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.

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.

 

 

 

2017: An Important Year for Cord Cutters

2017 was an important year for cord cutters. For starters, there are more of us. According to eMarketer, there will be 22.2 million cord cutters ages 18 and older this year – up 33.2 percent over 2016. In addition, the so-called “cord-nevers” – consumers who have never subscribed to cable or satellite TV – will top 34.4 million in 2017. That’s 56.6 million U.S. non-pay TV viewers.

In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted core elements of the ATSC 3.0 standard as the foundation for voluntary implementation by broadcasters and manufacturers of Next Gen TV. 2017 saw the arrival of ATSC 3.0-capable broadcast products and technologies as well as the announcement of Phoenix as a ‘model market’ for Next Gen broadcast television. Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it intends to “fully deploy ATSC 3.0 on Sinclair’s stations nationwide.” ATSC 3.0 will not be important for a while (if ever), but it is here at last. For those not paying attention, ATSC 3.0 is a new version of the ATSC standards for television broadcasting created by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC).  ATSC 3.0 comprises around 20 standards covering different aspects including HEVC for video channels of up to 2160p 4K resolution at 120 frames per second, wide color gamut, Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H 3D Audio, datacasting capabilities, and more robust mobile television support. The capabilities have also been foreseen as a way to enable targeted advertising and finer public alerting.

The dreaded Reverse Auction came and went and broadcast television is still fine. Much like Y2K, dread far exceeded reality. Some stations are moving, some are going away, but most of the dial was not impacted by the auction. Of course, the heavy lifting begins next year and the impact of lost bandwidth my make ATSC 3.0 implementation more challenging, but, so far, so good.

We lost some friends in 2017. Real Simple Software closed its doors. Their Simple TV DVR was an innovative whole house solution. Tablo TV got this niche right and RSS is gone. Channel Master has stopped production of its DVR+. The DVR+ was important for two reasons. With its PSIP powered electronic program guide, the DVR+ required no subscription or service, so it could be used in places without telephones or internet and will continue to operate as long as the FCC requires PSIP data be broadcast. At least as important, the DVR+ provided legitimate competition to TiVo. This year, TiVo sold the Roamio OTA with Lifetime service for less than $200. Hope you got yours because I do not think we will see prices like that again. Channel Master is going the whole house route with its Stream+ joining Tablo and SiliconDust (HDHomeRun) in an already crowded market. In 2017, my home became a TiVo home as we now have five Roamios and two Minis. BTW, that $200 TiVo and a $75 Plex Pass were my only television spend in 2017, so I really am enjoying Free TV.

Plex added support for live tv in 2017.  With Plex Live TV, you can watch and record broadcast TV. I expect this will be how ATSC 3.0 enters most homes.

OTT (streaming tv) became a real thing in 2017.  Vue, Sling, and DTVNow all offer legitimate alternatives to cable television.  You no longer have to pay Comcast to learn about Tiny Homes!

Net Neutrality is no more. I won’t comment on this except to say that it will likely impact quality of service and prices for streaming services going forward.

Reading over my notes, I guess 2017 wasn’t a very important year for television. Most people still rely on cable tv for entertainment, TiVo is once again the only player in the consumer DVR business, SiliconDust is still the gold standard for whole house streaming, Roku remains the most popular streamer, and you can still receive television via an inexpensive antenna. How about that.

Please comment if you are aware of an important development I missed.