Acer’s newest Chromebox packs more power, 4k video support

When you think of using a computer with a 4k video monitor, a Chromebox probably doesn’t come to mind. After all, those little boxes are just wimpy little browsers, right? Acer is out to prove that thought wrong by adding an Intel Core i3 option to its Chromebox CXI series.

Acer Chromebox CXI Top Angle View

The company announced the new chip choice on Thursday, with a starting suggested price of $349.99. That gets you a box capable of running [company]Google[/company] Chrome OS with support for up to 3840 x 2160 resolution. Along with the 1.9GHz Core i3 4030U dual-core processor, you’ll get 16GB of on-board flash storage and your choice of either 4 or 8GB of memory; the latter choice raises the cost to $399.99.

Given the recent Superfish scandal, I’m not surprised Acer made note of the security features built into its new Chromebox:

Multiple layers of security encompass data encryption and verified boot to safeguard the CXI against online threats, malware and viruses. User and system files are stored on separate partitions that secure data and simplify restoration from a backup. The Chromebox’s TPM 1.2 chip encrypts and protects individual user’s data by generating and storing secure cryptographic keys. In addition, individual accounts keep data safe when the device is used by multiple users.

Previously, Acer offered much lower-costing Chromeboxes: You could pick one up for as little as $179.99.

But at that price, you’re getting an older 1.4GHz Intel Celeron chip inside. Granted, Chrome OS runs pretty well on limited hardware — there are some models that use chips typically reserved for smartphones and tablets — however, the extra horsepower and memory in the new Acer Chromebox CXI models would be welcome for video playback having more open tabs or apps, particularly if you have a 4k resolution monitor for your Chromebox.

 

 

UHD is TV’s next big thing. So why is the industry divided?

We’ve had gigantic TVs, curved TVs, 3D TVs, even TVs that can bend with the press of a button. TV makers tend to bring all their latest gimmicks to one-up each other at the annual CES show in Las Vegas. But this year, the industry had something to show off that consumers may actually want: better-looking images.

Collectively, the industry has decided to double down on 4K, and also make each and every pixel look better. Samsung, Sony, LG, TCL and others all showed off 4K TV sets with high-dynamic range (HDR) at the show. HDR gives TV sets whiter whites, blacker blacks and a lot more contrast in between, which results in pictures that not only look brighter, but also expose a lot of details that would otherwise get lost or appear washed out. I’ve had a chance to see a few HDR-capable TV sets at CES, and have to say that they looked pretty stunning.

Samsung's SUHD TV, unveiled at CES by Joe Stinziano, the company's executive vice president of home entertainment .

Samsung’s SUHD TV, unveiled at CES by Joe Stinziano, the company’s executive vice president of home entertainment .

A lot of TV manufacturers are working on ways to extend the dynamic range of their TV sets with a variety of methods (check this CNET story for a comparison of some of the different approaches), and everyone has their own terminology that goes along with it. Samsung likes to call 4K TVs with extended dynamic range SUHD TVs, Sony has X-tended Dynamic Range, and Panasonic apparently likes to call it Dynamic Range Remaster.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that 4K itself isn’t really called 4K anymore. Instead, most companies have settled on UHD, which stands for ultra-high definition — but Samsung and many others would like you to believe that their UHD is better than others by throwing HDR and other technologies in the mix.

An alliance of frenemies

Confused? You’re not alone — and that’s alarming to Hollywood. Movie studios have long tried to get people to buy their products again, as opposed to just renting them, or waiting before they appear on Netflix. The industry’s hopes that 3D would revitalize home entertainment were crushed by — well, mostly those dorky glasses. Now, it’s hoping that HDR will do the trick, and that consumers may be willing to pay more if their movies look even better.

