Cutting the Cord: PART 1

Let's face it, cable sucks! At least the price does. I have (had) something over 400 channels available to me through my cable provider, of which I maybe watched ten to fifteen of them on any regular basis.  The option to watch so many different things isn't bad, except when you have to pay for all of them when you watch only a few. Doubling up on this conundrum the few channels I watch are only included in the higher packages, forcing me to pay full toll. I tolerated this until last December when my "offers" expired and my bill sky-rocketed from $115 to $172, a gain of 49%!!! When I was told new offers would not be available until the first part of the year I cut my services down to the basics with DVR and cough up something like $85 a month for local channels, or actually less than half my local channels since cable doesn't include the extended HD channels available in my area, just major networks. The first part of the year is here and the offers are lousy. Why pay so much for so little??? The fix for my dilemma, I hope, is to cut cable all together. 

My first delve into replacing cable TV? Netflix, an awesome choice for replacing movie channels. My second move is getting content from the web to my TV. In that endeavor I saw Google's Chromecast but was deterred by its limit of only showing content from inside Chrome. It's not that I dislike Chrome, but what if I want to view something that isn't "playable" from Chrome?

Surfing eBay and Amazon I found the answer to Chromecast's limitation, EZ-Cast. At first sight it is a visual knock-off of Chromecast and is crazy cheap at a mere $25 or less. Sold! The concept is simple, much like Chromecast it is a wireless device that plugs into the HDMI port of the TV.  Send a wireless video stream to the device from your PC and EZ-Cast displays it on your TV. Unlike Chromecast it can send video of your entire desktop, not just the contents of the Chrome browser. Surely this would solve all my woes.

The first thing I noticed wasn't good. The EZ-Cast doesn't get its power from the HDMI port, like hoped, it needed to be plugged into a USB power supply. Luckily the EZ-Cast comes with a USB cord to plug into a USB power supply. Sadly, EZ-Cast does NOT come with a USB power supply. Being a tech guy, I have several USB power supplies laying around, but this was still rather disappointing. After digging up a spare Blackberry adapter I noticed the second disappointment; the USB power cord included was rather short.  Even with a relatively short entertainment center the cord still doesn't reach the wall outlet causing me to add a small extension cord to the mix (also not included).

The addition of external power raises a few more concerns. There is no HDMI extension cable so the rather wide EZ-Cast device must not only be strategically installed where it can fit but it also exerts the weight of the EZ-Cast device and connected power cord on the HDMI port. I would also be concerned with the protruding device being crammed into the wall if the TV were pushed back.

OK, it's hooked up so let's get to using it. The hardware setup is rather easy after physically hooking it up. The video displayed shows a WiFi SSID and password, just install the EZ-Cast software on your preferred laptop, desktop, droid or iOS device that you want to send video from.  Use the displayed information to connect your broadcasting device to the EZ-Cast. After connecting to EZ-Cast you can configure the EZ-Cast device to connect to your wireless internet so it can connect to home base and download updates.  The connection to your WiFi also allows devices that are hardwired to your LAN to broadcast video to the EZ-Cast device.

Now that everything is connected and talking, let's push some video. I took three stabs at this. My first attempt  was streaming from my old XP test laptop and the streaming media would only play for about 20-30 seconds before it would stop and buffer. The video playback was totally unacceptable but it was from old hardware and maybe the under-powered laptop combined with a legacy OS and transmitting wirelessly from the laptop was causing the issue. Enter try two; streaming video from my desktop in the office. Not ideal having to spin up a video in the other room, going back and forth to pause and play but I wanted to be fair evaluating the EZ-Cast. Installing the software on my Windows 7 desktop was immediately disappointing. The EZ-Cast software disabled one of my three monitors and still produced the same choppy buffering video my laptop had. To add insult to injury; During my testing, the EZ-Cast hardware actually crashed several times and only reset by unplugging the power and plugging it back in. No good.

Being horribly disappointed in the EZ-Cast I put it down for quite some time, only firing it back up to write this article. My first glimmer of hope was that as soon as it turned on, it found new firmware and began installing it. My second glimmer of hope was when I visited the EZ-Cast website I saw they had new Windows software, yay! Clicking on the download button for the new software resulted in a web page displayed in Chinese.  The home page and software page was in English, but clicking any download button resulted in a Chinese page being displayed. I can't read Chinese, I can read Engrish so the occasional funny in the on-screen interface was actually enjoyable. I visited the site several more times in frustration and finally, using the exact same route was finally given the same page in English (must not have been holding my jaw right). The odd Chinese screen was apparently the EZ-Cast guys wanting me to register my device. I hate plopping my email around, they didn't want me to do this the first time, but OK.

Say what?!?!?

Engrish: Due to the streaming may comes from your phone through router to TV, the throughput is relatively small and the playback may be choppy. "Direct Link Only" requires connecting to dongle SSID directly and provides better local multimedia streaming performance.

I installed the new software on my now upgraded Windows 7 laptop. New firmware, new software, what could go wrong? Plenty. As soon as the software installed, it wanted to reboot, annoying but not uncommon. The problem being in the fact that when it rebooted Windows froze in the boot sequence and wouldn't even come up in safe mode. I believe it to be a conflict with another piece of boot time software I use (never had a problem with it before though). Long story short, laptop brain surgery later, I was able to get my system up. I said up, but not totally OK, the EZ-Cast software install somehow disabled my fingerprint scanner and I can now only log in via password prompt...I'll fix it later.

Running the EZ-Cast software results in Windows complaining about it not being compatible with certain visual elements and then changes the color scheme to Windows 7 basic. Annoying, unprofessional, but liveable. The interface is non-standard but simple and fairly straight-forward. EZ-Cast chose a colorful, round-button interface that is a little awkward but takes only a little experimentation to understand. The truly odd part of the interface is the configuration screen which happens on-screen instead of on the software display. Entering into the configuration section of the software launches an on-screen menu that is thumbed through with a graphical remote on the software screen. I find this to be an odd and inconsistent interface.

Hardware works, software works, let's get broadcasting. Using the defaults the video was choppy both using the mirror function that displays the entire desktop as well as using the included video streaming function. My laptop was broadcasting directly to the EZ-Cast device (like the Engrish note said to), not via my wireless router. Fast forwarding resulted in a "buffering" notice on-screen and the frame rate was visibly reduced causing a watchable but annoyingly choppy video. Reducing the display from 1080 to 720 improved the quality but not to a level that made watching big screen movies what they should be.

My final opinion of the EZ-Cast is that it's ability to display the entire desktop wirelessly is very nice, suitable for a business demonstration, a PowerPoint slide show or say a computer class. Using EZ-Cast for displaying video on the other hand was quite sub par and would not suffice for all but the least discerning of movie watchers like the guys that watch those grainy, blurred screenies filmed with hidden cameras in the movie theater. All in all, for business use the EZ-Cast is a definite maybe but for home use the EZ-Cast is a resounding no-go.

No comments:

Post a Comment