Jeremy Phan

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Virtual Reality at the International CES 2017 01 web

New VR Headsets, Experiences, Backpack Computers and Accessories

Remember that scene from Back to the Future II when the McFlys are sitting around the kitchen table, with both kids donning VR headsets? While today’s virtual reality technology isn’t quite as compact, lightweight, and wireless as the headsets in the second movie of that classic trilogy, virtual and augmented reality are gaining steam and poised to move from niche to consumer mainstream in the very near future.

PlayStation VR 720

Last winter’s release of the PlayStation VR headset and its accompanying games has allowed video gamers to immerse themselves in various VR experiences at a price point that’s finally below four figures. For the non-gamers, the PlayStation VR allows you to watch movies or other streaming content in a giant virtual theatre as well. While a dedicated VR headset for the Xbox console is missing, Microsoft has opted to support the Oculus Rift instead of developing another VR headset beyond their own HoloLens. At the same time, content for the high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets continues to grow and impress consumers.  There are already plenty of first-person shooters, 360-platform games and flight simulators in the market for these headsets.  But what’s really amazing is physically-interactive gaming in which players wear motion capture markers and actually walk around a physical space but see and interact with a virtual environment, wielding gaming controllers that turn into virtual weapons in the gaming world. At the 2016 TAVES Consumers Electronics Show, Canadian company Mirage VR showcased this with a fantasy game that put players on a pirate ship, fighting off virtual enemies.

Windows Holographic Platform 720

Despite Microsoft’s omission in VR gaming hardware, they’re undoubtedly helping to extend VR’s reach into the home with the Windows Holographic Platform. This upcoming update to Windows 10 will bring both virtual and augmented reality, which Microsoft dubs “mixed reality”. The minimum desktop computing requirements of only 4GB of RAM, a graphics card supporting DirectX 12, a quad-core CPU, and 1GB of free disk space make it incredibly accessible. Intel, who worked in partnership with Microsoft to create the platform, has showcased it running at a buttery-smooth 90 frames-per-second on one of their compact NUC mini-computers.

2016 International CES Highlights 01

The Consumer Electronics Show has always been about showing off the latest and greatest. Bigger, brighter, faster, and flashier were all things that attendees could expect to see at the convention in the Nevada desert. This year was no exception but unlike years past, where products showcased would still be years away, this year’s show was more about priming consumers for products that would be showing up on retail shelves much sooner than the often fantastical products that previously graced the various booths.

Televisions, which have always been a way for household names like LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony to fill their booths with immense displays were once again, front and centre. With 1080p in the rearview and 4K adoption increasing at a pace even quicker than the transition from standard definition to 1080p, this year was all about the next step that would add a punch to the already stellar 4K viewing experience: HDR (high dynamic range). New content being mastered in HDR through Dolby Vision, Technicolor HDR, and Blu-ray HDR promise to bring what some firsthand viewers are saying brings an even bigger impact than the quadrupling of pixels from 1080p (1,920×1,080) to 4K (3,680×2,160). With every successive model year, televisions have marched towards brighter and more accurate colours, better viewing angles, and darker darks. HDR isn’t about making the brightest television – something that itself doesn’t provide the best quality image. To display HDR content, TV sets must be able to show simultaneously a bright full moon with its notches and craters alongside a pitch black starry sky and the murky river beneath as in the movie Life of Pi. To help distinguish themselves from ordinary 4K television sets, the UHD Alliance has created a new certification program with strict requirements. Televisions which meet these specifications will come with the “Ultra HD Premium” logo. The requirements include a minimum brightness capability of 1,000 nits, 10-bit colour depth, less than 0.03 nits of black level, and a colour gamut of at least BT.2020.

LG OLED77G6P OLED TV

LG is at the forefront of OLED technology development.  The company showed its latest flagship 77-inch OLED TV (model OLED77G6P) at the 2016 CES.

LG unveiled 14 new 4K televisions with their new “LG Signature” line of displays that includes 4 new 4K OLED displays with sizes from 65” and 77” – all of which are Ultra HD Premium certified. These new displays measure a scant 2.57mm thin, run the latest webOS v3.0, and thanks to OLED, offer a true black level that cannot be matched. LG demonstrated OLED’s black capabilities by running numerous outer space-themed clips. A step down, LG continues to improve upon their standard LCD offerings with their “LG Super UHD” models which offer similar features but come in sizes from 55” all the way up to 86”. All these televisions are scheduled to ship in March.

Samsung refreshed their SUHD flagship with the KS9500 series, an 88” curved LCD that continues to use quantum dot technology to enhance LCD performance. Despite the curve, Samsung has reduced the screen glare and minimized the bezel even more. Alongside their 2016 lineup, an exciting non-TV development stemming from their acquisition of the home automation company SmartThings in 2014, is the inclusion of SmartThings capability inside their 2016 TVs, allowing the television to act as a display to control various home automation devices. Those familiar with TV-capable automation systems such as Control4 will be familiar with this type of interface and while Samsung didn’t release much information about the capabilities, this tie-in will only further speed up the adoption of Internet of Things connected devices. The KS9500 also retains support for “console-less” gaming by streaming Sony PlayStation Now games, controlled via a Bluetooth DualShock 4 controller.

Panasonic Viera TX-65CZ952

Panasonic introduced its first OLED TV at the 2016 CES – the 65-inch Viera TX-65CZ952.  It’s said to offer a reference quality picture but costs a whopping $11,499.

Having shattered their plasma lineup, Panasonic joined LG in offering a 65” OLED 4K TV, the curved Viera TX-65CZ952. This reference-level set is Panasonic’s way of showcasing its picture quality prowess and cites its work with Hollywood studios to produce a display capable of accurately displaying content as creators intended. Its wallet-busting price (approximate, after conversion) of $11,499 CAD firmly puts it outside the realm of typical 4K TVs, which have seen price premiums drop to within 20% of their 1080p counterparts. More accessible will be their DX900 4K TVs which are THX certified and feature a “honeycomb” backlight to produce “Ultra HD Premium” quality images.

Sony, the makers of Triluminos displays, showed off their new flagship X930D series of 4K televisions in 55” and 65” with a new edge-lit backlight layout dubbed “Slim Blacklight Drive” that continues to enhance picture quality. Alongside siblings such as the X940D (75”, full-array local dimming) and X850D (55” to 85”, edge-lit), Sony’s 2016 lineup all come equipped with Android TV. To help with the 4K HDR content issue, Sony is launching “ULTRA”, a new app that allows consumers to purchase and stream 4K HDR content from Sony Pictures’ massive TV and movie library. On the prototype side, Sony says they’re not done reaching the potential of LCD displays and had a separate area to showcase TVs with “Backlight Master Drive”. The locally-dimmed backlight, made of high-density LEDs, allows the sets to reach an eye-searing 4,000 nits of brightness on the high end and dropping to ink-dark blacks on the low end. Sony touts over 1,000 zones to achieve this precise level of dimming which also solves any remaining halo effects inherent in backlit LCDs. While there wasn’t a timeline for when BMD-equipped TVs would reach store shelves, Sony said the sets were crafted by their “production” engineers. While Sony and Samsung continue to work on OLED, if new techniques such as BMD can produce (nearly) equivalent picture quality at a lower cost (OLED yields are still lower and much more expensive than LCD), it looks like LCDs will continue to flourish.

This year will also be the year that non-mainstream brands make their big push into Western markets with companies such as TCL and Hisense offering 4K televisions for under $1,000 CAD. These budget sets offer excellent picture quality for their value and even support features such as Dolby Vision HDR. These budget TVs won’t be available in such large sizes as their big-brand, full-price competitors and are limited by factors such as viewing angle and the lack of “smart” features.

