The Bill and Phil Show

Wi-Fi Home Stereo Grudge Match: Chromecast Audio Vs. Airplay Vs. Sonos

Post by Phillip Hampton on Sep 7, 2016

Our love of music is legendary—from Robben Ford to Amos Lee to Lake Street Dive to BØRNS.  We’ve even been known to listen to a little Tim McGraw, Wiz Khalifa, and Ziggy Marley from time to time.  Unfortunately, we both have spent so much money buying gadgets that we cannot afford to wire our homes or offices for expensive whole-house audio systems like Russound, Niles or Nuvo.  Yes, we know, hard-wired systems are more reliable and provide the highest of audio quality.  But, we cannot afford to tear the walls out of our houses and completely rewire them for audio in every room.  Wireless audio systems are the perfect solutions for us.  Plus, as part of our gadget addiction, we can “play” with wireless audio using our smartphones.  For us, it’s the best of all possible audio worlds. 

There are several wireless audio solutions on the market now, but we have narrowed our favorites down to three:  Sonos (the most expensive solution); AirPlay (an Apple-centric product); and Chromecast (Google’s solution).  All three systems have their pros and cons, so we put them to the test in a wireless audio grudge match.


Sonos has long been the leader in multi-room wireless speaker systems.  The Sonos system (like the Chromecast Audio and the AirPlay systems) connect to your home Wi-Fi system and the Internet.  You can play music from almost any available audio service, from iTunes, from Groove Music, from Amazon Music, and so on.  If you are creative, you can even use your turntable as an audio source for the Sonos system if you have a device called “Sonos CONNECT.”  You can play different music in different rooms or play the same music in all rooms together and still maintain independent, individualized volume controls in each room.  You control the music, the sources, and the volumes independently from an app on your smartphone, iPad or other tablet.  The Sonos solution is truly elegant. 

But, there is a drawback.  It is expensive.  The Sonos CONNECT (the wireless receiver component) costs $350.00.  The Sonos CONNECT with a built-in amplifier costs $500.00.  If you use the CONNECT alone, you will have to buy an amplifier or use speakers with built-in amplifiers.  It just so happens that Sonos has its own line of amplified speakers.  There are three such speakers:  the PLAY:1 at $199.00, the PLAY:3 at $299.00, and the PLAY:5 at $499.00.  For larger rooms, you will need the PLAY:5.  By the way, those prices are for one speaker.  If you want stereo, you will have to buy two of each.  A subwoofer costs $699.00. Another option is the PLAYBAR which can be installed underneath an HD television, providing audio output for the TV as well as being controllable from the Sonos system.   Obviously, at these prices, putting speakers in every room of your house can become very expensive.  The Sonos system is rock solid, though, and you rarely will get skips or “hiccups” in your audio streams because of its proprietary networking software system.

Apple AirPlay.

AirPlay is a proprietary Apple software protocol.  The technology is supported on all Apple devices, from Apple computers to iPhones, and iPads to Apple TV.  In order to use the AirPlay system, you will need either an Apple TV or an AirPort Express device.  You will need one such device for each room.  You can buy either of these devices for approximately $100.00, or you may be able to buy refurbished ones for approximately $60.00.  There is also a limited number of AirPlay enabled speakers; however, those speakers cost the same as Sonos speakers or even more.  The best use of an AirPlay system is to use it with your existing stereo equipment.  You can connect the Apple TV device or the AirPort Express device to your stereo and stream music from any Apple device. 

There are drawbacks, however.  The AirPlay system is only useable with Apple products unless you buy a third-party software “hack” that would allow you to use AirPlay with Windows or Android devices.  If you are using a Windows computer, however, you can download the Airtunes/AirPlay software and play music only from iTunes.  If you use AirPlay with an iPad or an iPhone, you can only stream music to one room at a time.  The multi-room capability is only available if you are using iTunes or a third-party hack, such as Airfoil from Rogue Amoeba (cost is approximately $30.00).  Thus, the AirPlay solution is certainly less expensive than the Sonos solution, but it is not nearly as versatile.  In addition, in certain homes or offices, you can experience “skips” while streaming music using AirPlay, but the system does support Lossless Audio. 

Google Chromecast.

