Why you should own a Chromecast

chromecast

 

In case you have been under a rock for the last 2 years, Google’s Chromecast dongle is a little HDMI dongle that plugs in directly to your television or AV amplifier. It’s main function is to act as a “dumb receiver” for many internet streaming services. It has no user interface to speak of and you can only configure it via it’s web portal or mobile apps.

Why would you want one of these? It’s actually a question I asked myself. Many would say it can be an impulse purchase due to it’s low entry point (the device is about $35 US / £30 UK) but even being a tech geek I didn’t rush out to buy one myself. I have a very robust media entertainment system at home based around the wonderful XBMC so what would the Chromecast do for me?

I finally picked one up for one main reason: Netflix. Yes, Netflix is on almost everything these days, everything except XBMC (yes, it can be done with a lot of caveats!). I have had Netflix since it launched in the UK and watched it via an app on my Blu-Ray player downstairs and a WDTV media player upstairs but I have become increasingly frustrated with the performance of these apps. As these devices are pretty much no longer supported, app updates are few and far between and sometimes it can be a struggle to get Netflix to even run.

Enter the Chromecast, a device that I can push media to pretty much like I can do with XBMC. I already use an Android app called Yatse which is an XBMC remote with some fantastic features that gives it the ability to “push” media to XBMC such as Youtube and other media streams. The android Netflix app is great and very easy to navigate and search for content. Linking it to Chromecast gives me the ability to push the tv show or movie to my TV just as easily as Yatse does with XBMC. The side effect of this I am watching a lot more Netflix these days!

If you don’t have a robust entertainment system already then the Chromecast will be even more useful to you. You can also push Youtube, photos, video from your device and there are plenty of 3rd party apps with Chromecast support. My favourite podcatcher app, Pocket Casts, pushes my podcasts to the device seamlessly, BBC iPlayer in the UK is much quicker than the built in apps in a lot of appliances and my American friends get Hulu Plus and HBO Go.

No matter which tech ecosystem you prefer, your Chromecast works with it. There are iOS apps, Android, Windows, Linux, Mac and of course the Chromebook. Performance is great and I’ve had no issues streaming from Netflix, BBC, Youtube etc. The only issue I ran into was when I tried to watch a live hangouts stream via Youtube, the video would hang and go unresponsive. I’m guessing this is because the video was uncompressed and not optimised cointaining a high bitrate and the Chromecast couldn’t cope with it.

In future posts I will catalogue tweaks and tips I have used to make the device even more useful.

Chromecast info

Netflix: How to watch content from ANY Netflix region easily

Netflix

 

Netflix is one of the best value for money streaming content services we have. There is no disputing this fact but many people are unaware that subscribers can increase the value of the service tremendously without incurring much (if any) extra cost.

 

Netflix in different countries and licensing issues

 

For a while now Netflix has been an international service providing content to subscribers in multiple countries. As with mainstream television, Netflix is bound by many existing licensing deals in these various countries. This means that content that is available in one country may not be (and often isn’t) available in another. Despite this, Netflix allows subscribers who may be “travelling” to sign into the service in any country that has it and have access to the content available in that country. This is a fantastic bonus feature to paying subscribers in itself which they didn’t have to provide.

 

“Spoofing” your location to access another Netflix region

 

The fact that the service is available internationally to subscribers from any participating nation means that it isn’t too difficult to fool it into thinking you are in another country and therefore take advantage of having access to content not normally available to you. I want to stress that this is not illegal, as the way I will describe the process you are using totally legitimate services. It may possibly be against the “spirit” of Netflix’s terms of service but as far as I can tell they make no attempt to prevent it.

There are various ways to “spoof’ your location online to take advantage of geographically “locked” services. Different methods have different success rates and different costs ranging from free to expensive. The general rule is ‘you get what you pay for’, at least in my experience. The method we are looking at is one of the simplest and can be done for free, although I personally use a paid service which has certain extra benefits which I will explain.

 

 

Unblock-US.com

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 10:20:53

 

Unblock-US is the service I use and for full disclosure I have included an affiliate link in the article if anybody wishes to sign up. I have tried other services (paid and free) and each has various features. The way these services work is by altering the DNS (Domain Name Server) that your computer or device uses to translate domain names you are trying to access (such as google.com) into IP addresses the system understands. Without DNS you could only access sites via the direct IP addresses. Certain sites will use these DNS servers to figure out where in the world the requests are coming from so if you are using a DNS that doesn’t originate in your home country you may be identified on certain sites as being in the country that your DNS service originates from. Netflix is one of those sites that use DNS to identify where there subscribers are, which is why this service works.

As I have indicated there are many services that can do this, including free services, and a quick google search will provide you with alternate methods. Most of these other services provide a “fixed” access to United States DNS servers which is ideal if that is the only thing you need access to. The same was true with Unblock-US (as the name suggests) but they have evolved into providing access to multiple countries via DNS, countries where Netflix provide a service. The service isn’t free but costs only $4.99 a month which I think is great value because it is so easy to use.

