Will the Logitech Harmony Smart Control let me get rid of my pile of remotes?

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I recently bought the Logitech Harmony Smart Control remote for my entertainment system, and after playing around with its settings for a few weeks, I really like it.

 

My entertainment system consists of 6 components and 5 remotes:  TV, receiver, cable box/DVR, Apple TV, a Blu-ray player, and a remote-less Chromecast.  There was hardly an activity I did with my system that would require less than two remotes, and I have been eager to consolidate my remotes but was having trouble deciding what to do and how much to spend.  I finally decided it was time, did some research and concluded that the Smart Control system was the most forward-thinking and future-proof remote system on the market at my price point, so I gave it a try.

 

The Smart Control system actually consists of three components: a Harmony Hub, a simple remote, and iOS and Android remote apps.  They whole system takes some time, patience, and basic understanding of how entertainment systems work to set up properly, but once that is done it works very well and I find it so nice to only have one remote to deal with.  It can control up to 8 devices and retails at $130 ($100 without the simple remote).

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The Harmony Hub:

The Harmony Hub, sitting slightly bigger than an Apple TV, serves as the connection between components, remotes, and the internet.  It has WiFi (to connect with the Harmony component database, the user’s account settings, and the remote apps), IR (to connect with most components), Bluetooth (to connect with PS3, PS4, and Wii), and RF (to connect with the simple remote).

To control the system, you program activities, such as “Watch TV” or “Watch a Blu-ray,” and then when a given activity is selected on a remote, the Hub then cycles through the programmed commands to make that activity happen.  For example, when I press “Watch TV” on a remote, the remote tells the Hub to run the following commands:  1.  power on receiver, 2. power on TV, 3. power on cable box, 4. select “TV” input on receiver, 5. select “HDMI1” input on TV, 6. select “tuner” input on cable box, 7. delay 3 seconds, and then select “standard” audio mode on receiver.  While this may sound complicated, once the activities are programmed (Logitech guides you through the setup for most common commands), it is just a press of one button on the remote and then the Hub does everything else without you even noticing.  It also remembers what components are on, and shuts the unnecessary components off when switching activities, and shuts everything off automatically when turning the system off.

I was very skeptical that the Hub – which is designed to sit on a shelf alongside the components it is to control – could send IR signals away from the entertainment center, have those signals bounce off walls and furniture, and then return to the front of the components, where the IR receivers are housed.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it worked flawlessly.  The system comes with a separate IR blaster in case components are stored in separate cabinets (you can add a second IR blaster if you want), and I set it up on another shelf, even though it seems unnecessary.  My setup has my components on open shelves, but having the capability of storing components in closed cabinets or even in a nearby closet is a really nice feature.

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The Simple Remote:

The simple remote works very well and is more than adequate for almost everything I need.  It is thinner and smaller than a traditional remote, and has a soft textured backing that feels good in the hand.  A really cool feature is that since it transmits using RF instead of IR, it does not matter in which direction it is pointed and it works without a line of sight to the Hub.  Two criticisms it has received in reviews is that it only has 6 activities and that the buttons aren’t backlit.  Both are valid criticisms, but I don’t think either seriously detracts from the overall experience.  Logitech clearly tried to keep the remote compact, so they probably did not want to take up space with more activity buttons, and it is said to last a year on a small battery, which wouldn’t be possible if it was backlit.  For $350, you can get this system with a touchscreen remote instead of the simple remote, although I don’t think it’s necessary.

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The Harmony App:

The Harmony App for Android works well, though the couple of seconds it takes to load hurts its usefulness.  I have not tried the iOS app.  While I use the simple remote most of the time, I find the app to be convenient for when I’m in the kitchen and want to turn the volume down or if I’m lying on the couch and have my phone on me but not the remote.  Plus I use it to access the seventh activity – the one that can’t fit on the simple remote – and it really came in handy when programming the system for the first time.

My favorite feature of the app is the favorite channel layout with channel logos, which taps into my cable provider’s channel lineup and makes switching channels much easier than entering the channel number.  Overall there is a lot of switching screens in the app though, like between the favorite channels screen to the volume screen, and also it is harder to use the app without looking at it.  Logitech promotes gesture input to address that, but I think most people would get more use out of the simple remote than the app.

