Thursday, July 25, 2013

Google's new Chromecast dongle sells out on Play Store

UPDATE: Several reviews have come out about the Chromecast. Since I haven't dedicated the $35 to purchasing one myself, I'll defer to David Pogue.

Chromecast: is it a game changer?  The public is eating it up.  It's definitely a game changer.  But to understand how it's going to affect things, you have to think about how Apple has been going about the same thing.  For years now, Apple has had a 'pet project' called AppleTV.  It has never been on the front line of Apple's advertising.  There have even been several analysts over the years that have predicted the doom of AppleTV.  Apple has persisted though without really highlighting AppleTV.  AirPlay was available through the iOS devices, but was mainly used for streaming music.  It was a cool feature but not a wave maker.

When the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 came out, they both had AirPlay, which meant that anyone who already had an AppleTV could mirror their screen to their big screen TV.  This was a significant event and clearly showed Apple's desire to get into the living room.  They've since released newer updated hardware and software for the little device.  You can watch Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and a bunch of other content, as long as your have an account.  Recently, an iOS game developer released a game that really doesn't work without mirroring.  It's a tennis game much like the game that comes with the Wii.  The difference is that you play with your phone as the controller using its internal accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect your motion.  The video is displayed on your phone, but that doesn't really work when you're swinging your phone around like a tennis racket.  However, if you mirror your phone to your AppleTV, you essentially get the same game that came with the first generation Wii.  This game opens the door for other games that can be built in the same way.  All the work is being done on the phone/controller in your hand, while the video is mirrored up to the big screen.  The next advance I expect to see from Airplay is the ability to mirror multiple devices to the same AppleTV.  Putting two people's phones' screens on a single TV gives multiplayer games a chance (imagine Mario cart but using your phone as the steering wheel).

Then Google released Chromecast.  It's 1/3 the cost of the AppleTV and seems to work across different platforms.  If you only look at the Chrome browser mirroring capabilities, this is huge.  All the things that can be done in a Chrome browser can now be done on a big screen TV while not requiring any extra remote controls much in the same was as Airplay does for Apple phones' screens.  While Chromecast appears to compete directly with AppleTV given all the current features, there's more to it than that.  AppleTV and Chromecast are on the same trajectory.  While Google was late to the phone game joining in only after Apple already had a tight grip on the market, they came to the table much sooner with Chromecast.  
The other major factor here is that Airplay for Apple iOS devices only works with mobile devices.  Chromecast promises to work not only using any mobile device but also PC computers with the Chrome browser installed.  This means that all the content that people currently consume using their PC can now be consumed on their TV.  This may not seem big, but given the cheap entry point, Chromecast could easily be used as a secondary monitor for every device in the house.  
On top of that, since Chromecast can mirror anything from the Chrome browser, much content that has had a hard time breaking into the living room now has a direct link.  For example, Hulu has two services, free and paid (Hulu Plus).  The paid service doesn't have much content that the free service doesn't.  There's a little, but it's not really what subscribers are paying for.  Hulu Plus subscribers have the ability to stream Hulu content on just about any device they can get their hands on.  Hulu free users can only get content through their browser (but not a browser on a mobile device).  With Chromecast, users can easily use the free Hulu service but still view it on their TV without hooking up a PC.  This means that Hulu will need to reevaluate what users are really paying for.  At $8 a month, a one time investment of $35 for Chromecast not only will pay for itself in 5 months, but will get me pretty much the same content with little extra hassle.
Yes, Chromecast is a game changer.  At $35, it's cheap enough to give it a chance even if it doesn't eventually work out.  It's not like the $99 investment in an AppleTV.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

BTSync: A new alternative to cloud based drive services

In a previous post, I wrote about how to connect your system folders (My Documents, My Pictures, etc.) to a Google Drive/Dropbox/Skydrive account.  The benefit of this is that you always have a backup available on the web.  If my hard drive were to die today, I wouldn't be too bad off since all I need to do is download the Google Drive desktop app and redirect my system folders to my Google Drive folder.  All my stuff would come back like it was never gone.  I'd still have to install applications but that's not too bad.  It's nice every once in a very long while to lose all my programs.  It forces me to trim the fat or look for better versions of the apps I use (Like Paint.Net or Notepad++).

However, I've always been a fan of the Bittorrent protocol.  It's a peer to peer file sharing program that most people use to download illegal movies or music.  While those days are behind me, I've tried to help people understand that P2P is no the same as illegal.  There are perfectly legal uses of P2P protocols like Bittorrent (see this, this, and this).  