Samsung UBD-K8500 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player

We have no idea why it took so long to release the first 4K Blu-ray player but we’re very happy that it’s finally coming – this is the Samsung UBD-K8500 which will retail for $399 USD.

To go along with these new 4K televisions is an updated triple-layer Blu-ray format that offers a bitrate of up to 128 Mbps, encoded in the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC or H.265, the same codec used by Netflix to stream its 4K content) to transfer all that detailed 10-bit content along with object-based audio via Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Samsung is first out the gate with their $399 USD Blu-ray player (the UBD-K8500) which is already available for pre-order and will ship this March. As an added bonus, the updated Blu-ray specification also supports 8K (7,680×4,320) at 64 fps so it’s futureproof. The first titles include The Martian, Sicario, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ender’s Game. These new 4K HDR Blu-rays will come in a black case as opposed to the blue cases that standard Blu-rays now come in.

While movie buffs wait for their favourite content to be released or remastered in eye-popping 4K, content providers are further expanding their 4K offerings. This year has already seen the release of numerous 4K set-top boxes from cable and satellite providers and online streaming services from Netflix to YouTube continue to expand their 4K content library. The bitrate is much lower (25 Mbps) than what you’ll find on Blu-ray but it’ll still require a beefy broadband connection to receive all those 8 million plus pixels.

Far, far down the line, LG and Samsung also presented their wholly unnecessary 98” 8K displays. These monstrous TVs chew through 33,177,600 pixels to produce an image – the only source currently which is an “Internet2” 100 gigabit connection, connected to a media player the size of a microwave.

Oculus Rift VR Googles Price and Release Date Announced at CES 2016 04

2016 is being touted as “the year of virtual reality”.  The looong awaited Oculus Rift VR headset will finally begin shipping in April, along with a number of other VR headsets coming this year from other manufacturers.

Beyond TVs, 2016 also marks the year where virtual reality becomes available to mainstream consumers. The $599 USD Oculus Rift will finally ship in April and while it requires a high-end gaming desktop to power, will bring 360° VR gaming to the masses. Other devices such as Microsoft’s augmented reality HoloLens, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are also slated to ship this year. To create content for these VR devices, a slate of VR cameras from GoPro, Nikon, Ricoh, and others are also hitting store shelves. YouTube already supports 360° video and Google Maps Street View is already enabling students from around the world to go on virtual field trips with Google Cardboard and their smartphones.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 12

Every year, the TAVES Consumer Electronics Show continues to grow and this year marked the inaugural debut of two technology & innovation pavilions dedicated to showcasing high-tech toys, robotics, virtual reality devices, gaming, 3D printing, educational toys, personal transportation devices, and even electric bikes & vehicles. For the first time, the show also offered exhibits for kids and teens, in addition to a wide range of robotics and coding classes for kids. We may still be a few years away from Marty McFly’s pink anti-gravity hoverboard but the companies and products showcased at the TAVES Consumer Electronics Show demonstrated that anything is possible if we put our innovator minds to work. The show floor hosted over 100 exhibitors and attracted over 6,500 tech-curious consumers and industry attendees. Not too shabby!

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 01

The various vendors at the show floors offered a sneak peak at the plethora of devices and products that are quickly entering the market thanks to a confluence of cheaper manufacturing and hardware; the ability to quickly and economically 3D print and prototype; and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in today’s educational curriculum. Below is a small sampling of some of the various booths in the technology & innovation pavilions at this year’s show, sorted into categories.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 17

Hardware Exhibits

Canada Robotixwww.canadarobotix.com

This bricks-and-mortar retail and online store based in Markham, Ontario carries a large variety of robots, kits, and robotics-related electronics covering the range from Arduinos to Raspberry Pis to Roombas. If you’re building a robotics project, chances are you’ll be able to find parts from this retailer including motors, wireless connectivity modules (Bluetooth, ZigBee, etc.), sensors, and anything else to get your project up and running.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 24

Breq Labswww.breqlab.com

Coming out of the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, an independent business incubator that helps accelerate businesses borne of science & engineering research, Breq Labs’ Exoglove uses a variety of sensors and ultrasonic tracking to accurately track a user’s hand position, movement, and actions with millimetre accuracy. Combined with virtual reality technologies such as Oculus Rift, this allows users to interact with their virtual environments in an incredibly immersive and interactive way.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 03

Holocubewww.holocube-na.com

Holocube products use projection technology to create 3D holographic images that appear to float inside the displays. These devices come in a variety of sizes, with the largest HC70 featuring a 70” diagonal 1,920×1,080 image or video. These displays can be used for everything from product displays to showcasing 3D videos and constantly drew curious show visitors to the display at TAVES. These displays can also be combined with actual physical products to create an even more lifelike image: at the show, one display had a wine glass inside that would fill up with various virtual liquids and ice cubes.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 09

Sulon Cortexwww.sulontechnologies.com

This Canadian company is creating a virtual reality headset that goes beyond bringing the wearer into a virtual environment. The Cortex headset’s display is also capable of being transparent and augmenting the user’s field of view with computer-generated graphics, placing objects, characters, or other content virtually into the real world. An example of this is walking through an empty home and seeing furniture placed in various rooms or playing an action game and walking through a warehouse while interacting with virtual game characters.

The headset is also equipped with a 3D spatial scanner, allowing the headset to map its physical surroundings to incorporate into the virtual world. The user wearing the headset is able to control their interaction using motion and gesture controls akin to Tom Cruise’s interaction in Minority Report. Truly stunning tech!

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 25 (2)

Intertia Prototypeswww.inertiaengineering.com

When one has an idea for a product and needs to go from the napkin to the real world, Inertia Prototypes has the expertise and resources to quickly turn that dream into physical reality. Beyond simply creating physical mock-ups, they work with 3D printing, electronics, machining, and other processes to create fully working prototypes that are capable of going through safety, industry and other certifications in preparation for mass production.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 11

Zeitdicewww.zeitdice.com

The Zeitdice is a 26-sided dice that contains a 1080p timelapse wide-angle camera. With its built-in 32GB of memory and battery, it can take images until its memory is filled up. Once these images are captured, the images can be downloaded through the micro-USB port or wirelessly through WiFi. Their software then stitches these images into a video for sharing. The Zeitdice can be mounted on a regular tripod or various metallic surfaces that its built-in magnets can adhere to. It is currently available for pre-order for $149 CAD and is slated to ship in Q1 of 2016. Timelapses captured with the Zeitdice can be viewed on their website.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 26 (2)

uMov Technologieswww.umovtech.com

Founded in 2014 in Ottawa, Ontario with the goal of providing consumers with an economical alternative transportation method to replace their cars, uMov has a line of road and off-road powered bicycles that offer both pedal assist (reducing the effort required from the rider such as for uphill inclines) and fully powered propulsion (like a motorcycle). Their bikes run off a 24V to 48V battery and offer 60-100 km of range depending on the model. These advanced bikes offer features such as powerful disc brakes and more efficient 24-speed gearing.

They also offer models that can fold up for easy storage and transportation. They are currently accepting pre-orders for their $899 CAD “Electron” model that is set to ship in March 2016.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 28

Hearshot – www.hearshotco.com

This outdoor activity-centric Bluetooth headset differs from standard phone/mobile headsets in that it communicates directly from headset-to-headset utilizing a Bluetooth mesh instead of over a cellular network. Up to 6 users can communicate with each other over a 300m (outdoor) range using this waterproof (IP67 rated) headset that relays communications securely between headsets.