If you are like us, and you’ve spent all of your money on gadgets, you may want to look at the Chromecast Audio system.  The Chromecast Audio (not to be confused with Chromecast Video) is the cheapest solution by far.  The device costs $35.00.  You can connect one of these devices to your existing system or to powered speakers in each room and stream music from almost any iOS Android or Windows device.  You can group rooms together, or you can play music in each room separately, although not with as many options as are available on Sonos.

Google Chromecast offers high-resolution audio as well.  The drawback is that, unlike Sonos, it does not rely on a single app that simplifies the process.  Also, it is not as easy to choose speakers using Chromecast as it is using AirPlay.  Instead, Chromecast system is integrated into individual applications and browsers on your devices.  Some services (like iTunes) are still unavailable using the Chromecast Audio system.

The bottom line is that it is very inexpensive, but it is not a unified hardware and software solution.  On the other hand, Chromecast Audio is very simple to use and works very well with little or no “skipping” because the device itself connects directly to the Internet once you have chosen the source for it to use.  At $35.00 per room (plus the cost of a nice but inexpensive set of powered speakers or an existing stereo system), the Chromecast system is the system of choice for the poor and the cheapskates among us. 

The Winner(s).

Now that the grudge match is over, we have to award the heavyweight championship to Sonos.  It is by far the best and most elegant of the systems—if you can afford it.  But, we will give the featherweight award to Chromecast.  AirPlay is really only a solution for those that are still addicted to, or restricted to, Apple products. 

So, pick one of these systems and jam around your house to a little Electric Love by BØRNS.

Bluesmart Luggage

Post by Phillip Hampton on Jul 11, 2016

bluesmartIt is no secret that we like all things classified as “smart” technology.  From smart watches and socks to smart light bulbs and coffee makers; we have it all just about covered.  For sure, the one area we could use some extra “smartness” is during travel.  You know how it is.  Long security lines, delayed flights, no power outlets for our drained devices and no comfort for our aching feet.  Travel can be a real pain.  So when we heard about a new line of smart luggage, we were all ears.  The Bluesmart company has developed a suitcase with some embedded technology that we found incredibly intriguing.  So much in fact that we purchased their debut suitcase, dubbed Bluesmart One.  We are told that this suitcase was featured on the popular television show “Shark Tank”; however, we did not see it there first.  We just blindly ordered based on an advertisement we picked up at a tech show.


At first we thought we had been scammed as our Bluesmart One suitcase was dead on arrival.  There was zero battery life in the suitcase and when we plugged it in to charge, absolutely nothing happened.  To their credit, the customer service folks helped with us some troubleshooting measures and when all else failed, they shipped us a brand new replacement suitcase.  Bluesmart One II turned out to be a winner.  First of all the suitcase is small enough to fit in most overhead luggage bins.  It has a hard-shell exterior, which we’re told is water resistant, but we haven’t tested…yet.  There is an easily-accessible front compartment for electronics or files.   It has hubless wheels that turn in all directions, making it very easy to roll this case across the parking lot or the airport terminal.  Aesthetically, this is a handsome little case, if not quite as roomy as we had hoped.


Aesthetics aside, though, we had to investigate what made this suitcase so smart.  We were quick to find out.  First, there is a companion app that we downloaded on our smart phone so that we could pair it with the luggage and watch it do its tricks.  The app has the controls for all of the embedded technology.  First we noted that we can pull up the location of the suitcase via the GPS tracker function in the app.  So when we land in Nashville and our suitcase is on a plane headed for Chicago; we don’t have to wait for the airline folks to track it down.  We can tell them ourselves how they screwed up and where to find our luggage.  Another useful feature is the ability to lock the suitcase via the app.  The instructions indicate that this lock is “TSA compliant” and we have had no security incidents so far.  A further safeguard for protecting your luggage is the autolock feature.  If this feature is turned on, the suitcase automatically locks when it gets out of Bluetooth range from your phone.  It will also automatically unlock when you get within range.  Very convenient.


With the app you can also determine the weight of the suitcase.  This feature is not terribly useful on this unit because of its size.  Because it is so small it is unlikely that you will be carrying anything that will be over the weight limit for the airlines.  Nonetheless we would love to have this feature on some of our larger non-smart suitcases.  Perhaps future Bluesmart products will be larger in size.


Another cool feature we really like is the ability to turn on a small LED light on the suitcase via the app.  We like to see heads turn in the baggage claim area when our suitcase comes out of the chute with a blue light glowing.


