TV for Algernon: an overview of set-top boxes that make TV smarter

Published on August 24, 2015

TV for Algernon: an overview of set-top boxes that make TV smarter

    The items that we use in everyday life are rapidly getting smarter. All sorts of small and large devices interact interactively with us and with each other. The technology acquires new functions and begins to perform someone else's work: we watch movies on the phone and communicate with friends on TV, using, for example, Skype. And a smart home, where all devices are interconnected and make up a single complex - is already a reality. One of the first smarter items was the TV.



    Moreover, in order to bring life closer to a smart home, it is not even necessary to buy a box with built-in Smart TV. You can do with a digital multimedia player, which will become the brain for the TV and give it the function of Smart TV. In this review, we will consider several of these consoles.

    Smart TVs are now almost as familiar as smartphones. In fact, these are not quite televisions: television broadcasting itself is now only one of the capabilities of the device, which we habitually call a television. Just as we call a smartphone a phone, although using this item for calls is just one of its many features.

    A bit of history


    The idea of ​​a smart TV is not new, even if you do not think about science fiction. Back in 1994, a patent was obtained for such a device, a few years later, in 1997, Microsoft tried to translate the idea into reality. But the technological limitations of that time prevented it, in particular, the low speed of Internet connections and TVs with cathode ray tubes.

    The era of smart TVs - Smart TV - came a bit later. In 2003, the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) was formed. The international DLNA standard has enabled televisions and other devices to receive images, video, music over the home network and display this content in real time. In addition, the standard allowed various compatible devices to network and exchange information with each other. In 2008, about 200 million copies of such devices were sold in the world. Initially, such major electronics manufacturers as Intel, Sony, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and others took part in the alliance; now DLNA has more than 200 companies.

    What can Smart TV


    Smart TV is no longer TV in the usual sense of the word, programs, broadcasting networks and other rapidly aging terms have little to do with it. You can forget about antennas, satellites, consoles of cable TV providers, TV tuners ... Today it is a full-fledged personal computer where you can launch a browser and email client, visit your favorite social network or play. Access to the Internet allows you to literally watch anything on TV: anything on YouTube, all kinds of streaming broadcasts, any movies or news stories.

    And that’s not all. It is important that a smart TV is (or may be) in the general system of a smart home: you can watch family photos on a large screen, you can organize a video call session with friends or relatives, or you can receive information from a video camera located at the entrance, etc.

    Apple TV and Apple HomeKit




    The Apple TV digital player is capable of playing streaming multimedia from Internet services on the TV screen, as well as content hosted on computers, iPad tablets, iPod touch players or iPhone smartphones. Materials are transferred from devices to TVs and speakers wirelessly using AirPlay technology. But this functionality of the modern version of Apple TV is not limited. The Apple TV Software Beta 2 firmware, introduced last fall, was a new step towards smart home, as it includes support for HomeKit.

    HomeKit is Apple's unified network protocol for smart devices. Moreover, it works not only with gadgets, currently the protocol offers profiles for controlling fans, garage doors, bulbs, locks, sockets and thermostats. HomeKit allows you to discover and configure devices, set job scenarios for them, group actions and manage them using Siri, a voice assistant. For example, the team I'm going to sleep at the same time turns off the light, music, TV, pulls the curtains and turns on the alarm clock.

    The integration of HomeKit in Apple TV makes the set-top box a kind of hub for managing a smart home. Schematically, the system works as follows. HomeKit stores device data in a dedicated CloudKit cloud. A user’s entrance to the cloud registers the set-top box in HomeKit as a remote access device, after which the information from the connected devices is automatically synchronized with the Apple TV, and the system scans the devices, finding the one that is needed at a particular moment. The microphone of the set-top box is necessary in order to control the smart home using Siri voice commands.