The headset won the Canadian “FuturPreneur” award and is currently accepting pre-orders for shipment in 2016. They have been testing the headset with outdoor enthusiasts such as surfers and hikers and also foresee it being used by paramedics, students/instructors and other personnel that require point-to-point, on-site communication.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 18

Ambient Audiowww.ambientaudio.ca

Adding the element of light to the typical boxy, black speaker, Ambient Audio’s products feature multi-coloured lights that can be controlled via a mobile device or handheld remote. These lighting effects can be static, patterned, or reactive to the sound being output by the speaker.

Available in various sizes from the battery-powered (for portability) 35W Vibe One to the 1,400W PA-system AAL3 speaker, Ambient Audio’s products bring another dimension to sound and make for a more vibrant visual and audible experience.

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 23

TAVES Consumer Electronics Show 07

Smart-Film by Wheellokwww.smart-film.ca

This Canadian distributor of electronic “smart” window film carries a variety of films that can be installed on glass surfaces, windows, and doors. This film’s opacity switches between transparent and opaque when electricity is applied (the default off state is opaque). There are a variety of applications for this film from glass boardrooms and offices to residential and commercial applications. Instead of using window coverings such as blinds or curtains, windows with smart film are made opaque, blocking the view from either side. Installed over a large window, it can turn the window into a projection screen, one of the commercial applications demonstrated at the show.

The film comes in a variety of colours such as black, white, or others and starts at $55 CAD/sq ft.

TV Shopping Guide 01

Today’s televisions are leaps and bounds beyond what the first cathode ray tube sets were, containing everything from quad-core processors to gyroscope-equipped remotes with voice-recognition capabilities. The pursuit for the highest picture quality to rival that of movie theatres is ever present, with the latest OLED technology finally able to provide an absolute black level – the holy grail of picture reproduction.

In previous years, manufacturers have inundated retail store shelves with a plethora of models and sizes, to provide every possible option for the bedroom, kitchen, rec room, and anywhere else where a consumer might sit down to catch up on the latest offerings on Netflix. This overload has rightly confused consumers trying to do an apples-to-apples comparison. Unlike buying a car, where there are distinct categories such as compacts, full-size, SUVs, and so forth, a consumer buying a TV was met with a myriad of model numbers, each with their varying levels of performance and quality. Fortunately, manufacturers have (mostly) seen the error of their ways and have (somewhat) consolidated their offerings into more manageable tiers.

LG has 6 tiers from the 4000 to the 9000 models; Panasonic has 5 tiers from the “4xx” to the “9xx” models; Samsung now has seven tiers from the “3” series through to the “9” series; Sony’s 4 tiers are the “R”, “W”, “W Premium”, and “XBR”; and lastly, VIZIO, who finally entered the Canadian market back in October, has the “E”, “M”, “P” and yet-to-be-released “Reference” series.

At their core, televisions are about reproducing the best possible image and starting off by looking at the various display technologies offered, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TV sets offer arguably the best picture quality. This is due to the way they produce the image: without a backlight. As OLEDs are self-illuminating, they dispense with the need for a backlight allowing each pixel to produce its single colour or completely shut off, offering what is effectively an infinite contrast level (0% to 100%). The OLED pixel also turns on and off practically instantly, without any slow fading or ghosting. Hence, OLED sets no longer advertise refresh rates (whereas other manufacturers cite 120 Hz, 240 Hz, or higher). The downside to the technology, like any leading edge technology, is the price. Currently, only LG produces OLED sets thanks to their head start in research and manufacturing. Other manufacturers such as Samsung and Sony have cited high cost, low yields, and issues with uniform colour reproduction (blue has the shortest wavelength, requiring OLED pixels that are larger than red or green) as reasons why they don’t yet offer sets based on the technology. At CES 2015, LG announced that moving forward, they will concentrate OLED production on 4K and subsequently, will only be releasing 4K OLED sets. (They continue to sell an existing 1080p OLED set but will no longer release new 1080p OLED models.) LG’s top-tier 4K OLED sets are their 8800 and 9×00 series and come in 65″ (flat) and 55″ (flat and curved) sizes.

TV Shopping Guide 03

With OLEDs relegated to a single manufacturer, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and VIZIO have to make due with LCD technology but even here, the image-making process continues to improve and picture quality is still exceptional. Almost all LCD TVs now use a more precise LED backlight instead of the older CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) backlight. This allows the TVs to be brighter (and darker) and subsequently produce a better image (while being thinner, using less power, and other non-picture advantages). With the advent of smaller, more precise LED backlights, there are two categories of how this is applied: local dimming and edge-lit with the former producing better picture quality and the latter being less expensive. Locally-dimmed backlights divide the TV into zones and are able to individually control the backlight in each zone to produce darker or brighter images, as needed. This in turn allows dark areas of the image to stay dark while bright areas of the same image to be bright. Higher tier sets will have more zones, allowing for more precise backlighting. LG’s “7×000” series and above; Panasonic’s “800” series (32 zones) and “900” series (128 zones); Samsung’s “6” series and above; Sony’s “W Premium” and “XBR”; and all of VIZIO’s three series offer local-dimming LED backlights of various quantities. Of note, VIZIO offers local-dimming throughout their entire series, including their budget-minded “E” series which has 16 zones. Their “E”, “M”, “P” and “Reference” series have 18, 36, up to 72 (depending on size), and 384 (!) dimming zones, respectively. Full-array local dimming produces a better image with only one downside: requiring a thicker TV cabinet to accommodate the backlighting components.

Lower-tier TVs will use edge-lit backlights which mount the LEDs on the edges: either the top/bottom, left/right, or all four sides. These sets are thinner than their locally-dimmed cousins and cheaper, but produce a slightly lower-quality image due to the inability to produce darker blacks.

Furthering enhancing the backlight is a new component called “quantum dots” which are microscopic beads that have the unique capability of emitting very precise colours (wavelengths of light). A traditional backlight emits white light which then passes through filters which filter out and light up the individual red, green, and blue pixels on a screen. As white light is made up of component colours like the rainbow, filtering out the required RGB wavelengths introduces inefficiencies and impurities, leading to less precise and subsequently less vivid colour reproduction. The backlight of quantum dot-equipped TVs is blue, which directly illuminates the blue pixels. Green- and red-emitting quantum dots, in turn, are used to emit narrow, precise wavelengths of green and red light when activated by the blue backlight (blue light has the highest energy level and when it hits the quantum dots, falls down to the lower green and red levels meaning additional energy does not have to be put into the system). This allows for less filtering and better colour reproduction. Quantum dots have the advantage of being able to be readily incorporated into existing LCD manufacturing processes and as such are an easier (and more economical) way to extend and enhance LCD picture quality (versus retooling for a new technology such as OLED). Quantum dots-equipped sets start at LG’s 9400, Samsung’s 9500 and Sony’s “W Series Premium” TVs.

pSNYNA-XBR65X950B_main_v786

Buying a new television, despite the myriad of specifications, technologies, resolutions, and other factors, doesn’t have to be a bewildering quest. With the shuttering of plasma technology by Pioneer, Samsung, and others, the only remaining mainstream technology is LCD, which continually gets better and better. Virtually all mid-to-high-range LCD displays now use LED backlights (instead of CCFL), with either local or edge-lit dimming to enable deeper blacks and richer, brighter colours. 3D didn’t take off as manufacturers and studios wanted but has nonetheless, helped to improve performance by increasing refresh rates, colour gamut, and other specifications that are also used for 2D video. Starting off with resolution and ending with budget, the list of questions a consumer needs to ask is now much more succinct.

