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Sunday, December 22, 2013


If you are still looking for that perfect Christmas gift, Chromecast just may fit the bill.

Although Chromecast is still in beta, it is a very nice little tool.  But I should probably point out why I bought my Chromecast, as it will not be the perfect gift for all...

1)  I do not have a smartTV.  I do have a nice, older 32" VIZIO HDTV.
2)  I do not have a smartTV add-on box such as a SamsungTV, GoogleTV, AppleTV, or Roku streaming device box.
3)  I am kind of thrifty for an early adopter.

That said, I also believe that Chromecast might offer something that the smartTVs and add-on smartTV boxes do not, eventually.  And that is, streaming photos, video and music directly from your phone through WiFi.

As mentioned, although Google Chromecast is still in beta, it is pretty good.  However, the truth be told, I did have to exchange my first one for a new one.  The first one I bought on "Black Friday" was only $30.00 at Best Buy and was supposed to come with a $6.00 credit at the Google Play store.  I did get the deal on the price, but was snubbed on the Google Play store $6.00 credit.  According to Google's own instructions, there should have been instructions on how to collect (or redeem) the well advertised $6.00 credit at the Play store on my Best Buy receipt, and there was none.  So again, we run into the truth in advertising dilemna.  I absolutely hate promoting stuff that, whether useful or not, does not include truth in advertising.  As an advertising guy myself, to outright lie to the consumer is absolutely sinful and invites disdain and boycotting.  However, this was a one-day promotion that will be extremely limited to those of us that purchased the Chromecast unit on Black Friday only, so I do think that this product is still worthy despite the promotional problems at Best Buy (and possibly other outlets).

I did purchase the product in-store at Best Buy.  The first one worked for a day.  As I had worked all night at Kohl's starting on Thanksgiving (which I consider an anti-family decision made by Kohl's corporate, as my Thanksgiving was completely disturbed by being required to work that very holiday and not being able to spend it dining and celebrating with my family as most enjoyed), I was very tired but still got out to do a little Black Friday shopping of My own.  After grabbing my selected Black Friday specials at Kohl's, I went to Best Buy specifically to check out the deals there and yet somehow only walked away with the Chromecast.  Upon returning home I set it up easily and had no real issues, though there were a few points inbetween updates that flashed static that looked a little strange.  Still, I watched a couple of YouTube videos and fell asleep watching a movie on NetFlix with it.  The streamed internet video signal I was watching was even much better than when I hooked-up and watched NetFlix video on my (now non-funtioning) dual-core 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra processor powered Asus Transformer Eee Pad (TF101) via its miniHDMI port.

Unfortunately, the next day that Chromecast stopped working.  I contacted Google Chromecast support through online webmail and followed-up with an email (the only way you can contact Chromecast support) and told them that although the device had worked great the previous morning, it was delivering no signal at all today.  Then, all of their support instructions indicated that I should get to a certain screen, apparently not reading that I have no signal from the Chromecast device at all.

Luckily, a couple of weeks later, I was finally able to manage getting all the little pieces, document, box and receipts together and returning the Chromecast to Best Buy at an even exchange and the new device performs flawlessly.  On top of that, I have never experienced a flash of static and point in this unit's young life, so far.  The signal is always rock solid and the device streams video and music (through Pandora) flawlessly.  There hasn't even been one glitch or hiccup in the quality of the playback.

I am still miffed as to why Best Buy failed to support the Black Friday $6.00 Google Play store credit, though.  This was the very promotion that the Google representative pointed out to me, and it was clearly displayed and advertised in the store.  And although this does help to further sour me on Best Buy and even though I did discuss the fact that I didn't get the $6.00 advertised credit, nor did I have any way to do so as shown by the receipt I used to exchange the non-fuctioning Chromecast, but they directed me to take up the issue with the Google lady, who works the same limited hours as I do.  I mean, this was a Best Buy promotion and they are apparently refusing to stand-by their own promotion.  C'MON, MAN!

So, for anyone without a smart HDTV that can already stream stuff, someone who also doesn't have a smart TV streaming device, Google Chrome is a really good choice.  Setup is easy and quick.  The software update doesn't take too long, either.  And you can use your network connected Windows, Linux or Android based desktop, laptop, tablet or smart-phone to control it.

I would like to see more application support, though.  Particularly, I would like to see support for Gallery, so that you can stream photos and video directly from your smart hand-held device without having to first upload things to YouTube or VEO, etc.

