Why I’m seriously considering going back to physical media

A few years back I was deeply committed to the Apple ecosystem. I loved Apple, mostly due to it’s user focused approach to its products, and, to a lesser degree, its services. I loved the deep integration they offered, being the first to provide usable integration across multiple platforms, without the need for complicated setup… things mostly just worked the way you expected them to. Create a document using your phone, do some updates on it later using your Mac. And the integration got better over time to the point where, should one choose to use the Apple products, you could stop caring about where you did what, and just concentrate on the what. For Apple users, the hardware was just a portal into your content, and after a while you forgot about the hardware and you could concentrate on the content. This had been Steve Jobs vision for some time… give people the tools to create… and Apple was king in this domain.

So deeper and deeper I went into the Apple way of doing thinsg… sometimes called the “walled garden”… but I didn’t care. Apple gave me what I needed, without (much if any) special setup and configuration. This included music and movies/TV. I could buy a movie using my phone, and watch it on any of my Apple devices: my iPad, my Mac, my MacBook, my Apple TV… so I started to build my collection, music, and movies, buying content exclusively from Apple.

I first moved to Apple from Linux back around 2010 or 2011. And all was fine, and actually got better, for years-and-years. But then, something changed. Steve Jobs died, and I believe with him, Apple’s user/customer focus to its products and services began a slow death.

Slowly over time more and more of Apple’s decisions seemed to favour the Apple shareholder, without Apple’s past regard for the customer, for the user experience. The slow march towards being just another company producing shareholder value rather than products customers wanted was slow at first… and very subtle. I accepted the decisions at first, but then, shortly before I was to replace my iPhone, Apple decided iPhones no longer needed headphone jacks.

Apple claimed the removal of the headphone jack was to make the phones thinner, and waterproof. The former was something I didn’t care for… thinner (smaller) phones meant smaller batteries, and battery life was never a strong motivating factor for iPhone ownership.

“Use the included audio dongle”, people say. Sure, so I have to remember to bring the dongle with me everywhere? And the sound quality through the dongle, because it had to provide the DAC and amplification in a tiny package, was inferior. Measurably so.

“Use wireless headphones”, some say. So… why? Why should I pay $300 to get a pair of wireless headphones that are substandard in performance when compared with a wired pair half the price? Why worry about headphone batteries all the time? Why not use my audiophile grade headphones that I have been using for years? What about when you show up somewhere and want to plug into the 1/8″ audio jack to play DJ? Yes that does happen to me! Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave, of that I am sure.

So I started looking for a replacement for my MacBook Air… it was (and is) still working, and in fact I am writing this article on it, but for reasons not germain to this discussion, it was time to move on to something new. I checked out the new MacBook Pros… and… wow, somehow, Apple had managed to ruin them! Apple had removed the top row of keys and replaced it with a touch bar. This meant the ESC key, a key I use hundreds of times a day in an editor that requires it, was no longer a physical button. But never mind the missing ESC key, the remainder of the keyboard used a new design that was horrible to use, and became the subject of many, many customer complaints. It was so bad, Apple went back to the old design, after trying three re-designs to fix it. They also removed all the ports except for a USB-C, so you needed to carry a device with you… a dongle, to use existing USB-A devices. Yes, USB-A is on the way out, but it’s not gone yet, far from it… a single USB-A port would have been nice. And then I noticed they removed the MagSafe connector, and that was the last straw for me.

You see, MagSafe was a brilliant design by Apple… the power connector connected to the laptop with a magnet. If someone walked by and tripped over your power cord, the power connector simply, and safely disengaged. It fell to the floor, usually followed by “Oh, sorry”, and no drama beyond that. Now, Apple uses a standard USB-C connector. So that same Starbucks customer running for the door takes your laptop half way across the room with them.

I reluctantly gave up on Apple and over the past year replaced my iPhone with a Pixel 3A, and I now use a PixelBook as my day-to-day laptop and tablet. I love both. And integration, I was surprised to find, was better with Google suite than the Apple implementation. Yes, the PixelBook uses USB-C, but it and the phone both have a real headphone jack. Sold!

Regarding media consumption on my home theatre, I had also moved to a Roku as my preferred streaming device. It provided more configurability than the Apple TV, and provided services Apple just didn’t offer at the time, such as an Amazon Prime Video player, and a Spotify player. The older Apple TV I had did play the music I had purchased from Apple, but it did not play music from Apple Music, Apple’s streaming music service. Yes, you read that right… to enjoy my Apple Music subscription on my stereo, I would have to upgrade my Apple TV to the newest generation device, at the cost of over $350 (at the time). And for that $350, I would have gained little else of value to me.

I decided to drop my Apple Music subscription, and got a Spotify subscription instead, and while its sound quality is measurably not as good as Apple Music, it would take a critical A/B comparison to notice the difference. For background listening, it was indistinguishable, and Spotify beat Apple Music in the music discovery area as well. And Spotify works on all my devices, including my Roku streamer. I was also able to move all my iTunes purchased music over to Google Play Music (more on this later), but my Movies and TV stayed behind. I had purchased about 40 titles, but had decided I would move to Google Play Movies and TV as my video media supplier. I made this decision because I knew I would be able to play my content pretty much everywhere, without needing an Apple device. Apple did eventually come out with a player for TV/Movies that worked on the Roku, so I could still enjoy the video content I had already paid for.