Edge-lit vs. Local Dimming

At their core, all LCD displays consist of a white backlight sitting behind an RGB (red, green, blue) LCD panel. The backlight shines light forward, while the LCD controls the passage of the backlight to illuminate each individual colour pixel. In older LCD displays, the backlight was often a single unit which could not vary its light output across the screen and more importantly, not turn off. This in turn, made it very difficult for older LCDs to deliver truly dark blacks, often displaying them as dark grey or blue.  One advantage of the now defunct plasma technology, by virtue of its process, was its ability to not illuminate individual pixels as needed. Advancements in LCD backlight technology, beyond moving to higher quality LED backlights, now include edge-lit and local dimming, splitting the backlight into multiple zones for more refined control.

The backlight, therefore, is now the one of the specifications that has the largest effect on picture quality. Edge-lit displays are the cheaper of the two versions and use backlights arranged around the edge of the display. Unfortunately, there are numerous edge-lit backlight configurations used by each manufacturer, with varying picture quality, depending on the price of the TV. If the edge-lit backlight is only along one edge, it effectively creates rows or columns of backlights. If more backlights are used, such as top/bottom, right/left, or all four sides, this increases the effective addressable backlights areas. The more precise the edge-lit backlight control, the darker the image can get, and the higher the resulting contrast and subsequent picture quality.

Backlights can further be refined by utilizing locally-dimmed backlights, which again split the screen into zones. Whereas edge-lit backlights controlled the lights emanating from the sides of the TV, locally dimmed backlights split the TV into blocks within the TV. Each of the resulting backlights is individually addressable and can vary its brightness for its specific sub-image. Vizio Canada, which recently launched in Canada on September 12th, uses a 36-zone locally-dimmed backlight in their M-Series HDTVs. This backlight consists of 4 rows split into 9 columns each, allowing each individual subsection to be controlled, resulting in better quality. This precise control is especially apparent with ultra-widescreen content as the empty top and bottom horizontal black bars are pitch black.

Many HDTVs are also coming pre-calibrated from the factory, ensuring viewers get the best picture quality possible. While many big-box stores will switch to a harsh, unnatural screen mode to make the TV stand out against a wall of other brightly lit TVs, the inclusion of calibrated or movie/film modes is putting quality over quantity.

Picture Resolution

HDTVs offer two native picture resolutions – 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels) or 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels). If you’re purchasing a TV under 50”, there is no discernible visual difference between 720p and 1080p for viewers with normal eyesight sitting at an appropriate distance – it is only when purchasing larger sets (over 50”) that a difference can be seen.  So if budget is a constraint, consumers can save with a 720p set without worrying that they’re missing out on resolution.

Stepping up to larger HDTVs over 55”, which many consumers are now upgrading to, after making the switch to flat panels, 1080p is the resolution available on the majority of HDTVs under $3,000 CAD. 1080p displays are available from across all manufacturers’ ranges, from their entry-level sets all the way through their high-end sets. Pricing differences come into effect for differentiating features such as refresh rate (120 Hz, 240 Hz, etc.), smart/connected TV functionality (such as WiFi mirroring, built-in Netflix, YouTube, etc.), backlight technology (local dimming, edge-lit), size, and even shape (more below).

4K or UltraHD

The next step up from 1080p is 4K, or UltraHD (3,840 x 2,160 pixels). 4K televisions offer four times the resolution of 1080p (8,294,400 pixels versus 2,073,600 pixels) and change the line count from horizontal (1,080 lines) to vertical (3,840 lines). This change was also made so that empty black horizontal lines wouldn’t be counted in ultra-widescreen content (e.g. 21:9), instead only counting vertical lines which always have content.

4K televisions, with their increased pixel density, are typically only advantageous on very large sets (65” and larger) but are also useful in small sets for a different reason: the ability to sit closer to your television without losing image detail. As you move closer to your television, the individual pixels on a 1080p TV become more apparent, causing the image to lose detail, but with a 4K television, the higher pixel density due to the smaller pixels compensates for this effect. For those that doubt the need for increased resolution, while the shift from 1080p to 4K isn’t as visually drastic as the switch from standard definition to high definition years ago, it really is something that must be seen in person to appreciate. A visit to a local retailer with 4K televisions will drive this point home.

4K televisions currently command a 60 per cent (or more) premium versus their 1080p counterparts but as with all technology, this gap is narrowing quickly. A 50” Samsung UN50HU7000 4K TV can be found for approximately $1,700 CAD versus about $1,000 for a similar 1080p set from Samsung.

To connect these 4K television sets, HDMI has been updated to version 2.0 but fret not, most existing HDMI v1.4 cables, receivers, and other devices will support 4K up to 30 fps. The upgrade to HDMI v2.0 brings 60 fps, wider colour gamut, 32 audio channel support, and other features.

Native 4K content is still sparse but there are both digital media storage devices from Sony and Samsung, as well as online streaming services, including Netflix, which provide 4K content. Sony’s 4K movie and show library boasts over 200 titles, with each movie download consuming over 40GB. Movies purchased or rented are stored on Sony’s 2TB-equipped FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player. For online streaming services such as Netflix, utilizing the new HEVC codec, a broadband connection with a sustained minimum of 15 Mbps is required to stream 4K content such as House of Cards. Sites such as YouTube and Vimeo already support 4K streaming and services such as Amazon (unfortunately not yet available in Canada) are set to roll out their own 4K streaming offerings shortly. One very important thing to note with downloads and streaming is that with the huge amounts of data being transferred for 4K content, consumers should be especially aware of their monthly broadband traffic allotments if they do not have an unlimited plan. For those that prefer physical media, new triple-layered Blu-ray discs with a 100 GB capacity to support 4K content will arrive in 2015, allowing users to purchase 4K content instead of having to use their Internet connections.

As a stopgap measure until more native 4K content is available, all UltraHD TVs feature 4K upconversion, which interpolates lower resolution content for display on the UltraHD sets. This is done with varying degrees of quality but overall, the mainstream manufacturers (LG, Samsung, and Sony) do a decent job thanks to their experience with digital imaging and processing. On the other hand, UltraHD sets from off-brand manufacturers such as Seiki don’t do as well, often resulting in blocking, aliased images.

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Jeremy Phan’s latest CANADA HiFi video focuses on helping you select a pair of headphones / earphones that are ideal for your listening needs.   After viewing the video, we encourage you to read our complete guide to buying headphones in the Headphone Buyer Guide, also written by Jeremy.

If you’re looking for specific headphone / earphone suggestions, please check out our sister website Guydster, the guy’s guide to everything – Audio Guide: Best Headphones / Earphones

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We live in an increasingly technology-filled world and while there’s more computing power in a modern smart phone than the spacecraft that landed on the moon, one area that’s been left out are our humble homes. Molded quartz countertops, engineered hardwood, and LED lightbulbs may take up aisles and aisles at your local home improvement store but it’s only recently that devices such as smart thermostats and smoke detectors, lighting control, and automation have started to garner interest from the average consumer.

Previously, home automation was economically inaccessible for many, costing tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars and requiring specialized equipment, wiring, installers, and programmers. Vendors such as Crestron, Control 7, and Savant have a wide range of products that can control everything from motorized blinds to lights to climate control. Their systems also integrate with home theatres for multi-room audio and video control and distribution. Some readers may be familiar with the X10 system, a protocol from the mid-70s that is all but obsolete today. For this article, I’ll be taking the do-it-yourself approach with the various off-the-shelf systems now available.

