Things Change

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

Touch screen smartphones have become ubiquitous and seem to have established a standard interface. Gone on the whole are keyboards for these; a smooth, simple screen seems to be a better option for use, right?

But let’s think back to other ubiquitous devices such as the watch. From the 1930s, pocket watches were out and wristwatches in. All had a relatively standard and practical face to tell the time.

Then in the 80’s quartz digital took over by storm. Screens rather than a clock face could provide more information: calculator watches, world times, data storage, etc., etc.

It seemed to take hold because it was ‘just better’, but there was more to it than that. It started to become cheaper to manufacture and required less skill to create – mass production rather than hand made. Companies all over the world cropped up making these while the number of active traditional watchmakers shriveled.

End of story? Well, not really. Traditional watchmakers adapted the better aspects of digital technology and created ‘hybrid’ watches that still had the functional face but now with quartz accuracy, and the trend from screen moved back toward traditional clock faces. Look at any watchmaker’s website and you will likely see far more clock faces than screens.

There is now a slow but growing trend to smart watches; will this be the end of traditional watches again, like when quartz watches sprang up or smartphones ‘who needs a watch when you can look at your phone’ (apart from the fact you need to have it clutched in your hand or take it out of your pocket when you could just look at your wrist).

Things ChangeThe reason I speak of watches when I started with smartphones is because of the similarities to non-keyboard and QWERTY phones. Smartphones without keyboards are much cheaper to produce, need less tooling to manufacture and have fewer parts, and many have been convinced this is better for the customer. After all, a lot of people jumped to smartphones from the keypad ones, and they found it quicker and easier to type. But how many who already had keyboard smartphones thought it was a better move – a slide-out QWERTY keyboard had tactile feedback (Yes, our brain still prefers that regardless of what you may think.) They are able to type on the move and even without looking. Try that on a touchscreen phone while moving. It also means you are not taking up screen space with a virtual keyboard. Muscle memory doesn’t really come into effect with a touchscreen, either.

So, maybe after the euphoria has died down and people start to want what’s practical rather than what’s fashionable, we may start to see a return to smartphones that have the best of both worlds: touch screens and QWERTY keyboards. This is a chicken-and-egg situation, though, as manufacturers will be hesitant now that they are able to sell touch screen phones for the same price as QWERTY smartphones while making more profit. But the demand for a QWERTY keyboard on smartphones may push them back, especially with competition now; it’s looking like $25 smartphones are not that far in the future. A different price model may appear where you actually start to get what you pay for, rather than pay for what’s in vogue, ie., pay a little more for what’s more practical to use.

But humans don’t always think practically, or we wouldn’t have people walking around with their pants hanging off their arse. So, let’s wait and see.

Where Does The Time Go?

We were reminded by one of our social networks that we have been active with them for 3 years. Well, we’d hung our shingle out long before then, so we decided to have a look at some =IcaruS= history. We pulled out some memorables since 2008, and we thought we’d share.

Our Metaverse headquarters are in our new digs in Amicus Curiae, Second Life, and we look forward to seeing more visits from our friends and neighbours. For brief descriptions, hold your mouse over the pictures. Click to see larger views, or more views where available.

Smart TV / Mini PC – Why It’s the Best $50 You Will Spend

Android Mini-PCThese days there’s not much you can get for less than £30/$50 that’s actually really useful, but a Mini PC is the exception.

There are lots of reasons why we think you will want one besides just the ridiculously low price. The Mini PC is about the same size as a Google TV/Chromecast (about 1 inch by 3 inches) but it is far more than just a media centre for your TV. We highlight a few other uses below:

Ease of Use
Five out of six smartphone users around the world use Android devices. With nearly 80% market share, the Android operating system is a familiar sight to most, so it will be no surprise when you turn on your Mini PC for the first time. As for setting it up, it’s just a simple case of plugging it into the HDMI slot on your TV and powering it up. To control it, any wireless keyboard, mouse or controller will do, or you can use your existing smartphone or tablet as a controller with the appropriate software. Most offer a controller option as an extra anyway if you order thru most of the bigger sites like Amazon. After that, everything will be familiar to you. The built-in wireless feature means easy access to your network without any cables; the USB port can accept a hub for memory sticks and external hard drives, It also sports an SD card slot if you want more on-board memory. In short, it will be familiar to anyone who has used an Android smartphone or tablet.

Presentation Device
Because of its size and ease of use, it is an ideal option as a presentation device too. Just pop it in your pocket and anywhere there’s a big HD TV screen, you can simply plug it in and you have your PC, with all your media on it, waiting to be shown, with hardly any setting up and no more huddling round a tablet or laptop screen.

Work
Since Google Play is available on the Mini PC, you can get nearly all the same apps you have with your other devices: checking email or posting on Facebook or any other social links isn’t a problem, nor is writing up a quick letter to print off. You can do anything you did before – but on a bigger screen.

Play
Yes, inevitably it’s an Android game console too – 3D Snooker just seems so much better on a 50-inch screen than on your tablet. You could still play it on your phone or tablet, and screencast to your TV through the Mini PC, but why bother when it can be already on there anyway?

TV
Enjoy an extra 3000 TV channels with any of the TV apps available, or just YouTube, Netflix or any other number of ways to watch your favorite shows from the cloud or your hard drive. The Mini PC does stuff that a smart TV does, without the cost and it’s far more capable.