Currently, Chromecast supports casting Chrome tabs as well as the following Chromcast enabled apps:

  • YouTube app &
  • Netflix app and
  • Google Play Movies & TV
  • Google Play Music
  • Hulu Plus
  • Pandora
  • HBOGo
  • Vevo
  • Red Bull.TV
  • Songza
  • Plex
  • PostTV
  • Viki
  • RealPlayer Cloud
  • aVia
  • Revision3
  • BeyondPod
(...the above list was pulled directly from the Chromcast apps support page on Dec. 22nd, 2013)

Above all, this product is still in beta and is improving a great deal fast with added support for many apps.  I just don't think that anyone will be displeased with a Chromecast unless they already have a smartTV or smart HDTV device.

Of course, you do need an HDTV and some sort of broadband internet connected computerized device to use this, and it is best used, and I think more conveniently, with hand-held devices (phones & tablets).  But my second Chromecast works flawlessly.  If you are on a busier or stressed load network it might not stream as well, as a great deal will have to do with your available internet bandwidth.  But with most home networks, that shouldn't be an issue.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Polaroid S8 by Southern Telecom: Back to a Cheap Tablet (Again)

First, let Me be honest and clear... This is a review for the model S8 tablet that is designed and manufactured by Southern Telecom and licensed and marketed under the now otherwise defunct Polaroid brand name.

But you in order for you to understand my predicament, you have to know the whole story. I am a web designer. I have been trying to move into the mobile app development market for years, now. The mobile app development game will become bigger than the website game has ever been, and it will do so in short order. Websites will remain necessary, but will neither be as convenient nor be as handy as an app on your phone, tablet or other hand held device. Websites will just become backup presentations, and they will start doing so within the next year.

So as a web design freelancer trying to expand my reach and offerings, it is a simple decision, it is mandatory that I learn to support mobile devices. So I have been trying to accomplish just that. I have bought smart phones and tablets, books on the subject. Because I have to, to survive.

Originally, I purchased a Pandigital Planet tablet. That was over 2 years ago. The stupid thing was so slow and unresponsive that I had to return it to Kohl's. It was a perfect example of bad engineering.

When I took it back, I still wanted a tablet, so I exchanged it for Southern Telecom's "Polaroid" T7 Internet Tablet. But, that thing was also a piece of crap. In fact, to this day I am absolutely amazed at what terrible garbage that Kohl's, the place where I work, was passing off to consumers as technology. These tablets were beyond pathetic, they were unresponsive, non-functional, unusable and completely worthless. I tried everything I could think of in order to get them to work, and never had any success. I was so disturbed with the cheapness of these unusable products that I was greatly alarmed and had to rethink whether or not I should stay with the company. I thought that I had been working at a quality retailer that cared, but I was not getting that feeling.

But when I had discussed these tablets with others, I was always given the impression that I am picky, that they were proud of their tablets, and that we were the early adopters that would have to suffer this technology and make it better by pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. So I did just that.

My main concerns about device un-usability were addressed in public forums in the hopes that the feedback I provided would be put to good use to make these products better.

One of the biggest misconceptions about these hand held devices were that they had easy-to-use touch screens. They don't. They really do require a stylus, and even then they are not reliable. My Droid X is much more reliable (even to this day) than these devices ever were. The Droid X touchscreen puts them to shame even though it is 3 years old, compared to when these tablets were brand spanking new. They simply aren't responsive and are very unreliable.

The other biggest problem with device usability stems from the lack of decent wireless reception. You can't use a device that is wi-fi concentric if you can't stay connected in a wi-fi enabled environment. Even though every computerized device in the house (2 desktops, 3 laptops, 1 iPad, 5 Samsung smart phones, 1 Droid X, 1 Blu-ray player & 1 Chromecast) all can get our wireless N signal anywhere in the house, the Planet and the T7 Internet Tablet could not get the signal from my couch (which is not even close to being the furthest point in our living quarters). If a device is going to rely on wi-fi for functionality (internet, web, email, apps, updates, streaming audio & video, network games, socialization, etc...), the wireless reception needs to work.

There were all sorts of other issues. These devices were manufactured with too small of a ROM, very little RAM, too little storage memory, slow processors, no bluetooth capabilities, very little battery life and no access to the Google Play store or apps. The list went on, but all of these things needed to be addressed before cheap tablets would even amount to anything.

But I decided to keep my Polaroid T7 because maybe some day someone would develop a decent remote that I could control my TVs with (Maybe, eventually, anyway). But I did feel that the T7 7" Internet Tablet had an edge over the Planet because if I held it just right I could sometimes get a wireless N signal while the Pandigital Planet never did.

