October 2015 - Gadget Guy MN

Archive for month: October, 2015


The benefits of soundbars for home sound systems

Sound Equalizer

This post was originally published in the October 21, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.


Around two decades ago, I bought my first Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround sound home theater sound system. The 5.1 number includes both left and right front speakers, a center channel, two rear surround speakers, and a subwoofer. Nowadays there is an option for 7.1 surround that adds two more side speakers, and options exist beyond 7.1, so be sure to research it.

With the 5.1 system, I loved demonstrating to my friends how sound could travel around you in a circle like the sound of a helicopter. Especially for movies, the sound can immerse you within the setting and truly make you feel like you are part of the action. Action is where dynamic surround sound excels.

Over the decades, I upgraded my systems and continued to enjoy my true surround sound.

Cut to five years ago when my first child was born. We had six months or so until our eldest daughter started crawling, and I knew that I’d have to find a way to make those speaker wires far less accessible to a curious toddler. We were renting an apartment in Washington D.C. at the time, and running wires through the walls wasn’t an option.

The alternative solution was to buy wireless speaker adapters so my rear channels and subwoofer could run without having wires tucked along the carpet. The wireless adapters were decent, but not great. Our speakers were baby proofed, but the rear sound would occasionally cut out. Overall, the wireless setup was worth it to maintain kid safety and a dedicated rear surround sound.

A couple years ago, we moved into our home in Southwest Minneapolis, Kingfield specifically. The house is over 100 years old and wireless signals just don’t travel as well throughout it.

On top of that, my home has a lot of wireless devices all competing for bandwidth — we have multiple smartphones, tablets, laptops, an extender, and WiFi IP cameras all running on wireless and competing now with the rear wireless adapters and the separate wireless subwoofer adapter. Needless to say, everything was starving for the WiFi bandwidth. The rear speakers were regularly cutting out and the subwoofer simply wasn’t even connecting wirelessly most of the time. It was a tough decision, but since I was not consistently receiving rear sound anyway, it was time to look at a different option for our sound system.

I decided to go the route of a soundbar (or sound bar).

Soundbars are just what they sound like — they are long, narrow speakers that are generally placed under the TV. They have multiple speakers built into them to produce multi channel sound. Some even come with wireless rear speakers and a separate subwoofer. Soundbars also have the receiver/amplifier built in, so there is a lot less equipment on your shelves. I opted for one with fewer speakers: it has front right and left speakers and a built in subwoofer that provides some light bass. On some soundbars, some of the individual channels have multiple (mini) speakers.

Based on the room it is being used in, soundbars can create a virtual 5.1 sound that bounces audio off of walls to sound more dynamic throughout the space.

It really does create a more full sound throughout the room. With that said, a soundbar in no way replicates the true sound of having speakers behind you. For the past couple of years, I have been quite content with this sound. It is a great option for limited space, simplicity, and a quick way to improve a TV’s natural sound. (Note: Whenever connecting to an external sound system or soundbar, remember to  completely turn off your TV’s natural audio.)

Recently I set up a man cave and reconnected the older system I had with the full 5.1 surround sound, and it really does make a difference in sound quality. Having dedicated rear speakers creates such a full sound, and it really does immerse you further into the movie.

At the end of the day, optimal sound is not always the ideal for a particular room setup, and I stand by having a soundbar for the family TV room. It really does allow for simpler, yet still satisfying sound.

You have options! Based on your room, your environment, your use, and the level of sound you are looking to achieve, home theater systems can be tailored to meet your needs. Let me know what works for you.

Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home theater sound


Making the most of the Google app

Google Search


This post was originally published in the September 22, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal.


Hello, Journal readers! Gadget Guy here.

I wanted to share about a not-so-secret weapon that I use to solve problems and answer many questions. You may have heard of it before — Google, the search engine that has spawned loads of cloud-based productivity software.

While there are still legions of fans using Yahoo for search, I would be shocked to learn that you don’t use Google to search for websites or restaurants. However, how many of you are using the Google app on your phones? There are specific Google apps for both Android and iOS/Apple. If you aren’t using it, you should be.

Some people refer to the Google app as “Google Now,” but that is only a part of this fantastic virtual assistant (some call the app Google Search, some Google Voice Search). The Google app allows you to ask a question either via voice or type it in. With voice, it can be set to automatically begin listening to you when you say, “OK, Google.” The app can answer questions directly or send you to specific websites, just as a normal Google search from your desktop would. You can also tell it to call someone, set a timer, set a reminder, open a specific app, or bring up your calendar or set an appointment.

I should point out that Apple has Siri and Microsoft has Cortana. Both are capable virtual assistants that can help you find information and answer questions for you, but Google’s virtual assistant is built on Google’s search engine and we all know who the king of online search is. Compared to Siri, the Google app is very utilitarian, without much of a personality — that is not necessarily a bad thing though, if you just want functionality. There are a few Easter eggs thrown in. For instance, when you ask the app to make you a sandwich, one of the responses is “Poof; you are a sandwich.”

In addition to searches, the Google app includes Google Now which is contextually aware and learns from your searches, calendar, calls, and more to create a landing page filled with useful information. If Google Now sees you have a calendar appointment, it coordinates with Google Maps and your location to give you a notification of when you need to leave to arrive on time. It will even make you aware of any traffic hold-ups enroute to your destination.