That’s why Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. were among the founding members of the UHD Alliance, a new industry consortium unveiled at CES last week. The goal of the alliance is to establish new standards for 4K and HDR, amongst other things. Founding members also include Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp and Sony, as well as Netflix and Directv, Dolby and Technicolor. Members have not only committed to coming up with a standard, but also promoting it to consumers, and telling them what UHD is all about.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”905997″]Samsung and many others would like you to believe that their UHD is better than others by throwing HDR and other technologies in the mix.[/pullquote]

The problem with that is that some of these members have very different ideas for UHD. Dolby, for one, thinks that the common standard everyone is looking for already exists: The company heavily promoted its own Dolby Vision technology at CES, and it aims to be part of the entire ecosystem. Dolby wants to provide studios with post-production tools to preserve the extended dynamic range that is already being recorded by today’s Red cameras and others, encode it, and then deliver it to Dolby Vision-certified TVs.

Not everyone likes Dolby

Not everyone in the industry likes the idea of paying Dolby yet another licensing fee, which is why (privately, at least) some are voicing the hope that the UHD alliance may come with a license-free approach, or at least chose a solution that may be less expensive. Some of those concerns even overtly made it into in the alliance’s CES press release, which called for “embracing standards that are open and allow flexibility in the market.”

Dolby’s Director of Business Strategies Zaved Shamsuddin seemed confident when I quizzed him about this. HDR solutions may be popping up like mushrooms, but few of them will survive, he argued: “As with any fungus, it has a life span, and then it dies.”

What’s next for HDR

Dolby has thus far partnered with Philips, Hisense, Toshiba and TCL to build Dolby Vision-certified TVs, but the biggest names in the business — Samsung and LG — are notably absent from that list. The company has also struck an agreement with Warner Bros. to deliver some movies in HDR, and Netflix, Amazon and Vudu have signed on to stream Dolby Vision content.

But even at Netflix, there seem to be concerns that the industry may not get HDR right. Neil Hunt, the company’s chief product officer, told me at the show that he believes HDR to be “a more significant innovation that 4K,” arguing that simply adding more pixels to the screen eventually gets pointless. “We kind of ran out of more pixels to add,” Hunt quipped.

Netflix has committed to produce some of its content in HDR this year, but the company has stayed away from saying which shows that will be, in part because there simply is no standard yet. Hunt cautioned that Netflix doesn’t want to support a huge number of competing HDR standards, but seemed resigned to the fact that the industry may not come up with one single solution. Asked how many HDR standards Netflix would be able and willing to support, Hunt said: “Two is probably okay.”

The UHD alliance meanwhile hasn’t set a roadmap for the introduction of its standard, and it’s members haven’t actually had a formal meeting yet. With that in mind, one shouldn’t expect a common UHD standard any time soon. Then again, that may not stop consumers from buying TVs that offer far superior picture qualities when compared to previous-year’s models.

And when it comes to buzzwords, there’s always CES 2016.

New 4K TVs from Sony, LG and Sharp support Google’s VP9 codec

Google is pushing ahead with its VP9 video codec, and a bunch of partners are actually going to show off products at CES in Las Vegas this week: Sony, LG and Sharp are all getting ready to ship 4K TVs that support VP9, and the YouTube app on those devices is already taking advantage of it to stream high-resolution content with lower bit rates. Altogether, there are now 26 partners launching products that use VP9 for different kinds of screens, according to a YouTube blog post, which also pointed out that VP9 helped to more than double YouTube HD and 4k video consumption in emerging markets.

Insignia and Haier start making Roku TVs, Roku builds 4K support

Roku scored two new partners in its quest to rule the living room: Best Buy’s Insignia brand and Haier will both joining the list of TV manufacturers using Roku’s smart TV platform in 2015. This indicates that Roku continues to bet on bargain-priced TVs for budget-conscious consumers. But with future 4K support, Roku is also gearing up for higher-end devices.

[company]Roku[/company] announced its first Roku-powered TV sets at CES in Las Vegas last year, at the time signing up [company]TCL[/company] and [company]Hisense[/company] as its first consumer electronics partners. Now, [company]Best Buy[/company] is throwing its hat in the ring as well. The retailer will be starting to exclusively sell Roku TVs made under its Insignia in-house brand this spring. [company]Haier[/company] will start selling its very own Roku TVs in Q3, with screen sizes ranging from 32 to 65 inches. The company will also continue to sell so-called Roku-ready TVs, which are essentially just regular TVs with a bundled Roku streaming stick.

