American Gods: Will it ever be released on UHD Blu-Ray or 4K UHD iTunes?

As much as I loved the first season of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods on Amazon Prime Video UK, I’m reluctant to buy it on Blu-Ray or it’s current version on iTunes for one particular reason: while it was shot in Ultra-High Definition (aka 4K), and I can watch it as often as I like on Amazon in UHD, I can’t buy it in any form in UHD – especially UHD Blu-Ray.

It’s a bit ironic that American Gods has a character called Technical Boy who “invites” people into his limousine via virtual reality.  In reality, however, I cannot easily buy a TV series in UHD.

The biggest problem with the TV industry at the moment is that only a subset of it (generally the two largest online streaming services – Netflix & Amazon Prime Video) is producing content in UHD.  It is also still costly to mass produce UHD content on physical media.  In the film industry, for example, not all films are given releases in UHD. Only the really big blockbuster movies are getting the UHD Blu-Ray treatment at the moment, and those cost between £20-£25 each, about £10-15 more than regular Blu-Ray.

Making UHD content available to buy via download or streaming is a different matter.  Though that too introduces some hurdles.   Do you really get to keep the content?  As I found out recently with the BBC Store – if that goes away, so does any content you’ve bought.  But thankfully the BBC refunded me entirely and even gave me a bit of a bonus to use with Amazon – for streaming content (whether to rent or buy – I used it to rent).

Apple is said to be announcing a 4K/UHD capable Apple TV next week.  This is all well and good, but unless Apple has 4K content to go with it, the upgrade won’t be worth it.  The 4th generation Apple TV has been okay for the most part, and practically all my HD content I’ve purchased (or rented) has been excellent (with the exception of Breaking Bad – we need iTunes Extra for TV shows, Apple!).  But the biggest problem with the Apple TV has been the lack of support from UK broadcasters.  I’m still waiting for ITV Hub, Channel 4, Channel 5 and other UK broadcasters to pull their fingers out of their bottoms and develop their catch-up apps for it.

But I still concede that iTunes/Apple TV is still the best method of buying and keeping content.  If Apple can get 4K/UHD on there, it’ll be a start.

I believe it’s about time that at least one broadcasting company steps up to bat and starts to invest in UHD outside of just making content and streaming it as part of a subscription service.  It has taken a very, very long time to get to UHD/4K televisions, and yet support for it outside the streaming ecosystem is still very poor.

Starz – please let me buy American Gods in UHD.  Either in UHD Blu-Ray or via iTunes (in 4K/UHD) when the hardware is available.  Or even both!

Game of Phones part.. oh, I’ve lost track now.. and the big screen experience at home

September is traditionally the time in which the two biggest players in the smartphone market release (or at least announce) their newest flagship phones to the masses.

Apple is due to announce the new iPhone 8 range of phones on September 12th, whereas Samsung is releasing the new Galaxy Note 8 a few days later.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve really struggled to move to Android and have always returned to iOS.  When I got the Galaxy Note 7, I absolutely loved that phone, but the whole battery/recall situation was unpleasant enough (which also took me to the Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel XL) that I just bit the bullet and went back to an iPhone.  Earlier this year I had a brief encounter with the Galaxy S8+, but one of my most valued (and most used) applications kept crashing under Android and that forced me back to the iPhone – again.

Right now I’m thinking the best strategy would simply to keep using the iPhone 7 Plus that I have and wait it out until later next year to see what’s happened between the Note 8 and iPhone 8.  But I really like the look of the Note 8 – it’s square shape, the S-Pen and the dual cameras (both of which feature optical image stabilisation – a first for any smartphone) all appeal.  I liked that I could jot down phone numbers or write notes when the screen was off with the Note 7.  That’s great value to me.  With the iPhone 8, I stay within the Apple ecosystem with the Apple Watch and the MacBook Pro 2017 Kaby Lake (13″).

Speaking of the MacBook Pro, I decided that, as I will be occasionally working from home with my new job (which is going great, BTW – there’s a LOT to keep me occupied) to buy myself a monitor.  I’ve been using laptops almost exclusively close to nearly 15 years, and I’d never thought about buying an external monitor to use with them.  Back at Memset, I had a single monitor (21″) that kept me going for 5 years (whereas colleagues had multiple monitors) that I hooked up to my MacBook Air.  It was okay, and as such, I felt that I didn’t really need that sort of set-up at home.  This new job, on the other hand, gives me two 21″ monitors out the box on a desktop based Ubuntu OS (it was running Windows).

