My latest consumer experience in Australia provides a great summary of the retail experience:
- Walked into a small privately run ink/toner shop in the local area
- Asked for a quote on toner for my little A4 work printer
- AUD$400.00 excluding GST, but we’ll have to order it in for you
- Went to the regional ebay site, bought and had the same kit delivered for AUD$60.00 in 3 days
Granted, the shop is located in an area renowned for predatory pricing, and paying 2-4x the global fair-market norm for products is fairly routine. But when the cost of toner exceeds that of your printer, do you really have to wonder why is retail in Australia tanking? Maybe the dim-bulbs will start to flicker that international online purchasing will bury retail where there isn’t already a monopoly (such as food, fuel) or unregulated markets dominated by tax/levy schemes (housing, automobiles).
Since settling in Sydney, I’ve been dabbling in setting up internet home-theatre. At this point I have all home entertainment media (local and online streaming) available through a single connection and server. Why, well partly because the technology is easy to figure out without cracking a manual and partly due to the fact you don’t really need a dedicated phone line and cable/satellite TV contract anymore. Granted, back in the US I had a tendency to keep these services alive, and ignore the fact you’re dumping 1000’s a year on services that are 5% utilised.
So here’s the setup:
- Naked ADSL 120 GB/month internet connection (fortunately only a few hundred feet from the DSLAM)
- VPN connection (www.strongvpn.com) (which is absolutely required for most US media streaming services, setup to run all the time for all traffic)
- NetFlix Account (9.99/month)
- Various free accounts (Pandora, LastFM, Hulu, etc.)
- Plex (www.plexapp.com, free software for an internet home theatre)
- PlexAeon skin (installed to Plex application to make it intuitive)
- Itunes (for inventory of audio library)
- Mac Mini (2.4GHz Intel Core 2, 2GB RAM base model, which is earning it’s keep)
- HDMI cable (for Audio/Video from Mac Mini to HDTV)
- RCA stereo cable (for sound from HDTV monitor outs to my sound system, since you can only route sound from one interface at a time from the Mac Mini)
- Apple Remote
- Macbook (for remote administration, which you could do just as well with a Bluetooth mouse/keyboard)
So after a lot of tweaking, the Plex/Mac home theatre is working well. It still requires some nurturing, but in general the solution is an incredible alternative to web-browsing and using separate applications for streaming video, photography services, online and local music, etc. So all the standard issue streaming giants (NetFlix, Hulu, Last.fm, Pandora, etc.) and the dozens of others (Picasa, National Geographic, PBS, Pitchfork Media, etc.) are all available in your living room all the time. When it works, you have a personal cloud portal to video, music, and photography user services available with a silly-simple Apple remote interface.
A couple of key items to note:
- Plex is geek-friendly software for setup, but extremely user friendly once stable and running, but you still may need the geek when it needs to be restarted, modified, etc.
- Plex with it’s native interface/skin is confusing, but the PlexAeon skin is a functional makeover
- Energy saver mode on Plex does nasty things (wiping out media inventory, freezing application, kicking VPN connections, etc.)
- US media services are getting smarter to VPN international users – keep it on all the time and don’t let them log repeated login failures
- Remote management and login is absolutely required – so either have an OSX machine nearby to remote login, or get a solid Bluetooth keyboard/mouse (this is a major barrier for non-geeked out households)
- Why spend the extra dollars for expensive, hardware? Basically so I’m not spending my time rebooting or dealing with driver and compatibility issues, and instead spending my time with semi-stable applications
- Turn down the bells and whistles (like music visualisation emulators) – Plex is doing a lot of lifting and some of the ‘slick’ features get in the way of stability/performance
Overall, the value for money is incredible once you get this setup. Next the server will start additional-purpose roles as a DVR (for over the air recording), a private FTP server, and IP/Skype dedicated ‘land-line’ home phone.