Archive: Technology

4k Blu-rays: excellent format, questionable lifespan

I have mixed feelings about 4K Blu-rays after plowing a lot of time and money into the technology. The format has significant hurdles for everyday TV watchers that make me question its longevity. Yet the upgrades have been substantial, at times incredible, even with a dated home theater setup.

That upgrade stems from Blu-ray’s unimpeachable picture and sound quality. In an era where most movies on streaming sites are compressed 1080p, where 4K streams may not even be an option unless you’re on a premium monthly plan, a 4K Blu-ray’s rock solid 4K HDR image looks sensational. The detail can be astonishing. In Blade Runner, as a character reads a newspaper, I can make out the text on individual articles. 4K Blu-rays also preserve the original film grain for movies shot on film stock, given the high quality scan. It’s a subtle effect that adds character, especially for older, classic films.

In fairness, you can purchase and rent many streaming movies in 4K. It’s also a commonplace resolution for streaming originals on services like Netflix and Apple TV Plus. However, because the data transfer rate on streaming is a third to a quarter of that on Blu-ray (streams top out at 40mbps, while Blu-ray maxes to 128mbps), the former relies on compression and other algorithmic tricks to deliver video.

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A better TV picture in an hour or less

The holidays are the prime season for new TVs. You may have bought one on sale. Or you’re encountering a “new” set because you’re visiting friends or family or taking an extended stay in a hotel or Airbnb. The ugly truth is that most TVs, even great ones, are left at their factory default settings, which are often flawed. They suffer from unnaturally smooth motion, garish colors, washed-out blacks, or parts of the image clipped out of existence.

We get bad defaults because manufacturers make a consensus choice across many tastes, TV content, and lighting conditions. That setup isn’t for you if you care at all about mirroring the creators’ artistic intent on a movie or TV show.

Better days are ahead for that TV with a few minutes in the system menus. If you have the extra time, you can calibrate brightness and contrast in under an hour to make the picture even better.

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Niche Consumption Theory challenges the mainstream

Every mainstream entertainment hit – from Marvel to Call of Duty, to prestige TV – is at more risk of a rapid decline in popularity than ever. Fueled by the internet and on-demand media, alternative options are compelling and diversified. So when the audience sees a weak spot in their entertainment library, many bail to new possibilities, even across different forms of media, and don’t look back. Let’s call it Niche Consumption Theory (NCT).

NCT is an underrated contributor to The Marvels bombing. While many factors sunk the box office, from middling reviews to superhero fatigue, it’s exacerbated by having so many great leisure substitutes to swap in. TikTok, PS5, mobile gaming, Netflix reality TV, VR, and other alternatives can look very appealing against a mid-tier MCU film. They won’t match the spectacle of a $300 million movie, but they don’t have to.

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A cost effective approach to streaming

As streaming services continue to raise prices and make questionable quality control decisions (unwanted filler, canceling shows, stripping perks), it’s crucial to take charge.

Pare down to the essentials, and treat everything else with a temporary “jump in, jump out” mindset. It’s a straightforward approach to follow, and along the way, you’ll save money and improve your watching patterns by paring down to what matters most.

Start with an audit of your interests and viewing habits. While a few rare types skip across many subscriptions evenly, it’s more likely that only one or two services dominate your time. Many would pick Netflix, with its abundant back catalog, or Disney Plus for family viewing. I’m a huge foreign and indie movie fan, so Mubi or The Criterion Channel are my go-tos. Limit this list to just one or two services, and consider them essentials. Subscribe and don’t look back.

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Netflix’s HDR gatekeeping is consumer unfriendly

High dynamic range (HDR) is one of the biggest innovations for TV and smartphone displays in years. The technology improves luminance, color, highlights, and shadows, giving TV shows and movies a more natural, realistic look. It also enjoys wide availability across TVs, mobile devices, and streaming content. But bafflingly, in 2023, Netflix is the only streaming service that gate keeps HDR behind their highest tier subscription. It’s an underhanded, dated, and consumer unfriendly practice.

Critically, Netflix’s tiered strategy around streaming quality leaves the overwhelming majority of its massive audience in the dark (literally) on HDR’s full potential. Netflix is ubiquitous, virtually a utility at this point, and locking HDR away hampers the technology’s long term awareness and adoption. Fewer eyeballs, more shrugs about HDR’s effectiveness, and potentially more filmmakers questioning how essential HDR capture is in the first place.

