Samsung Smart TV – Day 1

So I finally unboxed and installed my Samsung Smart TV (UEH6240). Just been a day and im not quite used to it, but I feel from a UX point-of-view the first impressions of the device are more important.
The TV itself is quite nice, I havent tried true 1080p to see how detailed it is, but I’ll get to that later.
It comes with one remote which has reasonably large rubber buttons and clearly labelled. Will take a while to get used to it, but its not bad. There are no buttons on the TV itself so make sure you always have batteries in the remote (or hook up a BT KB or Mourse to it).
Remote-to-TV is teeny bit laggy IMHO, cant go too fast, but its not really slow.
When the TV boots up, you get a bit of a demo video. Here is where I have the most problems though. There is a setup wizard that lets you setup network etc quite quickly but there is no onboarding. There definitely needed to be an onboarding tutorial for the remote, tv settings and especially the TV UX.
The main reason I emphasise on the TV UX onboarding is that its really crap. There is no labeling/text at most places, its hard to see where you need to go and what can be done.
So lets go to the Samsung TV Interface, (I probably should post up images here).
It seems you end up with 4 screens. The home screen is very SPARSE! There is a strip at the bottom with links to your recently used apps. On top of that is a small button tab thing (3 icons in it in my case). This takes you to the remaining 3 screens which seem to be the Samsung SmartHub app.
There is no labelling on any of the screens so you really dont know where you are and what the screen is called.
So the first of these screens is the Games screen where you can install games. So far none of them worked for me and they all asked me for a Samsung SmartHub account (more problems on that front later!). There is no way to search for the games, you have 8 or 10 games showcased on the main screen, and you can go to categories/whats new.
The second screen is the Samsung Apps screen which is similar. It does display all your installed apps but you cannot search for new apps. There are sections for popular, whats new, and categories. Its a bit of a pain to scroll these at times as scrolling to the right or left will change your screen.
The third screen is about media. It seems to display online radio stations or other video sources. I still have not figured out what is supposed to happen on this screen.

Ok, a very confusing UX, but what about the platform and connectivity?

Samsung SmartHub account

I fell at the first hurdle. Reluctantly I went to the Samsung website to create an account, but it told me my email address was already in use. Great, lets use the old account then. While I could sign into that account from my PC, it failed to login to SmartHub with some obscure error. I will try again with my TV but i doubt it will work. And this is the bane of most of my problems and the whole platform is tied into this account so I wont be able to do anything

Connecting to your phone

I have a Samsung Galaxy S3 (running 4.1) and a Moto G (running 5.0) so I thought I would be covered, Samsung loves Android, right? Cant be more wrong, complete fragmentation. It told me to install AllShare or SmartView2 on my phones. I tried various samsung apps on both phones. The S3 wasnt accepted since it wasnt running KitKat, and the Moto G wasnt accepted since it wasnt a Samsung phone. Out of the box it seems I wont be able to use any of my phones with the TV which is quite frankly incredibly disappointing as there is definitely not a technological limitation, just a fragmentation on Samsungs own focus.
I need to check how it plays out with iPhones but im not too hopeful on that.

Connecting to your PC

So TVs have supported protocols like DLNA and Miracast for a long time, so this should be easy, right?
Well out of the box, again I’m told to install various things on my PC that I cannot find or download or sign in to. Again very disappointing.
I’m going to give Plex a go on this as this is pretty much my ONLY option short of needed an HTPC.

Platform

AllShare SmartView2 all that crap and confusion. I feel this platform lacks focus, and updates break things.

What I expect from a Smart TV

Connectivity. I just expect the TV can connect to my phone, my PC, my cable provider all via network so I dont have to install useless apps or sign in to services i dont want to use. In the future I hope Virgin and Sky will stream everything (the Netflix way), so set top boxes will be made redundant. There is a sad issue of standardization on smart tv apps and technologies which suggests app development will be only manufacturer specific. Possibly AndroidTV will change this, but that still has a while to do. Personally I would prefer an HTPC setup for the flexibility, but SmartTVs are cheap and widely available so you might end up with one even if you dont care about them.

Battle of the IDEs and Editors

For some reason recently I’ve been playing around with too many IDEs and Code Editors. A lot of them are new for me and I havent delved into them too much or used them extensively. But just played enough with them, looked at the plugins/themes and the extensibility framework.

For a while I’ve been using the following

emacs (everything on linux)

i used emacs for everything on linux, its such a pleasure to work with. the theme support is great (currently im on solarized), its extensible, its customisable. its just amazing how much depth there is to this simple editor, that i feel i have a lot more to explore. its a real editor that makes the workflow so much smoother.

eclipse (java, perl, python, tcl)

i didnt like eclipse early since i was using it on a slow computer its eclipse is a serious resource hog. i also didnt like it since it felt too overwhelming, but along with time as i got used to it (and i got an ssd) its not too bad. its a real IDE that can support a large number of languages, and plugins. the autocomplete and quickfix are amazing. its really fast to write code in eclipse although it does feel its doing most of the boiler plate stuff for you. the code organisation, the build tools,, its a really powerful IDE, i havent seen anything missing from it.