So last week, having endured two weeks where I had to work at least one day per week at home due to the South Western Railway signal/Waterloo upgrade situation, I decided that what I really needed to be able to work comfortably at home with a trillion SSH sessions going on, a web browser or three, and a Slack session all running at the same time was a monitor.  I had a look at Ultra HD/4K monitors and ruled them out due to cost.  I think it may be another year or two before costs are driven down.   So I had a look at a decent 21-24″ full HD monitor that would be both cost-effective and last me for a couple of years (or more).

I looked at a Samsung curved monitor, then ruled that out as it looked too odd.  Then there was the LG 25UM58-P-25 21:9 aspect ratio ultra-wide monitor, which looks incredible, but I wondered if it would fit on my desk.  I finally settled down on a Dell 2418H InfinityEdge display from John Lewis. £200.  It’s a lovely display and comes with its own speakers (tuned by Waves Maxx Audio) that sit within the stand.  The quality of the image is fantastic.  Yes, you can see the pixels in text given that it’s only a Full HD display and the Mac is capable of driving much higher resolutions – but for my needs it’s perfectly fine (the laptop screen runs at 1600×900 and this display runs at 1980×1080 – then when you combine both screens, I have substantially more real screen estate to play with now).

I also had to buy a new dongle for the Mac because of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports don’t allow me to directly hook up to an external monitor without one.  I settled for a Cable Matters USB-C to 4K HDMI multiport adapter.  This also gives me a gigabit ethernet port and two USB 3 ports.  And it works brilliantly.  It also works with my Dell XPS 13 (9350) too.

Speaking of the Dell XPS 13 9350, I think it may be time to say goodbye to the only decent Windows machine I’ve used in the past year.  Dell is just about to refresh the line with the brand spanking new 8th generation Intel processors which bring quad core processing to 13″ notebooks for the very first time.  So if anybody is looking out for a very good Windows laptop with 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD, and still carries an on-site warranty until 2019 – please get in touch (details in the About Martyn page – link on the left).

Halt and Catch Fire: Irony Edition

I’ve previously mentioned how AMC, the US-based TV broadcaster, has about as much grasp on international marketing and promotion on Twitter as a badger has for astrophysics.

Well, they’ve just taken that to a whole new level.  A TV show called Halt and Catch Fire, which I’ve watched all three seasons within the past few weeks, is about to start season 4.  So AMC are promoting it.  It’ll be on Amazon Prime UK too.  But, as they’ve done for Better Call Saul, any clips are strictly limited to the US only.

The irony is that season 4 of the show, which is a fictional drama that’s set around key points of the computer industry in the 80’s and 90’s (season 1 – IBM clones, season 2- starting up a BBS/online gaming company, season 3- much the same, with hints of the internet about to come on the scene) .  Season 4 will heavily feature the internet.  The same internet which I can’t view AMC’s clips because they’ve geoblocking all video on social media and on their web site.

Again, the official social media from AMC doesn’t cater for international users.

Halt and Catch Fire, along with HBO’s Silicon Valley which is also a favourite, is a brilliantly written and performed show that combines a strong storyline with the crazy technologies that I fell in love with as a kid.

Digital video: renting vs buying, and why Apple is best for buying

With news that iTunes’ share of video sales and rentals are falling against competitors such as Amazon (Prime) Video and other services, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why iTunes is the better platform for buying movies digitally, despite my brain screaming at me, “Look what happened to the digital BBC Store.”

iTunes offers iTunes Extras of which an increasing number of titles are including the same features as physical media.  Audio commentaries are regularly included, for example.  No other service offers this.

iTunes has one of the best device allowances of any service – and this includes the ability to download the content to a Mac, Windows PC, iPad and/or iPhone.

The UI of iTunes is much better than that of the competitors.  The Apple TV, not so much, but still considerably better than most.  Therefore it’s easier to manage existing titles.  And in all the years I’ve been buying movies from iTunes, I’ve never lost a single title due to film studios deciding to withdraw from the platform.  This could change, of course, but I’m sure if that happened, consumers would be lining up to lynch whoever decided it was a good idea to do so.