Of course, Netflix is far from the only streamer that offers HDR TV shows and movies. For example, on HBO Max, you can watch popular series like The Last of Us and House of the Dragon in 4K HDR. For Disney Plus, all recent Marvel and Star Wars features are streamable in 4K HDR.

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The Apple TV is the best streaming box for most

We are in peak shopping season for dedicated streaming devices from Apple, Roku, Google, and Amazon. There are seasonal sales, they make for a relatively affordable gift, and streaming services tend to get many new subscribers, spurning streaming hardware buys.

My advice: if you’re buying a dedicated streaming box, most should buy an Apple TV. Alternatively, if you are happy with your streaming life but have a few quibbles (like a missing service app on your setup), spend the bare minimum necessary to make your streaming experience tolerable. That latter scenario may mean spending nothing, bypassing existing hurdles by watching select content on a different device or casting from a phone (via Airplay or Chromecast) to your TV.

All other streaming options from Amazon, Google, and Roku are generally a substandard compromise. Yes, you’ll save a solid $80 to $100 in the short run. But you’re also shortchanging the longevity of the device, app availability and quality, and a host of other benefits unique primarily to Apple’s streaming box:

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The Apple Watch’s awkward blend of tech and fashion

I’m a fan of my new Apple Watch Series 8, but it packs too much computer on the wrist. Thanks to WatchOS’s increasingly busy UI and burgeoning case size, it’s becoming a harder sell as a fashion accessory.

There was a time when Apple felt like they were making a genuine fashion play with the Watch; worn accessories project someone’s sense of style in a way a phone or tablet never could. The venerable tech company tried to market high-end “edition” watches from pricey materials, and the strategy flopped.

Since then, it feels like stereotypical Silicon Valley executives have overtaken Apple Watch’s design sensibility. These are decision makers drunk with the power of having everything a tap away and losing sight of what makes a watch distinctive and fashionable. They’ve copied the strategy for iPhone and iPad as they blew up in size: more icons, more widgets, more glanceable information. Complications overload the Apple Watch’s default watch face configurations. Symbols and text are everywhere, manifesting in more distraction than an aid.

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Give Microsoft Edge a chance

After almost two decades of avoiding Microsoft-based web products whenever possible, I’ve come full circle: the new Microsoft Edge is my browser of choice. It has excellent privacy options, a large extension community, and developer support that makes it a reliable option on macOS over Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Admittedly, when I first started using the new Chromium-based Edge a few months ago, I was skeptical about its potential. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer left a bad taste in my mouth, thanks to the struggles I had developing against IE6 and IE7 in the early 2000s. But the more time I spent with this fresh iteration of Edge, the more I was left impressed.

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Recommended podcasts, pandemic edition

As I write this, NYC is a hotspot amid a global pandemic. I spend my days jumping between work, family, and too much coronavirus-related social media, almost exclusively within the confines of a one bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan. I’m aware this level of stability is, in many ways, a privilege, but it’s nevertheless a stressful time.

I find solace in podcasts covering subject matter removed from chaotic world events: film, gaming, and technology. COVID-19 is a big enough story that some virus talk per episode is inevitable. Still, hearing it from familiar voices, especially when they share the same feelings of anxiousness and isolation I have, is comforting. Podcasts are also easy to squeeze into my day, be it going on a late-night stroll outside, taking care of chores, or unwinding before bed.

What follows are a few of my favorites, grouped by subject. I purposely prioritized podcasts with smaller followings, though I note several more popular options at the end. Subscribe in your podcast app of choice or through the links I provide below.

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Tot: opinionated app design matters

Tot, a scratchpad app for macOS and iOS, has graduated from a side experiment to an essential part of my workflow in a matter of weeks. I highly recommend giving the app a try on Mac (it’s free), and if the design works for you, buy it on iOS.

Admittedly, when I first saw Tot pop up on social media and sites like MacStories, I was skeptical. There are already hundreds of note taking apps available on the App Store. Given several options like Bear and iA Writer nail the basics so thoroughly, with strong aesthetic design and years of iteration, it’s hard to see how any new competitor can stand out. But I’ve always had longstanding respect for The Iconfactory in terms of their attention to visual design. $20 later (more on that price in a bit), equipped with Tot’s iOS and Mac apps, I dove in to give it a try.

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