Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Chromecast, Slingbox, and Optimum App

The goal

I'm on a dual path of both reducing our cable boxes and reducing our dependence upon cable. We're not ready to give up cable yet, but we don't need five cable boxes any more. Maybe we never did, but that's water under the proverbial bridge.

We have five televisions in our home, yet we now only need two cable boxes. In the last half year, we've ceremoniously returned the other three, one at a time. This post explains some additions I've made to our home technology, toward meeting our goals mentioned above.

We do have some old Windows laptops lying around, which helps.

1. Chromecast -- Sends any supported chrome app or anything running in the Chrome browser to any television in your home that has a Chromecast device plugged into its HDMI port. Your computer does not have to be hooked up to your television, and can be in a different room from your television. Chromecast lets you watch all those streaming TV apps offered by Chromecast, without needing any cable at all. This is the device that could ultimately allow us to let go entirely of cable, except we still want sports. And now, we're even experimenting with doing without the sports channels -- we've just downgraded our cable service, just to see.

2. Slingbox -- Brings cable to any computer anywhere, and attached external displays are allowed. We use our two Slingboxes to sling cable to from our remaining two cable boxes to anywhere in the house where it is desired. That allows two different people to be watching two different programs at the same time.

3. Optimum App -- Brings cable to any computer anywhere within your network, but no external displays hooked up to your computer are allowed. Optimum App will work in your  home as long as you have at least one cable box, and it does not dominate any one cable box. In other words, it's as though you have an additional cable box.

A few more things to know:


 1. Chrome apps supported by Chromecast can be resized with no effect on your computer. But if you're running something else in Chrome, resizing to full screen could prevent you from using your computer. Instead, I have a dedicated laptop hooked up to the television with a VGA cable. Broken laptops are great for this. The one I have has a broken display. You could also use a laptop that no longer holds a charge, and always stays plugged in.
2. I got my Chromecast for $35.
3. I have found Chromecast not to work for viewing movies on a hard drive, external drive, or NAS device. Part of the problem is I had mp4's that seemed not to play well with RealPlayer Cloud (required if you're casting from a laptop), and part is degraded quality. Instead, I use my busted laptop, hooked to my television with a VGA cable, to show movies on the big screen.


1. Slingbox is hooked up to a cable box. A slight drawback of a Slingbox is that you have to regress from HDMI back to component cables plus audio cables. That's because HDMI connections enable copy protection, thus disallowing Slingbox. If Slingbox could use HDMI, then you'd use two cables -- one into the Slingbox, and one out. But because we're stuck with component plus audio, that's five cables in and five cables out. That's ten cables to collect dust. That's what led us to put the sling boxes in the basement.
2. I got a Slingbox for $40, through a promotional. It's refurbished, which amounts to the same thing as new, but with a shorter warranty. Look for promotionals or refurbished.
3. Some online discussions claim you can use your Slingbox without a cable box (by hooking it directly to the coax running from the wall) but that would only be true of a service which does not scramble the signal. That wouldn't work for us.
4. For each Slingbox we own, we can sling the signal to one device. 

Optimum App

1. Optimum App is free, requires no additional hardware, and works for anyone who has cable. It lets us extend the number of people in the house who can use cable at the same time. I use Optimum App on my Kindle Fire.
2. Optimum App disallows any external display, so you can't watch cable on your big TV hooked to your laptop. But it's nice for portability -- for myself, it means I can clean the house, room by room, and bring my Kindle Fire with me for continuous television viewing.

In another recent post, I described what happened when I tried to use Slingbox and Chromecast at the same time. It worked, but wasn't pretty.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

LastPass for a last blast at passwords

I just installed LastPass last week.

LastPass has solved some problems. I use multiple computers and multiple browsers, yet I've been stuck on firefox bookmarks for years. I keep having to change my bookmarks and replicate them everywhere -- boo! And I was saving my password hints in those bookmarks. Not safe!

Not any more. LastPass encrypts my passwords.

And LastPass organizes my bookmarks into...well...bookmarks. But now I can access them from anywhere, and from any browser.

And LastPass lets me make my desktop less secure, while my laptop can be more secure. That's because LastPass has both cloud settings and computer-based settings. Even browser-based settings.
On my laptop, I use my LastPass vault instead of bookmarks.

And because it's cloud-based, there's a single place to make changes to bookmarks and passwords.

LastPass is intuitive, right down to changing my mind a million times about which links belong to which folder. If the folder doesn't exist, I can invent it on the fly.

LastPass accepts your invented passwords, or will make them up for you for each site. And for each site, you can tell it whether you'd like auto-login.

I will never again have to take a day off from work to update my hundreds of passwords. LastPass will even alert me if I've got any repeated passwords. Repeated passwords you say? That used to be the norm. Now it's an alert. Yay.

And there's so much more. But instead of taking my word for it, try LastPass. It's free. There's a paid version too, great for your small business.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Watch premium cable shows controlled by Slingbox using Chromecast

The problem:

You've installed Slingbox and gotten rid of some cable boxes. Yay! Now you want to watch a premium cable sports channel on one of your tv's that no longer has a cable box, but okay bummer because with Slingbox, that means having to wire up your computer to your tv. I don't wanna!!!

Now a brief summary of Chromecast and Slingbox:
1. Slingbox lets you watch tv on a big screen, controlled by your computer, from any cablebox in the house that has a slingplayer attached. But your computer has to be wired to your tv, because what you're really doing is using your tv as a large external monitor. Boo.
2.  Chromecast lets you throw whatever is running in Google Chrome onto your unwired TV but you can't get everything you want running in Chrome or a Chrome app. For example, the premium sports channels.
So, you might think, just use Chromecast in conjunction with Slingbox, right? Almost. If you do that, all you get on the tv is a black screen. The two devices don't play so well together.

The solution:

Use the Facebook version of Slingbox, and it will work. Just install the Slingbox app in Facebook, remember that you have to run Facebook in Google Chrome, then click on Slingplayer in your Facebook apps and sign in. Then just cast the tab to Chromecast.


On my network it's a little sluggish, but that's the next hurdle.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chromecast mp4 plays audio only -- solved!

It's February 2014, and like many of you, I've been pounding my new Chromecast to see what it can do. I have lots of ripped MP4s on my NAS device, but couldn't get them to run in Chrome on my Windows 7 computer. The audio worked, but not video.

Here's what I did to fix it:

1. Open Real Cloud player. It's here: and sign in
2. Upload the faulty MP4. The Realplayer Cloud folks report that they pretty much convert whatever you upload to them.
3. Then download it again. Make sure to choose "Download MP4" and not "Download."
4. Now drag your downloaded MP4 to Google Chrome and it works.

Remaining problems:

1. Now that it works, I find that my network isn't fast enough to make it look good on my television. It's a little pixelated and sluggish.
2. When running it from my hard drive, it's in a small window unless I click on full screen. But clicking on full screen means my display is dominated. I cannot use other Windows functions.

Because of the above two remaining problems, I tried checking out the same video in the Realplayer Cloud, and found the quality to be just as degraded. The only benefit of the movie in the cloud is that my computer is still usable while the movie is playing.

I may need to return to my original movie source, and re-rip to a different format.