Home automation is poised to take off this year due to a confluence of factors. First and foremost, Texas Instruments has released a $10 WiFi chip, making it incredibly cheap and easy for manufacturers to add wireless access (and therefore Internet connectivity) to practically any device. Alongside that, Bluetooth Low Energy (v4.0) is enabling wireless devices such as sensors to operate for years on a single coin cell battery (CR2032). Next, a whole slew of devices from established names such as Belkin and Philips aim to enable the smart home through mobile apps on users’ tablets and smart phones. Lastly, start-ups such as Securifi, Revolv, and SmartThings offer devices that support multiple protocols and eliminate complicated programming, utilizing smart phone and tablet apps which users are very familiar with.

When looking at home automation, most people think of controlling their lights, locks, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and home entertainment. Logitech introduced the concept years ago with their line of Harmony programmable remotes which were capable of controlling the environment with its infrared commands when certain “activities” were selected. For example, if you had an infrared capable light switch, the Harmony could dim/turn off the lights, turn on your TV, and set the AV receiver to the correct input when you wanted to watch a movie – all with the press of a single button. Infrared, however, has a major disadvantage: it requires line of sight. To address this, a few competing wireless protocols emerged: X10, Insteon, Z-Wave, and Zigbee to name a few. Each has its advantages and disadvantages but they all have similar functionality. Today, Insteon and Z-Wave are the main competitors though this writer suspects that WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy will quickly eat into their market share with their more commonplace, familiar, and ubiquitous protocols.

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The Belkin WeMo app, designed for iOS/Android smart phones and tablets, is used to control the whole range of WeMo devices.  The image on the top-middle shows a screenshot of the app’s main menu, which lists all of your WeMo devices and lets you control them.  The image on the top-right shows energy consumption information from the WeMo Insight Switch.

To get started with home automation in 2014, users no longer have to give up an arm and a leg, go through a custom installer, or even get an electrical permit (check with your local jurisdiction for specific requirements). Today’s offerings allow users to start small and add on as they go along. For as little as $50 and five minutes, you’re on your way to remotely controlling a light switch, lamp, or other device. These systems also do not have any recurring or monthly fees. With the barrier to entry so low, users can take a plunge without breaking their pocketbooks. As an owner of an automated home, I can tell you that once you enable your home like something out of the Jetsons, you’ll never want to go back. Depending on your requirements, budget, and ambitions, you really can connect, automate, and control practically everything in your home: lights, climate, security, audio/video, and much more, all without breaking the bank.

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Top: Belkin WeMo Smart LED Bulb ($39). Bottom: Belkin WeMo Switch ($49).

The easiest and most affordable system to get your feet wet with home automation is Belkin’s line of WeMo WiFi-enabled devices such as wall switches, wall plugs, light bulbs, motion sensors, and even a baby monitor which are available at many local retailers. Starting at $49, the Belkin WeMo Switch is a device that turns any outlet into a remotely controlled “smart” outlet. This allows you to remotely control lamps, fans and other devices of your choice. To get started, all you have to do is install the WeMo app on your smart phone (iOS or Android), plug the device into the wall, connect to the Switch over WiFi, and set it up. It takes less than 5 minutes and out of the box, the Belkin WeMo Switch is capable of being programmed from the mobile app with time-based rules such as when to turn on or off. Additionally, the WeMo line is “if this then that” (IFTTT)-compatible, a free Internet service that allows users to create “recipes” that perform actions based on triggers. IFTTT has a large number of Internet services and devices that can interact with the WeMo. For instance, a recipe could trigger an email to be sent through Gmail every time the WeMo Switch is turned on. As of writing, there are 82 different services/devices that are accessible through IFTTT: email, SMS, Craigslist, YouTube, Twitter, and many more. For $79, the WeMo Switch + Motion pack could allow a parent to detect when their children get home, turn on the light, and send an alert to their smart phone. For those users who know their way around a screwdriver and are looking to control a ceiling light fixture, the WeMo Wall Switch replaces a standard wall switch, enabling it to be controlled through the smart phone app. Simply shut off the power at the breaker and replace your existing 3-wire, single-pole switch and again, in less than 5 minutes, your track light or fixture is now controllable through your smart phone.  Then there is also the WeMo Insight Switch, which works just like the Switch mentioned above but can also send information about the plugged-in device’s energy usage directly to your smart phone or tablet.  Rounding out the WeMo line-up is a WeMo Smart LED Bulb ($39) which can be set to automatically respond to sunset/sunrise, turned on/off or dimmed, all from your smart phone.

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The Securifi Almond+ is a combination Internet router and home automation controller.

For those looking to take their automation setup further, you’ll have to look at a more advanced system such as those offered by Insteon, Z-Wave, or Zigbee. These protocols each use a proprietary wireless mesh network (as well as powerline communication for Insteon) but require a central control hub, which adds a slight expense. The advantage is that these more established home automation protocols have a huge assortment of devices available: motion/door sensors, water/leak sensors, multi-pole switches, HVAC control, energy monitoring, handheld remotes, and many others. With the wide variety of devices and protocols, users may have difficulty deciding between them. To address this, three companies have released devices which incorporate multiple radios. The Securifi Almond+ (www.securifi.com) is a combination Internet router and home automation controller.  At $120 it is a steal and comes with both Z-Wave and Zigbee support as well as the latest 802.11ac WiFi, 4 gigabit Ethernet ports, and two USB 3.0 ports. However, its most visible feature is the 3.5” screen that will be used to control and program it. The Revolv (www.revolv.com) is another consolidated home automation controller. While it lacks the Internet routing functionality and is almost triple the price ($299 USD) of the Almond+, it comes with seven different radios, ensuring maximum compatibility. The third option is by SmartThings, a Kickstarter project that ended in September 2012 and raised over $1.2M. The SmartThings $99 hub is fully integrated with IFTTT and has smart phone apps that offer extensive features and functionality including simplified programming through the app.

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The Revolv is a highly versatile home automation system that works with many different devices including the Sono multi-room music system, Philips Hue LED light bulbs, Belkin’s WeMo products, Yale and Kiwkset locks, just to mention a few.

For my own home, back in late 2012, I chose a Z-Wave setup operated by a VeraLite controller (from MiCasaVerde), which is slightly less user friendly than SmartThings but offers advanced programming capabilities. The VeraLite controls every light in my home as well as 3-pole switches and interfaces with my Canadian-made Ecobee Smart Thermostat (www.ecobee.com), a touchscreen-equipped, WiFi-enabled thermostat that has much more functionality than the Nest, which was recently acquired by Google for over $3 billion. My own system recently expanded with the addition of the also Canadian-made Piper (www.getpiper.com), a 1080p WiFi-connected home security camera which also supports Z-Wave. In a few weeks, door sensors and a smart lock (www.lockitron.com) will be joining the mix, rounding out my connected home. For a great example of the possibilities of modern home automation, search on YouTube for “voice-controlled home automation” and check out the video by Doug Gregory. Using less than $400 worth of equipment, he demonstrates how he can control lights, a TV, and a network media player, all with voice commands on an Android smart phone. One note for those looking to replace wall switches: check to ensure your fixture boxes are deep enough to accommodate the radio-equipped switches which are deeper than standard switches.