Probably one of the most useful features is the ability to charge other electronic devices directly from the suitcase.  There is a USB port on the outside of the case and one inside the outer storage pouch.  One of our pet peeves is to be on the last leg of a flight late in the day in some far flung airport with no juice left in our phone.  In the crowded waiting area all of the “early birds” have commandeered all the electrical outlets; and we’re left to burn as the last bit of battery drains from our phone.  No more.  We can simply plug our phone or tablet directly into the suitcase via a USB cable. Voila.  We have our own portable power supply. 


After using the Bluesmart One for several months, we really do like it.  As we mentioned, we wish it was a little roomier on the inside.  As it is, however, it is perfect for short, overnight trips that do not require a lot of packing.  It is a little pricey at $449; but we realize you just have to pay sometimes for smartness.  If Bluesmart comes out with a larger smart suitcase in the future, we’ll probably get that too, provided it doesn’t break the bank.

Health and Fitness Tech

Post by Phillip Hampton on Jun 8, 2016

Google-fit-1Summertime is our favorite time of the year.  We love casual Fridays, residual daylight after work is completed for the day, and weekend trips to the lake or beach.  While our minds are certainly ready for a week of R&R at the beach; we’re afraid our office bound bodies are not ready for prime time.  Too much sitting in front of a computer screen, too many fast food lunches at our desk, too many donuts from the break room have left our bodies looking unprepared for summer exposure.  So how do we solve this problem?  Like we do in many other dilemmas, we look for a tech solution.  Not surprisingly, we have found that fitness tech is all the rage.  There was an entire wing of the latest Consumer Electronics Show exhibit hall dedicated to technology to making us healthier and more fit.  We promptly trashed the remaining donuts from the break room and dove in to the pool of fitness gadgets.  Here are some of the gadgets and apps that are helping us get our bodies in tip top shape so we can be even more productive when we get back from Acapulco.


We started, of course, with a fitness tracker.  These things are ubiquitous and come in all shapes and prices.  Probably, Fitbit makes some of the most appealing models for us.  We bought the Fitbit Charge HR, which, at about $130, is not the cheapest nor most expensive model available.  It does, however, provide the basic functions we were looking for:  tracking all-day activity; heart rate monitor; pairing with phone for call notifications; date and time readout; sleep analysis; and wireless syncing to a personalized Fitbit dashboard.  Plus, it is one of the more comfortable and unobtrusive wearable fitness trackers that we have tried on; and the battery life has been more than adequate.    For about $70 more we really like the Fitbit Blaze, which really blurs the line between fitness tracker and smart watch.  If we happen to misplace or accidentally “break” the Charge HR, we’ll probably go ahead and upgrade to the Blaze.  Regardless of which model we use, however, we really do like Fitbit’s cloud-based dashboard that helps us track our activity and progress on our road to fitness.


Not to boost Fitbit’s stock or anything, but we did go back to the Fitbit well one more time to help us shed a few of those unwanted pounds around the midsection.  We bought the Aria smart scale to help make us more accountable on our fitness journey.  This digital scale will update our Fitbit dashboard with our current weight reading (we know it’s not necessarily a welcome statistic we like to see daily; but it certainly is a great motivator to help us make healthier choices).  Not only measuring weight, the Aria scale measures body mass index and lean mass and body fat percentages.  Paired with the Fitbit tracker, we can set goals and even let the Fitbit app coach us on achieving them.  Nothing against personal trainers, but this setup is a lot less expensive in the long run.


Speaking of apps, a great app that we have used to assist us on this journey is MyFitnessPal.  This free app is a very useful tool for tracking what we eat and our daily exercise as well.  The calorie counter is easy to use and the app provides a tremendous database of calorie counts not only for raw foods but many popular restaurant dishes as well.  We really have no excuse for remaining calorie-ignorant now that we have this app.  We have found that using MyFitnessPal provides another accountability touch point that in itself enforces healthy choices.  We are feeling better already (we’ll leave it to others to notice if we look any better).


As we are trying out many different apps and gadgets to help us become more fit, it would be nice to have one aggregate site or app that lets us see all of our fitness tracking data in one place.  Bill loves Apples’ Health app on his iPhone for this comprehensive health dashboard.  Phil prefers Google’s Fit app on his Android-based Samsung Galaxy phone.  Both apps provide a platform that other fitness apps can link to and provide data to your centralized health dashboard.  So, if you are tracking your steps or exercise with a Fitbit device and your calorie intake with an app like MyFitnessPal, you can aggregate these data points into a central repository of your health information with these apps.


