Ive got a small and very underpowered System76 meerkat hooked up to my LCD TV. The meerkat is the first “net top” they released in 2009 which you can think of as the desktop equivalent of a netbook (remember those?) and shipped with an Atom processor, one GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive. It came in with Ubuntu 8.10, but has been upgraded many times over the last three years and currently runs Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Although its integrated Intel video makes it feel slow, it boots up pretty quick. It won’t do full screen HD without choppiness so its definitely on the list to be replaced at some point, especially since pushing video to my TV is this things only job in life, but I can run video in a standard quality which looks pretty good on the big screen anyway. Mostly I use the thing to stream YouTube or TED Talk videos, but sometimes I’ll stream music from another machine on the network and run a slideshow, or the kids can play some silly online games on it. I never bothered to upgrade the hard drive in the thing which might make it more useful as a storage device, so with its little 80GB drive I end up storing nothing on it at all. Once in a while I might copy a bunch of MP4s or other ripped video to it, but not often. With my old Logitech S 510 cordless keyboard and mouse connected to it, theoretically I could lean back on the couch and control the action in comfort. What actually happens is that I end up putting the keyboard on the coffee table and hunching over it because I can’t see the text on the screen. I could probably solve this problem easily by just getting a pair of glasses but I hate wearing glasses unless I really have to.
Youtube promised to make it possible for me to control whats playing on the TV from a handheld or tablet device with their new YouTube TV service. The idea here is that most of you now have a handheld device and are hanging out on the couch with it while the TV is on, hitting up IMDB when you see an actor you recognize, or looking up some obscure factoid on Wikipedia inspired by the educational program you’re watching… well, thats what I’m doing. The media execs think I’m rushing off to Amazon to buy whatever crap they’re hawking in the commercials I don’t see since I use noscript and adblock. Whatever.
To check it out, just navigate to http://www.youtube.com/tv If you don’t have a google account you can still use the interface to play Youtube videos using a keyboard just fine. You can’t just type in text on the search screen though, this is the most baffling thing about the TV interface. It seems to be set up to be controlled with remote control – I presume because they are expecting you to be using this interface only on internet ready TVs and not on a computer *connected* to a TV as I am doing. In my scenario I have to use the arrow keys to navigate around the search, picking each letter like you’re selecting initials for the high score in a 1980s arcade game. To actually control the TV from an android device you have to activate the TV and pair it to a device which will require a Google account. If you already have a Google account or a YouTube account you can sign in with that. The process is basically to register the TV / Computer that will be playing the videos as a screen and then pair that screen to a handheld device through Google much like you would do with a bluetooth device. Haven’t ever paired a bluetooth device? You generate a short numeric code on one device and enter that code on the other setting up a trusted connection between them. On the android device you’re supposed to be able to control whats playing on the remote screen using either the “YouTube” app or the “YouTube Remote” app.
I must have done the pairing sequence 10 times over several months, messing with it and getting frustrated, giving up until the next time we were going to do a “Youtube night” and struggling with it again. I only ended up searching for and installing the YouTube Remote app since I couldn’t get the standard one to work. I could see that the tablet was recognized, paired and connected, and everything seemed like it was set correctly but videos would never play on the TV. It took me a lot longer to think of trying Chromium (the open source version of Chrome) instead of Firefox (which is the default browser in Ubuntu) than I care to admit, but that was what made it all work. I spent some time searching the web to see if I could figure out if this was a known bug in Firefox or not but the search words are all very common: youtube, tv, firefox, etc. it will take poking around in the Mozilla forums. I don’t mind using Chromium for this one purpose, but Firefox is definitely my preferred browser for many reasons. The important thing here is that it works pretty well! With the Remote app I can add a bunch of videos to a queue, with either I can select to play from one of my playlists or subscribed channels and pause and skip around as desired without delay. The two screen paradigm is now fully functional on Nate’s couch.