My New Friend, The Chromecast

My new friend...
My new friend…

Last week, Google had a few announcements, mostly some hardware (Nexus 7) and software (Android 4.3) refreshes.  But the “…and one more thing…” from this particular session was a new device called the Google Chromecast.

In short, it is only slightly bigger than your typical USB memory stick, but instead of USB, it uses HDMI (the interface your cable box uses to connect to your television).  Instead of a memory stick, it’s a mini receiver that is capable of taking instruction from Android and iOS devices, along with the Google Chrome browser.  From your phone (or tablet), you can open up Netflix or YouTube, find the content you’re interested in, then click the “Cast” button to send that video feed to your television.  After that, the Chromecast maintains the connection and you can use your phone (or tablet) for whatever you want.  You can even leave the room, or the house, and the connection will be maintained.

To be fair, while this is a neat feature, it isn’t necessarily “revolutionary,” at least, so far as I’m concerned.  I mean, my PS3, my Wii and my toaster can play Netflix at this point.  Why’s this device so useful?


We use Hulu quite a bit to watch various shows, but it requires you watch it on a laptop or desktop.  Any web browser that’s built-in to a PS3 or Wii is blocked from displaying the content.  What’s worse is that Hulu actually has a TV-targeted solution in Hulu Plus, but for some crazy reason, the shows that you find on regular, web-based Hulu aren’t available on the paid Hulu Plus service.  They’ll tell you it’s because of content deals with producers who want to keep that content off televisions (unless you’re using cable to view it), but that’s increasingly becoming a ridiculous argument as more and more people cut the cord and focus on internet-only solutions.

Anyway, back to the Chromecast.  This thing allows you to take a Chrome browser tab and transfer it to the Chromecast.  This means that, so far as Hulu is concerned, you’re still using a bog-standard Chrome browser while you’re watching, and it doesn’t realize you’re using a television to do it.  Genius.

And it totally works.  You need a reasonably decent computer to do it (my Chromebook is capable, but needs to have video quality scaled down a bit), but it totally works.

Overall, the Chromecast has been reviewed quite positively, largely because it works pretty well (with a few quirks), but also because it’s cheaper than alternative solutions.  The device sells for $35, though I got in on a promotion (that lasted less than 24 hrs…) where each purchase got you 3 months of Netflix streaming, even for existing subscribers (a $24 value, bringing my cost down to $11).

Hopefully other Android apps will gain functionality (Google Music also works, but I don’t tend to listen to music through my TV very often…), but seriously, $11 (or even $35) is worth it to get Hulu onto my TV.  Brooke appreciates it as well, as we’ll have a newborn in a few months and watching our shows on my PC in the dining room isn’t the most comfortable of options.  Getting to sit on a couch in the living room is a much better solution.

It’s pretty cool and I’m glad it works.  I’m sure I’ll have more to report on later, but for now, if you have any interested in getting web-based content beamed to your television, this is arguably the most cost-effective option available).


"Hello. My name is 'Google Reader.'"

I’m fully aware that many believe I sit in front of a computer all day and stare at Facebook, posting articles and comments and shirking actual “work.”  In actuality, I’d argue that I only have “” on my web browser 15 min per day, on average.  On a “busy” day, when I’m in the middle of a conversation/argument, more like 30 min.

How is this possible, you ask?  Why, it’s the power of RSS readers!

“RSS” stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” and the idea for it goes back as far as 1995, though the first official version was integrated into Netscape in 1999.  In many ways, RSS is what gives blogs the power they have today: the ability for the headline and a brief description of an article or posting to be “aggregated” for easy digestion by the reader.

Note: This very blog has and has always had an RSS function.  That’s what the cute little orange icon in the upper-right corner that pops up does.

So here’s the secret:  I’ve got 45 different blogs aggregated into my Google Reader account.  This means that my phone, my Kindle Fire, my Chrome web browser, and the Reader website itself all tie into a single repository that collects new posts from each of these sites almost immediately after a new article is posted.  I’ll wake up in the morning and have 75+ articles to wade through, to see if there’s anything interesting, and I can do this easily on my phone, swiping with my finger to scroll through the list.

Any articles I think may be interesting (based on the title, usually, but sometimes after checking the description), I will press to add a “Star,” effectively bookmarking it for later reading.  Then, I can just click “Mark All Read” and my list is cleared out, ready for re-population.  Once I sit down at a computer somewhere, or with the tablet, I will then skim the articles I found to be most interesting.  And sometimes, I’ll share relevant articles on Google+ or Facebook.

So, quite rapidly, I can skim through articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Columbia Daily Tribune without ever having to actually visit the sites themselves, thus avoiding ads and thus saving me time.