Unfortunately, I just ain't ballsy enough to hold my arm outstretched while sitting on the couch, I whimp out after about 5 minutes. And the signal is too weak for it to be quick about anything network related. So I never used the T7. I still have it here on my desk. It still is hard to use and often I have to poke one button or link multiple times in order to do something just once. But I ca't use my finger, I have to use a stylus or it will never work right. I deleted all the extra apps and it still sucks. It's just useless.

So a year went by before I tried getting another tablet. I grabbed a refurbished Asus Eee Pad TF101 Transformer with dock bundle. This thing actually worked pretty great, I was impressed and happy. The dual core Nvidia Tegra processor wasn't real speedy, but it wasn't incredibly and painfully slow, either. The battery went a good portion of the day and if I had the keyboard dock plugged into it using it like a laptop, it would go all day long on the extra battery in the keyboard.

The TF101 Transformer was actually a good little tablet and I was glad that I bought it. This wasn't real cheap either, I had enough invested here to buy my mom another brand new full service Windows 8 touchscreen laptop. But I wanted to develop on the Windows Android platform, the cheap tablets were cheap crap, and I needed something that would work. Unfortunately, it didn't.

One day inside of six months of owning the contraption, I plugged it into a hotel outlet and the red light went on and then out. The keyboard dock wouldn't charge. Within a week, the tablet itself wouldn't charge, either. I sent off for a new Asus stock charger at Amazon, along with new longer cords and a a car charger. But the new stock charger wouldn't charge anything, either.

So on Black Friday I resisted getting any cheap tablets, even though they went on sale and we had some left at the end of my shift. I concentrated on getting the gifts I could since I had been laid-up due to arthroscopic hip surgery. But with nothing worthy of my $60.00 Kohl's cash the next week, I grabbed the Polaroid S8 (8") Internet Tablet this weekend.

I've only had it a couple of days so far... but here's what I wound-up with:

Southern Telecom's "Polaroid" S8 (8 inch) Internet Tablet

The Polaroid S8 Internet Tablet now has a dual-core processor, bluetooth, dual cameras, supports the Google Play store, and offers a microUSB port, a microSDCard slot, a miniHDMI port, a headphone jack, a dedicated power jack for its AC/DC adapter. The battery is a rechargeable Li-ion Polymer. It runs on Jelly Bean, which is Android OS version 4.2. It is supposed to feature an 8" capactive multi-touch touch screen display with a 1024 x 768 resolution (offering the traditional 4 x 3 aspect ratio). It is supposed to support 802.11 b/g/n wireless wi-fi networking. There is a front mounted speaker. It comes with 1 GB of DDR RAM and 4 GB of internal storage memory.

So, it sounds pretty good. It sounded good enough for me to at least give it a shot. But am I happy?

Well, there are two pretty important things that I learned from the old T7 Internet Tablet. First: It needs to be able to be responsive. Second: It needs to be able to network with my wi-fi (802.11 n) system. Well, one out of two hardly hits the mark.

As far as being responsive, it isn't. You still need a stylus in order to coax it along. But the good news is that with a stylus, the thing can actually work quite well. As long as I used a stylus, I was pretty much clicking everything the first time, with a few exceptions. This alone is much better than the T7, I can actually get somewhere with the S8!

But alas, I cannot use my S8 downstairs on the couch. Not even if I hold it up with my arm outstretched will I ever get a signal down there. So if you only have one wi-fi source, and a decent sized home, the S8 Internet Tablet will probably be useless unless it is very close to the source wi-fi router.

However, I did come-up with a work-around. I can put my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 into mobile hotspot mode and use it as my router. The S8 was easy to setup for this, but I also have to remember that I can't be downloading apps and streaming audio and video in this setup because when my Galaxy Note 2 is in its mobile hotspot configuration, the internet is accessed through my mobile 4g data plan, and that is very finite. I sure don't want to go over my data limit at Verizon.

There probably is another work-around, as well. There are some new routers which support a wider signal using the 802.11 ac. But it is still unclear to me if the older n wi-fi signal that these routers also support is broadened along with the wider ac signal. So I still have to check-up on that part of it. But that still requires shelling out another $150.00 for a new router that unless you didn't have a cheap tablet, you wouldn't even need. So I'm not so sure that work-around is so good when if you spend the money on a better tablet, you will get much better wireless and a much more responsive tablet.