    The system has one, but a serious minus - because of its closeness, the protocol will be able to work only with a limited number of manufacturers who have signed contracts with the apple. Although not so long ago, five startups immediately announced the launch of the first HomeKit-certified devices. Will Apple make the version of its media player even cheaper and more compact (like Google Chromecast) in order to compete more closely with other manufacturers - time will tell. But today we can say that Apple has further advanced than others in integrating a smart TV into a smart home system.
    HD Full hd
    Video files AVI, MOV, MP4
    Codecs MPEG4, H.264
    Audio files MP3, AAC, WAV, AC3
    Image files JPEG, GIF, TIFF
    Outputs audio optical, HDMI
    Memory card support not
    Interfaces Wi-Fi 802.11n, Ethernet

    Google chromecast




    Chromecast is a digital player from Google that runs on a simplified version of Chrome OS. It makes it possible to broadcast streaming video and audio from the network, from computers and mobile devices. Chromecast works with many applications, the list of which is constantly growing. Already on the TV screen, you can watch millions of YouTube channels, watch movies on Google Play and TV shows of the largest Western online cinema Amediateka, listen to music on SoundCloud, etc. Using services such as Plex and Avia Media Player, content from various compatible devices is transferred to the big screen. The disadvantage is the fact that part of the services is paid.

    Of course, Google’s contribution to the Internet of Things and the search for smart home solutions is by no means limited to this. The company proposed the Brillo operating system, based on the Android OS and intended for combining household devices used in a single network. The platform that allows smart devices to interact with the user among themselves is Weave, Apple's rival HomeKit. Undoubtedly, the Google Chromecast prefix, integrated into the system of home devices, as in the case with the Apple TV, will play a significant role in the complex of smart home.
    HD 720p / 1080P
    Video files MKV, WMV, MOV
    Codecs H.264, VP8
    Audio files FLAC, APE
    Image files JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG
    Outputs HDMI 1.3
    Memory card support not
    Interfaces Wi-Fi 802.11n, USB 2.0 Type B

    Amazon Fire TV Stick




    Amazon decided to squeeze Google and Apple on the market of streaming players and introduced a stick version of its TV set-top box - Fire TV Stick. In a small body is a fairly powerful dual-core processor, Bluetooth and Wi-fi adapters. On the device from Amazon is branded FireOs, which is an add-on for Android.

    The stick connects to the TV via HDMI and allows you to watch movies and other videos presented on the screen by a number of popular services: Prime Streaming, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Pandora, Watch ESPN, etc., as well as launch games. In addition, Fire TV Stick supports Miracast technology, due to which it can display the contents of a smartphone and tablet on a TV screen.

    To control the device, you can use the included remote control or the Fire TV Remote mobile application, moreover, the application has a voice search function.

    Amazon, as well as competitors, is engaged in the development and creation of smart home devices. At the end of last year, the company introduced the compact Echo speaker system with the capabilities of a smart voice assistant. The smart speaker connects to your home network via Wi-Fi and allows you to play audio content through streaming audio services, as well as using the built-in Bluetooth controller, via a smartphone or tablet. Voice Assistant is powered by a special cloud platform using Amazon Web Services servers. The smart column is activated when you pronounce the word Alexa. After that, she can be asked a question, take an interest in the weather or the latest news, ask to find music. You can control the smart-column using a smartphone, tablet or personal computer browser. Unfortunately,

    Another Amazon-designed device that could become part of a smart home is the smart Dash Button, designed to automate everyday shopping. One button corresponds to one product and with its help this particular product, conditionally, washing powder, is ordered with one click. It remains only to wait until the order is brought to your home. This, by the way, is a free device that works only in the United States. The configuration of the magic button includes a Wi-Fi wireless interface, through which the device connects to the smartphone.

    At the same time with the Dash Button, the company launched a parallel project, which, in general, deprives smart buttons of any meaning. The Dash Replenishment Service platform should allow manufacturers to incorporate Amazon technology into home and office supplies using consumables. Thus, a consumable near the end can be ordered with one click. In the end, according to the developer, the technology itself must learn to replenish its reserves.