And furthermore, you can share articles to Facebook or Google+ directly from most of these blogs, as this is how they generate their traffic.  You just have to click “Share” from the page in question, or from within Google Reader.  A little box shows up and you write what you want to post, along with the link.  And you never have to actually go to to do this.

So yeah, a little “protip:” use an RSS reader of some kind to make your blog reading more efficient.  You are more than capable of getting information throughout the day without getting bogged down in Facebook or on blogs themselves.  You can, in fact, get work done and still provide useful information on subjects that interest you.  It really isn’t that hard…

You Can “Like” and “+1” Now

So, I realize not everyone wants to comment on these various posts (especially mine… :-P), but looking at traffic data, I can tell that more than a few people are actually visiting this silly blog of ours.  Thus, I’ve wanted to set up some way for people to express something about a post without actually commenting on it.  This solution has been available for awhile, but I’ve been too lazy to do anything about it.

Therefore, I have set up a “+1” button (for Google+ users) and a “Like” button (for Facebook users) at the bottom of each post.  It will include the number of people that have “plussed” or “liked” each post, giving me some idea of whether people are actually reading anything when they visit the site.

Just a friendly public service announcement.  🙂

Top 5 Google+ Features

I’m not one to do “Top #” lists, but after today’s announcement that Google+ is now available to any and all, I thought it would be useful to recount a few of the features that I’ve been using on a nearly daily basis (well…some things…not everything, of course).

1). House Hunting – When we moved up here, I came up alone and brought along our Flip Video camera so Brooke could get a “feel” for the different options, at least in some virtual sense. This time around, Brooke is taking pictures with her phone, then allowing the Google+ app to automatically upload the pictures to her profile so she can share them with me. Then, I can comment on each picture and she can answer all my questions. This is done without anyone else having to see the conversation(s) or the pictures.

Here's a picture of a living room for a place we're considering

2). Gaming Communication – In the past, we have used Skype to make VOIP calls between Josh, Ryan and Mike so we can voice chat while playing whatever game we’re on at the time. Skype works well, but one person hosts the call and then has to call each person once they’re ready (much like a telephone). Now, with Google+ Hangouts, you can simply “Open A Hangout,” which is basically an open invitation with whatever group you want that can join in at any time. So, if one of us isn’t ready, they can join in whenever they want. Much more convenient, and the voice quality is nice, too.

3). Selective Sharing – I post a lot of stuff on Facebook. A lot of stuff. Google+ makes it easy with their Circles function, allowing me to share with people from Columbia, or people from Truman, or people from St. Louis, or all of them all at once. This is done really easily, both from the web interface and from within the Google+ Android app. Facebook has started adding in some of this functionality, but it’s nowhere near as helpful. It’s obvious it’s a “stop gap” measure to provide some of the same functionality, but is very much “tacked on” to their existing, convoluted infrastructure. Circles is just easier to use.

Photos taken with the camera are geo-tagged and dated. Select the ones you want, and then click the green "Share" button!

4). Full Integration with Picasa – I already use Picasa to post pictures online, partially for display on this very website.  Because of the integration between Google+ and Picasa, any pictures from my phone are automatically uploaded, and then I can share them on Google+ with whoever I want.  But also, they are made available under Picasa, so I can copy them into any albums I want, and either keep them private or share them.  In short: it’s free cloud storage and organization for any picture I take with my phone (though, you can still manually upload them from a camera if you want).

Here's what the main screen looks like.

5). Separated Streams – Right now, I have 287 people in my various circles on Google+.  A lot of those folks are Gamers With Jobs people.  There are times, however, I really just want to see the news updates from my Friends, rather than the GWJ crew.  Thus, Google+ makes it easy to choose which Circle (or “news feed”) you want to view.  Moreover, the Android App lets you set feeds so you just have to swipe from side to side on the screen to switch between feeds, making it much easier to follow the people you want without seeing updates from everyone else.  Again, Facebook implemented something similar in recent weeks, and while their web interface works alright for this, the Android app just doesn’t have the same functionality.  Believe you me, when you have over 500 people on your Facebook friends list, it’s a daunting task to scroll through everyone’s stuff every morning…

So now that Google+ is open to everyone, I hope more people check it out.  Really, anyone that has a Google account for e-mail already has a Google+ account ready and waiting.  It’ll get more integrated over the coming year, anyway, especially with Picasa (being renamed to “Google Photos”) and Reader.  You may as well get used to it now!