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Overall, I am really happy with the Smart Control, find that it works as advertised, and is night and day better than my old setup.  It took me two hours to setup and program the activities, and then I had to go back into the settings several times to adjust activities (like adding three presses of “menu” and two presses of “down” on Apple TV to make sure the “power off” signal was delivered when on the Apple TV home screen, and adjusting the delay on the receiver to make sure commands weren’t given until it had fully powered on).  Once setup it is a real pleasure to use, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to consolidate remotes and who is open to trying something new.

Apple Event Preview

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The days leading up to an Apple event – and in particular an iPhone event – are some of the biggest days of the year in the tech blogosphere, and I have been so busy I haven’t been able to post about it (though I do keep the Twitter widget active at all times). At this point everything that will be leaked has been leaked and all the predictions are in. Rather than re-invent the wheel, The verge and CNET have pretty thorough articles previewing what to expect at tomorrow’s Apple event, being held in Cupertino at 10 AM PT/1 PM ET.

Here are the expected highlights:

Two new iPhones: An updated iPhone (probably iPhone 5S) that will look very similar to the iPhone 5 but will feature a fingerprint sensor on the home button, increased storage capacity, brighter display, dual LED flash, and a gold option, and a new lower budget iPhone (possibly iPhone 5C) with plastic case that will come in many colors.

A completely redesigned iOS 7 that gives iOS a sleeker look and many new features.

iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like service that integrates with iTunes and the iTunes Store.

Apple TV will see a software update to allow a Person A to share content purchased on iTunes on Person B’s Apple TV, as well as the addition of iTunes Radio. Contrary to earlier reports, there will probably not be any new Apple TV hardware unveiled tomorrow.

New iPad or iPad Mini hardware is also unlikely.

To follow the event live, The Verge and CNET both keep good liveblogs, and I’ll try to keep the Twitter widget active.

Google I/O 2013: subscription music service, unified messaging, and improved gaming, Maps and Search, and more

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Google’s much-anticipated Google I/O 2013 developers conference began today and Google announced some interesting new features and products.  Google’s blog entry is pretty comprehensive and definitely worth a read, and here’s a quick rundown of what was unveiled:

- Google Play Music All Access: a $9.99 per month ($7.99 if previewed by the end of June) music service akin to Spotify that allows unlimited on-demand plays and custom playlists.

- Google Play games: coordinates multiplayer games and syncing of game data across devices.

- Samsung Galaxy S4 Google edition: an unlocked Galaxy S4 that runs stock Android and will receive updates directly from Google rather than from Samsung.  It’s not a Nexus device because Google did not design the hardware, but it is the next best thing.  It runs on AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE networks and will be sold by Google for $650.

- Google Chrome: enhancements to how video is streamed, payments are processed, as well as “Chrome Experiments” to show the cool graphical and gaming capabilities of Chrome.  These enhancements are largely designed to encourage developers to create more graphics-intensive applications for Chrome.

- Google+: an improved multi-column Stream with suggested hashtags based on the post, a free-standing Hangouts app (available on Android, iOS, and Chrome) that is meant to unify chatting and includes some really interesting group and video features, and enhancements to Photos that automatically back-up photos taken by mobile devices and sift through them to choose the best to share.

A note about Google Hangouts:  In my opinion, Google Hangouts and the All Access music service were the two biggest announcements today and I feel that Google did not make enough of an effort to really promote Hangouts.  Gmail and gchat are pretty universally liked and used, but for whatever reason people have an aversion to Google+ despite how great of a service it is.  I think Google would have been much wiser to announce Hangouts as a freestanding multi-platform messaging service that integrates with Google+ rather than putting Hangouts right in the middle of the Google+ presentation and making it look like a service of Google+.  Regardless, so far the app looks and works great.

- Search: Search now includes spoken questions and answers on computers running Chrome, and Google Now adds more reminder-related features, like dictated notes and reminder cards for new music, movies, books, and TV shows.