 

Changing your “location” with Unblock-US

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 10:20:24

Once you sign up to the service and register your email address, your home IP address is connected to your account. You then need to make a small change to your network configuration on the device or computer you wish to use with the service. Many different devices are compatible, from routers, smart phones, PCs to media boxes and Blu-Ray players.

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 11:19:02

 

The site has full instructions on what you need to do, which if done manually only involves changing two lines in your network configuration. Windows users can download an app that automates the process making it even easier. Once you are set up it is just a matter of choosing your preferred region whilst logged in to the Unblock-US website:

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 11:14:58

 

Finding something to watch: Moreflicks.com

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 11:31:27

 

So, you’re all set up and now are ready to watch something on Netflix. How do you find content? You could pick a region and explore the content directly on Netflix but it would work a lot better if you had something in mind and just needed to find out where you could watch it. This is where Moreflicks.com comes in. There are other similar sites and even apps but this is the one I use. I have no affiliation with them but I think they have a fantastic looking and easy to navigate layout. What this site does is list streaming services that carry a particular movie or TV show that you are looking for. You simply search for the content you want and if it is available it will indicate to you where to watch it, including for such services as Netflix, which country has the content. The following services are supported but for the purposes of this article we are only discussing Netflix:

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 11:34:54

 

So, for example, I want to watch the Disney movie The Princess And The Frog. Just perform a search on Moreflicks.com and you get:

 

Screenshot from 2014-04-28 10:22:33

 

USA Netflix subscribers miss out on a lot of Disney content but you don’t have if you use these recommended services. Just by changing you region to UK on the Unblock-US website you would be watching this great movie in seconds!

 

Faces For Radio | TeknoCratik Episode 013

faces_for_radio

We have taken the podcast to video!

As well as the usual audio show we will now be making available our (usually) uncut Google Hangout as a video podcast on the TeknoCratik Youtube Channel. We decided to do this so that we would be able to review apps and hardware visually on the show and add extra value to the content.

Please bare with us as we are pretty new to video podcasts (although Tim has had a lot of experience in uploading video to Youtube) and we are still figuring out a few things.

 

This time around we discuss:

Dan’s catastrophic New Year USB Armageddon!

Tim reviews his new Acer C720 Chromebook and his Chromecast.

Steam Streaming Beta: revolutionary or overated?

Tim’s continuing Linux adventure.

Screen casting apps such as VokoScreen and Simple Screen Recorder.

And much more!

 

Video version:

Chromebooks and Penguins | TeknoCratik Episode 012

teknocratik 0012

 

We are back with another jam packed episode!

 

Dan learns The Gimp for some projects he is doing.

Tim moves house and works on his tech support business.

 

We talk about our thoughts on:

The Humble Store

Linux Mint 16 release

Canonical / Asus Partnership in the US

New Chromebooks

Tim reccomends: F-Droid

Dan reccomends: SuperTuxKart

 

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

TeknoCratik Episode 04 – PC Woes

brokenpc

 

Tim nearly trashes his PC! He and Dan discuss his upgrade plans, the state of play of hardware and software in mobile and desktop gaming, and more discussion on digital entertainment ecosystems.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

UnoDNS – Watch Geo-targeted US content like Hulu and Netflix from the UK

 

UnoDNS from UnoTelly.com is a great way to access internet content that would normally be “geo-targeted” (restricted to you based on your location), such as Hulu, Netflix and Pandora radio.

 

There are basically only a handful of options when it comes to gaining access to geo-targeted websites. You either go the VPN or Proxy route or the DNS route. Proxies (especially free ones) can usually be ruled out straight away when it comes to streaming high quality video since they usually won’t have the required bandwidth to achieve a decent and stable stream. A VPN requires you to use a totally separate IP to “piggy back” on and with this comes the limitations of that network meaning even if your home ISP is super high speed is won’t matter, all that matters is the speed and reliability of your chosen VPN provider.

 

This is where a service like UnoDNS becomes a very attractive solution. Instead of having to tunnel through using a completely separate network the service alters the DNS (Domain Name System) settings of your existing network connection provided by your own ISP. This means you continue to use and take advantage of the stable high speed connection you are already used to, local services from your ISP that rely on detecting your IP address will still work as well.

 

I have been testing the UnoDNS service and I’m impressed. Within minutes I had access to US restricted websites and services but most importantly I didn’t lose the ability to use local UK services such as BBC iplayer. If I had been using a VPN service I would need to constantly switch off the service to use these.

Their service is structured slightly different to similar services such as Unblock-US in a couple of ways.