Plus, you may find that you like it.  🙂

Yet Another Social Network

Way back in the dark ages of 2004, I joined Facebook.  At the time, the idea of a “social network” was foreign to most people, though the advantages it gave you, especially in the college setting, were immediately apparently.  At the time, you could “Friend” someone, post on their “Wall,” “Poke” them, share pictures, and basically just see what everyone was up to.  Initially, you could only do this if you were at a college that was supported by the network, but it expanded to anyone over the age of 13 in September 2006.

It was all downhill from there, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I still use Facebook all the time…and likely more than any healthy, rational person should.  It’s still very addictive, it’s still the network where most of my friends congregate, and it lets me post my inane political rantings where I can annoy as many people as possible.  It’s just that there’s all this extra stuff that clutters up the whole thing.  I feel like I constantly hear people complain about Facebook, yet they still use it because they have no alternative to what it does best: posts, links and pictures.  Sure, there are alternatives, but few that allow you to look up a person and see everything they have posted in a semi-organized manner that doesn’t require you scrolling down an endless feed of information.

In recent years, I have delved into Twitter and LinkedIn, two other social networks that serve vastly different audiences.  My LinkedIn profile is, by far, the least used as its primary purpose is to serve as a sort of online resume.  I think it tends to be more useful in the business community than it is elsewhere, but it’s something I have so I can check out other people’s profiles.  My Twitter feed has gotten more use recently, but I still mostly use Twitter to “follow” celebrities, blogs, and a few select friends that actually use it.  Again, while LinkedIn is good for your personal information, Twitter is good for status updates.  Neither is particularly good about posting pictures and videos.  Facebook does a reasonable job of tying all those together, but then you also get the extra problem of FarmVille updates in your News Feed.

This week marked Google’s (second) entry into the social networking sphere in the form of Google+.  Yet another social network to join.  Google is making the smart decision to really tie together their web presence with Android, seamlessly linking communication between these disparate entities as best as they can.  Google+ involves a “Stream” news feed (just like your Facebook news feed), “Sparks” that let you follow particular interests, and “Huddles” and “Hangouts,” text-based and video-based chat systems, respectively.

The primary innovation, in my mind, is the idea of “Circles.”  This is the thing that Twitter and Facebook don’t really do at all, let alone well.  Circles allow you to group your Friends together in subgroups that you can then easily post to.  So, for example, I tend to post political videos and articles on my Facebook wall.  Everyone sees those unless they have removed my updates from their wall.  In Google+, I can specifically designate who gets those posts by putting them in a Circle.  You can still send posts to everyone’s news feeds, but at least there’s a mechanism for limiting who your comments go to.

Google has used various humorous examples to describe Circles, including having Circles specifically for co-workers and not your boss, or your family, but not your in-laws.  It is also this feature that many analysts and journalists are most excited about.  While Circles may be innovative, the other trappings of Google+ aren’t all that revolutionary, yet the system does a good job at replicating the Facebook experience without the stuff you hate about Facebook.  From Ezra Klein:

That’s where I could imagine Google+ coming in. It’s not that any of its features are so revolutionary. It’s not that it’s better at doing social networking than Facebook. It’s that it’s an opportunity to start over, to build your social network with years of Facebook experience in mind, rather than having to face the accretion of mistakes and miscalculations you made over almost a decade of trial-and-error with a new technology. It’s not Facebook’s fault that “what it means” to have a Facebook account has changed four or five times over the last few years, even as most of us have only had one profile over that period. But it is an opportunity for Google.

The Mobile App, which integrates a variety of functions from within Android, is also pretty slick and much faster than the Facebook app.  For a walkthrough of the Mobile App, you can check out various sources, including ArsTechnica.  To me, the most interesting function is the “Nearby Stream.”  Think of this as your regular “Stream,” or Facebook News Feed, but this one pulls down your GPS location and gives you the posts of random people near you.  It may not be the most useful feature all the time, but I can imagine going to a baseball game and getting fan reactions from random people in the crowd to what’s going on, all through my phone.  Other than that, it’s an app that’s very similar to Facebook’s, without all the “clutter.”

As Klein wrote in his article, Google+ is a “cleaner” way to have a social network, one that isn’t cluttered by 7 years of Applications, Groups, Likes and Pokes.  Whether it will gain any traction remains to be seen, but this is the first full-on assault by Google on Facebook, and Google+ seems like a pretty good attempt and wrestling control of The Social Network from the folks that made history with the concept.

We’ll see how it does.  I’ll certainly give it a go.  While there are some good ideas in there, it seems almost too much like Facebook to really pull people away.  People hopped on Twitter because it did one thing that Facebook does, but did it better (News Feed…).  In that respect, you could justify having both accounts because you used each one for different purposes.  Google+ really serves the same purpose as Facebook.  So in that respect, I’m not sure it presents much of an attractive alternative.