    Perhaps Amazon will take the next step towards combining its smart devices into one system. Indeed, before that, in fact, one step. It is easy to imagine that the printer, where the cartridge ends, will tell about this to the computer, that through Fire TV Stick will transfer the images of possible purchase options to the TV screen, and the owner will decide what exactly to buy, a smart column.
    HD 720p and 1080p up to 60fps
    Video files H.264
    Image files JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG
    Memory card support micro SD
    Ports 1 Type A HDMI 1.4b output, w / HDCP 1.4 1 Micro USB for power only

    Dune hd connect




    The Dune HD Connect media player from previous Dune products is compact and looks like either a large flash drive or a USB modem. But this did not affect the functionality of the device, the player allows you to view almost all existing multimedia formats today, both over the network and from local sources (an impressive list of supported formats is given in the table). It is quite suitable for turning a box into a smart TV, moreover, according to experts, Dune HD Connect outperforms many modern built-in options in the number of formats and convenience.

    The delivery package of this miniature player is quite impressive, in addition to the device itself, it includes: a power supply with a USB output, a special USB cable, an IR remote control with batteries, an external receiver with Velcro, a small HDMI extension cable, a cable for additional audio-video communications, as well as an installation guide and a leaflet describing software licenses.

    The device is running a specialized version of Linux. The player’s firmware based on SIgma Design processors is one of the most convenient and functional.

    It is worth mentioning that Sigma Design is one of the main members of the Z-Wave Alliance, which unites the leaders in the home automation and control market, who create products and services based on Z-Wave - the standard for wireless control, one of the working solutions for smart homes. Dune is the only manufacturer mentioned in the review whose products are compatible with Z-Wave. This, in particular, was demonstrated by a demo stand of a smart house based on Z-Wave technology, assembled by Z-Wave and Dune, where, for example, a Dune HD media player with an integrated Z-Wave module and Z-Way management software was presented smart home.

    And although it’s too early to talk about a wide range of multimedia equipment controlled via the Z-Wave network, in reality there is no longer a traditional infrared remote control, but a radio frequency remote control with a chip from Sigma Designs with Z-Wave, which are equipped with Dune Blue-ray / Media players. And just recently, in July of this year, testing of the new version of Z-Way for Dune HD media players was launched. Z-Way is presented here as a plug-in that works on most Dune HD media player series: TV-101, TV-102, TV-204, TV-303D, as well as on the top versions of Dune HD.
    HD Full hd
    File formats MKV, AVI, WMV, MOV, ASF, M2TS, MP4, FLV
    Codecs MPEG2, MPEG4, XviD, H.264, WMV9, VC1
    Audio files MP3, WMA, AAC, Ogg, PCM, M4A, WAV, FLAC, APE, AC3, DTS
    Image files JPEG, GIF, BMP, PNG
    Subtitles SRT (external), SUB (MicroDVD) (external), text (MKV), SSA / ASS (MKV, external), VobSub (MP4, MKV, external SUB / IDX), PGS (TS, MKV)
    Outputs stereo audio, video composite, HDMI 1.3
    Memory card support micro SD
    Interfaces Wi-Fi, USB 2.0 Type A, Ethernet

    Dell cast




    Dell, not wanting to lag behind competitors, about a year ago introduced a not-so-characteristic product: the Dell Cast media player. The device allows you to broadcast on the TV screen multimedia content of a Dell Android tablet, launch applications and games. But the player does not work with all tablets, but only with the Dell Venue 3730 and 3830. Although there is unconfirmed information that the player will also support tablets running on Windows. Unlike analogues, from the same Google Chromecast, Dell Cast, which supports WiFi and Bluetooth, allows you to connect wireless keyboards and mice. True, all the tasks will be performed on the tablet. In general, we can say that the Dell product is still very limited in its use, although it is in line with the trend towards a smart home.

    Roku




    Roku, another competitor to Apple TV and Google Cromecast, at least in the USA, also has in its arsenal a stick version of the smart set-top box - Roku Streaming Stick. The device works using a Wi-Fi wireless connection. The gadget also comes with a remote control that uses wireless technology, therefore, it can be used outside the line of sight. Compared to Google’s set-top box, Roku has better video quality and more content - 1,200 niche TV channels, movies, and TV shows. Roku offers both free channels and premium channels and services, as well as games. But this, albeit a fairly popular device, has to grow for a long time before becoming a full member of the smart home.

    Moving progress sitting at the TV