And so my becoming a fan of Google Drive (and also Google Apps that allow me to work on a spreadsheet or document with many other people simultaneously) only makes sense.  If you're happy with that, or you only have one computer and no one you would ever want to share anything with, stop reading this blog post now (check out my most popular post instead).

Last week I stumbled upon BTSync (it has since been spun off and renamed to Resilio Sync).  This is a little app created by the same people that designed the Bittorrent protocol.  While there are several uses of BTSync, the main use is to compare it to the features and functionality of products like Google Drive.  Here is my comparison matrix:

FeatureGoogle DriveSkyDriveDropboxBTSync
Size Limit115GB27GB18GB
Shareable ContentMust be in Google Drive folderMust be in SkyDrive folderMust be in Dropbox folder3Any number of existing folders
Your files stored on a corporate serverYesYesYesNo
Online File EditorsYesYes4Viewer: Yes Editor: NoNo
Web Access to FilesYesYesYesNo
SharingOnly with Google users5Only with MSN Passport usersOnly with Dropbox usersAnyone with the app
1Without paying anything
2Shared with Gmail and Google+ Hi Res Photos
3Although pretty easy
4If you have a paid subscription to Office360
5Not necessarily Gmail users, but anyone with a Google account

So, let me highlight some of the reasons that BTSync intrigues me.  First of all, there is no limit to the amount of content that can be synchronized.  This is mainly due to the fact that your sync'd files are not stored on some limited corporate server somewhere, they're stored only on the systems where your files are synchronized.  This is a double edged knife, however.  While Cloud based drives can be used for backup, BTSync doesn't back your content up to the internet.  If you add a folder to BTSync only on one computer, the files aren't copied anywhere.  So, unlimited size but no storage on any corporate servers.  That may be two advantages in some peoples' books.

Unlike most of the corporate cloud based drives, BTSync is only about the file transfers.  As such, there are no online editors for your files.  However, since there is no web access to your files (because they're not on any corporate server) you'll only be accessing your files from your desktop.  You can install any office productivity suite locally (or even use google docs in a roundabout way).

Sharing is another feature that is different from other offerings.  While other offerings essentially require you to have an account in order to have RW access to a shared folder, BTSync will allow anyone with the app to access/sync your folder as long as they have the secret, a special, very long, very complicated password.  If you give another person the secret to your folder, they can sync your folder with a folder on their computer.  Any changes either of you make will be reflected in the other's sync'd folder.

You can however, give out two other types of secrets: a read only secret and a one time secret.  The RO secret allows the person to whom you give it to sync your folder to a folder on their system, but they won't be able to make changes to your folder.  This is a good way of distributing files to friends.  For example, you could setup your pictures folder and hand out the RO secret to family members.  They would then get copies of any pictures you put in your pictures folder (think of doing this with your iCloud Photo Stream).

Have you started thinking about the possibilities yet?

Another thing I did right away with BTSync was to synchronize my Dosbox working directory across all my PCs.  I play retro DOS games every once in a while.  By synchronizing the working directory for Dosbox (a DOS emulator) I can access the games, save files, and anything else on any of my computers.  This allows me to play a game on my desktop then save the game, exit Dosbox, go to the living room and launch Dosbox and pick up the saved game right where I left off.

I'm hosting a LAN party this weekend.  I setup a folder where I intend to put all the installers and files needed (including my dosbox folder).  I've added it to BTSync and will hand out the RO key via Facebook and email to everybody coming to the party.  That way they can install the games ahead of time to make sure they work.

Another idea I had was to use BTSync to replace NQSync (which I had originally intended to write using the bittorrent protocol anyway).

One more feature then I'm done.  I promise.
In my previous post, I talked about changing the default location of system folders.  This is necessary since most cloud drives require the sync'd files to be in a particular folder.  So I have to move my system folders to that sync'd folder in order to get them to sync.  With BTSync, I don't have to move the folders.  I can setup each folder in BTSync without moving it.  This means that I don't have to move anything, I don't have to change Windows configurations, or anything.

I haven't done it yet, but I will probably only run Google Drive on one of my PCs.  The rest will use BTSync to stay in sync.

So, that's my initial review of BTSync.  So far, I don't see it replacing Google Drive, but I do see myself using it to distribute pictures and home videos to my family, keeping my games in sync across all my PCs, possibly synchronizing recorded TV shows, making backups, and using it at work.