But then again, I use Google products on a daily basis, and so to millions of other people.  I bet they’re all willing to give it a try.  If the flood of invites rolling out isn’t indicative of their curiosity, I don’t know what is.

Tough Choice

There have been various announcements over the past few months that got me excited about both options.  They both have some great benefits and the implementations are very functional, if not even downright awesome.  To some degree, it isn’t really a “tough choice” at all, as I already know which option I’m going to go with.

Of course, I’m talking about Google Music vs Amazon Cloud Player.

To be fair, as of this writing, I haven’t actually tried the Google Music Beta, though I signed up for an invite as soon as I found out that this thing exists at all.  I’ve been using the Amazon Cloud Player, though, and like it quite a bit.

I guess I should describe the pros and cons.  The Amazon Cloud Player was launched in late March, providing users with 5 GB of free storage space for their files.  MP3s, documents, pictures, videos, etc.  Any MP3s stored on this virtual drive, however, can be streamed over the internet through your web browser or smart phone (i.e. Android and iOS),  through what they call the Cloud Player.  If you buy any digital album from Amazon MP3, then your 5 GB of storage is increased to 20 GB – you can purchase additional space thereafter.  The service has worked well, from my perspective, and it’s nice to be able to pull up any of my albums and play them from practically anywhere, especially as I’m not carrying my laptop around with me 24/7 like I used to.

Amazon kinda shocked the world when they released this, however.  It was long expected that Apple or Google would go there first, but they were dealing with the legal rights to stream music over the internet.  The question, from a legal standpoint, is whether it is legal to purchase music, upload it to a different location, and then stream it like a radio station.  Does that violate the license that you agree to when you purchase an MP3?  No clear answer was given, so Google and Apple were trying to get things finalized before going ahead with their respective plans.

Amazon basically just said “oh well” and did it anyway.  And so far, to my knowledge, no one has sued them.

Therefore, it was expected that Google would make an announcement during their now annual I/O developer’s conference.  And as expected, Google announced their long-awaited solution: Google Music.  Since Amazon took the lead, they had to come forward with something to show their burgeoning community.  And show they did.

The Google Music Beta, rolling out piecemeal by invitation only (much like Gmail did), allows you to upload 20,000 songs to their cloud service, and then you can stream it to your Android devices or the web.  In that way, it’s very similar to the Amazon Cloud Player.  The catch is that Google Music should be capable of providing better sound quality, even over a relatively slow 3G wireless connection.  Right now, however, you cannot actually purchase music through the Google Music interface like you can from the Amazon system.  Therefore, for digital music, you still need Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

The kicker for me, however, is offline play.

With Google Music, you can “pin” a song, album, or playlist that will synchronize that music on your various devices.  It will automatically synchronize your “recently played” music, as well.  So, for example, if I want to “pin” Under The Table And Dreaming (and I will…), Google Music will download the album to my phone, allowing me to play that music even when my phone isn’t on an internet connection.  And this is extremely important for people like us that don’t have unlimited data plans, or that tend to drive long distances through areas that don’t have the best cellular coverage.  I can rely on streaming, but I don’t have to.

With a single, software-based approach, Google provided me with a good reason to abandon my iPod Nano.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my iPod.  The thing is light, gets good battery life, and is tiny.  Or “nano,” if you will.  But, I have to physically connect it to my laptop to transfer podcasts and music.  This isn’t that huge of a deal breaker for me, to tell you the truth, but I’ve got its cute little 8 GB hard drive maxed out, so I’m constantly selecting which podcasts need to go on the hard drive and when.  And sometimes, new editions of my podcasts are released while I’m at work, preventing me from being able to actually add them to my iPod, because my iPod is only linked with my laptop.

Now, using my phone, I can stream all of my music (~15 GB?) over the internet, and save the ones I want on my phone’s mini-SD card.  Moreover, as my phone has WiFi on it and a wealth of apps, I can access most if not all of those podcasts without having to download them to whatever device I’m using.

So in the end, I think I’ll be using the Google Music offering.  At least, once I get an invite.  For the time-being, I’ll settle for the Amazon Cloud Player.  It’ll be interesting to see what Amazon does to compete here, as Apple will be announcing their own “iCloud” service sometime in the relatively near future, and if Amazon wants to compete, they’ll have to do some drastic things.  iCloud will be built into every iOS device, and Google Music will be built into every Android device.  And the legal drama certainly isn’t over, as the record labels are unhappy with Google’s plan, and likely won’t be all that happy with Apple’s, either.

Where does Amazon go?