Amazon Recast: More Good, Less Bad

from https://variety.com/2018/digital/features/fire-tv-recast-amazon-1202960053

  • The company…announced last week that it would soon let consumers connect their own hard drives for additional storage.
  • Amazon wants to simplify discovery of over-the-air content with future software updates. For instance, there is currently no way to just browse upcoming movies or sports programming, but it’s on the list to be added
  • Amazon is considering to add advanced ad skipping

External storage is a big deal.  Amazon needs to announce a Roku app, remove the ‘one Recast per account’ restriction, and promulgate a privacy policy that respects its customers.

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Amazon Recast In Context

Among Amazon’s next wave of connected devices is the Fire TV Recast. The Recast is a network tuner and DVR similar to the Tablo OTA DVR.  The Recast comes in two configurations: a $229.99 2 tuner, 500 GB/75 hour model and a $279.99 4 tuner, 1 TB/150 hour model.

The Good:  There’s lots to like about the Recast.  For starters, there is no monthly service fee for the program guide.  Cord cutters hate monthly fees, and Lifetime service adds $150 to the cost of a Tablo TV DVR.  The included storage is sufficient for time shifting and casual collection.   The Recast can be controlled with an Alexa device.  Alexa can search for shows, change over-the-air TV channels, control playback, plus browse, schedule, cancel, and delete recordings.

According to AFTNews.com, the Fire TV Recast supports Dolby 5.1 surround sound, both for live channel viewing and for recordings.  Again, according to AFTNews.com, the Recast stores content as unprotected raw MPEG-2 video files in their native resolution and streams the raw MPEG-2 video files transcoded to H.264 with a maximum resolution of 1440×720 at 60 frames per second.

The Bad:  This device can only be used with Amazon streamers.  If you have other devices in your home, you will need another network tuner.

Storage cannot be expanded.  For those who like to archive movies or binge watch television, 150 hours is not a long time.  One season of Chicago Fire would use a sixth of the 1TB model’s storage.

You can only have one Recaster per Amazon account and can only watch live or recoded programs on two devices simultaneously.  (note: AFTNews.com disputes this, “I explicitly asked Amazon about that exact thing and they explicitly told me that 4 recordings AND 2 pre-recorded viewing streams are possible simultaneously on the 4-tuner model (2 recordings and 2 pre-recorded viewing streams simultaneously for the 2-tuner model). Tuners are NOT used to view pre-recorded videos.”)

The Ugly:  Amazon collects information relating to your use of over-the-air TV content which may include the name of the channel watched, the name of the program watched, and the duration.

The Competition:  Recaster’s main competition is the Tablo OTA DVR.  The four tuner OTA DVR costs $219.99, but requires a usb disk for storage.  A 1TB WD Passport cost $49.99.  To enable a premium guide and remote access, you must pay for service.  Lifetime service is $149.99.  So, the 4 tuner 1TB Tablo OTA DVR with Lifetime Service will cost $419.97 — a $139.98 more than the $279.99 4 tuner 1TB Recaster.

The Lifetime subscription is per account not device, so, as you add or replace DVRs, that cost falls.  You can add as many DVRs to your network as your wallet (wife) allows.

The Tablo OTA DVR works with Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Xiaomi MiBox (Android TV), Nvidia Shield (Android TV), and Xbox One.

Tablo’s DVR supports 8TB USB disks and third party apps enable download of recordings for playback on unconnected devices.

The Verdict:  This device is perfect for someone interested in streaming OTA to a limited number of Amazon devices in and out of their home.  The plug and play approach will appeal to those who do not want to deal with the complexity of plugging in a USB disk but are comfortable managing a wireless network (assuming such a demographic exists).

That said, given the limitations of this device, I believe most people would be better served by an open box four tuner Tablo TV and a 2TB Western Digital Passbook with Lifetime service for $360 — doubling the storage and increasing  compatibility for $80.

$13,632 and Counting

Each year on May 5th, Mexicans commemorate their army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla.  Each year on that very day, I celebrate my victory over another empire — Comcast.

In October of 2009, with my Comcast bundle promotion coming to an end, I purchased an Ooma Hub and Scout at Best Buy ($210).  That VOIP telephone was my first ‘cord trim’.  It reduced my monthly phone bill to $0 — which didn’t matter because I lost a Comcast bundle discount of about the same amount.  In November, I negotiated a six month extension with Comcast which was the same money for [much] less service.  In January of 2010, I bought a DB8 ($74.23) antenna from Amazon.com.  During a week long power outage in February of 2010, we relied on that DB8 for news and entertainment.  In April of 2010, after a strained and unsuccessful negotiation with Comcast, we switched to Fairpoint for high speed internet and said good by to Comcast.