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Beyond the above-mentioned smart home controllers, there are now additional devices that can enhance your home. The latest and often easiest addition is a smart, connected thermostat, most famously the Nest – a thermostat designed by two former Apple engineers that learns your habits and adjusts your home’s temperature depending on input from a variety of variables such as your home’s age, outdoor temperature, energy costs, and other factors. Non-programmed or on “hold” thermostats waste energy by unnecessarily heating or cooling a home when occupants are not home. These devices address this by enabling users to better manage their HVAC usage, which can make up 40-60% of a monthly hydro bill.

Moving over to audio video, integration can be achieved with devices such as the $90 iTach Ethernet to IR adapter, a network-connected IR blaster that can be programmed and controlled via a smart phone app or by other 3rd party networked devices. By connecting the IR blaster to your home network, any other device on the network can send infrared commands via the iTach to your devices.

With the wide variety of devices and technologies now available, your home can adapt, communicate, and become an active part of your life. The ease of use and affordability of many of these systems means that for a small investment, you can quickly and easily enable your most used switches and devices to become smart. Never having to worry about lights being left on, the thermostat being set, or the door being unlocked are just some of the ways that home automation can enhance your home and bring peace of mind.

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HDTVs are an integral part of many consumers’ homes and with the recent switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting in Canada, back in September of 2011, many consumers now have access to free, high definition content (1080i) without needing to go through a satellite or cable provider. Thanks to the ever-decreasing price of HDTVs, coupled with the proliferation of high definition content via Blu-ray as well as online services such as the iTunes Store and Netflix, many consumers have ditched their standard definition displays and upgraded to 720p and 1080p capable sets to take advantage of all this crystal clear content.

As with most technology, things don’t stay the same for long and manufacturers have already started incorporating the next high(er) definition format into their offerings: 4K resolution. This new designation refers to vertical lines of resolution as opposed to horizontal lines as with previous designations (720p and 1080p refer to horizontal lines of resolution). This is due to all the different aspect ratios that each studio utilizes for their content (e.g. 16:9, 22:9) so instead of the varying lines of horizontal resolution, 4K refers to the fixed 4,096 lines of vertical resolution. When multiplied by the various horizontal resolutions, this gives more than four times the current pixels of today’s 1080p displays: 1080p displays contain 1,920 x 1,080 = 2,073,600 pixels; 4K displays contain up to 12,746,752 pixels (4,096 x 3,112).

First, a primer on resolutions and why 720p and 1080p are “high definition” as opposed to previous standard definition formats. While there are different methodologies and numbers thrown around, the general consensus is that to be “high definition” the screen must show an image where individual pixels are indistinguishable by the human eye (at an appropriate viewing distance). The average human being has 20/20 vision meaning that from 20’/6.09m away, they can read letters approximately 0.35”/8.8mm tall on an eye chart. Translating this to HDTVs, the required resolution to produce pixels that are small enough to be indistinguishable varies depending on the distance a viewer is seated from the HDTV as well as its size. At a viewing distance of 8’/2.4m, the average person cannot distinguish between pixels that are smaller than 0.065”/1.65mm.  This means that for displays 50” or smaller, 720p resolution is indistinguishable from 1080p resolution. Typically consumers are advised to sit at a viewing distance that is approximately 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal measurement of their screen. For example, for a 50” display, consumers would sit 75-125”/1.9-3.2m away. This is to prevent eye strain from the flickering image as well as to fill enough of the viewer’s field of vision with the image.  Higher resolutions only become necessary if viewers want to sit closer to their televisions or have larger screens (which have larger pixels). This limit to visual acuity can actually save consumers money since they don’t have to purchase a more expensive 1080p HDTV if an equivalent 720p set is available (for sizes smaller than 50” or viewers who prefer further viewing distances). 4K resolution will allow consumers to purchase smaller television sets while simultaneously sitting closer to the screen and still maintain the crystal clear image that many of us have become accustomed to.

As with any new format, there are both upsides and downsides. The most obvious downside is the need for a new 4K display. Initially, these television sets will command a premium over similarly sized 1080p displays but as always, the price difference will shrink as time progresses. Toshiba, LG and Sony have already shown off prototypes as well as production models (destined for Asia) in sizes ranging from 55” up to 84”, with both 2D and glasses-free 3D capabilities.

Sony and JVC have also both released 4K projectors for the home, allowing well-heeled consumers to bring the 4K movie theatre experience home. Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES 4K 3D-capable home projector has an MSRP of $25,000 USD, accepts all current 4K formats (except 4K 3D) and will upscale any non-4K content to 4K (including 1080p 3D). At CES 2012, Sony stated that over 10,000 movie theatres worldwide are utilizing their commercial 4K projectors and the number is increasing daily.

Fortunately, for some consumers, the only component they will need to upgrade to enjoy 4K content is their TV because much of their existing 1080p components may already support the new format. Any device that supports the latest HDMI v1.4 specification is already capable of either processing or at least passing through 4K resolution signals. This includes everything from HDMI cables to Blu-ray players to AV receivers. For example, Onkyo’s TX-NR809 receiver, which was released back in Q2 of 2011, includes a Marvell Qdeo video processor to upscale existing content to 4K and other manufacturers have also been quietly building in 4K support in anticipation for the upcoming format. When Sony announced the release of its 4K home projector, it also stated that the PlayStation 3 will be receiving a firmware update in the coming months to support output of 4K still images. YouTube also already supports 4K video files.

4K brings another advantage but this one won’t have immediate, discernible effects for consumers in the short term: movie studios won’t have to spend time and money downscaling or reformatting movie theatre content (much of which is already shot in 4K). This should eventually make its way to consumers via faster and hopefully cheaper Blu-ray releases. To get all this 4K content to consumers, physical media will be the only timely option due to the vast sizes of 4K content (up to 4x current 1080p content). Sony has been in talks with the Blu-ray Disc Association to finalize a standard for compressing and storing 4K content and hopes to be able to release the next Spider-man movie on disc in 4K (due out summer 2012). The existing Blu-ray format already supports up to 50GB on each side (dual layer) and the upcoming BD-XL format supports up to 128 GB on each side (quadruple layer) – though this disc format isn’t compatible with existing Blu-ray players.

For all the consumers who will complain about the inevitable re-release of titles, 4K resolution will likely be the last format for much of our existing content. A 4K scan of 35mm film (what 95% of movies are/were filmed on) will max out the resolution of the medium and any higher resolution will be superfluous. The only exceptions to this are IMAX and 70mm films, which would require an 8K resolution scan to fully capture the negative. (Less than 1% of movies are filmed in IMAX and 70mm film was discontinued in the 80s.)

4K is the unifying video format that will erase the line between what is shown in movie theatres and what is available in the home (eventually). It will allow users to purchase smaller screens with higher resolution for use in tighter spaces while hopefully ending the video format evolution for the foreseeable future.

The 4K TV discussion continues on the CANADA HiFi Forum here: http://novo.press//forum/showthread.php?983-4K-TV-Benefits-and-do-you-really-need-one-4K-versus-1080p&p=7119#post7119

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The home theatre is a focal point in many homes.  It’s a place where friends and family congregate to watch the latest blockbuster movies, catch up on the day’s events with a local newscast or listen to music.  As the last remnants of an analog existence, for better or worse, slowly fade away, a digital convergence is occurring.  Analog over-the-air TV broadcasts are already a thing of the past (they were phased out after August 2011) and analog TV cable service will be ending within the next year for most Canadian consumers.  Today the evolution of digital entertainment allows us to purchase or rent movies directly from our TV sets thanks to online streaming services, access news directly on the TV set via an online connection and listen to lossless music from a digital audio library in various zones around a home.  Along with this evolution come new features and functionality such as the ability to stream audio and video to any capable, connected device; universal remote control capability from a variety of different devices; and DVR-like functionality throughout the home.