In terms of renting, Amazon (Prime) Video very narrowly outshines iTunes. There’s almost always a promotion which allows me to pay far less for renting an HD title via Amazon (Prime) Video than iTunes.  For example, I’ve just rented Hidden Figures (*superb* film) and T2: Trainspotting (also very good) – both in HD – £2.49 for both titles.  Amazon Video is baked into my LG television, making it very easy to access.

Don’t get me started on the UltraViolet digital platform.  It’s a completely useless pile of sputum devised by the film studios to make them look kind and generous by providing a non-physical digital copy of a film.  The truth is that it’s a massive pain in the arse to manage and I don’t bother with it anymore.   TalkTalk’s app (TalkTalk having bought Blinkbox which in turn is an UltraViolet partner) for LG televisions is awful.  I accept that one has to log in again occasionally, but the process is just stupid.  Look at what Google is doing for logging in to YouTube – much, much easier for televisions.  Entering a password via a remote control is the epitome of piss-poor user interface design.  But TalkTalk isn’t the only one guilty of this crime (NOW TV, Amazon, and even Netflix are guilty – but their TV apps allow for significantly long log in times).

BTW, I also hate the Amazon Prime Video UI too – it makes discovery difficult and it seems so random that I rarely watch anything on the service other than the really big TV productions.  I watched the German comedy, Toni Erdmann the other day (very, very funny – especially the nude party scene), but I had to manually enable the subtitles (found under CC for closed captioning – usually referencing subtitles for the hard of hearing – in my case, hard of not knowing enough German to understand the film without English subtitles).

The only other service I’ve purchased films from is Google Play.  I can watch the films on a tablet, my phone and even my TV through the YouTube app.  But those titles are generally either freebies or were heavily discounted.

Otherwise, I’ll be sticking with iTunes for future film purchases.  The next one, in fact, will probably be Hidden Figures because it was just such a great film, and there’s an audio commentary included in iTunes Extras which should give the film even more value.

BBC’s digital store to close in November

My biggest fear with buying digital only copies of films and television shows is if the provider goes away – whether it’s due to bankruptcy, change of direction – whatever.  As I’ve been sticking with the iTunes ecosystem for the majority of the time, I trust Apple to do the right thing and ensure I am able to download and watch my movies regardless of whatever happens to the movie or TV studio that supplied them with the content.  So far so good.

But, alas, the poor old BBC has announced that it’ll be shutting down its all digital BBC Store from 1st November 2017.  I’ve used BBC Store a number of times over the past 18 months, amassing a few titles here and there.  It was relatively cheap, and they often had many titles on sale.  My biggest complaint with the BBC Store, however, is actually watching the titles on my TV.  What a pain in the arse that was.  The BBC iPlayer baked into my LG TV, Apple TV, plus the games consoles I used to have, never supported BBC Store titles.  And there was no native BBC Store app for them either.  Thus I had to buy a Google Chromecast to be able to cast the content from my mobile phone to it.  No problem watching the content on my phone or tablet, but it’s not ideal – and this is why I think the BBC has failed – it felt as if it didn’t put enough resources into developing the BBC iPlayer integration or BBC Store apps across multiple platforms.

(Ironically, as the mega corporate AT&T is set to buy Time Warner, Inc. and take over HBO – AT&T’s boss has been semi-joking that he wants to provide 20 minute mobile friendly episodes of Game of Thrones – this sort of thing horrifies me – I’m all about choice, but the important thing is that television is television and should be viewed as (and on) such)

Another problem with BBC Store is that many of BBC’s titles are available on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.  The BBC has said that it wasn’t able to compete with these services, but I still say they just did not put enough effort or resources into making the content available across platforms as easily as Netflix or Amazon Prime (which, BTW, should be coming to Apple TV next month if rumours are true).

Ultimately it’s a slap in the face for digital TV and movie consumption.  But I also ask: is TV and film going the same way as music?  Do people actually prefer to pay a monthly subscription fee to consume as much content as possible, rather than simply buy a title outright?   While the BBC is refunding those of us for the content we’ve paid for (plus, very ironically, a £20 Amazon voucher for similar digital content), it doesn’t make it easy for us to be able to repurchase the content elsewhere.  With content providers bemoaning that piracy is ruining the entertainment industry – it forgets very easily that if more effort was made to make the content available quickly and cheaply, and across as many platforms as possible, their rhetoric might be a bit more believable!