These are just the basics.  But, of course, the road to continued health and fitness begins with the basics– diet and exercise, right?  As we continue this journey, however, we are trying out even more exotic fitness products.  Look for future reports from our Sensoria Fitness Socks, the Kolibree Smart Toothbrush, and the Pavlok bad-habit-breaking device.  If you see us at the beach this summer, you probably won’t even recognize us –not because our bodies are so toned and muscly, but because we are covered from head to toe with all these fitness gadgets.  Make no mistake about it, when we get back to the office, we are going to be so prepared to tackle that new case.  Have a happy, healthy summer.

Battle of the Pros: iPad Pro 12.9 v. iPad Pro 9.7

Post by Phillip Hampton on Apr 30, 2016

ipadprosWe love to buy gadgets as soon as they hit the market.  We are fully aware that you pay extra for being an early adopter.  Guess we enjoy being broke (and also being the first kids on the block with the new toy).  So, it should come as no surprise that we bought Apple’s big screen 12.9” iPad Pro as soon as it hit the market.

THE IPAD PRO 12.9.  

We must admit, we were a bit disappointed when we started fooling with it.  Yes, the iPad Pro 12.9 was the biggest, fastest Apple tablet ever made.  You can buy a really nice keyboard to go with it, and we did.  You can also buy a pressure-sensitive stylus/pencil to take notes, sketch, and really create great art.  We bought that too.  The giant screen is beautiful, and the quad speakers are incredible.  The large screen really works well with split screen apps that are now available in the new iOS 9 series.  You can watch movies on the right-side of your screen and edit documents on the left, for example. In other words, you can play and work at the same time; which we don’t necessarily recommend but do occasionally enjoy.

But, we were not as overjoyed with our new pricey toy as we thought we would be.  First, by the time we added additional storage, a cellular modem, a Bluetooth keyboard and the pencil, the price tag was creeping up north of $1,200.  For that price we could buy a very nice fully functional laptop (keyboard included).  In addition, the large size makes the iPad Pro 12.9 seem less portable.  Its size almost defeats the purpose of having an iPad.  (At least we felt that way after we bought it.)  The 12.9” display is so large you really need to carry it in a laptop bag, and it just does not have the portable, compact feel that made the original iPad and its successors so popular.  So, while the iPad Pro 12.9 is powerful and has a great deal of potential (especially for graphic designers and media creators), it is not a laptop killer in our opinion.



We’re not sure if the Apple execs heard our complaints about the 12.9” iPad Pro, but we took it as a nod in our direction when they subsequently announced a smaller iPad Pro, the 9.7.  Gadget nerds like us and our money are soon parted.  So, when the new iPad Pro 9.7 became available, we had to buy one immediately as well.  And, as usual, we were excited in anticipation of delivery of our new gadget.  We were certain that the new, smaller iPad would be more portable and more in line with the iPads we had come to know and love, while providing all the “Pro” advantages.  Unfortunately, we had become spoiled.  After using the iPad Pro 12.9, the screen on the 9.7 seemed tiny (yes, we know we complained that the 12.9 was too big; forgive us for being tech divas).  With the 9.7 we began to feel like we were just looking at an iPhone screen.  In fact, it was very hard to tell the difference between a regular iPad or iPad Air 2 and the iPad Pro 9.7.  Yes, the iPad Pro 9.7 has a faster, more power processor than the iPad Air 2.  Yes, Apple has updated the iPad Pro cameras.  Yes, you can take great selfies and great pictures with the high-resolution camera that comes with it.  Yes, you can even record videos in 4k resolution.

Nevertheless, for just regular users it is very hard to tell the iPad Pro 9.7 apart from the iPad Air.  The displays are nearly identical.  They run the same software.  They use the same apps.  There just does not seem to be a great advantage to having an iPad Pro 9.7 versus having a regular iPad (especially the sleek iPad Air 2).

IPAD PRO 12.9 v. IPAD PRO 9.7.  

