Amazon Fire TV review

It’s quick, it’s new, it’s 4K – but is it any good?

The Amazon Fire TV is taking a page from the home shopping channel. Starting on October 29, Amazon will enable Fire TV users to buy products from the store via ads on the home page of the Fire TV.

Original review below…

Much of the noise about the new Fire TV relates to its 4K Ultra HD playback capabilities, especially considering that the new Apple TV is set to hit the shelves (well, MDF tables) of your nearest Apple store very soon without any 4K support at all.

It’s not the only media streamer boasting 4K chops though, and it definitely isn’t the first either. The Nvidia SHIELD console took that honour, with its Tegra X1 processor making it the most powerful streamer around.

But the new Amazon Fire TV is far less expensive – so can this Ultra HD box deliver where the Android TV-hobbled SHIELD falls down?

Hardware

The new Amazon Fire TV may look identical to the original Fire TV box, but that’s no bad thing.

The sleek, shiny exterior is understated enough to fit into even the most minimalist of modern living rooms, and with the remote control featuring Wi-Fi connectivity you can happily hide the box behind your TV if you’re not into the mini-monolith aesthetic, as there’s no need for a direct line of sight.

Amazon Fire TV

Inside, however, things have changed considerably, with a nominally quad-core MediaTek processor sitting at the heart of the new Fire TV. It’s really a pair of dual-core chips (one running at 2GHz and the other at 1.6GHz) strapped together, but that doesn’t stop it from offering around 75% faster performance compared with the old model’s silicon.

There’s also a dedicated PowerVR GX6250 GPU inside to give the new Fire TV that gaming edge, and 2GB of system memory to keep things flowing seamlessly.

The Fire TV comes with a decent 8GB of internal capacity, with the option to expand via the microSD slot on the rear of the box, which facilitates up to 128GB of storage.

Amazon Fire TV

The Amazon Fire TV (left) next to an Amazon Fire TV Stick (right).

In terms of networking there’s a Gigabit ethernet port for wiring in – probably your best bet for a consistent 4K UHD stream – or the dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection.

To nail that Ultra HD playback the MediaTek chipset supports the H.265 (HEVC) codec, as well as the legacy H.264 for 1080p content. It should be noted though that it’s only capable of rocking a 4K UHD stream at a maximum of 30 frames per second, while it stretches to 60fps for 720p and 1080p outputs.

To enable UHD playback you’ll need a compatible display, and that doesn’t just mean the obvious 3840 x 2160 panel resolution – it will also need the same HDMI 2.0 (HDCP 2.2) connection as on the rear of the Fire TV.

Without that you’re not going to get the copy-protected 4K awesome of either Amazon Prime or Netflix; you can still watch 4K YouTube though if that’s of any interest…

Amazon Fire TV

The Fire TV remote hasn’t really changed, aside from using Wi-Fi over Bluetooth. It’s still rocking the same voice search functionality which made the first Fire TV a bit of a hit, and it’s also nicely responsive and feels solid in the hand despite its diminutive size.

Software

The new Amazon Fire TV is running on a forked version of the Android operating system, and we don’t mean in the colloquial use of the term; FireOS isn’t totally forked, it’s actually pretty responsive.

Its development was taken down a different path to the final Android OS, making FireOS a distinct operating system in its own right. That’s why you won’t be getting the full Play Store range of apps, and one of the reasons Amazon has its own app store ruling the roost.

Amazon Fire TV

FireOS is focused almost entirely upon helping you access content quickly and easily, with a very obvious bias towards the Amazon ecosystem.

This corporate bias is understandable – it’s similar to the way Android TV’s recommendations are only based on Google services and NOW TV is focused on Sky content – but it would make you feel utterly excluded if you weren’t an Amazon Prime member.

The voice search software is an integral part of the Amazon setup, and it’s quick, responsive and impressively accurate, no matter which bastardised version of a regional accent I tried to confuse it with.

Again though, it’s utterly tied into the Amazon ecosystem. No matter if you can access Breaking Bad in 4K via your Netflix account, the search will only lead you to a place where you can pay Amazon again for the privilege; it won’t even acknowledge the existence of any other content, however you vocalise it.