- Maps: the browser-based Maps will now be full-screen and the map will be drawn based on what Google thinks we want to know.  For example, if you search for restaurants, the map will be drawn to show other similar restaurants that Google thinks you’ll like, and directions to the restaurant you select.

Overall Google made some interesting announcements today, with the two common themes being integrating various devices that run Chrome and Android and adding more and better prediction to the information Google gives us.

Amazon announces AutoRip program that gives free MP3 versions of purchased CDs

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Today Amazon announced AutoRip, a new feature that allows free instant downloads of MP3 versions of CDs purchased from Amazon, and will retroactively provide MP3 versions of CDs purchased from Amazon dating back to 1998. The MP3s files will be stored in a user’s Cloud Player and will not count against storage limits, just like MP3s purchased independent of CDs.

Although MP3s are becoming more popular than CDs, I still prefer CDs for many reasons. First, CDs have much better audio quality than MP3 files and I like having a high quality version of my music from which to rip MP3s in case the current bitrate available for purchase (256 or 320 kbps) is someday made obselete. For all we know, the MP3 format could someday even become obsolete. So having a physical CD will allow me to re-rip my music at a higher bitrate or a different format if trends change. Second, there are some questions regarding the extent of our ownership of downloaded MP3 files, most of which are used pursuant to a license and are not actually owned. This issue came to the forefront a few months ago when it was erroneously reported that Bruce Willis planned to challenge Apple on the issue of whether he can transfer his digital music collection by will after he dies. So I like having a CD that is mine without any fine print or conditions. Finally, I see a CD as a collector’s item, and I like having the album artwork and booklet, and it is fun to open a new CD and look around or look through old CDs. For the MP3 albums I have purchased on a whim and grow to like, I generally end up missing that tangible CD and album booklet.

This isn’t to say that buying MP3s instead of CDs doesn’t have advantages. I like being able to instantly download an MP3 rather than have to go to a store and buy a CD or order one online, then rip the CD to MP3 when I get home, and then get it onto my playback device of choice. And MP3s albums can often be found on sale for $5 or less, which is a difficult price point for CDs to compete with. Finally, MP3 stores allow us to buy a song or two off an album without buying the whole album.

So, this is all a long-winded way of saying that I like the new AutoRip feature because it lets customers who like having physical CDs continue to get those physical CDs without sacrificing the immediate gratification that comes with purchasing MP3s, and it may encourage people who normally just purchase MP3s to spend a few extra dollars and get the CDs too. And Amazon is in a unique position as a seller of both physical and digital goods to offer this feature, so I think it is a good business move.

For more info, here’s Amazon’s Press Release.

Apple Unveils the iPhone 5

Apple unveiled its highly-anticipated next-generation iPhone, the iPhone 5, today. Here are some of the most notable changes that the iPhone 5 brings:

  • Larger display:  The 3.5″ 960×640 4:3 display (dubbed a “retina display” based on pixel density by Apple) found on previous iPhone models was increased to a 4″ 1136×640 16:9 widescreen display.  The increased size is due to the display being elongated vertically; in other words, it remains the same width, but adds an additional 176 rows of pixels to the length of the display.  While on a homescreen, this change adds another row of icons.  Developers will be able to modify their apps to make use of the additional space, or current apps will be centered on the display with black bars on the top and bottom, akin to how widescreen movies looked on older4:3 television sets.  The display also has 44% better color saturation than previous models.
  • LTE capability:  The iPhone 5 can now connect to faster 4G LTE networks.  There will be GSM and CDMA versions, unlike the iPhone 4S which ran on both CDMA and GSM networks.
  • Lighting connector:  Apple has done away with the 30-pin connector that it introduced with the iPod and replaced it with a smaller connector that works whichever way one plugs it in.  Apple said this was necessary to make the iPhone 5 thinner.  It appears the Lightning connector will become the standard across all portable Apple devices, and Apple said audio manufacturers are already implementing the new connector in their clock radios, docks, etc.  Apple will also sell converters for older devices.
  • Improved camera:  In what has become a standard Apple improvement, Apple has made the iPhone cameras better.  The rear “iSight” camera remains 8 megapixels but adds faster photo capture, better low light performance, and panorama mode.  The rear-facing camera will still record video at 1080p, but adds face detection and the ability to take photos while recording.  Of note is that the iSight camera is protected by sapphire crystal, which is very scratch resistant and is the material used on luxury watches.  The front-facing FaceTime camera has been upgraded from VGA (0.3 megapixels) to 1.2 megapixels, and it records 720p video.
  • A6 Chip:  Apple claims that the A6 chip used in the iPhone 5 will give it 8 hours of browsing time using LTE.
  • iOS 6 and Apple Maps:  The iPhone 5 will come with iOS 6, which has switched from Google Maps to an Apple mapping software which adds turn-by-turn navigation and flyover mode.
  • Thinner and lighter:  In what has become another Apple standard improvement, the iPhone 5 is 18% thinner (at 7.6 mm) and 20% lighter (at 112 grams).
  • EarPod headphones:  Apple redesigned the headphones that will come with the iPhone – they said it took 3 years! – and claim that they fit and sound better.
  • A third mic:  Apple added a third microphone to the iPhone – now there is one on the front, one on the back, and one on the bottom – that are supposed to work to cancel out background noise while on the phone.