That was 96 months ago.  The service we bid adieu to consisted of a single DVR, one other set top box, no premium channels, and a rapidly shrinking set of channels which could be tuned on digital televisions plus high speed internet (with regular warnings of excessive use of my ‘unlimited’ service).  All for $155 per month.  In 2016, I replicated my current service using Comcast’s new ‘skinny’ offerings for just $192/month.  (Comcast just raised prices again.)

Happy Cinco de Mayo, Cordcutters!

OTA DVRs

When my family fired Comcast, I did not think we needed a DVR.  We had a DVR with Comcast, but the only recordings on the box were unwatched episodes of Who Wants to  be a Millionaire and the Bonnie Hunt Show.  We soon found out that a DVR is much more than a digital video recorder.  Right away we discovered we had no idea what was on TV.  It turns out an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is a very good thing.  Then the phone rang.  A lot of people pause television for phone calls, meals, and potty runs.  People ‘rewind’ television too — to see what was missed while the eyes were resting, to watch again an unexpected wardrobe malfunction, or settle for good whether or not it was a catch.

Fortunately, cord cutters have a lot of DVR options.  In fact, most digital-to-analog converters can be used as a DVR by simply plugging in a USB storage device.  For less than thirty bucks, you can add an EPG and a DVR to just about any television.  While these inexpensive devices are very limited, they are a great way to add functionality to a rarely used television.

DVRs take two forms — set top and whole house.  Set top DVRs sit on top of the television set.  They have an antenna input and some kind of television output.  Sometimes you attach a storage device.  They can have one or many tuners.  Whole house DVRs connect to an antenna and your network and stream programming to some other device.  Sometimes you attach a storage device.  They can have one or many tuners.  Set top boxes tend to perform better — faster channel changes and no buffering.  Whole house DVRs are great if you do not have coax close to your television set or have a lot of televisions you use from time to time.

TiVo is the premium set top DVR.  It’s  been around for twenty years and is the only DVR that might be the only box you need.  It’s also the most expensive set top DVR.  For cord cutters, TiVo offers a $399 Roamio/OTA which includes Lifetime Service (no monthly fees).  The 1080p Roamio has four tuners so you can record four shows simultaneously, watch one and record three, or even share tuners with televisions in other rooms (to a $179.99 TiVo Mini).  It streams Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, HBO Go, and apps like Plex.

TiVo also offers a 4K HDR Bolt that can use either (but not both) broadcast or cable as a source.  Broadcast television is limited to 1080p, but, for those who stream, HDR might be appealing and having both cable and antenna options mean you can cut the cord at will and change your mind back again.  With a $14.99 monthly fee, the Bolt costs $199.99 with 500GB (75 hours) of storage, $299.99 with 1TB (150 hours), or $499.99 with 3TB (450 hours).  You can purchase ‘All In’ Lifetime Service for $549.99 or pay $149.99 annually for service.

The TiVo Mini allows use of a TiVo tuner on a second television in your home.  There are no fees and no moving parts.  The experience is virtually the same as watching a TiVo.

What I like about TiVo..

  • Tivo is the only box you need.  It streams all the important services.  It doesn’t stream the cable alternatives like Vue, DirecTV Now, or Sling TV, but, if you have an antenna, you do not need those.
  • One remote is all you need.  The TiVo remote controls volume and power.  Its inactivity timer turns off signal to the television, so the television shuts off when I fall asleep.
  • Low total cost of ownership.  This is a recent development and may not last long, but the last two years, TiVo has routinely made the Roamio/OTA available for $199.99 and $299.99 with LifetimeService.  Right now, with a bigger disk, it is $399.99.  That is about half what TiVo has been historically, and less that the cost of setting up most alternatives.
  • The Mini does not feel like a remote client.  Except that it does not shut down the attached television after inactivity, it works just like its big brother.