The touted universal search feature of the new Apple TV makes its voice search seem far more relevant than Amazon’s.

TiVo Bolt review

I almost miss commercials – almost

The TiVo Bolt can now access Hulu directly through an app, and has recently partnered with the WWE Network to bring current, classic and live events to the digital video recorder.

Original review below…

In the early aughts, TiVo pioneered a new technology called digital video recording (DVR) that captured the spirit of watching television. It freed entertainment from the shackles of time, and gave viewers the ability to watch content on their own terms.

It would take nearly a decade for traditional cable operators to catch on and employ that technology in their own boxes, passing those development costs onto subscribers along the way. Then, when DVR finally went mainstream, the industry turned away from cable entirely, making all the work that those companies put into the DVR over the last few years moot.

It might not make much sense, then, for a company like TiVo to continue developing DVRs when the term “cord-cutter” has been on everyone’s mind for the past five years. It might seem even more confusing to see a DVR – well, it’s more than a DVR, but I’ll get to that in a minute – cost $299 for a 500GB version or $399 for a 1TB system. (This specific system isn’t available in the UK or Australia, however TiVo’s technology can be found in set-top boxes made by Virgin.)

But the beauty of TiVo’s new Bolt system is that it’s more than a DVR or a 4Kstreaming video player, though it has those abilities as well. The Bolt is a truly next-level piece of tech that, through its intelligent software, aggregates shows from multiple sources like Netflix, Amazon and Vudu, as well as through an over-the-air HD antenna or mainstream cable subscription – should you own either of those.

Put as succinctly as possible: the TiVo Bolt is your shows and movies, when you want them, where you want them.

TiVo Bolt

Design

Most of us have anywhere between two and four black rectangular boxes sitting in our entertainment cabinet. They’re usually perfectly flat, stack nicely and look like they were designed by the exact same engineer.

But instead of following in those footsteps, the TiVo Bolt has some pretty surprising design ideas, including a sloped top and an all-white shell that houses some seriously fast hardware.

If you’re looking for a size comparison to other DVRs, the TiVo Bolt is 33% smaller than TiVo’s own Roamio and 65% smaller than the Roamio Plus and Pro. For non-TiVo owners, that translates to 11.4 x 7.3 x 1.8 inches (W x D x H), or roughly the size of a Sony PS4.

The front, top and sides of the box are all smooth and, for the most part, completely blank. There’s an indicator LED and a small TiVo logo on the front, but otherwise the Bolt is a brazenly blank slate.

TiVo Bolt

Spin it around to the back, and you’ll find a Remote Finder button, cablecard slot, coax (Digital Cable, ATSC, MoCA) input, optical audio out, L/R audio, an HDMI 2.0a port for 24fps 4K or 60fps 1080p, a 10/100/1000 Mbps ethernet port, two USB 2.0 and an external storage port (eSATA).

(Note: You’ll need to reach out to your cable company and obtain a cablecard if you want the TiVo Bolt to integrate with your cable service.)

The big draws of the box itself are the external storage port (in case you decide to go for the smaller internal hard drive), and the equally fun and practical remote finder to help you track down your pad when it goes MIA. There are enough ports here to run an audio signal straight to your TV and soundbar or simply pass the signal through a receiver and let it do all the heavy audio lifting.

TiVo Bolt

Speaking of the remote, though, there’s little to complain about regarding TiVo’s pack-in controller. Most of the buttons will be familiar – you’ve surely seen a few dozen numerical pads in your life – but I found the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons a smart touch.

Features and TiVo service

Features on the TiVo Bolt are premium in both senses of the word. They are both exceptional in their execution in creating one of the best TV-watching experiences on the market, but these features also cost more than you might want to shell out for.

Let’s cover the cost first. A brand-new Bolt comes with one year of TIVo’s service for free. Considering one year of TiVo service costs $149, that’s a pretty solid deal. After the trial runs out, you can either switch to a monthly plan to the tune of $14.99 per month or opt in to the annual plan for $149 plus tax.