All in all, I would say the iPhone 5 is a good, solid phone, but it is more of a catch-up with other smartphones than it is a standard-setting, industry-leading device.  It does look beautiful, and the increased screen size and LTE capability were both necessary improvements at this stage.  However, so many of the features can already be found on other devices: LTE has been on smartphones for a year and a half, 4.5″ and larger displays are really the standard, the pixel density found in the “retina display” is no longer that remarkable, there are already phones that are thinner and lighter, an 8 MP rear- and 1.2 MP front-facing camera is pretty commonplace, panorama mode was included in Android Ice Cream Sandwich almost a year ago, the ability to use FaceTime over a cellular network only catches it up to other video-conferencing programs, and I would say the booming headphone business makes the EarPods less of a draw.

And of course, the change in mapping software is also a catch-up in a way.  iOS devices have traditionally had a stripped-down Google Maps that doesn’t include turn-by-turn navigation and has more limited search results (for example, if I search “restaurant” on my iPad Maps it will return only the ten nearest results, and if I want to see restaurants in a new area I have to re-center the map and search again, while on my Galaxy Nexus Google Maps will return all restaurants, and keep showing more results as I scroll to other areas.)  I am not sure who is to blame for the stripped-down Google Maps, but better mapping software with navigation was much-needed, so in a way the new Apple Maps is an improvement.  That being said, I think Google Maps is the best and most widely-used mapping software out there, and I think the iPhone 5 would have been better off with an improved Google Maps app.

Another area where the iPhone 5 really disappointed me is the lack of NFC (Near Field Communication).  NFC allows for a variety of applications, most notably using a phone to pay for items at checkout by tapping the phone on the credit card reader in a store.  Google Wallet is a popular platform for this, but NFC allows for a variety of software.  While NFC hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet and stores that make use of the technology are in the minority, it is a technology that is being implemented more and more and has the potential to be revolutionary.  I think Apple really dropped the ball by not including it.  Maybe most customers won’t miss it, but for a company that prides itself on innovation, Apple should have included it.

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I understand that Apple can’t release a product that changes the industry with each new iteration of the iPhone, and perhaps the lukewarm reception the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 has seen is a result of Apple setting the bar very high for itself.  But the bottom line is that the mobile industry is moving at a lightning-fast pace and releasing a thinner and lighter phone with beefed up specs each year won’t cut it in the long-run, and where a few years ago competitors would be racing to put out products that can compete with the iPhone after an iPhone announcement, now I can’t really see anything that Google or Android device manufacturers need to implement in order to compete with the iPhone 5.  And from what I hear Windows Phone 8 is going to be very impressive when it is released in a few months.

