Monday, January 30, 2012

The Sony SMP-N200 (or SMP-N100) is the only streaming player you need; eschew the Roku!

After much searching, buying, and evaluating, I'm convinced that the Sony SMP-N200 (or maybe the older SMP-N100 if you can find it) is probably the best streaming device you can buy. Well, it's at least the best value streaming device you can buy (under US$80). It does everything that a Roku device does plus a little more and is substantially cheaper when you compare apples to apples. The only thing you really lose is the ability to watch trailers in the Amazon Instant/Video-on-Demand application. However, trailers are available in basically every other movie app plus a Flixster application with plenty of trailers.

For US$66.99 on Amazon (and US$69.99 on Best Buy) at the time of this post, you get:
  • HDMI output for full 1080p video and 5.1 channel audio
  • Optical audio output (if your receiver doesn't do HDMI audio)
  • Analog audio output (via RCA connectors)
  • Composite video output
  • Component video output
  • Wired ethernet support
  • Wireless 802.11b/g/n support built-in
  • USB port (videos, pictures, music)
  • DLNA client (and maybe server for that USB?)
  • HDMI wake-up (i.e., device turns on and off automatically based on HDMI signal; moreover, this behavior is configurable if you don't like it)
  • Very thin and simple remote control powered by a watch battery
    People say this remote is an improvement over the one that came with the old SMP-N100 model, but I disagree. For one, the "Home" button is too close to the down arrow. More importantly, the old remote control was quasi-universal in that you could program it to your TV and it would control your TV's volume, power, and video input. So I basically only need one remote with the SMP-N100 to do everything.
  • Android phone and tablet remote control apps
  • iOS remote control app
  • ...probably more that I overlooked because I personally didn't care
With all of that hardware support, the device is great for a wide variety of home theater systems (e.g., with old TV's or old receivers). You can contrast this with the more expensive Roku that has an HDMI output and a composite output. Those people with older receivers and/or older TV's are not going to enjoy all of the advanced features of modern streaming content on a Roku. This is not as much the case with the Sony players.

And the applications that come on board the Sony SMP-N200 include:
For some reason, Amazon Instant/Video-on-Demand was not advertised anywhere on the box or on the Sony website like it used to be. However, the application still exists on the device. Despite it being the same application that is used to access Sony's own "Video Unlimited" service that supports movie trailers, the Amazon app has no trailer support. That's frustrating and makes me think that Sony has been given financial incentive to de-emphasize Amazon over its other providers. One of those providers includes Vudu, which is provided by the full-featured Vudu application you get on every other streaming device (minus the "Vudu apps" support you might see on a Blu-ray player). Regardless, if you're OK with getting your trailers elsewhere, this is a fine selection of applications. UPDATE: As of a recent software update on my Sony SMP-N100 (and so also likely on the Sony SMP-N200), trailers are available now in the Amazon VoD app. So it is much nicer now to browse for movies within the single app.

And if that's piqued your interest, you should also take a look at the previous model, the Sony SMP-N100. It is nearly identical to the SMP-N100 except that it lacks support for a few providers, of which the only one you should care about is Vudu. It still has Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant/Video-on-Demand (no trailers though), DLNA (which means PlayOn too), Crackle, YouTube (but no movie rental support), Pandora, and much more. However, it sells for at least US$20 less (so US$49.99 on Amazon (same price at Best Buy) at the time of this post) because the new version exists.

So if you're looking for a nice streaming player for a good value, I think most people will point you at the Roku. However, the Sony players (both the SMP-N200 and SMP-N100) are cheaper and do more. The interface is not as clean and cozy as Roku though. Moreover, it might be annoying to you that you cannot play Amazon video trailers. However, trailers are available through lots of other services, and there's a lot of value to having them all on one device (as opposed to having, say, Vudu on your Blu-ray player and Amazon VOD on your Roku).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cloud Storage Referral Links (and tips on getting even more space)

I like to accumulate cloud storage so I can have redundant backups of my files in easily accessible places all over the Internet. Below is a list of referral links to a few services that I've tried. In each case, activating an account via the referral link will bring both you and me a little extra space (if you need help linking them together, check out Otixo).