Another possible work-around might be to allow the Galaxy Note 2 to host the S8 Internet Tablet through Bluetooth as an internet access point. This will allow the Note 2 to access the net through our traditional high-speed cable network, but Bluetooth is awfully slow in comparison, too.

Part of the reason I bought the S8 is that all the other issues I mentioned seemed as if they were addressed. The new S8 came with a dual core processor. There was Bluetooth, more RAM, more storage memory, and it supports Google Play. It does seem more responsive than the old T7, although it is a far cry and a long way from being as responsive as my TF101 Transformer tablet or my Droid X smart phone. But it is better.

But there are some wonky things about this tablet, as well. For one thing, the screen doesn't rotate with its orientation, at all. Even though there is an option to disable the rotation orientation, it doesn't rotate at all. The camera has to be positioned at the top in a landscape orientation. This seems to be the same for all the apps that it came with, I am curious to see if downloaded apps will work similarly.

One thing that I did right away was update literally everything quickly so that all the apps were up-to-date. However, Google Play Store and the Google Play Music & Audio apps do not produce any sound. I couldn't figure out how to get the sound recorder to play anything back either (as it seemed to lack that option). But YouTube and Pandora both worked without any real issues (unless the tablet was also busy downloading while producing video or sound, then there would be a hesitant glitch now and again).

As far as the sound goes, use ear buds. The single front facing speaker doesn't do music justice, though it is clear and useful for alerts, alarms and game feedback.

There is only one physical navigation button, for getting back to the home screen. Then there is a volume up/down toggle and a power button. A set of white icons are always available at the bottom of the tablet screen for volume down, show the running apps, capture a screen snapshot, home, back and volume up. I am always accidentally hitting these with the stylus when navigating around, but it isn't that big of a deal, it is easy enough to get back or undo what I just did.

All that said, it would seem like I am happy. But the battery sucks, too. It doesn't last very long at all. I think that technology should have improved a ton more than what this device is showing. I'm also perplexed as to why it can't run apps such as TV Guide or My Coke Rewards.

Then again, this is just a little test bed for my apps, and it looks to be a good standard for the minimum of technology I will support. And this one does at least have a shot at becoming a decent TV remote, as well. Anyone want an old T7? ;)

UPDATE: Dec 17th, 2013...

Polaroid Stays Extremely Stingy with the Memory (Still)
My version of the Southern Telecom Polaroid AS8 Internet Tablet only came with 800 MB of RAM and about 1 GB of internal "SDCard" storage memory.  And even though it does seem to see all of my 64 GBs of (external) ExtSDCard storage memory, it refuses to install apps to this microSDCard.  I am not a happy camper, at all.    I thought for sure that the new Polaroid tablets had enough memory.  The specs on the S8 box indicates that it has 4GB internal storage memory on the box and there aren't very many apps installed.  Even though there is an asterisk footnote paragraph that says, "Actual internal memory may vary depending on the operating system of the device and the preloaded apps.", I did the math and even if you include the supposed (and rounded-up) 1 GB of internal DDR3 memory as a part of that "internal memory", this stupid S8 internet tablet should have at least another 3 GB of internal storage memory to use for all the apps (including the android operating sytem).  But no, it does not.  Southern Telecom has pulled another bait and switch.

What has happened to truth in advertising? We used to require it!

Still, I don't want to return the stupid peice of crap.  Not because it is a good buy, but I only paid about 27.00 for it after all my Kohl's Cash coupons, and my employee discount.  And what could I get for $27.00?  Nothing.

On a positive note, it works really well at playing Netflix or You Tube and controlling the video playback (pausing, restarting at a certain point, etc.) through Chromecast.

To my amazement, the tablet did start adapting to landscape/portrait orientations after I installed the microSDCard.  I don't understand why it would require the external microSDCard in order to start working as described, though.

I also started using it for DuoLingo and have been using it for reading a couple things.  I do kind of like it as a reader, and the stereo earbuds I have sound good with it, so Pandora is also fun.

But in the end, I am still having to use a stylus all the time, I have to reboot it once in a while (about once daily, though you might be able to rectify that issue by killing your running apps or running an app killer).  But it is genuinely lacking in usable memory for apps, and I honestly can not endorse any product that uses false advertising in its spec sheet.

I will have to see if there is an app that will allow my microSDCard to be used for apps.  This will be its only saving grace.

In the long term, I won't be using this tablet much, though, and I am already looking for another that will do as it is required.