Two of the key devices of this digital evolution are the smartphone and the tablet, devices now found in many Canadian homes. Smartphone penetration is now over 40 percent and tablet penetration is over 10 percent, with a close mix of Android and iOS devices.  Apple’s iPad still has a considerable lead in the tablet space while the mobile phone space is much more even. To facilitate and take advantage of consumers’ continued adoption of these easy-to-use touchscreen-based devices, many AV component manufacturers have released apps for these devices. Most of these apps are free and available on the various mobile platforms: Google’s Play Market, Apple’s App Store via iTunes, and even BlackBerry World for the PlayBook.

The main functionality of many of these apps is to allow users to use their mobile touchscreen devices to replace the remote control of the target device. Using a large, vivid, colour touchscreen is easier and more intuitive than searching for the appropriate button on a traditional remote – especially if that traditional remote is not backlit. Take a look at any modern AV receiver remote and you’ll quickly see the advantage of a touchscreen remote versus the dozens and dozens of tiny buttons on a traditional remote. Users who are familiar with other touchscreen or universal remote devices from Logitech, Marantz, Philips, Universal Electronics, and others can attest to the benefits of universal/programmable remotes – once they get them programmed (which can be a feat in and of itself). The best part is that these devices have steadily dropped in price with the Logitech Harmony One (touchscreen combined with traditional buttons) now selling for under $200 CAD.

Thanks to the adoption of tablets and smartphones, users now have another alternative to control their entertainment.  While not as full-fledged as a Logitech Harmony remote, most manufacturers of smart TVs, AV receivers and Blu-ray players now have free remote control apps available for download.  If your device was released in the past year and/or supports DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connectivity (via WiFi or wired Ethernet), it most likely has an app available for your tablet or smartphone. These apps require your mobile device to be connected to the same [home] network as the AV device being controlled. For example, Samsung’s “Remote” app supports HDTVs released in 2010 with Internet@TV and all 2011 HDTVs with AllShare as well as Blu-ray players/HTIBs with Smart Hub (D5300 and above, HTS D5000 and above). Sony’s “Remote” app supports HDTVs starting from the EX42 Series and above as well as Blu-ray players starting from the S370 and above. Panasonic’s “VIERA Remote” app supports DT/ST/GT30 Series HDTVs from 2011, among others, as well as the latest 2012 sets. LG’s “TV Remote” app supports 2011 LV37-, LV55-, LW55-, and LZ96-series HDTVs and above while its “Remote for Audio & Video Devices” app supports 3D Blu-ray and LG Cinema products released in 2011 and beyond. Suffice it to say, HDTV manufacturers have been keen to include apps for mobile platforms as they strive to push for connected, “smart” features and functionality.

What was once the realm of ultra-expensive custom home theatre and home automation systems from Crestron, Control4, AMX and others is now readily available to the everyday consumer. While your smartphone or tablet can’t yet control every system in your home, AV or otherwise, they are increasingly being used as the touchscreen-based interface for many home automation systems, forgoing the proprietary touchscreen controllers once offered.

When used with AV receivers, your smartphone or tablet goes beyond a glorified remote control.  Some manufacturers, such as Pioneer and Yamaha, offer features that allow the ability to create custom playlists and stream music directly from the device. Thanks to the popularity of Apple devices such as the iPod and iPhone, many receivers already offer digital connectivity via a USB/30-pin cable or a dock.  These allow users to playback their music through their home theatre system with full remote control capabilities and if you don’t have an iOS device, the USB port doubles as a receptacle for the ubiquitous USB memory stick, allowing music to be played directly off of it. The main added benefit of extracting audio in the digital domain from Apple devices, as opposed to using the analog headphone jack, is utilizing the higher-quality DAC (digital-to-analog converter) found inside the receiver instead of the DAC built into the Apple device.   That’s because Apple devices’ internal DACs typically fare rather poorly, fidelity-wise when compared to other portable music players.  As with HDTVs, all the major manufacturers have mobile apps.  Denon’s app supports AVR-991 and above receivers; Yamaha supports the RX-V2065 and above, HTR-8063 and above, RX-A1000 and above, RX-V671 and above, and more.  Onkyo, who was one of the earliest adopters of mobile apps, has support going back to its 2009 TX-NR807 and continues support through to the 2010 TX-NR708 and above, the 2011 TX-NR509 and above, and the 2012 TX-NR807 and above. A great trend for consumers is that these networked features are continually making their way into more mid-range and even entry-level receivers. The Yamaha RX-V671, a capable dual-zone, networked receiver was available for less than $500 CAD at the time of writing.

The other method that smartphones and tablets are connecting with audio devices is through short-range Bluetooth technology. Traditionally used on cellular phones to connect with a hands-free headset, Bluetooth technology has continued to evolve and is now capable of streaming high-bitrate stereo sound to compatible devices. This allows both iOS and non-iOS devices to wirelessly stream their music libraries to compatible audio components. iOS has its own version of wireless streaming, called AirPlay, for streaming audio and video content as well as metadata such as track information, time and artwork. Many receivers, dedicated iPod speaker docks, and other devices support AirPlay though its adoption is less widespread than the open-source DLNA protocol.
One other category of components that should definitely not be overlooked is dedicated digital media playback devices. These range from inexpensive clock-radio iPod docks to multi-zone Sonos systems, to dedicated decks sporting Burr Brown DACs. Various audio manufacturers offer dedicated smartphone and tablet apps to control music playback.  These include manufacturers such as Naim, with its NDS, NDX, and ND5 XS Series of “Network Players”; Bryston with its BDP-1 Digital Player coupled with the BDA-1 External DAC; PS Audio’s PerfectWave DAC II, Digital Link III, and Digital to Analog; and the Marantz NA7004 Network Audio Player. When coupled with an iTunes library, these apps will display cover art and lyrics, manage playlists, and much more.

Not to be left out, if the networked device supports DLNA, other compatible (non-mobile) devices can also stream and control playback. Chief among this are personal computers and laptops. One sticker that is now showing up on AV receivers is the “Windows 7 Ready” sticker meaning that the receiver can be controlled by and stream content from networked Windows 7 computers. Windows Media Player, which once was a program preinstalled but often neglected, was revamped in Windows 7 (and the upcoming Windows 8, an OS built around touchscreen input) and is now quite proficient at managing and streaming media content.

As with all innovations, there is one downside to using a remote control app instead of the dedicated remote control itself.  The mobile device must be “awoken from sleep” with the click of button and then unlocked with a slide or screen tap.  Then the app has to be located and launched.  These are all additional steps that aren’t required with a traditional remote.

Another category that has began embracing smartphones and tablets as control devices is the video gaming sector.  In June of 2012, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox SmartGlass app which will be released on various smartphone and tablet platforms later this year.  This app will provide gamers a whole new means of interacting with their video games and also allow users to navigate the Internet Explorer browser (soon to be released for the Xbox) with ease.  Imagine drawing up a play in EA SPORTS’ “Madden NFL” on your tablet and then watching it play out on your TV!

As we move forward, you can expect a greatly increasing number of devices that support remote control functionality via a downloadable app on your smartphone or tablet.  I predict that as an increasing number of consumers switch to digital content and online streaming services, more advanced versions of these apps will simply become the norm.  It seems that the future of home entertainment control lies with smartphones and tablets.  I for one, look forward to it!