All of these services have good Windows support, decent OS X support, and at least a hint of Linux support. Some of them are easier to activate using Windows than other platforms.
  • Dropbox, an old standard in could storage. The referral link gets you 2.25 GB of free storage to start with. Make sure you complete at least five of the steps under the "Getting Started" tab to get another 0.25GB. Also, for a limited time, you can use the "Camera Upload" feature of the Windows beta or the Android beta to get up to 5GB more free space (so 7.5 GB total!). Then you can get 0.25 GB more for every new person you refer to the service.
  • SpiderOak will give you 3 GB if you join via that link. However, during your account setup, you can then try the promo code worldbackupday to get an additional 3 GB so that you top off at 6 GB total of free storage for the life of the account. In case you already have a SpiderOak account and didn't know about the promotion code, you can still get the extra 3 GB. Just login to the SpiderOak website, click on the "add new space" (it might say "buy new space"), then click to "Change" your account, and then enter the worldbackupday promotion code. Assuming the promotion code hasn't expired, it all should work.

    SpiderOak is very similar to Dropbox and yet also very different. It encrypts your files locally so that SpiderOak employees don't even have access to your data. It also does the encryption in a way that ensures that files duplicated across your machines don't take up duplicate space. Plus, you can create encrypted shares where a subset of people have access to storage but no one else. Finally, SpiderOak allows you to select multiple folders to backup on your system rather than just keeping one "dropbox" in sync. You can use it like dropbox by selecting a single folder to be synchronized across your computers, but you don't have to.
  • will give you something like 10.2 GB for clicking on that referral link. It's a relatively new service, and it has a nice on-line interface with plenty of mobile apps. It's easy to upload large files and distribute download links to people. You can mark entire folders as "Public" or "Private", and you can still share download links to private folders or even individual files inside private folders. Just be careful because the default access level is Public. You can change the default to Private in the settings on the web page.
  • Memopal is a little difficult to setup if you use a non-Windows system. In that case, follow the referral link and register your e-mail. Then follow the link corresponding to your operating system and follow the instructions. I think it will say you'll be getting 3 GB for free, but then you'll actually get 3.5 GB because you registered your e-mail as a referral. One plus of Memopal is that you can guy a whopping 200 GB for US$50/year, and that rate gets discounted as much as 60% if you purchase several years at once. Unfortunately, I didn't see an easy way to configure what Memopal backs up. I didn't play with it long, but it may just try and backup every bit of media it can find (and use as much CPU resources as it wants to do so).
  • SugarSync gives you around 5 GB at that referral link. For non-Windows users, you should check your e-mail after going to that link and you'll find an e-mail verification link. That e-mail verification link will bring you to the standard login and a Dropbox-like web interface. Moreover, you can find additional software support there. You get extra space for completing tasks like installing the mobile app or going through the mobile app's demo "game" that leads you through sharing files from SugarSync.
  • has no referral links. However, they often offer 50 GB promotions that upgrade your free storage from 5 GB to 50 GB just for logging in in a special way. For example, back in December, I logged into my account via someone else's iPad and then logged out. That's all it took for me to get 50 GB for the life of the account.
  • iDrive will give you 5 GB at that link, but it's easy to add 10 GB more onto that. Just create a fake e-mail account at Then add at least five contacts to the contacts list. Try adding pluses to your own e-mail address username if you want to make sure they're unique. For example, you might use your own e-mail address of as well as because most mail servers will omit everything behind the plus sign, and yet it will look like a unique e-mail address. The point is to create what look to be five unique contacts without spamming five unsuspecting individuals. Then log out of and go back to iDrive's referral page. It will give you the ability to enter in your username and password so it can access your contacts list. For giving it access to your entire contacts list, you get 10 GB of extra storage.
  • SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud storage offering. There are no referral links; everyone gets 25 GB of free space.
  • Bitcasa is still in beta, and it won't have referral links because every user gets infinite storage. They use a dubious encryption scheme that prevents duplication across users so they can maximize on storage efficiency in their end while still keeping stuff encrypted.
If you're interested, Dropbox is usually my go-to service followed up by SpiderOak. I've configured SpiderOak to act just like Dropbox, except that SpiderOak is infinitely more secure than Dropbox. Consequently, a few sensitive documents I backup only to SpiderOak. If I ever need more space than I've accumulated at Dropbox or SpiderOak, I'll have to re-think things a bit. Oh, and I also pay for space at; the cost for storage is not the cheapest, but it's affordable. More importantly, it's stored on UNIX machines (that support symlinks!) and can be accessed with rsync over ssh. That's worth it to me to pay a little extra. They have student discounts, by the way. If they do ask who referred you, tell them it was