Firstly, instead of just offering a standard subscription to access the service they offer tiered services. The tiered model is broken down into “channels” of internet content that the service will allow you to access and what’s interesting about UnoDNS is comparison to their competitors is they have a basic tier of websites that you can access for free. $4.95 per month gives you access their Premium service that includes the Hulu and Netflix and the $7.95 Gold service adds another whole group of mostly US network content. They also offer an 8 day free trial on the Gold subscription.

Secondly, which I think is a great feature, is that you can migrate the service to different locations temporarily like a friends house or a holiday home. The service works by logging your home IP address and only allows you access via this address. This is how most of these services work to ensure you are using it fairly and not sharing your account with a friend for example. If you were to take your laptop to your friends house to watch a bit of Hulu for example and logged into their network then since the IP would be different the service would stop working. UnoDNS actually allow you to register multi IP addresses to your account so that you can use the service when your on the move by simply switching them over in your account settings.

 

How easy is it to use? Once you have an account the service only requires that you change some basic network settings and you will be up and running in minutes. The advantage of the service being so simple for the user is that these DNS settings are alterable network settings in the majority of multimedia devices such as the Xbox 360, PS3 and the Apple TV which means the service is fully compatible with these too with full set up instructions are available on the website.

 

 

TeknoCratik have teamed up with UnoDNS to offer a limited number of our readers 25% OFF any paid subscription. All you need to do to be eligible is to tweet a link to this post using the hashtag #UnoDNS making sure you include a reply to @teknocratik. In the mean time give the free trial a whirl.

 

 

Enjoy Netflix (US) with a Netflix UK account

20120222-203356.jpgAs good as the content is on Netflix UK nobody can argue that American customers have a better selection of content. After all, the UK service has just launched and Netflix are still busily adding content and making new deals every day.

If you are feeling the green eye of envy towards are American cousins, fear not, as you too can be enjoying the exact same material they are in a matter of minutes. Not everybody is aware that Netflix changed the way they handled user accounts once they branched their streaming service out of the United States and went international. If you happen to be visiting a country that has Netflix then logging into your account on your laptop for example gives you access to their catalogue.

To make use of this feature without venturing out of your home you need to make Netflix believe you are actually in the country of your choosing. Typically a paid VPN service is the way to go. A service like this creates a secure network “tunnel” through your Internet connection giving you a new IP address and fooling other systems into believing you are in the USA for example. While these services are great and have the bonus of pretty much giving you anonymity whilst online they do literally make any network connection you make believe you are where you say you want to be so if you need some services to believe you are actually “home” a lot of fiddling can be involved in switching the VPN on and off. As well as this many of these VPN providers require you to make modifications to individual computers (although some routers can be altered to work with a VPN service) and you cannot use the same VPN account on more than one computer at the same time. Also if you have a PS3 or an Xbox 360 you cannot add VPN services to these for example.

I had used a VPN before and this was how I managed to test Netflix US and other American services such as Hulu and Pandora but I soon got tired of the switching back a forth until I found another solution called Unblock-US which works slightly differently. Instead of VPN that gives you a new network connection this service alters your DNS (Domain Name System) settings, another way computers can identify where other computers are geographically situated, and it tells them you’re in the US. The beauty of this is two-fold. Firstly you still use your own Internet connection and ISP totally so the connection should be much more stable. Secondly only very minor changes need to be performed to your Internet settings (they even have an app that does it for you) to get it to work and similar settings can be found in most modern routers. This means if you want your entire network to use it you can, including consoles, networked blu-ray players etc.

As an added bonus, a lot of the native streaming services to the UK such as BBC iPlayer and 4OD look at your IP address (which doesn’t change and is still UK) and not your DNS settings to see if you in the country and so continue to work even with the service switched on. The end result, for me at least is a pretty seamless streaming experience. I can fire up Netflix US or Hulu one minute then switch to BBC iPlayer the next.

The service is not free but it is a reasonable $4.99 per month and they do have a free trial so you have nothing to lose. If you are outside the US and are looking to expand your streaming choices then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Unblock-US.

Netflix in the UK, a PC user’s perspective

20120222-120553.jpg Well this year it finally arrived. Netflix, the premier US digital media provider came to the UK giving us access to quality movie and TV show streaming (they do not provide a disc service in the UK) for a reasonable price of £5.99 a month.

I had been waiting for this for quite some time as I had the opportunity to test out the US service a while back and I was very impressed. Due to licensing restrictions and contracts, the content available in the UK differs both in quantity and variety and it is fair to say that the American offering is currently superior. Despite this it is my opinion that the selection is much better the the offering from Amazon’s LoveFilm , who at the moment have a smaller selection, no HD content and a poorer quality streaming service technically.