When the first television sets arrived in the 1930s, they changed the way information and media were brought to the masses. For the first time, moving images, along with sound could be transmitted and viewed by consumers. Since then, the advent of satellite, cable and digital over-the-air technologies has allowed us to capture images on the other side of the world and display them on TVs everywhere with minimal delay.  This allowed the television to quickly become one of the focal points in the home. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the television finds itself competing with tablets, smartphones and computers.  This is despite the availability of personal video recorders (PVRs) which offer time/place-shifting, high-definition digital cable networks that offer hundreds of channels, and on-demand movie rentals the same day as the movie comes out on DVD or Blu-ray.  And that’s to name just a few features currently available.

Now, new “smart TVs” are hoping to lure consumers back in front of their sets by once again making the television the focal point of their media consumption.  Leading the pack in smart TV design are companies like Samsung, LG Electronics, Panasonic and Sony.  The heart of these smart, “connected” TVs is an active connection to the Internet, either through a wired network connection (Ethernet/RJ-45) or wirelessly (WiFi, either built into the TV or available through a dongle that the user can purchase and plug into the TV). These smart TVs utilize the user’s high-speed Internet connection to access streaming media sites; download new applications (or apps if you prefer); and provide up-to-the minute news, weather and other information such as social media feeds. Manufacturers hope that by making online media content accessible on consumers’ large, high-definition televisions, that users will spend more time in front of their televisions rather than with other devices. Some of these new smart TVs are not just “lean-back” devices (where users are just receiving/viewing content) – many are “lean-forward,” and include the ability to interact with the television through fully-functional, interactive apps, games and other content. A few of these televisions even include built-in webcams (or support separate add-ons) for online video-conferencing capabilities through popular free services such as Skype.

The most popular apps available for download on smart TVs are of course, media applications. These include apps that enable access to popular websites such as YouTube (72+ hours of user generated content is uploaded every minute to YouTube), Netflix and the Cineplex Movie app. Depending on the user’s geographical region, additional streaming media sites may be available such as Hulu, BBC and others. Unfortunately, not all sites are available in all countries due the each country’s specific licensing and copyright issues with the individual content providers. For example, Netflix USA has more content than Netflix Canada but the gap is slowly narrowing.  Other well-known media outlets such as CNN, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, ESPN, and others are also available. On the static side, popular applications include Flickr and Picasa for viewing photographs, turning the television into a giant slideshow.

Beyond media content, the latest smart TVs have dual-core processors that rival today’s leading-edge smartphones and include full web-browsing capabilities as well as application support. This turns the television into the equivalent of many users’ personal computers or tablets – especially those who use these types of devices primarily to access the web. To facilitate this added interaction, the traditional television remote has also gotten smarter. LG’s Wand remote for example, supplied with the company’s higher-end TVs, has a built-in gyroscope, allowing you to control a cursor on the screen by waving the remote in mid-air.  For a couple of TV model generations, Samsung included a full QWERTY (alphanumeric) keyboard on the backside of the remote.  Today, Samsung’s latest high-end sets include a new Smart Touch Controller which offers a touch pad instead of the full QWERTY keyboard.  These new remotes are also eschewing infrared technology, which requires line of sight to operate, for Bluetooth technology, which offers a longer range and does not require line of sight. Lastly, games are a popular category of applications for new smart TVs. Many popular games such as Rovio’s Angry Birds, Tetris, Poker, and others are available for download.

All these new, online features and applications may sound enticing but for many users, they won’t be enough of a push to upgrade their existing HDTVs just yet. If you’re happy with your current set but wish to add on these new features, there are a variety of inexpensive upgrade paths that will allow you to turn your “dumb” television set into a much smarter one.

The first two upgrade paths are to look for devices that also include these online, connected functions. For those that have yet to upgrade to Blu-ray, look for a Blu-ray player from manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Toshiba, and Sony, that include online features. Users should carefully read the specifications if they are looking for a specific online functionality (such as YouTube, Netflix, or others) to ensure the specific Blu-ray player they choose supports that application. The second upgrade path can be through gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii (limited support), Microsoft Xbox 360 (requires Xbox LIVE membership), or Sony PlayStation 3, which by their very nature (requiring an online connection for online gaming), typically also support various online media sites and applications.

Another method is to purchase a media streamer. These small, set-top boxes’ main purpose is to play back media from either local (home networked) sources or from online streaming sites. Again, quite a few manufacturers ensure that there is a wide variety of devices to choose from. These include the Boxee Box, Western Digital TV Live, Asus O!PLAY, LG’s aptly named Smart TV Upgrader, Patriot Box Office, D-Link’s MovieNite Plus, and Sony’s Internet Player with Google TV, to just name a few. All of these devices are typically under $250 CAD (the cheapest is the Asus for $69 CAD).  The prices depend on connectivity options (Ethernet, WiFi, USB, HDMI, SPDIF/optical out, etc.), functionality (support for built-in or downloadable applications, media formats, and network capabilities), and their controller (simple remote versus a smarter remote with a QWERTY keyboard, which is essential for searching and inputting text). These media streaming boxes allow users to quickly give their older HDTVs access to all the latest online content by simply connecting an HDMI cable and a network cable (or WiFi) connection.  The best part is that they can be easily swapped out or moved to another television.

Out of all the above-mentioned media boxes, the Sony Internet Player with Google TV (also known as the NSZ-GS7) looks to have the most potential for two reasons – if licensing and other issues can be ironed out with both content providers and cable providers in Canada. Previously, Sony had released a Google TV product in the US and while it wasn’t a blockbuster hit, it brought a few new features that this writer believes will eventually be mainstream. The first is the ability to harness Google’s immense search powers, which allow the user to search anything and everything directly on their television. This includes local show times (and the ability to automatically program a compatible PVR), social media feeds, and immense databases such as the Internet Movie Database (www.IMDb.com), all from a single query field.  The results are shown on the screen, side-by-side with the live, associated content (Google TVs have a built-in picture-in-picture functionality, a feature that some TVs had in the 90s but that hasn’t found much use in this decade). Google TV’s second ability is the Android platform on which it is based. This open-source platform, while not as extensive as Apple’s iTunes marketplace, is the fastest growing smartphone platform, bringing along with it a plethora of applications. Sony’s Internet Player remote includes an integrated track-pad for easy access to the dashboard and maneuvering the cursor around, as well as a fully backlit QWERTY keyboard for quick alphanumeric input. The Sony Internet Player with Google TV was recently released and retails for $199.

For those looking to get the Android experience on their HDTVs without breaking the bank, there’s also Always Innovating’s simply-named “HDMI Dongle,” which plugs directly into an HDMI port.  It is only slightly larger than a USB memory stick but packs a processor and memory (hardware specifications haven’t been finalized at the time of this writing) and runs Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. This diminutive dongle has a full-fledged web browser, provides access to the Android Play Marketplace as well as streaming services such as Netflix.  It also has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. The technology has been licensed to various third parties and should be hitting store shelves in time for the holidays. In the meantime, there are a slew of copycats with prices ranging from $49 to $99 depending on specifications.

“Smart TV” functionality is quickly becoming the new standard and will continue to grow with the expansion of online content. Many consumers are hoping that one day they’ll be able to ditch their pre-packaged cable services for customized, on-demand, streaming content and connected TVs will play a critical role in this – by accessing media from the Internet, instead of through traditional cable providers. Whether you’re looking for a brand new TV or simply looking to breathe some life into your existing set through a streaming set-top box, smart TV functionality is something that should be attractive to many consumers as it will open up your TV to everything the Internet has to offer.