21st Century Digital Fogey

Google Chromecast

Welcome to the newest addition to our family.

Every few years there comes another time in a man’s life when it’s time to upgrade to the next level of entertainment technology. While the old gizmos might work fine and haven’t broken yet, sometimes it’s time to escalate our media consumption anyway. It’s never easy for me. The older I get, the tougher it can be to shift my paradigms to keep up with the Kids These Days.

Another one of those shifts was implemented this past weekend. I’m never excited when they come to pass, but circumstances warranted it, the money was available, the price was unbeatable, and so far the performance is competent.

My life’s timeline in TV/movie gadgetry has transpired like so:

* 1989: My family bought our first VCR because we could finally afford to meet everyone else’s standard of living.

* 1990: Our first color TV, which had to wait a bit longer because TVs were more expensive than VCRs. Lower-class life had its drawbacks. By the time I caught up with all the other kids at school, it was time to graduate.

* Spring 1993: My first computer of any kind — no CD-ROM, just 3-inch and 5-inch floppy drives. No internet connection, because our townhouse was so old, our phone jacks were built for rotary phones, a no-go in the age of touch-tone tech. Mostly I used it to play Minesweeper and Sam & Max Hit the Road. When I moved into my first apartment that October, I left it behind and never missed it.

* May 17, 1999: First internet-capable computer, bought used on my birthday from a coworker’s boyfriend, with state-of-the-art 56K modem and a handful of CD-ROMs he no longer wanted, though he later came crawling back because he mistakenly left Starcraft in the stack. I registered my first AOL account; my best friend would come over sometimes to use it as well.

* May 2001: My first DVD player. A copy of The Phantom Menace had been sitting on a bookshelf for a few weeks by that point, waiting for its eventual chance to show off the vast difference between VHS and DVD quality.

* May 2007: Upgraded from AOL internet to DSL when my wife and I became first-time homeowners. Vast difference in performance. That applies not only to DSL over 56K, but also to home-buying over apartment living.

* Black Friday 2009: Upgraded from ancient, cumbersome CRT-TV to wider, differently cumbersome flatscreen TV. With our basic cable package still in effect, the difference in network picture quality was negligible, but DVDs looked much better.

* January 2010: My first Blu-ray player, using Christmas gift cards. A combo-pack of Pixar’s Up was my first foray into the next evolutionary step in the medium, acquired the previous November. Noticeable difference between DVD and Blu-ray quality, though it’s all the same to my wife, who was raised on classic staticky TV and is satisfied with any picture quality above ’70s UHF level.

* February 2010: Discovered the magic of HDMI cables. TV picture quality was a stunning improvement over composite A/V jacks. Now I knew what all the fuss was about. I also upgraded our cable TV to an HD package, with similar results.

* Fall 2011: Upgraded from DSL with dreadful customer service to high-speed internet through the only other provider that services our suburb. Vast difference in speed and performance. I don’t miss those bygone days of the early 2000s when downloading a single song through Napster (audio only, not a music video) took me 15-20 minutes, and uploading to share with other users was futile.

That brings us to today. Pictured above is our Google Chromecast, which looks like a fancy flash drive. One end plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI ports; the other end is for power, using either an old-fashioned wall socket or your TV’s USB port. You use a Droid-compatible phone or a computer with Google Chrome browser as your controller; connect the Chromecast to the same wi-fi device; and presto, you can watch streaming context from certain popular providers on your TV (e.g., YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Google Play, etc.), instead of settling for your inferior monitor or toy-sized phone.

This particular upgrade was spurred by a specific project of ours. Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, November 2013:

…all seven modern seasons of the world-famous Doctor Who are temporarily available On Demand as part of the big 50th-anniversary celebration. Our new goal for this holiday season: see how many episodes we can barrel through before the end of the year.

Effective January 1, 2014, all episodes and Christmas specials were promptly yanked from On Demand except season 7. Thanks to our usual Christmas activity overscheduling, we’d only had enough time time to watch seasons 1, 2, and half of 3 before the deadline passed.

Enter: Netflix. Between cable TV, my DVD buying habits, and Redbox for Oscar season, we’d had no need for Netflix’s competitively priced services. But I ran some figures and realized eight bucks a month for the Netflix streaming option would be cheaper than buying full seasons on either DVD or iTunes. Cutting out a few more monthly comic books to accommodate this in the budget wasn’t hard. If we find uses for it beyond the Doctor’s adventures in the future, so much the better. This past year I’ve also begun a slow transition into a post-collecting phase of my life, in which I’m tiring of being surrounded by collections everywhere I turn. (More thoughts on that in a future entry, I think.)

Two problems with Netflix up front:

1. Their streaming-movie selection is well below Blockbuster’s old, shortsighted standards. My searches tend to turn up results available only via mailed DVDs (and their monthly fee doubles if you want to include DVDs as an option), and I’ve even stumped them once on a search (as of this writing I can’t have the 1996 Best Picture Oscar nominee Secrets and Lies in either format). For the time being, TV shows seem to be their key strength.

2. Our Blu-ray player had streaming Netflix capabilities, but struggled to meet even DSL-quality transmission, resulting in lots of pausing, buffering, more pausing, more buffering, and VHS picture quality on a good day. Netflix subtitles (for people with lousy hearing like mine) were also incompatible with it. The internet connection was solid, but the player was too old to keep up with it.

Hence the Chromecast, which Best Buy had on sale last week for thirty bucks. As of this weekend, the Doctor looks better than ever and our marathon has progressed into season 4. The “Honest Trailers” guys on YouTube are fun to watch super-sized. This may be the first time in my life that I’ve bought a new piece of technology within the same year it was introduced. So far I’m kind of thrilled with the results…and yet, looking back at the timeline, I can’t believe the aging process hasn’t complicated matters for me and halted all my progress by now. I feel as though I should still be watching my old VHS copies of The Simpsons and revisiting the tired old stand-up comedy joke about how the stupid clock won’t stop flashing “12:00” at me.

If only this were the last gadget I’ll ever have to buy for the rest of my life. I’m sure the pursuit of excellence in the field of TV/movie consumption will march on. Articles about “4K” picture quality are creeping into mainstream media news, certain to herald the extinction of all our current TVs and old DVD players, thus requiring everyone to repurchase everything they own all over again. I suspect this never-ending replacement race will plague me into retirement and beyond. Friends are swearing we also need to add a tablet to our household, though I haven’t the foggiest notion why. Because technology?

To be continued, most likely, someday too soon.

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