How To Watch Netflix Content

Netflix offers many ways to watch their content from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to gaming consoles to Blu-Ray players. They also provide streaming access via their website using Microsoft Silverlight. It can be argued that Netflix see 3rd party devices as the primary method of watching as it seems to get the most support, something I personally find quite annoying. Since I consume my media exclusively via Home Theatre PCs it makes life a little difficult when it comes to Netflix.

The PC problem

Netflix provide some fantastic apps for 3rd party devices. If you have the right device in your living room you can sit back and relax using your remote control to navigate Netflix and playback your content. Unfortunately as far as Netflix is concerned, the PC user seems to be a second class citizen. There is virtually NOTHING available for the PC that optimises the experience. (There are a couple of options that I will go into later).

For PC users their are certain other limitations.

Firstly as the streaming method uses Microsoft Silverlight you need to be running an operating system that this supports, namely Windows or Mac OS X. There is no Silverlight support for Linux operating systems which many Home Theatre PC enthusiasts use their the basis for their “bare bones” media centres due to the fact that these installations are so customisable and have the ability to be fine tuned.

The second limitation is Silverlight itself. Although, in my opinion, it is about 500% better than Adobe’s Flash for video streaming, HD content from Netflix does not play nicely with low powered “net top” PCs which are a popular choice as HTPCs for many enthusiasts including this one. I don’t pretend to know all the technical details but the doesn’t seem to be any GPU acceleration support in Silverlight streams from Netflix. Net top machines, typically Intel Atom / Ion2 based systems rely on this feature to be able to reliably support HD quality playback. Both my HTPCs are Atom/ Ion2 based and they are capable of 1080p video and Blu-Ray playback but when fed a 720p Netflix stream the best they seem to be able to produce is a video running at about 2 FPS! Luckily for those in my position there is a workaround but you do lose full HD playback. In essence, you read a pretty beefy CPU to handle an HD Netflix stream.

If you do manage to get smooth HD playback on a PC you will find that your movie’s audio in only playing back in stereo! Netflix offers many movies and TV shows in HD and WITH 5.1 audio but this is not available via PC streaming. As far as I know this is an artificial limitation as Silverlight does have the ability to pass through 5.1 audio. I see this as another example of Netflix’s disinterest in the PC user.

But there are PC “apps”

There are PC apps available for Netflix you say? Well yes there are but all of them are really front ends to the web streams. The best one both in terms of usability and looks in my opinion is the addon for Windows Media Center. Boxee used to provide a Netflix addon for their PC users but this has since been disabled (and Boxee for the PC has been abandoned in favour of the Boxee Box by its creators) and removed. Several “media centre” systems such as XBMC and Mediaportal have their own front end plugins too.

If you are a HTPC Netflix user in the USA you most likely use the Windows Media Center plugin. This has been available for while and it is very nice. As it is basically just a sophisticated front end UI the same hardware limitations apply to it as streaming directly from the website, so using a net top for HD is a no go.
To make matters worse, it is incompatible with UK Netflix accounts. When Netflix launched in the UK I naively thought I could get this to work and I was very disappointed when it didn’t. The first hurdle is actually getting the app to appear on a UK machine. As standard it doesn’t and you have to tweak your registry a little and set your machine to be situated in the US which is a major problem as you would then lose your UK TV settings if you are using Media Center as a DVR. If you get it to appear you can log in to your UK Netflix account and browse content (only if it thinks you are in the US, but I’ll get to that later) but nothing will play. It appears UK accounts are not supported by the Netflix API which these apps use. There is a small exception as i did manage to get the XBMC Netflix plugin XBMCFlicks “partially” working which i will go into in another post.
After contacting Netflix support with the enquiry if the Media Center app would be updated for UK use and being ignored (and also finding out it was never updated for Canadian users who got Netflix over a year ago!) I’ve come to the conclusion that Netflix are just not interested in their PC customers.

Limitations and benefits of Netflix UK

So apart from it’s content is Netflix UK they same as Netflix US? Well, not quite. For some inexplicable reason Netflix decided not to grace UK users with an instant queue at the time of writing. With the amount of content available, an instant queue is pretty essential in keeping track of things you may find while browsing the catalogue for later viewing. There is no technical reason that I can see for not including this and I am baffled. Perhaps they will introduce this “revolutionary” feature later?

You may ask why I am a Netflix customer after reading this article as I don’t seem to have much that is good say about them. Although there are problems in usability for the PC user, once you get your content playing it is superb quality and a great value for money service. The other added bonus is that since Netflix went “international” so did their user accounts. If you’re abroad in a country that has Netflix you can sign in with your account and have access to the content available in the country you are currently in. The beauty of this is if you use a VPN service or something similar it has the same effect, instant access to US content for example. I have personally gone down that route as the American content is far superior.

If you are a TV and movie fan you can’t go wrong with joining Netflix. With so many viewing options it is a superb value for money service. Just don’t choose a PC as your preferred consumption method unless you are already invested in it like me! :)