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Apple TV and Netflix don't play well together

Mark's rating: 4.5
Your rating: None

Before we get going I need your help with my Apple TV, which is making me unhappy. I purchased a second generation model a few weeks ago and I am still impressed; it is the usual polished, elegant engineering that we have come to expect from Apple.

But while the device worked excellently for a while, after a couple of weeks Netflix Instant Play (my second place reason for having an Apple TV after the device's Airplay feature) began to pause every few minutes. Then, after spinning for a minute or two, it restarts. This makes for a decidedly subpar experience if you're watching anything from Netflix. After a little online research I found ... well, nothing useful.

Apple tV

It seems many people have similar complaints about Netflix streaming on Apple TV. It would appear there is a serious buffering problem with the product ... a problem as in the buffer isn't big enough, or else why wouldn't the device measure download rate and buffer accordingly and - and here's the big omission - then tell you what it's doing? Is this Apple's fault? Netflix?

I've checked my AT&T DSL service and it appears to be running normally (as in the speed tests I've run all report the expected performance and the DSL modem reports no issues) so what could be the problem?! If you have any insight into what might be the cause of my displeasure, do let me know.

Anyway, this week I have a mixed bag for you. First off, V-Moda's Vibrato headphones. These are wired in-ear buds that are some of the very best I have ever experienced. The high frequencies are clear and the bass is sensational!

Clear, full and rich in all registers, these headphones are quite simply excellent (if you want a great test for range, try "Adrift in Hilbert Space" by Ott, perhaps the finest example of the "psychedelic dubstep" style I've ever heard; the extraordinarily "dirty drop" comes about half way through at 4:20 ... make sure you turn the volume up really high).

The Vibrato headphones have volume controls and a pause button as well as a microphone and are compatible with both iOS and Android devices (I tried them with an iPod Touch and a Samsung Galaxy S cellphone).

Vibrato

I have two minor complaints about the Vibrato headphones: First, the cord, which is woven with Kevlar for durability (and might even take a bullet for you if you live in a rough neighborhood), is a little stiffer than I'd like, but it is, the gods know, very durable.

Second, the detachable sport earhooks, which work fairly well, are rather fiddly.

My third complaint has nothing to do with the product's functionality or value; it's a marketing issue: V-Moda, in common with far too many companies, touts all sorts of technologies under various made up names that they and they alone offer as if these technologies have meaning to the marketplace.

For example, V-Moda talks about "V-MASQUE technology" and that the headphones are made from "Museum-Quality Metal". Really? I don't have any intrinsic problem with enthusiastic marketing, but when the GUI BS-factor-ometer(a proprietary Gibbs Universal Industries technology) reads 11, well, I'd suggest it's time to get real.

Anyway, despite those minor issues, the V-Moda Vibrato headphones are a pleasure to use and, while they aren't cheap at $130, given they deliver what amounts to audiophile quality for in-ear bud headphones, they get a Gearhead rating of 4.5 out of 5.

My other test this week was the Griffin Technology Beacon, a universal remote control for your various entertainment devices such as TVs, stereos and DVD players.

What makes the Beacon unique is that the actual control is done from an iOS app via Bluetooth with the Beacon sending the required infrared signals to target device.

The Beacon is a small box with an oddly shaped lump on the top. To put the Beacon into pairing mode you press on the lump until a little blue light flashes on the edge of the lump; it's an odd set of engineering choices but it works. (Wouldn't a simple cube with a recessed button have been simpler, cheaper, and more elegant? Really, what does this Jetson-esque design gain them? Will people think the product is somehow cooler? I doubt it. Once again, these people didn't check with me first.)

Be that as it may ... You download the free Dijit iOS app from the iTunes App Store which drives the Beacon, and install it - a simple task. Next you have to tell the app what devices you use, which very often results in a wizard-driven trial-and-error identification process.

I was disappointed to find that Dijit didn't really know the complete control functions for either my Panasonic television or my DirecTV digital video recorder.

In fact it looks like some engineer came up with a default set of control functions for generic devices and then mercilessly made every actual device fit that mold. The result is, for example, the default controls for my DirecTV DVR don't include a pause button! That's like leaving the brakes out of a design for a car.

Another thing that really bugged me was that, wherever navigation by direction (up, down, left, and right) is required, Dijit uses a pad control you have to swipe rather tap.

Perhaps I'm just clumsy, but this turned out to be a huge irritation as I frequently over- or undershot the navigation pad and in so doing I often managed to switch to another device control panel entirely (swiping up or down in a device control panel outside of any individual control changes to another device control). This usually led to devices being accidentally turned off or channels changed along with a lot of swearing.

I also found the "Activities" function was poorly thought out. This feature provides for macro-like chains of commands so you could, for example, switch on a TV, pause while it boots (remember when TVs just "warmed up" ... now they are computers so they "boot"), and then change the input to, for example, "Video 1" ... which, of course, I couldn't because the Dijit app doesn't know enough about my Panasonic TV and thinks that all that it has are HDMI inputs.

I figured out how to get around this (I had to use two commands, "input" then "7"), but how many consumers will figure out that sort of thing? And that really characterizes the entire Beacon system: The Beacon hardware, odd design not withstanding, does it's job just fine, but the Dijit software is naïve and poorly designed. Griffin, a company that has produced many excellent products, should be looking for or building a replacement ASAP.

According to Gizmodo and Engadget, I'm wrong and the Beacon is an "iPhone Universal Remote [that] Doesn't Suck" and it is "the next level of smartphone-as-universal-remote technology." I beg to differ. If the authors of those articles had really looked at what the Beacon is and does, they could hardly have honestly come to those conclusions.

I could go on at length about how this kind of control system should be designed, but the bottom line is the Beacon "powered by Dijit" is a great idea but not ready for prime time.

At $80 and in its current incarnation the Griffin Beacon is over-priced, but the potential is there and Griffin could easily make this the best universal entertainment system controller ever. Given that it's not that as of this writing, the Griffin Beacon "powered by Dijit" gets a Gearhead rating of 2 out of 5.

Gibbs is in control in Ventura, Calif. Your configurations gearhead@gibbs.com.

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