Returning to the comparison of the iPad Pro 12.9 to the iPad Pro 9.7 (yes, we got a bit sidetracked), we believe the iPad Pro 12.9 is actually a superior product.  The high resolution and the four-speaker system take greater advantage of the faster processor and superior display on the iPad Pro models.  In addition, you have more screen real estate to use the split screen feature that is bundled into iOS 9 (now 9.3.1).  Of course, you can use the split screens feature on any iPad, but it just works better on the larger screen.  The bottom line is that while the 12.9” iPad Pro is a bit more cumbersome to carry, you get spoiled once you have used the larger screen.  You do not want to return to a smaller iPad model.  So, in our opinion, the iPad 12.9 is the winner (but barely) over the iPad Pro 9.7 or just a regular iPad.

But, here is a word to the wise and thrifty.  If you are not a spendthrift like us, our best advice is to buy neither “Pro” model and stick with an iPad Air 2.  Save your money.

Samsung Galaxy TabPro S

Post by Phillip Hampton on Apr 22, 2016

galaxy-tab-pro-sWe’ve been tablet shopping again and what we brought home from the store may surprise you.  We have always admired Samsung’s tablet computers over the years, but have never really taken the plunge since they always ran the Android operating system.  Don’t get us wrong, we love Android.  We have Android phones and love them.  But for a tablet/laptop hybrid device we really prefer the Microsoft Windows operating system.  So when we found out the newest Samsung tablet, dubbed the Galaxy Tab S Pro, was going to ship with Windows 10 installed, we put it on our ‘buy’ list.

We saw the Tab S Pro at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January but at that time Samsung did not reveal the price or ship date.  As the release date neared we were pleasantly surprised when Samsung revealed the $899 retail price.  The fact that this price included the keyboard cover made the Tab S Pro an even more attractive option.  So shortly after the release date, we scoured all Best Buy stores within a 50-mile radius of our office and found one that had four of these tablets in stock.  They soon had just three.

It is no secret that Microsoft’s breakthrough Surface tablet has been successful as we are now seeing other manufacturers mimicking the Surface design aesthetic.  Samsung has jumped into the fray as well with the Tab S Pro.  It looks a lot like the Surface with a few distinctions.  The most impressive feature for us on the Tab S Pro is the incredibly sharp and bright 12-inch display.  For sure, Samsung has perfected the art of the beautiful display as can be seen in their successful line of Galaxy S and Note phones.  They bring that same screen perfection to the Tab S Pro.

The other distinction of note for this table is the fact that the keyboard cover comes packaged with the tablet for the $899 price.  We paid $899 for our Surface Pro 4 but then had to fork over another $130 for the keyboard.  Getting a keyboard with our Tab S Pro for the advertised price made us very happy.  Our happiness dissipated somewhat, however, after we unpacked the box and began testing our tablet and keyboard.  Perhaps we were spoiled by Microsoft’s pricey Surface keyboard, but the Galaxy keyboard just did not measure up.  First the positives:  we didn’t pay extra for it; the keyboard doubles as a tablet cover; and it’s not horrible.  However, the keys are really close together and there is a little bit of a clicking noise that can be bothersome unless you have some music playing to drown it out.  Because the keyboard is more compact, it does fit better in compact places (like an airline seat tray); but we like our space, especially on keyboards.  A particular pet peeve is when certain keyboard keys that we use a lot (like Home, Page Up, Page Down, etc.) can only be accessed via a Function key toggle.  So count us as pretty much bummed that this beautiful tablet has a smallish, less than luxurious keyboard.

While the Tab S Pro has two viewing angles, we found ourselves missing the unique built-in kickstand on the Surface Pro 4 which allows you to adjust to just about any viewing angle.  Operationally we have no beef with the Tab S Pro.  For our basic activity of e-mail, word processing, web surfing, and the occasional app from the Microsoft app store, the tablet is proficient and speedy.  We also have no beef with the battery life (touted to be 10 hours by Samsung).  We get a good day of activity on our unit without running out of juice.

It’s funny that Samsung did not include a stylus or pen with this tablet, particularly after the wild success of the Galaxy Note phablet with its built-in pen.  The Surface has a pen and now even Apple has a pencil for its iPad Pro series.  We expect that Samsung will introduce a pen for the Tab S Pro at some point, but it is not included when you buy today.

So what is our overall impression of the Tab S Pro?  We really, really like it.  If you are looking for the best product in this genre (tablet/laptop hybrid running Windows 10) for the buck, the Tab S Pro is a great choice.  If you have already splurged on the Surface Pro 4, then migrating to the Tab S Pro would be a step backward in our view.  Of course, if you are super geeks like us, you will go ahead and buy both.