Tablo TV is a ‘whole house’ DVR.  It is a box containing TV tuners, attached to a disk and the internet, which uses a service to present programming information (guide).  Tablo TVs have two to four tuners.  A two tuner Tablo TV costs $139.99 and requires an external USB drive to record/pause/rewind.  A two tuner Tablo TV with 64GB of memory costs $179.99.  A four tuner Tablo TV costs $239.21 and requires an external USB drive.  While the 64GB model is a neat little package, you can get a 1TG USB disk for $50 these days, so the less expensive dual tuner DVR is a better value.  For most people, $239.21 for the four tuner model plus $50 for a USB disk will represent the best value.

You do not need the service to use a Tablo, but most people will find the service adds great value FOR $4.99/mo, $49.99/yr, or $149.99 for Lifetime…

Feature Basic w/Subscription
Manual Recording (date/time/channel/show) X X
Live TV Grid View X X
Schedule View X X
Recordings View X X
Prime Time TV View X
Movies View X
Sports View X
Filters (genre, new, premiering) X
Series Info (plot, first air date, etc.) X
Cover Art X
Record by Series X
Advanced Recording Features X
Tablo Connect (out-of-home streaming) X

You will need a streaming device to view the Tablo TV output…

  • A Smart TV powered by: Roku, or Android TV, or most LG WebOS 2.0 and 3.0 operating systems; OR
  • A Set-Top-Box/Streaming Media Device: Roku, or Amazon Fire TV, or AppleTV, or Nvidia SHIELD, or Xiaomi MiBox; OR
  • A Streaming Stick: Roku Stick, or Amazon Fire TV Stick, or a Chromecast dongle (casting from an Android device or Chrome browser); OR
  • A Gaming System: Nvidia SHIELD, or XBox One; OR
  • An HDMI-enabled computer: Tablo web app in Chrome/Safari

What I like about the Tablo TV DVR…

  • It’s on a lot of devices.
  • It allows for wireless clients.
  • Lifetime Service is for YOU not the BOX.
  • I like the Live TV Grid Guide.

One device I have never warmed up to is the HDHomeRun.  I have a HDHR3-US and a pair of HDHomeRun EXTENDs.  They work fine, but without an annual subscription, you get a very limited guide and no DVR functionality.  You also have to run a PC or a NAS 7×24.  Too much work for me.  (Same reason my Plex server gets so little love.)

I happen to have purchased a couple TCL Roku TVs.  This television integrates streaming and broadcast television very nicely at really attractive prices.  If you plug a USB drive into the set, you can pause and rewind within a 90 minute buffer.  It’s not really an OTA DVR, but trick play and an Electronic Program Guide warrant an honorable mention.

Do you love a DVR I need to know about?  Post a comment below!

Time for a Refresh?

Or time to retire?

A co-worker approached me about installing an antenna a month or so ago.  We talked a bit and ran a TVFool.com report.  I gave him a link to this blog and went on my way.  A couple days later, I ran into him, “Gonna give it a try?”  “Maybe.”  “Was the blog helpful?”  “It’s a little dated.”

It is a little dated.  The problem is that I have lost interest.  When we left Comcast, we had an antenna and some cable.  I experimented with different antennas and different locations, splitters and joiners, amps and pre-amps.  It was very exciting to pull in a new channel or bump signal across the spectrum.  Now, I have the best array of antennas mounted and pointed for the best reception.  We spent a lot of time looking at DVRs.  This was frustrating and expensive.  Now, we have seven excellent set top DVRs and I have no desire to add to the fleet or upgrade.  I’ve tried most of the streamers and streaming services.  All, for the most part, work as advertised.

Over the coming months, I will be refocusing this blog on FreeTV — removing Everything Else and updating what is left.  I’m done investigating new ideas, but I will try anything anyone wants to send me and I’ll continue to post about interesting developments.  New mission:

  1. Provide a path from premium tv to free tv
  2. Document ‘best solutions’ and ‘best practices’
  3. Investigate new ideas and technologies

Suggestions and criticisms welcome!

CES 2018 Is Over…

…and nobody won!

It literally rained on their parade as generally sunny Nevada endured torrential downpours on Day 1.  Then, on Day 2, the lights went out.  A sign?

Part of the problem is that sponsors have forgotten that CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show.  That doesn’t mean jewelry made out of recycled computer parts (Engadget’s runaway People’s Choice winner) or full motion bill boards on moving vehicles or WiFi street lamps.

