What I Use (Home Swap): Home Entertainment

What I Use (Home Swap): Home Entertainment

Catching up with favorite TV shows from outside the US

One of the things that makes a home swap different from a vacation is that we're not just visiting the place, we're actually living there. We shop locally, eat at our temporary home each day, and aside from some sightseeing pretty much live life normally. And when you're gone for over three weeks—and are doing so with kids, especially—a big part of the day-to-day is accessing TV shows, movies, and other entertainment at night and in the off hours. And as you may know from your own travels, this type of thing is often painfully difficult when you're in a different country.

I think this is the aspect of the home swap that ultimately confuses so many people: I hear from readers pretty regularly that I should "relax," or take some time off and enjoy myself while I'm away on these trips. And I do: Next week, friends are arriving, and we'll collectively head off the grid and take an actual vacation. But a home swap is not a vacation, and while it may be perfectly acceptable in places like France to just drop everything and head to the beach for three weeks every August, I'm not French. A home swap is just a way to live somewhere else for a little while, and see what it's like to really be there. So for much of the time we're just here, living life normally (or as normally as possible).

What this means is that I work each day, though my day is structured differently than it is at home. But even at home I don't work 9-to-5. I actually work seven days a week, almost always, and like to get something accomplished every day. Here in Europe, my day is split up differently: I get up early, usually by 6:30 am locally, and work for a few hours while the kids sleep in. Once everyone is up, we head out for at least a few hours of sightseeing or whatever. But I'm back home and at work by 9 am ET (my home time zone), which means 3 pm here in Barcelona. And then I'll work for the next two to five hours depending on the day.

Work is ... work. But everyone needs to relax as well. And for my kids, especially, the prospect of hours of downtime with no way to text or see their friends is of course mind-numbingly boring. Which means that they would begin annoying each other, and then my wife and me, and ... well, let's not go there. Anyone who has traveled with kids gets it.

How we've handed the entertainment thing on home swaps has evolved over the years. Early on, the kids would each bring their own netbook or laptop, and they had a hard drive full of ripped TV shows and movies they could watch together. Almost ten years ago, it wasn't clear whether the homes we were swapping with would even have a decent TV, so we never relied on that.

Today, things are very different.

First, the kids both travel with their smart phones (though we don't let them use a cellular connection for anything), a tablet, and an Ultrabook. They both read, one of them voluntarily, and they can of course get online here and play games, watch YouTube, browse the web, and all that. We still take a single backup hard drive along just in case, but I don't think we used it once last year, and it certainly hasn't come up on this trip and probably won't. Now, the kids expect to get content online.

At home, Netflix is a big part of their entertainment regimen. You can't get Netflix in Europe as an American, for some reason, but since I pay for this (and many other services), I've used a variety of workarounds to make it happen. This year, we're using a service called Unblock-Us. It's just $4.99 a month—so $4.99 total, in my case—and provides a DNS-based way around the blocking you see on Netflix and other US-based services. It's not a "real" VPN, which is both good and bad: It won't slow things down at all (good) but it's also not universal in that some services won't work. Netflix works. So does Amazon Prime Video. And YouTube and the Google Play stuff. I've not done a full round of testing, but it's cheap and it works well.

With Netflix solved on portable devices, I turned my attention to the TV. On most of the recent home swaps, there's been a large HDTV with modern inputs. So we take advantage of that. A few years back, this meant stringing a long HDMI cable from a ThinkPad to the TV in Germany, and last year we used the family's Apple TV to do some wireless streaming from iDevices. This year, I wanted to try a few different things. So I brought both a Google Chromecast ($35) and a Netgear Push2TV Miracast receiver (about $60 at Amazon).

Why these devices?

First, they're both tiny and would fit in even the most tightly-package luggage without any issue at all. Second, both work well with Android devices, and we have three of those between us. Third, the Miracast receiver works with both Windows and Windows Phone, too, and I have a bunch of that stuff. So I figured between the two dongles and all the devices we have, I could figure out a rock-solid way to watch "Under the Dome" (terrible, to be fair, but we all watch it together and had put off season 2 for this trip) and other online content on the TV.

Every home swap is different. And while there are many good aspects to this particular home—and really, it's overwhelmingly good—there are a few negatives. The 10/1 Mbps Internet connection I moaned about in the last article in this series. The inexplicable lack of air conditioning in one of the hottest cities I've ever stayed in. And the TV. It's almost comically small given the room its in.

This isn't a European thing, folks. The past several home swaps have all had huge HDTVs—Germany, Amsterdam, even rural France—and most have been bigger than our own TV. Here, not so much.

Big space, tiny TV (hey, at least it has an HDMI input)

But whatever. We can pull that little guy a few inches closer, turn on captioning and not worry about it. First, the connection.

Naturally, I tried Chromecast first. Say what you will about Google's little wireless video streamer, but it does have one thing going for it: It's not a dumb wire. That is, the Chromecast connects directly to your Wi-Fi network and handles the streaming of content directly once you hand it off from a device. And that device then acts as a smart remote with onscreen controls. Getting Chromecast to work was job one.

And I did, but not completely. The issue with Chromecast is that you can't customize the DNS settings on the device's network connection, as you can with the network connection on a Windows PC or Android or iOS device. And that means it can't work with Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, since you need to customize DNS for Unblock-Us on each receiving device. I did get Chromecast up and running easily enough here, and I did get it to play Google Play and YouTube content. But I couldn't get Netflix or Amazon Instant Video to work. So I had to move on.

Here's a phrase you don't see very often: Miracast saved the day.

Miracast, by virtue of the fact that it is dumb—is a "wireless wire," if you will—works fine. It works fine with our Android devices (Settings, Display, Cast Screen). It works fine with Windows and my Surface Pro 3 (Devices charm, Project, Miracast PTV-3000). And it even works fine with my Windows Phones (Settings, Project My Screen). What a world.

Even Windows Phone can cast its screen to the HDTV with Miracast! (Yes, it rotates)

More to the point, it works with everything: Once the "casting device" (Windows PC, tablet, phone, whatever) is set up to use Unblock-Us, anything you can display on its screen can be mirrored—or "cast"—to the HDTV to which the Miracast device is connected. So we can now watch Netflix from every single (non-Apple) device we've brought. And we can watch Amazon Instant Video—and thus "Under the Dome"—from many of them (Surface Pro 3, which is what I've been using).

What's interesting is that, aside from the expected Miracast glitch on day one (in which the solution is always unplugging the Miracast device and then rebooting it), it's even worked reliably. This hasn't been my experience with Miracast, and it's nice to see it actually working for a change.

So we'll head out into the sun each day and enjoy Barcelona. We'll drink the drinks, and eat the food (largely Iberian Jambon, which is heavenly). And I'll get some work done too. But when we need to unwind as a family, we can. And all it took was a little wireless device that I normally wouldn't recommend to anyone.

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