By the way, if you open up multiple such accounts and want a central place to manage all of your services, check out Otixo which can connect to each of your sharing sites and create shared workspaces bridges across storage boundaries.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Best Idea Ever: "Air Snail" to lock down MacBook Air with Kensington-style lock

UPDATE #2: More competition has come onto the market. Check out the Snake ~ Chicago Snake lock solution. It looks a lot less scary (in terms of potential scratching) than the others, like macBracket. It's $20 and available from Amazon, where several pictures of how it works are shown. You can also find it at its home page.
UPDATE #1: It turns out this is not the only bracket available. As reviewed by, there used to be a bracket sold on an eBay store that slid up through the MacBook Air. Unfortunately, not only was the locking portion in front of the screen, but it could slide around and scratch the device. Then came the macBracket out of Germany. The macBracket is pretty slick and looks like it is relatively gentle on the MacBook Air. It's a little pricey, but it's not like there's a lot of competition right now.

So if you need a good solution right now, check out the macBracket. Just make sure to order the correct version for your MacBook Air; they have support for new MacBook Airs (MBA). That new MBA bracket will be shipping soon (at the time of this posting), but it's available for order on their website.
I was surprised to hear that the MacBook Air has no Kensington lock slot. It's too small. Apparently, some of the PC ultrabooks also have this problem. Tablets have this problem, but it's easy to take tablets and phones with you... It's a little harder to carry the MacBook Air everywhere.

There are a ton of alarm solutions (like what you'd expect to see in a BestBuy) that rely on USB connectivity or adhesion or something similar. Those aren't really ideal. A lock is what is really needed. I've seen two locking solutions available for purchase, and both of them are a bit ugly.
  • The first, from is a protective case which attaches to the bottom of the MacBook Air with screws. The protective case includes a Kensington lock slot, and so your MacBook Air can be locked down so long as the potential thief doesn't carry around the right screw driver (some sort of security star head or something like that). I suppose they could have used those non-removable screws that only support a driver in the clockwise direction (like in many bathroom stalls), but then you'd be out of luck if you ever wanted to get the case off of your MacBook Air.
  • The second, from, has a few variations. I saw version RL108 on YouTube, but there are other versions on the company website. It uses 3M command strips to attach a Kensington lock slot to the back of the laptop. When the lock is connected, it covers the ends of the command strips so they cannot be removed. Of course, if you ever try to remove the command strips, you have to be very careful the metal base of the Kensington lock slot doesn't go scratching across the top of the laptop (!!).
So neither solution is really that good. But then I saw this YouTube video of the Air Snail, a prototype that was invented before either of those solutions were marketed (I think) and requires no screws or funny adhesives

That's genius! It is just an eared sickle that slides through the hole between the screen and the keyboard; the hinges and lock keep it from sliding out! Unfortunately, the inventor cannot find any partners willing to fabricate it in large quantities and market it. Sure, it would need to be built so it could be tough while not scratching the device (and would need to be fabricated for relatively cheap). However, I think those challenges are not insurmountable.

So do you have some dough laying around and want to market a great idea? If so, contact the inventor and start selling these things! Get them out before there are a lot of ultrabooks on the market -- I'm guessing there will be a demand for this little portable toy!

Meanwhile, you could probably fabricate something similar yourself (e.g., with some coated aircraft cable thin enough to slide through the MacBook Air). It might be hard to make it compatible with a Kensington lock without some fabrication, but you could surely make it compatible with a padlock.