It’s hard to get excited about even bigger TVs, somewhat connected cars, and robot dogs.  Consumers are not enthusiastic about regulatory bodies or standards committees.  Here is some other stuff did not excite me…

  • The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) was at CES to remind us that ATSC 3.0 is still coming and they are still optimistic about the future.
  • The FCC was on hand to explain their reversal of Net Neutrality (sort of — FCC chair Ajit Pai stayed home due to death threats).
  • Cisco demonstrated cloud DVR analytics to detect if a subscriber is likely to run out of storage and send out an alert offering consumers additional space.
  • 8K displays are on the way!
  • 10K displays are on the way!
  • Comcast reassured an audience that, “people are watching more video than ever before,” Jenckes said. “They are consuming the same content in different ways,” so Comcast must evolve its products to support that.  (Tell that to the NFL!)
  • Comcast is also excited about its home security and automation opportunities.  (The company that uses ‘admin’ and ‘password’ for their router credentials, sets the SSID password to the customer’s phone number, and has guest access to consumer routers should NOT be securing and automating anyone’s home.)
  • YouTube promised more, better ads:  “This year we’ll innovate on that [TrueView] even more,” Kyncl said. “We’re trying to innovate in ways so that advertisers can get their messages across to all of these large audiences…but doing it in a way that is not viewed as friction.”
  • Discover thinks focusing on ‘enthusiasts and superfans’ is the answer: “We think we can take advantage of that ecosystem by following the superfans and the enthusiasts for cars or science, or food or cooking all around the world and sort of super-feed them,” he added.  (I can’t wait to see how this impacts their Tiny Homes coverage!)
  • Roku bought an audio streaming company and is licensing their OS to speaker and soundbar manufacturers.  I guess the idea is that you can use voice to change a channel or something, but I suspect we will finally have speakers that spontaneously reboot.
  • Sales of headsets and eyewear outfitted for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are poised for a record year, according to a new forecast from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).  Sony has sold >2M VR units.

Channel Master demonstrated their Stream+ ($99) and a new SMARTenna ($59).  Stream+ is a media player that integrates streaming services and games with live broadcast TV and includes an on-screen channel guide with DVR capability to pause, rewind and record live TV. The powerful Android TV™ platform includes Google Play™ store, Live Channels™ DVR and built-in Chromecast™.  SMARTenna is a high-performance UHF/VHF television antenna. Ideal for most metro/suburban dwellers, designed for indoor reception up to 35 miles and outdoor reception from up to 50 miles.  Omni-directional design receives signals from 360-degrees and eliminates the need for amplification for the majority of installations.  For $148 you get UHF/VHF reception, an Electronic Program Guide, and apps — still no Amazon or Netflix video.  You have to add an SD card if you want to record broadcast programming.  I guess the Chromecast gets you the apps you wish were included.  Still ought to be of interest to some.  No PSIP sourced guide which is a major drawback for me.

Project Linda is kind of cool — drop your cell phone into a laptop shell and your one device does it all.  Have to be a heck of a phone.  Need to keep an eye on these guys.

If you read about ANYTHING interesting at CES 2018, please let me know by commenting below.

 

 

 

Cut the Cord in 2018

If your New Years Resolution is to spend less, there is no better place to start than with television. There have never been more options at all price points and Google’s databases are repleat with how to guides and testimonials from happy cord cutters.

Best to start with broadcast television. Broadcast television or Over-the-Air (OTA) is ad supported television. Plug the right antenna into the right television and point it in the right direction and chances are you will be watching Big Bang Theory with no subscription at all. To determine which antenna is best for you, which way to point it, and what kind of service you can expect, visit TVFool.com and run a report for your address or the GPS coordinates for the location of your antenna. To see what sub-channels are carried on each channel, look up the wikipedia article for the main channel. To see what programming is available on each channel, visit TitanTV.com.

If you want help analyzing your TVFool data or choosing an antenna, post a comment including a link to your TVFool.com report below. Generally, this is the process I follow…

  1. Run a TVFool.com report
  2. Look up sub-channels on Wikipedia
  3. Use TitanTV to decide which channels to target
  4. Group ‘real’ targeted channels by frequency
  5. Sort groups of channels by direction
  6. Choose antenna(s)
  7. Test
  8. Build
  9. Improve

Here is a real example using my own location…

I used a free IOS app called GPS Utils to snag my coordinates. My attic is about 30′ off the ground, so I used that for AGL. My TvFool report can be opened at http://www.tvfool.com/?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=29&q=id%3d60edc97d153f34.