visual studio express 2013 (c, vb.net)

microsoft made this free, so i thought i’d give it re-spin. my previous experience with vb.net and an older version werent so great so made me leave it. to be honest i havent played with vs2013 alot to say anything except it feels lighter than before, and yeah i managed to add the solarize them to it!

b4x (basic)

the b4x tools used to build for android or desktop had been updated so i thought i’d give them a go. havent managed to add my favourite theme to it yet. its light and fast, much better than the previous versions. still not at all extensible or customisable. its great to write fast basic code, the language itself is a joy to work with. the ide code completion etc is pretty good, but i really miss customisable shortcuts and better project view.

pycharm (python)

so ive only just started using pycharm and i havent even managed to write a single proper script in it so cant say a lot. it feels heavier than it should for a python ide, and i didnt see any exceptional python features so far. however its very themable once again, but i really have to use it properly to get a better feel.

idle (python)

so i used idle to write some basic scripts..umm…i didnt really like it. it did the job but was too clunky.

atom (not sure)

atom just came out from github so i thought lets give it a go. im quite impressed. some good themes (yes i solarized it), and extensible. from the looks of it i might replace notepad++ for some tasks. it feels very nice, an insane amount of keybindings, im really looking forward to see what i can use it for.

notepad++ (anything)

this is my go-to editor to open pretty much any file whether its code or not. its clean, its got some insane features, but most of all its FAST. im not a fan of the interface, but its still quite extendible. guess what, i even got a solarized theme for it, but its been trouble some, i think the theme and syntax highlighting are conflicting a bit.

brackets.io (html/css)

i gave brackets a shot for a short while since it looked great, and im hoping sublime comes to windows one day. to be honest i couldnt really work with it as they way to do some things wasnt what i expected them to be. also i dont have a lot of html/css to do so maybe one day i will go back.

Installing Ubuntu in VirtualBox

So I had some issues with the graphics drivers when installing Ubuntu 14.04 in virtualbox. The installation itself is straightforward, just mount the ISO and it installs within minutes. I following quite a lot of steps to get the graphics resolution to ramp up from 640×480.

I installed VirtualBox guest extension pack (by mounting the VirtualBox CD in the VB menu). However it seemed to complain about headers not matching even though it completed successfully. I tried installing various x-org packages and dkms but nothing would work. I kept getting this error:

The headers for the current running kernel were not found…

Until I saw this ticket: https://www.virtualbox.org/ticket/12623

Anyway, before I tried this (and I still think I dont have the correct video drivers) I also tried another method described here: http://www.linuxbsdos.com/2014/10/31/solutions-for-low-screen-resolution-in-ubuntu-14-0414-10-and-virtualbox/

I used Xdiagnose to turn on debug and boot messages and somehow now I can get up 1024×768!

Furthermore, I installed VirtualBox 4.3.22 and tried with the new extensions but they were failing. I had to manually remove the symlinks that the install was complaining that already exists. Then it finally installed. Now the resolution goes upto 1600×1200 and is a bit more smoother.

Next step is to probably see how I can further improve performance by setting up more cores/memory or transfering it to an SSD.

Chromecast: Understanding its Potential beyond Video Streaming

This article discusses how to create web applications with the Chromecast using js

The EWD Files

Google launched the $35 Chromecast into the US market in July 2013 and it became available in the UK in March 2014.  It’s primarily marketed as a device for streaming video to your TV, and, as such, is usually compared with the Roku streamer, Apple TV and the new Amazon Fire TV.

Once you look under the covers, you discover that such comparisons are misleading: unlike the other devices, the Chromecast is actually much more than just a streaming device for TV.  This became clear when Google launched their Software Development Kit (SDK), allowing developers to build their own custom applications for the Chromecast.  Having had my hands on one since almost the day they became available in the UK, I’ve come to think that it’s one of the most exciting and interesting devices of recent times, and I believe it has huge potential within many market sectors…

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IFTTT Android App lands on Google Play Store! Get ready for some unique Android related recipes

I’d love to check this out. This is Tasker with Webhooks!

AIVAnet


IFTTT fans! It?s a great day for us. IFTTT has released their official Android app on the Google Play Store. IFTTT or If This Then That is a free service that lets you connect various web applications together through simple conditional statements.

IFTTT Android App

IFTTT Android App

Users can create unlimited ?recipes? from nearly 100 different web services including social networks, cloud storage products, sharing services, sports score providers and Android as well as iOS related channels, etc. IFTTT has been praised by a lot of tech experts and publications such as Forbes, Time, Wired and the NYTimes.

IFTTT Android App Screenshot

IFTTT Android App Screenshot


You can use it to duplicate files between Dropbox and Google Drive or send a text to yourself when it is going to rain. IFTTT for Android allows adding even more Android related channels such as location, SMS, notifications, calls and photos. You can use these new channels in collaboration with…

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Remote control for ChromeCast

So while using (and being impressed) with my Chromecast, I have found one thing missing in the whole user experience. A remote. And possibly a unified remote. While controlling the cast from the phone is not too bad, trying to pause/resume it from the PC is a right nightmare.