Connectivity
With a quick search through Google Play, you can find so many apps that will work great with the Mini PC. Plug in a webcam, download Skype and you’ve got family sitting around the TV talking to far-away friends or relatives without being at a desktop or passing round a phone/tablet. Share your snapshots or videos from your phone onto the big screen wirelessly, stream your music from wherever it is on your network or device to your TV surround sound through the Mini PC.

What could possibly stop you from getting one?

Where to get your Android Mini-PC
On Amazon in the UK:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/JUSTOP-Android-Internet-Adapter-Watching/dp/B00A8FWITI

On Amazon in the US:
http://www.amazon.com/Version-Bluetooth-Android-Google-Dongle/dp/B00A1ZTQB8

Simple Tip: Send Big Files Easily

Have you ever needed to send big files like videos such as machinima or backup zips but they were too big to send on email or Skype? Or perhaps your intended recipient was not FTP savvy?

By far the easiest way to do this is with JustBeamIt.

All you do is drag and drop your file onto their website, click on ‘get link’, then give this link to the recipient.

Just Beam It

The other advantage of this is that it doesn’t store your file(s) on any cloud server, it’s using peer to peer transfer, so it goes directly from your computer to theirs. There are no logins to do, no passwords to remember, no apps to download or file space charges or limits. It just does the job.

If you have a large file (there is no file size limit) and you need it sent quick, then this service seems the most handy to use.

Streaming between Android and Windows

In our last Android-Windows review, we looked at Android apps that allow transfer and sharing to/from your Windows PC.

In this post we will look at some free apps that are aimed at streaming media. Our Android device is the handy and very capable Nexus 7.

When you have large (think multiple gigabytes) music folders on your PC or library of videos, it’s not practical to copy them over to your Android device. Streaming them would be the better option, so we looked at four of the most popular and free streaming apps available for Android.

BSplayerFREE from BSPlayer Media

Setup with the BSPlayer is easy enough – select ‘LAN mode’ from Settings, then press and hold on your selected network to enable login details if your network is password protected. This will list all your shared folders on that PC.

BSPlayer 01 BSPlayer 02

Response time seems to be just as quick as viewing from any PC on your network; there are no long waits for caching, although if you have thumbnail generation selected this will slow things down. You can turn off thumbnail generation in settings.

BSPlayer works well with music files and videos, and seems to play most formats. It also includes subtitle support (ssa/ass, srt, sub, txt) and options for video. We were pleased to see it found multiple audio streams and both external and embedded subtitles. It will even find subtitles automatically.

Of the apps we looked at, this was the most trouble-free, with a minimum of setting up. However, it doesn’t seem to recognise picture formats, so this app is not what you want if you need a streaming slideshow viewer. One other downside is a rather clunky interface for navigating your LAN folders. There are no “up/parent” buttons, so you need to keep pressing the device’s “back” button to get back to return to the previous level or folder.

aVia Media Player from Videon Central

aVia 01aVia 02If you can get this one working – we had issues on certain networks and PCs – it’s a potentially useful app. We found this difficult to set up, with varying results connecting between users and networks.

The aVia Media Player uses Windows Media Server, if you have that enabled on your PC. It seems to work with some and not others – we enquired and the author told us the app does not support password protected media servers.

It does give the option of local sources and lets you connect to and stream from some cloud services such as Dropbox, Picasa and Facebook.

With the media servers that it did work with, there is some wait time for caching, but it does support photos/pictures, unlike BSPlayer. Some video formats may need some extra codecs installed, and some of those formats were those that BSplayer played out of the box. We would recommend comparing aVia with BSplayer to see which is best suited to your needs and your network.

XBMC

This app was not created by a typical company; instead it was originally developed by a group of like-minded programmers in 2003 and has become an award-winning, free and open source (GPL) software media player and entertainment hub for digital media that works on Windows, Linux, OSX and now Android.

XBMC 01 XBMC 02

Because it is multi-platform software, you won’t find it on Google Play. You’ll need to disable the third party security options in your Android device’s settings to install the app. It is just about usable on a 7-inch Nexus tablet, but it can get a bit ‘fiddly.’ It was originally designed for the home theater PC, but is now available on many platforms.

XBMC is very feature-rich. It’s probably overkill if you merely want to stream music and video. It seems to cache very quickly, but the interface can only be viewed in landscape mode. It works with many sources including Windows (SMB) networks, NFS,UPNP/Windows Media Server. It has lots of options beyond just pictures, music and video, so give it a try, it’s worth checking out. It even has a weather monitor, if that’s useful to you while you’re streaming.

BubbleUPNP from Bubblesoft

This app seemed to work better with local access rather than streaming from the network. It’s a simple enough interface, good for using with any local music/video and other files. However, when streaming from the network it seemed slow to cache (especially with 40-gigabyte music folders). It also seems to constantly refresh on every menu, even when it has been opened previously, so we spent a lot of time waiting and got timeout errors.

BubbleUPNP 01 BubbleUPNP 02

The free version is very feature-limited (reduced playlists, limited streaming time, etc.) so it’s hard to say what improvements the paid version would offer. We recommend trying any of the above apps before paying for the Pro version of this one.

It’s worth noting that you may need to enable some things on the PC you’re streaming from to get these apps running, such as ‘Wake on LAN’ or remove the sleep timeout setting, but it is definitely worth experimenting with these apps. You’ll gain access to large media libraries through your portable Android device. Give them a try!