The iPhone 5 will no doubt be a commercial success, and there is a huge market of people who are invested in the Apple/iTunes ecosystem and/or who think the iPhone is the simplest solution for them and/or are scared of change, but just like how RIM had so many invested users who fled when a better product came out, a f light from which RIM still has not recovered, the same could happen to Apple.  I can see it now: people looking back at the iPhone the way I look back at my tiny BlackBerry Pearl, and laughing about how small the screen is and how dull the static grid of icons looks.  Now, I’m being a little facetious, and Apple, unlike RIM, does have sort of an all-encompassing ecosystem that includes music, movies, TV, computers, and printers, and that ecosystem encourages people to stay with Apple, but I think my point is still valid.  I would like to see Apple come out with something that sets a new standard in the tech world in this post-Steve Jobs era, because any company releasing better technology benefits the entire industry.

For more on the iPhone 5, check out Apple, CNETThe VergeEngadget, Gizmodo, BGR, and The New York Times.

Worth noting is that Apple also unveiled a new iPod Touch, iPod Nano, and iTunes software today.

PSA: DO NOT buy expensive HDMI cables

This is not exactly news, but it’s a story worth telling…

Yesterday I went with a friend to Best Buy to help him pick out a TV for his new apartment. I was tagging along as an expert of sorts, if you think knowing that plasma sets have a wider viewing angle and darker blacks and LED sets are thinner and use less power makes me an expert. Anyway, after picking out a TV and Blu-ray Player, I told my friend not to spend a lot of money on HDMI cables because all HDMI cables with the same rating produce the same quality picture and sound. And by “same quality” I mean same exact quality, not “the difference is imperceptible to most people” or “the difference is not worth the price.” As HDMI carries a digital signal, it will either work or not work; and different cables, provided they all work, will not produce crisper audio or video. So we picked out a very inexpensive Dynex HDMI cable rated “High Speed with Ethernet” that was $10 for 4 feet. The salesman, who had been nice and knowledgeable up until this point, tried to upsell us to a “better” HDMI cable because “for a TV this size (50″) you will notice the difference in quality.” We went with the cheaper cable.

I was pretty sure of myself on this issue, but when I got home I double-checked my research.  I discovered that I was, in fact, correct: there is absolutely no difference in the picture or sound quality produced by cheap HDMI cables versus expensive HDMI cables, provided they both have the same rating (“High Speed” is best for 1080p video content). So a High Speed generic cable from Amazon or Monoprice produces the same result as a High Speed Monster cable. I researched several reputable websites, below, and every single one came to the same conclusion based both on science and on real-life performance. I was unable to find any websites that said otherwise. The only times where more expensive cables may be worth considering are long distance/in-wall installations and when the cables will be connected and disconnected often, both of which may require sturdier cables. But for a standard 4′, 6′, or 12′ cable, the consensus is pretty unanimous: cheap cables produce the exact same quality result as expensive cables. Here are some blurbs:

CNET: Why all HDMI cables are the same:

[The picture is] either exactly what it’s supposed to be, or it fails and looks like one of the images above [with white pixels known as "sparkles"]. In order for one HDMI cable to have “better picture quality” than another, it would imply that the final result between the source and display could somehow be different. It’s not possible. It’s either everything that was sent, or full of very visible errors (sparkles). The image cannot have more noise, or less resolution, worse color, or any other picture quality difference. The pixels can’t change. They can either be there (perfect, yay!) or not (nothing, errors, boo!).

All the claims about differences in picture quality are remnants of the analog days, which were barely valid then and not at all valid now. There is no way for different cables to create a different color temperature, change the contrast ratio, or anything else picture quality-wise.

Consumer Reports: HDMI cables: Once again, don’t spend more than you need to:

We’ve long been advocates of not paying for pricey cables, which often do little more than pad the pockets of the manufacturers that make them and the retailers that sell them…

So to be clear, unless you plan to regularly disconnect and reconnect components, where it might make sense to buy pricier, sturdier cables with more rugged connectors—or you require very long HDMI cable runs, more than 30 feet—any high-speed-rated cable should suffice. And don’t let a package or retail associate tell you otherwise.

Popular Mechanics: Brand-Name HDMI Cables: Are They Worth It?:

The fact is, HDMI is digital, meaning you either get the feed or you don’t. High prices and gimmicks like gold-plating don’t affect 1s and 0s. Our advice: Purchase your wiring online for cheap, and use the saved money to upgrade to a larger flat screen.”