I did some research and digging on how to write a Chromecast app for this purpose. Using the Google Cast API I found it was possible to join the current application (without a session id) and also control it using a RemoteMediaPlayer object. This seems to work great on standard apps written with the release Google Cast SDK. I tried on LocalCast and Cloudcast and I was able to control their streams (maybe they use a standard receiver).

However with other apps like Youtube and Vevo this method does not work. This is a major disappointment to me, since I expect all apps to use the same SDK and standard commands. I believe Youtube has been on its own preview SDK and I am not sure about Vevo, maybe they have a non-standard receiver. Nevertheless I expect all receivers to atleast conform to the same standard media playback commands.

Automated regression testing of Chromecast using Cucumber, JRuby and Rukuli

This is really cool!

a little place of calm

As you may know, i work as a Developer In Test for Media Playout at the BBC. We enable audio and video playout on the web (desktop, tablet and mobile) using our Standard Media Player.

We recently added support for Chromecast, and i want to write a bit about how i automated testing for it.

Chromecast HDMI dongle Chromecast HDMI dongle

Chromecast is a HDMI dongle that plugs into a normal television and adds connected TV functionality. The neat thing is you can control it from your laptop, tablet or mobile using the media apps that you already know, such as YouTube, Netflix and now BBC iPlayer. Google also provides an API so that new Chromecast apps can be written all the time.

So how do you test a Chromecast? Well, personally i like to test things from an user’s point of view, actually clicking things and observing what happens as a result…

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NowTV / Roku2 to stream local media

The NowTV box can be had for only £9.99, a price virtually impossible to beat.  It is a rebranded Roku2 which normally goes for £40 so pretty sure Sky is making a loss on selling the devices, but they probably cover it up in subscriptions.

However, what I am interested is how good a local network streaming box it is.  Not interested in the subscriptions or web apps. For this reason my review is partially of the box and partially of Plex, the app used for streaming.

Usability

The interface is clean and uncluttered. The navigation is fast. The remote is very good. While initially I had issues connecting via WiFi I later realized that I was actually connected and getting wrong messages for some reason. The menus are quite interesting, and things look very nice on the usability side. You can even download the Roku app and use that as a remote, however nothing beat the laid back couch slopping feeling of being able to use the remote control.

The remote is simple, I would say missing some descriptive buttons, but once you figure it out, it is very smooth.

Very rarely did I find myself stuck somewhere where the box would not respond immediately. This was usually on single-threaded operations like buffering etc, but eventually it would come back.

 Discovery

The box I got from a friend already had Plex installed on it. To stream media from a PC or NAS or even mobile you need to sideload either Plex or XBMC (cannot do both) on to it. I am not aware of the gory details of that but once you are past that stage you need to install Plex (or XBMC) media server on your PC, point it to your media and you are ready to go. I wont say I liked the Plex interface on the box, but it does work fine.

Also, you can download the PlayTo Roku app on your (Android phone) and stream videos from your phone to the box too which seemed to work great too.

Playback

Now remember this box supports 720p, which is fine especially if you are streaming over a wireless network. When streaming higher quality/higher bitrate videos, Plex would transcode the video to lower quality. This puts the media serving PC under pressure, and also increases the buffering time by quite a lot. So from pressing Play to seeing the video on the TV it may be a full two minutes or more (depending on how spiffy your PC is, and remember Plex does not use QuickSync). Usually this is fine, if it just happens at the beginning of the stream, however if you skip forward or rewind, this means that you will face more loading/buffering times, which can be rather annoying if you missed a single dialog or so forth. The limiting factor is probably the limited storage on the device that cannot keep the buffererd stream for a long time.

On lower quality/bitrate videos there were not many issues and it works great. I do wish Plex gave more information about the video like video and audio codecs used so I could make better comparisons.

Anyway I was quite happy with the £9.99 device, it works surprising well and lag free most of the time. The hardware isnt exactly zippy, but not laggy either. Streaming Youtube and TED was spot on. You are limited to the apps on the Roku store though, and further limited I believe as Sky blocks some more apps on the Roku store to promote its own subscriptions. Consuming less than 2W on streaming, and with a very handy remote pretty impressed.

Getting media on the TV : Stage 0

Ever since moving home I have been struggling to get my media and movies on the TV. Previously they were so close so I used a long enough HDMI cable for great results.
These days I have been confused as there are very few solutions that properly allow to stream movies from a PC.
So I got to test 2 devices today. Can’t say I have played with them thoroughly yet.
One is the NowTV box which is extremely cheap. It is a rebranded Roku 2 LT I believe. However I failed to get it to connect with my network for some reason. It simply cannot access the local network.
The other device was a Raspberry Pi running OpenElec. Surprisingly fast although I had heard they are slow with xbmc. While I got it on Ethernet and connected the android xbmc remote app I didn’t figure out how to connect it to my PC. I guess I need to install the server there so will play with that later. My power lead however was coming loose on every movement causing a reboot. Also my wireless usb mouse worked for a few minutes and then refused to work after that.
Well, a lot more testing is needed until I get my Chromecast.