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).

Another Reason to Buy American

A few months ago, I started listening to This American Life, a weekly Public Radio International show typically broadcast on NPR (Sundays around here, I think). Back in late July, they broadcast an episode about “patent trolls” that was particularly engaging, so I’ve been hooked ever since.

Last week’s episode, which I highly suggest you listen to, focuses on manufacturing in China, specifically, of products in Shenzhen.  Products from Samsung, Dell, HP, and more specifically, Apple.  Mike Daisey is something of a story-teller, so he gets up on stage in front of live audiences and talks in one-man shows.  As an Apple lover, he expounds upon his history with their products and how he always sought to understand how his iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro, etc. worked, even going so far as to take his laptop(s) apart, clean them, and put them back together.  Through various circumstances, it occurred to him that he knew very little about how these products were actually made, however, so he took a trip to Shenzhen to visit the Foxconn plant where practically all Apple products are manufactured.  As others have reported in the past, he found harsh working conditions, that unions were illegal, and that underage girls were employed in the factory.

More to the point of what I’m getting at, Daisey says that Apple is actually doing relatively well with their manufacturing practices, holding yearly audits, requiring that their manufacturers follow strict guidelines, and so on.  Others in China and Southeast Asia, as a whole, aren’t as careful.  Some have even suggested that, while these practices are obviously unfortunate, in many ways, it still provides a better living than these individuals had prior to industrialization.  And furthermore, in many ways, these countries are currently ascending much as the United States did in the Industrial Revolution.  It’s something of a “growing pain” that countries must go through before they can decide what work practices will be most efficient for the company, and most beneficial to the worker.

This issue is something I’ve never associated with the idea behind “Buy American,” or at least, “Buy From Companies You Know Are Providing Some Level Of Non-Exploitative Treatment To Their Workers.”  Many (most?) manufacturing plants in North America are pretty good about treating their workers fairly, with some limit on hours worked, over-time pay, a minimum wage, and so on (depending on unionization and other factors, of course).   There are a variety of European companies that do as well or better in the treatment of their workers, and I’m sure there are even some in Asia that do right by their employees.  While I’m suggesting a focus on looking into the manufacturing processes of companies we tend to buy from, I just see the whole endeavor as another reason to just Buy (North) American.

Up until now, I always thought of it as an economic issue, to keep our money here rather than sending it overseas.  Increasingly, this is difficult as manufacturing jobs have all but left the U.S.  Even when we “Buy American” in things like cars, they’re only assembled here: all the individual parts are built/assembled overseas.  But after listening to this particular story, it makes me consider other reasons to try buying American-made/grown products, where feasible.  Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to buy a TV, an MP3 player, a computer, or a phone that was assembled, let alone built, in the U.S.  I guess I’d like to see the “Buy American” ideal extended so it not only encompasses the economic need to keep our money here, but also the need to extend the rights of workers and the belief that each individual has value to the countries that make all the “stuff” we keep buying.  Perhaps something like the “Fair Trade” label used on food products from around the world: a certification process companies can apply for to provide some degree of protections for the people they employ.

I dunno.  I just never really thought about the concept of “Buy American” as a way to reward companies that treat their workers well.  Perhaps we all should.

Edit: In mid-March, This American Life had to retract their initial report, listed above, saying that Daisey had fabricated enough portions of his monologue that they deemed it unfit for their journalistic standards.  Generally speaking, things like chronology, specific interviews, and certain details were fact-checked with his translator, Cathy, who told This American Life that it didn’t all happen in that order or in that way.  They interviewed Daisey again in the podcast from that week, who felt badly for the ordeal, but wanted to make sure people realized that the things he said are “true” in that they happened at Apple plants: just not necessarily on his particular visit.

The Other Reason(s) For Smartphones

As most people I know, I’m a fan of technological “toys.”  Smartphones are one of those things, however, that I was a bit slower in getting, mostly due to the costs involved.  The phones themselves tend to be more expensive, and you frequently have to have a data plan attached for at least $15/mo with many carriers.

There are obvious reasons that a smartphone can make your life easier, and most of these reasons involve internet access.  Alternatively, they can also make your life more complicated, especially if you detest the feeling of constant connectedness (which I don’t).  I’ve decided, however, to compile a list of reasons that are a bit less obvious to consider a smartphone.

  1. Customization – In many cases, people will get a new phone with a contract renewal and are then stuck with that phone for 2 years until the contract is up.  You can always buy a new phone, but you won’t get the subsidized version, thereby making what was a $100 more like $500 (the price of a reasonable laptop…).  Over the course of 2 years, I tend to get tired of the interface, especially as I’m seeing new phones coming out to supersede mine.  It makes the phone feel old, even though it works perfectly fine.  Smartphones radically change this dynamic.  Phones that run the Android OS, especially, have “themes” that can be installed to completely change the interface, much like you can change the wallpaper, icons, and color schemes on your computer.  In the case of many Android phones, you can even get OS upgrades that provide many new features.  And you can install applications.  In total, it’s like getting a new phone every time you change the theme or upgrade the OS, much as getting a new version of Windows or Linux is like getting a whole new computer.
  2. WiFi – This could seem like an “obvious” or a “less obvious” depending on how you look at it,  I would argue that most people would look to the 3G or 4G radios as being the most useful feature of these phones, yet I find that I hardly use that particular technology.  With AT&T, for $15/mo, you get 200 MB of data to download.  Right now, about 3/4 through the billing cycle, I’ve used about 36% of my allotment, and I’ve actually been using it more heavily than I normally do this month.  This fact will change depending on where you work, but in my case, I typically work around WiFi, and I have WiFi at home.  So for me, the WiFi is a much more useful feature in the phone.  Sure, it’s nice to have 3G available, but living in the Midwest as we do, traveling between Iowa and Missouri, I find that we rarely have 3G access for the whole trip anyway.
  3. Camera – My phone, the HTC Inspire 4G, has an 8 MP camera and an LED flash.  It isn’t the greatest camera in the world, but it’s “good enough” for snapshots.  I don’t use it as a camera replacement, however I find that I’m much more likely to take a picture and upload it to Facebook for all to see, as it’s thoroughly convenient.  As simple as: take picture; click button; select “Facebook;” and then upload.  In the past, I had to grab the camera, take the picture, remove the SD card to transfer the picture to the computer, open the browser, resize the picture, then upload it.  Much more cumbersome, especially for something as “inconsequential” as a random picture of Meg eating her lunch.  Having a reasonably decent camera on me at all times has made me take more pictures of Meg for the sole purpose of posting it online.

Of course, there are countless other reasons to have a smartphone.  I just figure that these are a few that one may not consider as they’re shopping around.  At least, these are the things I find myself most impressed by and using more often than I thought I would (with the exception of the Wifi…I knew I’d use it all the time…).