The New Role of Smart­phones and Tablets In Home En­ter­tain­ment

NOVO - - SMARTPHONES AND TABLETS IN HOME ENTERTAINMENT - Jeremy Phan

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 touch­screen­based 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 bene ts 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- edged 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. Suf ce 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 au­toma- tion 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 glori ed 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 bene t 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, delity-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, HTR8063 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 de nitely 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 pro cient 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!

Pi­o­neer’s iCon­trolAV2012 app turns your smart­phone or tablet into a pow­er­ful re­mote con­trol for your re­ceiver.

Mi­crosoft’s SmartGlass app will al­low you to in­ter­act with the Xbox 360 like never be­fore.

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