So what does your investment net you? Access to services like OnePass, which intelligently scans the available channels and records any instance of a TV show or movie the next time it plays – without ever wasting space on duplicate content and prioritizing HD quality.

If you’ve ever used universal search on a new Apple TV, Roku or Chromecast, TiVo also has a similar function, called Smart Search, that finds every source for the content you’re interested in and lists them by price. It currently searches Fox, PBS, AMC, CBS, Showtime, Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, NBC, Bravo, FX, Comedy Central and Amazon – as well as cable or over-the-air signals – for the cheapest source of whatever you want to watch.

TiVo Bolt

But the creme-de-la-creme of TiVo features are SkipMode, which enables you to completely skip over commercials with the press of a button when watching recorded shows, and QuickMode, which speeds up a recorded show by 30% without raising the pitch of the characters’ voices.

They’re both tremendously helpful to traditional TV watchers that either use cable or an over-the-air antenna, and will radically change the way you view traditional television. Thirty-minute shows will be reduced to roughly 20 minutes and hour-long epics can be compressed into roughly 40-minute blocks. You can watch three episodes of a show in the time it used to take you to watch two. For binge-watchers, like myself, that’s well worth the cost of admission.

The Bolt is an increasingly competent 4K video player, too. It can currently power its way through Netflix’s Ultra-HD library without breaking a sweat, and TiVo says it plans on rolling out Amazon 4K support in the near future. Admittedly, the TiVo Bolt doesn’t have the same massive Ultra-HD library as, say, the Roku 4 has right out of the gate, but it’s clear that the groundwork is in place to get it there.

The biggest fault of the system is that, when it’s compared to the other streaming video systems out there – game systems like PS4 and Xbox One,Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku – the TiVo comes in a little light on apps.

TiVo Bolt

The argument could be made, of course, that most TiVo owners will opt for traditional cable or an antenna, but being able to use apps like Showtime Anytime or HBO Now would allow for more of a customizable experience suited for today’s market. (Do check out Plex, though, which allows you to stream content you already own from a nearby home theater PC [HTPC] to your TV for free.)

We liked

The TiVo Bolt is an unbridled binge-watching machine. It collects the shows you want to watch in an insanely easy-to-navigate interface and, through the beauty of OnePass, intelligently organizes your carefully managed recordings. Of course, once you do record a show, you’ll be able to watch it faster, thanks to features like SkipMode and QuickMode. This means you’ll spend more time enjoying your shows and less carefully fast-forwarding through commercial breaks.

Setting up additional storage is simple, as is connecting it to a nearby HTPC for Plex.

Finally, TiVo is finally boarding the 4K bandwagon to some surprising results. It tore through Netflix in Ultra-HD, and the company has plans to take on Amazon’s 4K catalog in the coming months.

We disliked

The TiVo Bolt is definitely lacking when it comes to crucial video streaming apps. While it has Vudu, Amazon and Netflix, it’s missing key services, like Showtime Anytime and HBO Now, that would allow cable reductionists to only pay for an antenna and then stream premium content through the apps instead of a paid cable package.

Additionally, the TiVo Bolt box comes part and parcel with the monthly service. You’ll get the first year of service free when you purchase your system. But payments to the tune of $150 a year, once the free period ends, makes this a tough sell for those looking to save money by cutting the cord.

Final verdict

The TiVo Bolt does an admirable job in everything it sets out to do. Not only does it perform as one of the best DVRs on the planet by allowing you to record up to four shows at once, but it completely organizes them in one of the most easy-to-use interfaces. Plus, new features, like SkipMode and QuickMode, will make it so you don’t waste hours of your life watching ads that you don’t care about.

On top of all that, the Bolt is a competent 4K streaming device, tackling Netflix’s Ultra-HD library at launch and setting a course for Amazon’s offerings next. It could use a few more apps, like HBO Now and Showtime Anytime, to round out the options for cable cutters trying to scale back their cable bill.

One problem it can’t shake is the monthly fee, though a one-year-free trial helps make the Bolt’s $299 and $399 price tag a little more wallet-friendly.

