the original Star Wars from the mid-1970s? It certainly had a more low-key unveiling back in its day, and it and perfectly illustrates the power of the John Williams soundtrack — by not actually having the iconic score rumbling around in the in the background.

Some Pop With Your Tech Jam

The holidays are on the way, and if you need a fun little gift for the music nerd/English Lit major on your gift list, check out Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs by Erik Didriksen. To get a taste of the crafty pop-songs-recast-as-Elizabethan-sonnets flavor of the collection, check out the Pop Sonnets Tumblr and Twitter feed. Pop Sonnets is published by Quirk Books, the same company that has released (among other things), such geekworthy volumes as Ian Doescher’s Star Wars trilogy in iambic pentameter and The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs.

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