Spring TCL Roku TV_front

Roku TV launch partner TCL is also back for more: The company will announce twelve new Roku TV models this spring. A Roku spokesperson wasn’t able to provide any further details on features and screen sizes, but a recent FCC filing suggests that at least one of these devices will feature a 55-inch screen size, and go by the model number 55FS3700.

That TV, as well as the other eleven the company is set to announce, will all feature regular HD resolution, but TCL is also the first partner to commit to Roku’s forthcoming 4K support. Roku is announcing a reference design for 4K at CES, which TCL and others can use to build their own 4K-capable Roku-powered smart TVs.

Roku SVP of Product Management Jim Funk told me during a recent interview that Roku-powered 4K TVs will be able to play 4K content from Netflix and other yet-to-be announced streaming partners. Funk didn’t want to commit to a firm date for 4K Roku TVs, but said they’d likely not be available in the first half of this year. Funk also declined to comment on whether Roku plans to make 4K-capable streaming boxes.

4K was supposed to be a big deal last year, but failed to really take off due to limited content. However, Funk was optimistic that this will change in the long run: “I have no doubt 4K will be a successful format,” he told me.

ces-2015-3

Amazon Prime Instant’s foray into 4K starts with four movies, four shows

Talk about slim pickings: Amazon is finally letting its Prime Instant subscribers stream content in 4K, but the company’s ultra high-definition catalog is remarkably small: Prime Instant starts off with just four 4K movies — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Funny Girl, Hitch and Philadelphia.

In addition to that, [company]Amazon[/company] will also stream three of its own original shows as well as one BBC America show and a Lady Gaga concert in 4K. Amazon promises to add more 4K content, including upcoming Amazon originals, later this year and early next year. And unlike Netflix, Amazon isn’t charging Prime members extra to watch 4K.

But pricing may be the real problem that prevents Amazon and others from rolling out 4K more broadly. The company also announced Tuesday that it will make select movies available for sale in 4K, charging consumers $19.99 for titles like Moneyball, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Da Vinci Code.

A quick search on Amazon.com reveals that these titles cost between $12.99 and $13.99 when purchased in HD. Studios are looking to sell 4K content at a significant premium — but it’s unclear whether consumers are really willing to pay that much more.

Updated at 12:47pm. An earlier version of this story included Hard Times as part of the movies available in 4K, but I’ve since been told by an Amazon spokesperson that this isn’t actually the case. Also updated throughout to clarify that the four movies are part of Amazon’s Prime Instant catalog.

Vimeo starts offering 4K downloads, but shies away from streaming

Vimeo-loving video producers can finally put that expensive Red camera to good use: Vimeo is now allowing Pro subscribers to offer 4K downloads of their movies, and anyone who wants to sell their videos through Vimeo’s VOD platform can also offer those paid downloads in 4K to consumers.

However, Vimeo isn’t offering 4K streaming just yet. “It’s pretty early for streaming,” said Andrew Pile, Vimeo CTO, during an interview last week. That’s in part because there are simply not that many devices that stream 4K content out there yet. There is no affordable streaming device capable of 4K playback, and few people have a 4K monitor for their desktop computer. But that could change soon, according to Pile. “The new iMac is gonna be a turning point,” he told me.

So why offer 4K at all if most consumers are simply not ready for the ultra-high resolution yet? Because filmmakers have been shooting in 4K for a while, and some of them have already been uploading 4K content to Vimeo. That’s especially true for artists participating in Vimeo’s VOD store, explained Pile: “A lot of these things are captured on Red cameras.” Up until now, Vimeo has been transcoding 4K downloads to lower resolutions. Now, it’s keeping them intact, and available to download.

4K was supposed to be a big step forward for online video services in 2014, but the roll-out of 4K content has been slow because of technical and business model challenges.

Sharp’s 4K smartphone screens are going to be great for virtual reality

Sharp is working on a screen with a 2560 x 1600 resolution in a 4.1-inch LCD panel, which would work out to an eye-popping 736 pixels per inch. The new screens may not significantly improve your smartphone experience, but the extra pixels could end up being essential for immersive virtual reality.