If you plan on cutting the cord completely, check out the excellent Roku 4. It lacks a cablecard slot, but offers thousands of channels of streaming content of its own. But ultimately, the Bolt is at the top of the table for TiVo, and it’s easily one of the must-own products in the home entertainment category for anyone planning on sticking with cable.

UE Boom 2 review

Minor, but worthwhile upgrades for a modern classic

If you’ve shopped for a Bluetooth speaker within the past year or so, you’ve probably heard of the UE Boom, or at least you should have. It won me over with its unmatched style, powerful audio and battery performance – plus a ton of features, thanks to its companion app.

It only makes sense that the UE’s follow-up wouldn’t mess with what didn’t need fixing.

The UE Boom 2 is here in similar – OK, nearly identical – fashion, yet there are some cool changes that have taken place under the hood. It takes on the same $199 (£169, AU$249) price point of its predecessor and, for those of you who already own the original, the Boom 2 can link up to the Boom through the app’s Double Up feature.

If you missed out on the first UE Boom, I wholeheartedly recommend the Boom 2. It’s the same size, but comes in new colors, packs in slightly better sound and introduces tap controls and waterproofing to UE’s Bluetooth speaker lineup.

On the other hand, while these additions are neat, they might not be enough to justify the cost if you already own the original model and are hoping for bigger changes.

UE Boom 2

Design

The UE Boom didn’t need a design overhaul, and thankfully, UE recognized that. There are slight changes, which I’ll dig into along the way, but check out my review of the original UE Boom to get a good sense of its design ID and what makes it so special.

Running across the unit that UE sent to techradar for review, I noticed a few, welcome changes that deserve a mention. First off, the mesh fabric here looks less porous and feels more durable than what is wrapped around the original Boom.

The controls of the UE Boom 2 are unchanged, and at that, still remarkably simple to use – even if you’re using the speaker for the first time. But, if you’ve got a sharp eye for detail, like yours truly, you’ll notice a few cosmetic adjustments around the unit.

UE Boom 2

UE Boom (left) next to its successor

For a cleaner look, UE decided to omit the Bluetooth logo from the pairing button, and the power button looks a little different. Even with these changes, new users shouldn’t have too much trouble at all figuring things out.

On the bottom of the Boom 2, UE has touched up the port flaps, making them sit flush with the base. More importantly, they are easier to flip open and access because of this change. Just like the last model, the flap door can be removed entirely if you’d rather not mess with it each time you need to charge.

Performance and features

The UE Boom 2 builds upon a strong foundation put forward by the last model, making noticeable strides in its 360-degree sound delivery, one of my biggest gripes about the first. Its room-filling capability frequently leaves me struck by how powerful this small, cylindrical speaker sounds.

UE Boom 2

The UE Boom 2 is dwarfed by the Megaboom

Just like the last Boom, there’s an impressive set of features inside the speaker, but you’ll need the companion app to unlock them. The UE Boom app allows you to adjust the equalizer effect and Double Up, UE’s way of linking two of its speakers together over Bluetooth to, you guessed it, double the sound. The app can also set alarms to wake you from sleep, but the older Boom can do that, too.

As mentioned earlier, the UE Boom 2 has some new tricks up its sleeve. First off, the app for the new speaker supports Block Party, a feature that allows up to two people nearby to connect to it via Bluetooth and play a track.

The best part? The Boom 2 owner has the power to boot either of the DJ wannabes if their suggestions stink.

UE Boom 2

Next up are the tap controls. Through the app, you can activate them, which allows you to change the song by simply picking up the speaker and tapping it. Just like the remote you find embedded in most headphone cables these days, the UE Boom 2 mimics this familiarized input.

You can also tap twice to skip songs or three times to go backwards. This might seem like a superfluous addition, but this extra level of control was sorely missing from the original model.

In addition to kicking out the jams, the UE Boom 2 also makes for a competent speakerphone. You can pick up and hang up calls by giving the Bluetooth pairing button a press. I found that this speaker can pick up multiple voices speaking at low to medium volumes without any trouble.