I check Google Now in the mornings and see my appointments for the day, upcoming birthdays or anniversaries, tracking information for packages that it recognizes from my email with shipping information, events near me, sports scores that I am interested in, and important news related to searches that I have performed or shown interest in. You can continue to customize Google Now by responding when the app asks if the information it is displaying is useful or not.

While I love Google and have built most of my digital ecosystem around it, depending upon your device, you may want to stick with the native virtual assistant: Google on Android, Siri on iOS, and Cortana on Windows Phones. The native assistant will work the most seamlessly with your internal operating system. With that all being said, I do recommend trying the Google search app on any device.

As I shared in my last article, it is fun to bump into people in the neighborhood and discuss my articles. Please continue to send me questions that you would like me to answer in my column, please email me at paul@gadgetguymn.com. Thanks!

Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman and Digital Dad. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

photo credit: Vielleicht… via photopin (license)

home technology help


A Primer on Roku

Roku Streaming Stick


This post was originally published in the August 24, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.


Greetings, Southwest Journal readers! Your friendly, local Gadget Guy here.

A client recently shared an article idea with me. The idea was sparked when he was out to dinner and sharing about his new setup with a Roku stick. As the client talked about his Roku, he realized that he had no idea how it worked. Figuring that others may be in a similar situation, he suggested I write an article about it. So, let’s dive in.

What is Roku?

Put simply, Roku allows you to stream movies, TV shows, music and more directly to your TV. For the past decade (probably even longer), content and software providers have been working to provide Internet-only options for viewing TV and movies without physical media (DVD, Blu-Ray) or cable service. Some have been truly successful like Roku, while others have been acquired and shuttered like Boxee. Have you heard of Boxee? I didn’t think so.

Roku boxes have been around since 2008. There are multiple models with various features and they even have a “stick” version which is not much larger than your thumb. The Roku stick plugs directly into an HDMI port with no other noticeable equipment. (It does require power, but that is presumably behind the TV.)

An added convenience of the Roku stick is its radio frequency (RF) remote. Unlike infrared (IR) remotes, which are the most common, radio frequency (RF) remote controls are easier to use because they don’t require line of sight and do not have to be aimed at the equipment. The drawback with RF is that the midrange and lower universal remotes will not be able to control it.

Essentially, Roku boxes and sticks are mini computers that run Roku’s own interface — Roku OS, which is based on Linux. They connect to your Internet with wireless or wired options, depending on the model.

They are connected to your TV by HDMI, composite, or component video, again depending on the model (all of them have an HDMI option, but some provide older connection methods). Once connected, you choose channels that you would like to include on your device. These range from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Now, and PBS to channels of interest such as cooking or photography. With some channels, you have to have a separate subscription (i.e. Netflix), but many are free.

The Roku device pulls the show you want to watch and streams it to you on demand, generally with the option to pause, rewind, and fast forward.

There is no DVR function, as everything is at your fingertips on demand. There are also apps for both iOS and Android that allow you to control your device from your smartphone or tablet, as long as you are on the same wireless network.

There are, of course, devices other than Roku which allow you to stream shows and movies to your TV. I’ll cover a few of those options below. Also, all of the following devices, including the various Roku options, are under $100 — and some are under $40!

Apple TV is very similar as far as offering programming. However, a major downside to Apple TV is that you are limited to Apple’s closed ecosystem. This means, you won’t be able to access competitor services like Amazon or Google via the Apple TV.

Another option is Amazon Fire TV (also available in stick version), which is based on Android. Though, being a competitor to Google, it does not allow Google content. The device is built around Amazon’s own ecosystem and focuses on pulling in and offering content from Amazon’s own library. However, Netflix and other services are still available.

Google’s Chromecast is a bit different. It is another stick (or dongle, as it is often referred to) that plugs into an HDMI port. Then, you use  a smartphone, tablet, or computer to “cast” a stream to the Chromecast. Then, the Chromecast makes the connection, and you automatically start streaming from the Chromecast rather than your smartphone. Essentially, Chromecast allows you to “cast” movies, shows and music from your phone to your TV.

Chromecast is a great option, as you have any app available as long as it has Chromecast abilities built into it. For instance, Netflix, HBO Go and Now, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, and more all have this casting ability baked into their iOS and Google apps. One downside is that you do not have a separate remote to control it; you use your smartphone, tablet, or computer only.

At the end of the day, Roku is my current favorite because it has provider agreements with Amazon and Google (for Google Play TV and Movies), as well as the other usual suspects such as Netflix and Hulu.

Though, I should point out that even Roku has its own drawbacks, especially if you are part of the Apple ecosystem with your iPhone or iPad. It does not provide any connection to your iTunes music or movies that you have previously purchased. For me that is not a deal killer, but it is something to consider. Let me know if you have any questions.

It is fun to bump into people in the neighborhood and discuss my articles. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer in my column, please email me at paul@gadgetguymn.com. Thanks!

Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman and Digital Dad. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. He can be found through gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gagdetguymn.com.

photo credit: Roku via photopin (license)

cutting the cable cord