Saturday, 28 December 2013

A Samsung dongle has freed us from the tyranny of broadcasters - we are now officially disintermediated

I bought myself a Samsung dongle for Christmas. I plugged it into one of our “Smart” TV’s USB ports, brought up the Samsung Smart Hub screen, and connected the TV to our wireless router. After eventually finding the YouTube icon, I activated it, and allowed it to connect to my YouTube account. Then I switched to my Mac, hunted down some long-form programmes I wanted to watch, clicked on the “watch later” icon, returned to the TV – and there they were!

First, I watched my old tutor, Roger Scruton, discussing moral relativism for an hour at a Common Sense Society gathering in Budapest last year (okay, not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it), then followed that up with an illuminating documentary about the Ring Cycle. I have several ancient black and white films which I’ve never seen lined up for this evening. The picture quality is excellent. Both the documentaries hung for a few seconds at various points, which isn’t ideal, and, as we have a fast broadband connection (about 70 Mbps), I’m not sure what would happen at lower speeds. But, even allowing for that, it was an oddly satisfying experience.

We’re not quite as late to the “connected TV” party as you might think. We’ve had a Sky dongle plugged into our set-top box for about a year, which allows us to catch up with programmes we’ve missed on the main channels and to watch video-on-demand films. That’s been a delight, but Sky doesn’t allow you to wander off their tightly-policed reservation into the wilder reaches of the internet, whereas Samsung enables viewers to subscribe to servives such as Netflix and YouTube.  It even offers a web browser, but, as always, trying to navigate the web with a TV remote is like doing needlepoint while wearing boxing gloves.

What, I can hear you ask, is the big deal? We can already watch YouTube videos and Netflix movies on our computers. What’s the point of jumping through several hoops just to watch something on a bigger screen from further away? Because, while I spend several hours at my desk every day, I can’t watch programmes on the computer without succumbing to the urge to fast-forward the instant I feel my attention wander: watching any video longer than five minutes on a computer screen makes me feel physically and psychically uncomfortable: it's just not right.

Years ago, I was on a panel of digital media types at some college in Central London discussing the future of connected TV (i.e. connected to the internet), and made myself extremely unpopular with our frightfully trendy audience by cleaving to the already old-fashioned line that computers were for actively doing stuff on, while TVs were for passively consuming programmes and films. I’ve watched endless attempts to merge TV and PC screens – I was involved in several of these experiments myself – but nothing I’ve seen has made me change my mind. Yes, computers and smartphones are fine for watching programmes while you’re on the move or stuck in a hotel room abroad with nothing but incomprehensible foreign-language programmes, CNN and porn available on the TV. But, when you’re at home, the PC is for doing things, while the TV is for watching stuff. (We used to call these, respectively, the lean-forward and lean-back experience.)

Similarly, reading any article longer than two screens on a PC screen makes me antsy – I want to do something with it: cut and paste, comment, or send it as an attachment via email to someone. I find it impossible to read anything remotely substantial on a computer: it’s like trying to read a book while suffering from an acutely stressed bladder. If I come across anything which requires thought, I transfer it to my Kindle to read at leisure.

I also worry that I now mainly listen to music on the computer. That’s fine for pop music, which doesn’t require much concentration – but sitting at one’s desk listening to a symphony, let alone an opera, is deeply unsatisfying. I’m either going to have to reactivate my old stereo system or resort to an iPod before I entirely lose touch with serious music, which can only be consumed while sitting back.

Back to connected TV: I was showing off this wonderful cutting-edge technology to my son yesterday, only to realise that, despite his best efforts to appear impressed, he wasn’t in the least surprised. He then informed me that he and his university flatmates have no access to standard broadcast television (i.e. terrestrial, cable or satellite). This confused me, because I’d seen a TV set the size of a multiplex screen in their sitting room on my last visit. He explained that it was an Apple TV and that everything they watch on it is via the internet. One suddenly feels so old-hat – and thoroughly embarrassed to have cast scorn on Apple TV when it first appeared.


  1. In "Abigail's Party" somebody called Laurance flourishes the Complete Works of Shakespeare at the company and says: " Our nation's culture. Not something you can actually read, of course."

    I thought your post was fascinating [read it twice, even looked up the cost of a Samsung dongle], but I didn't understand any of it which is entirely my fault. The old brain-box, you know.

    1. If you had taken my advice earlier this year and had bought a reasonably-priced Samsung Smart TV, you would have understood every word. Short version: buy a Smart TV and something that looks like a USB stick (and don't pretend you don't know what that looks like) stick it into a USB port on your Smart TV, insert the same code you use to connect your laptop to your router, and you can start watching YouTube and Netflix videos on your TV set. Simples!