The icing on the cake, and the feature that could tempt owners of the original the most, is the waterproofing. Improving over the IPX4 rating of the UE Boom, which couldn’t safely handle more than a splash or two, the IPX7-equipped UE Boom 2 can be submerged in water up to a meter deep for 30 minutes before you run the risk of leakage. This also means that you can leave it out in the rain without the worry that you’ve just flushed 200 bucks down the drain.

UE Boom 2

Final verdict

Owners of the previous UE Boom may find themselves tossed about whether they should upgrade. It might help to think of this as a supplement, rather than a replacement, as you can pair up UE’s latest with the original model. Just make sure you remember which one is waterproof if you take them outside.

The UE Boom 2 offers the same ease of use that I loved about the original, and improves both the audio profile and 360-degree soundstage effect. Battery life remains unchanged from the 15 hours that the original put forward, but it still meets, if not exceeds, the industry standard.

And to think that the UE Boom 2 accomplishes all this while packing in more features, like tap control and waterproofing. If you’re deep in the search for your next –, or first – Bluetooth speaker, you can stop looking now.

Marshall Stockwell review

This Bluetooth speaker focuses on style over substance

Last year, Marshall crashed onto the portable audio scene with the Monitor, a surprisingly good set of on-ear headphones for a company whose legacy is nested in making guitar amplifiers. Now, it’s back with the Stockwell, a Bluetooth speaker. Just like the Monitor, it’s a chip off the old block, bringing all of Marshall’s signature touches of design to the forefront.

At $229 (£179, about AU$317), the Marshall Stockwell sits between the more affordable and expensive options out there. The Stockwell isn’t the best-sounding speaker, nor does it have many of the functions that I’ve come to expect in today’s average Bluetooth speakers.

But, if its charming attention to detail happens to win you over (and it very well could), you likely won’t regret the purchase. For everyone else, Marshall comes achingly close to a speaker I could outright recommend, but loses out in a few major areas.

Marshall Stockwell

Design

If you take one of Marshall’s standard guitar amplifiers and shrink it down to a tenth of its size, you essentially have the Stockwell. Complete with the ruggedized build, familiar gold finishes and enough knobs and buttons to make you want to touch them all, this Bluetooth speaker riffs completely on Marshall’s amplifier design identity – and that’s a good thing. The look works just as well at a hangout with your scrappy bandmates as it does on a regal coffee table.

The design starts with an optional protective case. It’s coated with a tough, leatherette material and some shiny Marshall branding. Once flipped open, the velvety underside of the cover acts as a stand to prop the speaker up at an optimal listening angle. Its looks alone are cool enough to warrant the $40 (£30, about AU$55) purchase, but what’s unfortunate is that it’s practically a necessity.

Marshall Stockwell

Without it, the Stockwell can fall over with a slight jolt to the surface it rests on. That said, you can save a little by purchasing the speaker and case bundled together for $249 (£199, about AU$345) through Marshall’s website.

Moving on to the speaker now, the main attraction is its grille, which rocks a pattern of grouped musical notes. In its center is the white Marshall logo, loud and proud, accented with silver paint. The grille’s rectangular face is wrapped by a gold-painted rim. The body of the Stockwell is comprised of smooth black plastic.

Most of the Stockwell’s functions are featured on its top, which mimics the appearance of Marshall’s amplifiers lovingly. From left to right, there’s a 3.5mm input for wiring up your device as an alternative to Bluetooth. Next, there’s a button to switch between wired and wireless settings (it doesn’t do it automatically).

Marshall Stockwell

There are also a few knobs up top, a style of input you don’t often see in the Bluetooth speaker scene. Each can be pushed in for a more seamless look on the top panel (and so that the case can easily wrap around it), but another push will pop them out, so that you can adjust the volume, bass and treble, respectively.

There’s a button to answer and hang up phone calls, one to enable Bluetooth discovery mode and finally, a power button. It might sound like this speaker has all of the knobs and buttons one could ever ask for, but unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The speaker lacks a multi-function button to play, pause and skip music. Its absence is a big misstep, and if you want to change the song, your only option is to keep your phone or tablet handy.