Crutchfield: The Ins and Outs of HDMI:

You won’t see dramatic differences in picture quality among HDMI cables. Unlike analog video transmission, which can display varying degrees of picture quality, digital video transmission typically delivers a clean, clear picture or no picture at all.

In short, all High Speed HDMI cables should produce identical pictures and sound, so don’t let creative marketing or the hope to avoid “cheap” components talk you into spending more than $10 on an HDMI cable.

 

And on a lighter note, if you want a good laugh check out this $1,095 3.3′ HDMI cable at Best Buy.  The Customer Reviews are worth a read.

Apple TV adds Hulu Plus to its lineup

Hulu Plus announced today that Hulu Plus programming is now available on Apple TV. When I turned on my Apple TV a few hours ago, it was there with no need to update my software.

I am not a Hulu Plus subscriber, but this is still good news to me because it makes me more optimistic that Apple TV will expand its content offerings as rumors suggest.

As I have said before, Apple TV works flawlessly but offers limited content. Having an iOS device and now an OS X Mountain Lion computer adds some possibilities by allowing streaming of content via Airplay, but as a freestanding unit, Apple TV’s only real content channels that the average consumer will be interested in are the iTunes Store, Netflix, and YouTube. Yes, it does offer other options, such as NHL, NBA, MLB and Wall Street Journal subscription channels, but I think the draw and practicality in those options is very limited and most people will subscribe to at most one of those channels. And add on that many Blu-ray players and HDTVs now come with Netflix and Youtube capabilities, and Apple TV really starts to look like an Apple/iTunes accessory and very cool gadget as opposed to a must-have device that serves as an intermediary between internet content and TV/home theater systems. So, in sum, Apple TV could really use more content.

Getting more content is easier said than done, though.

-For starters, a lot of the channels that I would like to see on Apple TV – Pandora, Slacker Radio, and channels from providers such as NBC and TBS – directly compete with Apple’s iTunes Store. Apple has opened up its iOS devices that also play iTunes content to these competing channels, but often on Apple TV, the best way to get the highest quality new content is through the iTunes Store, and Apple may be reluctant to give up that quasi-monopoly. But Apple has shown its willingness to do just that by allowing Netflix and Hulu Plus on Apple TV, so I think that Apple is moving in the direction of having its settop box allow for varied (read: both Apple and non-Apple) content.

-Apple would need to release its SDK (software development kit) to allow developers to make content channels for Apple TV. It is rumored that Apple will do that this Fall with the release of iOS 6, but that is speculation at this point.

-Finally, unlike iOS apps that have widely-varied user interfaces, content channels on Apple TV all use a uniform UI. Unless Apple relinquishes that high level of control over content channels, which I doubt it will, Apple would need give developers detailed specifications and ensure that the apps conform to those specifications – and possibly modify them – before they are added to the Apple TV lineup. This could be a time-consuming endeavor considering potentially hundreds of content-providers could develop channels for Apple TV. I have no doubt that Apple has the resources to do this, but the question is whether Apple will want to devote that time to allowing competition onto Apple TV.

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Apple TV works great and has that “cool” factor, but it could use additional content. Hulu Plus is a good start, and I’m hoping there are more new channels to come. Of course, all this streaming being done with Apple TV and other settop boxes, that in some cases can even allow consumers to cancel their cable TV service and only stream content, begs the question of whether internet service providers, who often are also cable providers, will start to put caps on data in order to encourage customers to keep their cable service. Cox already has caps, and Time Warner Cable is testing out optional tiered data plans for some Texas customers. But landline data-capping is an issue for another time, and for now I just want the best Apple TV possible.

Anyway, here is a list of some channels I’d like to see on Apple TV, largely based on what content providers have adopted the iPad as a content platform:

-CNN
-NBC
-TBS
-TNT
-ABC
-AMC
-Crackle
-Slacker
-Pandora
-Vevo
-WatchESPN (is a moot point for me since Cablevision/Optimum, my cable provider, doesn’t participate)
-Masters and US Open golf tournaments (each have great iPad apps that stream multiple live feeds during tournaments)
-Google Play Music (which is VERY wishful thinking)