So I continued buiding my video media collection on Google… happy in the knowledge that would be able to watch it on all my devices.

Or so I thought.

Yesterday, after much research (but clearly not enough), I bought an Nvidia Shield TV device to replace my Roku. I chose the Nvidia Shield for a few reasons, but the main reasons were that it supported Dolby Atoms on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and it had an amazing AI 4K upscaler. It also had a built in 4K Chromecast TV, which is a $CDN80 value!

I came home, hooked it up, and started setting it up. The device runs Android TV which tightly integrates with the Google Ecosytem. It has a microphone too, so with a press of a button on the remote, I can say “what’s on my calendar” to hear my upcoming meetings, or I can say “add coffee to my shopping list” and boom, it’s done. Of course because it integrates with the Google ecosystem, it needs your Google account, requested as part of device setup. I have two Google accounts… a gmail one where I keep my contacts, calendar, etc., and a custom gSuite domain which just so happens to be the account under which I purchased my Google music and video content.

So I set up Google Play Music to play my music, and the Shield diligently asked me which Google account I wished to use, so I choose my gSuite one. I tested it, and as expected my music content played fine! I can now listen to the music I purchased on iTunes on my home theatre. Yay!

Next, I set up Google Play Movies and TV… and… wait… what? There’s no way to choose which Google account to use for media? Nope. To watch the Movies and TV you have paid for, you have to have only one Google account set up on the Shield. Why!! The music app doesn’t do this… only the Movies and TV app.

So I have a choice. I can log in to my gSuite account only, and lose the ability to do any of the cool Google Assistant tasks on the device. No calendar. No control over my thermostat. No notifications. Or, I can set the Shield up to use my gMail account, and lose the ability to play the Movies and TV I have purchased.

Sigh.

So thankfully the Nvidia Shield will play media off of an internal network, which leaves me with a third choice. I can start buying content on physical media again… CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray. I can then rip the content to my media server and enjoy the content from there. For remote access, I can upload my music to YouTube Music (more on that in a moment), and use Plex for my Video and TV content.

So I just mentioned YouTube Music, with a “more on that in a moment”, and earlier I mentioned Google Play Music, also with a “more on that in a moment”. Well, here’s the rub. The Shield will play music from Google Play Music, but Google is shutting down that service, moving all customer music content to YouTube Music. No problem… just use the YouTube Music app! Sigh… not so fast… there is no YouTube Music player for the Shield (yet!)

And the same may happen to Google Play Movies and TV, that is, there’s quite a bit of speculation online that Google Play Movies and TV might be retired in favour of YouTube. It makes sense… content you purchase on either platform is viewable on the other… but right now YouTube content, including purchased content, does not support surround sound.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that right! If I purchase a movie on Google Play Movies and TV, and it’s in surround, then to enjoy it in surround I must play it with the Google Play Movies and TV app. If I play it with the YouTube app, it will be downmixed to 2.0. Sure I can use the Dolby Surround Upmixer to dematrix surround, but that’s suboptimal… it is not discrete surround.

So, sad as it is, the promise of purchasing content in the cloud has not been realized to the level we had with physical media. Will we get there? I thought we would. I thought we were close. But we’re not. And then there’s the pretty crappy realization that when you “buy” content, you’re really just licencing it for your use. This actually means you’re not legally permitted to use that content in certain ways outside your licence agreement. This may not seem like a big deal, until you dig deeper and realize that–for instance–you would not be legally permitted to use the CDs you bought to provide music and your neices wedding! Still don’t care? “I can play my CDs wherever I damn well please you say.” Yes, you can, but not necessarily legally.

So why should you care? Consider this… did you know you are not legally permitted to leave your cloud based digital music collection to your kids? Don’t believe me? Check out this article on the issue: https://www.cnn.com/2012/09/03/tech/web/bruce-willis-itunes/index.html

So yeah, physical media is a pain in the butt now, compared to the convenience and “I want it now” satisfaction of cloud based media, but physical media is-what-it-is, meaning if you bought a movie with Dolby Atmos, then you have a movie with Dolby Atmos. How you access that content in Dolby Atmos without using the physical media is detailed enough to warrant another article, but if you have the knowledge, and some basic equipment and software, it is possible.

But with cloud based content, you’re subject to a licence, one that’s easier for the licensor to enforce, a licence which could change, and which may not suit your needs in the future, or may force you to upgrade hardware just to continue to enjoy media you could previously enjoy on your existing hardware. And then there’s the unfathomable idea of the media provider ceasing to exist at some point in the future. Think that’s not possible for Google and Apple? Unlikely, sure, but impossible? I used to think the same about Sears… but gone it is.

To conclude, I will admit I still love cloud based media. It’s convenient. You can play it from just about anywhere (with the right device), and it’s typically very affordable. And sometimes you get upgrades for free… buy the HD version of a movie one day, and get upgraded for free to the 4K version (it happens!) I’m still holding out hope that Google will fix the Google Play Movies and TV app so it does let you choose the account it’s pulling its content from, and that Apple will write an Apple TV app for Android, so I can run it on my Shield. But until all this happens, I am going to ponder further the idea of going back to physical media.

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