Marshall Stockwell

The Marshall Stockwell operates on a rechargeable battery, and the port to plug in the power source is located on the right side of the speaker. In the box, you’ll find a few different plug types, so you can use it abroad as well. Topping off the list of features is a USB port on the speaker’s back that lets you charge a device while listening.

Performance

As far as looks are concerned, the Stockwell has it in the bag. It packs performance, too. But, that’s more of a mixed bag.

Regarding its output, the Stockwell is well-stocked to put out a room-filling sound, though it isn’t the bass-heavy affair you might be hoping for. The three adjustable knobs can help to customize the sound profile to your liking.

Marshall Stockwell

At its best, the speaker offers incredibly crisp delivery with accurate bass performance. It’s just that, at its best, the unit doesn’t deliver the deep bass or warmth of sound that I’m hoping for from a speaker that looks this good, or frankly, one that’s this pricey. That said, listeners who aren’t as nitpicky as myself will probably find the Stockwell’s audio capabilities to be sufficient.

Using the Marshall Stockwell requires a little more thought than your average Bluetooth speaker. This is because its controls are modeled to look just like those found on a guitar amp. Depending on your familiarity with this type of equipment, this will either be a total breeze to operate, or a nightmare.

For me, it was somewhere in the middle. I’m very familiar with both amplifiers and Bluetooth speakers, but more often than not, the amplifier-style layout hurts more than it helps. Even from a few feet away, it’s hard to tell what each button does at a passing glance.

Marshall Stockwell

The Stockwell can also function as a speakerphone, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Once I pick up a phone call, the person on the other end has a difficult time making out what I am saying, even when I can’t get any closer to the speaker without touching my face to it.

On the bright side, battery life is a spot that the Stockwell nails. Its advertised 25 hours of battery life is no exaggeration. This speaker can endure about a week of normal use at medium volume levels before needing a charge. Just expect the longevity to decrease if you’re using the USB port to charge a device. Lastly, I had no issues setting up my devices and staying connected to the Stockwell during my testing.

Verdict

The Marshall Stockwell, much like the company’s efforts in the headphone space, is a love letter to the guitar equipment that made the company famous. But, compared to the competition in its price range, Marshall’s svelte Bluetooth speaker just doesn’t offer enough.

If you’re looking for a Bluetooth speaker in a similar price range that has good looks, offers better sound performance and oodles of features, then theHarman Infinity One might be a stronger investment.

That said, if Marshall’s signature looks, remarkable battery life and customizable sound profiles are must-have features, you could do much worse than the Stockwell. But, for your money, you’re not getting much more than a pretty facade.

How to get started with Minecraft on Raspberry Pi

World of Pi

Minecraft has steadily taken over the world since its release in 2009, and has become a runaway success across many different platforms, including the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

If you’ve never played Minecraft before, the basic premise is to mine various materials with which you can build objects in the game world. Mining is quite easy but it’s essential to survive, and you can mine wood, stone, coal and metals. From these mined materials you can make houses, bridges, weapons, tools and even furniture for your home.

There is another side to Minecraft, though, and this is what we are focusing on in this tutorial. Minecraft also has a creative mode, where you are free to build whatever you want, with no monsters or night-time to threaten you.

This is the version that has been made available for the Raspberry Pi. In this version of the game, you’re free to build anything you want, just like with a large box of Lego. Of course, it could become tedious building everything brick by brick, but fear not, because help is at hand, and it’s in the form of the Python programming language.

Download and install Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi

1. Download the archive

To get your copy of Minecraft, download the archive to your Raspberry Pi. Make sure you remember where you saved it, because we will need to use it in the next step.

2. Open the terminal

Extract the Minecraft archive contents to your Raspberry Pi via the terminal. On the desktop, double-click on the LXTerminal icon, then navigate to the place where you downloaded the archive.

To do this, use the cd command to change the directory – for example, cd /home/pi/.

3. Extract the archive

Use the terminal to extract the archive:

tar -zxvf minecraft-pi-0.1.1.tar.gz

Press [Enter] and you’ll see lots of text whizz along the screen. This is the command’s way of telling us that it is working. Once complete, the command returns you to a prompt.