Let’s start with the big table. I am not trying to dx or get into the Guinness Book of World Records, so I am going to focus on channels down to W28CM. (The gray channels are not likely to come in reliably.)

Looking at the ‘Real’ column, channels 2-6 require a VHF-Low antenna, channels 7-13 require a VHF-High antenna, and channels above 13 require a UHF antenna. If I can eliminate one or more bands from my target channel list, I will be able to specialize my antenna to improve reception and, maybe, save some money.

W39AR (4) and WORK-LP (3) are translators of WBIN which has agreed to go off the air as part of the FCC reverse auction, so I do not need to worry about VHF-Low. WENH is New Hampshire’s PBS affiliate with Explore, World, Create, and PBS Kids sub-channels. WMUR (9) is the Manchester, New Hampshire ABC affiliate with a MeTV sub-channel. WMTW (8) is the Portland, Maine ABC affiliate with a Heroes & Icons sub-channel. So, I am at least interested in VHF-High. I have a lot of UHF stations. WUTF (27) is Unimas and LATV — not interested. WBIN is going off the air — not interested. WBZ (30) is CBS with a Decades sub-channel. WCVB (20) is the Boston ABC affiliate with a MeTV sub-channel. WMFP (18) is SonLife with Charge! and Comet TV sub-channels. It is also home to Boston’s NBC affiliate. WFXT (31) is the Boston Fox affiliate with Escape and LAFF sub-channels. WHDH (42) used to be the local NBC affiliate. Now it is an independent channel with little compelling programming, but its This TV sub-channel is interesting. WLVI (41) is Boston’s CW affiliate with a Buzzr sub-channel. WGBH (19) is Boston’s PBS affiliate. It’s a casualty of the reverse auction and mirrored on WGBX (43) so it’s not interesting. WGBX carries Create and PBS Kids sub-channels, but may get World and Explore when WGBH goes away. WSBK (39) is Boston’s MyNetwork affiliate and carries a Heroes & Icons sub-channel. So, here are my targeted channels…

VHF-Low

  • None

VHF-High

  • WMUR (9) ABC/MeTV
  • WENH (11) PBS/Explore/World/Create/PBS Kids

UHF

  • WBZ (30) CBS/Decades
  • WMFP (18) Charge!/Comet TV/NBC
  • WFXT (31) Escape/LAFF
  • WHDH (42) This TV
  • WLVI (41) CW/Buzzr
  • WGBX (43) PBS/Create/PBS Kids
  • WSBK (39) MyNetwork/H&I

I could focus on UHF as most of my VHF-High programming is otherwise available, but WENH and WMUR carry local programming which I want. I could get a combination VHF/UHF antenna, but all of my UHF stations are due south of me and both the VHF stations are northwest, so I will join a dedicated UHF antenna to a dedicated VHF antenna so I can point each for optimal reception. For my VHF antenna, I chose the Stellar Labs 30-2476 which I believe is the best VHF antenna currently available. I probably would have gone with a DB8 if I did not want WMUR since it will pick up VHF-Very-High channels like 11. I went with the DB8e in case I wanted to articulate the panels for better reception. I joined the pair with an RCA TVPRAMP1Z Preamplifier because it has separate VHF/UHF inputs, gets good reviews, and is very inexpensive.

To test a new installation, I like to run a commercially terminated and tested coax from the antenna to a television. Ebay is a great source of such cables…

https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2055119.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.X100%27+rg+6+cable.TRS0&_nkw=100%27+rg+6+cable&_sacat=0

It’s handy to have a portable TV close to the television for pointing of the antenna. A HDHomeRun tuner and a laptop will get the job done…

https://www.ebay.com/b/Silicondust-ATSC-Video-Capture-TV-Tuner-Cards/3761/bn_77184517?rt=nc&_sop=15

Once you have things working, it’s time to think about getting the signal to each television. If you have multiple sets, you will need a splitter. If your signal is marginal, you may want an amplified splitter…

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Delectronics&field-keywords=electroline+splitter

Don’t get more ports than you have televisions because splitting the signal makes it weaker for all other stations.  Be sure to terminate any unused terminals.

Installing an antenna is worthwhile even if you eventually go another route or stick with cable. Your local television service may not carry all broadcast channels, some may become unavailable during contract negotiations, and you will appreciate local news during an emergency when cable and/or internet are unavalable. Most important, having an antenna empowers you to tell Comcast to cancel your account when negotiating a more favorable situation.