Let’s Talk About It

Just wanted to let everyone know I have created forums for FreeTVForMe.  I you want to talk about cord cutting, hardware, reception, or just about anything else, please visit the forums…

http://freetvforme.freeforums.net/

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Review: Sony Vue

When WBZ went off the air this weekend, I figured I would trial Vue which includes WBZ in Boston.  I sampled the Ultra Slim package which is $64.99 a month and includes HBO and SHOWTIME live and on demand, thousands of hours of movies from EPIX Hits, FXM, MGM and more, plus local sports and popular live TV channels — more than 100 channels (their description).

I’m using Vue on a first gen Fire TV stick which has the same interface as the PS4/3 and a Roku 2 XS which has a simplified tile interface.

I trialed Vue to watch an NFL game because my local broadcaster was having problems.  I was disappointed to discover that Vue uses an  over-the-air source.  FiOS and Comcast were unaffected by the broadcast problem and are immune to weather issues, for the most part.  On a couple occasions, I have had channels break up continuously — kind of a large block mosaic with chunks of the screen not updating properly — but, for the most part, stream quality has been excellent absent any kind of buffering or noticeable degradation.  The Roku spontaneously rebooted on one occasion.

If you have not had cable for a while, it is surprisingly bad.  At 6:00 am, AMC, Discovery, DIY, E!, Food Network, Esquire Network, truTV, HGTV, Comedy Central, National Geographic, FX, FXX, WEtv, POP, Travel Channel, TVLand, Spike, and NBC Sports Network are all running infomercials.  NESN is off the air.  20% of the ‘dial’ has no programming!  My local channels are limited to WBZ (CBS) — so no Fox Football or Sunday Night Football or Thursday Night Football.  No local ABC, Fox, NBC, or PBS.  No Bounce, Buzzer, Comet, Decades, Escape, GetTV, GRIT, Heroes & Icons, ION, Laff, MeTV, The Works, or ThisTV.

That’s the bad.  There is plenty of good.  At the Access level ($29.99/month), you get national sports, cable news plus, AMC, and nearly 50 other cable channels.  For another $5/month, you get regional sports channels.  For $65/month, you get the full cable experience including HBO and Showtime.

On both the Roku and Fire TV, the user interface is slow.  There are a lot of programs to browse, but you can set up favorites.  After a couple days, I found the ‘recent’ channels row pretty useful.  I also found myself using the search function a lot.

Typical Vue Screen on a Roku

Typical Vue Screen on a Roku

The Roku experience is a very pretty and modern looking tiled interface.  I hate it.  The tiles contain too little information.  Often, you get season, episode, and the first couple words of a title — not helpful if you are browsing Friends (The one…).  There is no indication of start or stop time.  You have to drill down using the suddenly very slow interface to see if a movie is just starting or ending.

Sony Vue on a Fire TV Device

Sony Vue on a Fire TV Device

On the Fire TV, things are much better.  For starters, the tiles are bigger and contain more information.  There is also a grid style guide (though the guide only seems to have a vague idea of what time it is).  There is an Explorer mode which filters listings — Movies, PG, etc.

Fire TV Stick App Includes Grid Style EPG

Fire TV Stick App Includes Grid Style EPG

What’s the verdict?  I think PS Vue is a pretty slick supplement to over-the-air programming.  The Access level of service will satisfy cable news junkies.  Sports enthusiasts will find Core gets the job done.  Assuming $50/month for high speed internet, $90 to $115 per month for five concurrent streams is a lot less than many spend on cable.  I recommend the Fire TV stick, but Vue works just fine on your Rokus — even the older models.

Fire TV Unwrapped

Merry Christmas! You got a Fire TV? Here’s a little guide to help you get the most out of your new streamer…

TV Everywhere: Most premium providers offer enhanced access to subscribed content via individual apps. Watch ABC, A&E, Watch Disney, Watch Disney Jr., Watch Disney X D, Encore, Watch ESPN, Watch Food Network, Fox Sports Go, FX Now, History, HBO GO, NBC, NBC Sports Live Extra, ShowTime Anytime, and Starz Play can all be accessed via your Fire TV if your provider and service level allow. Generally, the process requires installing an app and authenticating with your provider.

Antenna: If you have an antenna, you can access Over-the-Air content with your Fire TV. Tablo TV is a ‘whole house DVR’ which can stream recordings and live television to a Fire TV.

OTT: For everyone else, the Fire TV provides access to a wide variety of free and paid content. The following are representative of the best of each…

  • Premium: Amazon (movies and television @ $99/yr), CBS All Access (live and on-demand @ $5.99/mo), HBO/Now $(14.99/mo), Hulu ($7.99/mo), MLB.TV ($129.99/yr), Netflix ($9.99/mo), Sling TV ($20/mo), Showtime ($10.99/mo)
  • Free: Watch ABC, A&E, Bloomberg TV, CBS News, Crackle, FXNow, History, NBC, NBC News, NBC Sports Live Extra, PBS, PBS Kids, PopcornFlix, Red Bull TV (sports), Smithsonian, TMZ, TubiTV, Vevo, Weather4US,  WeatherNation TV, YouTube

Games: The Fire TV is the best <$100 game console you can buy.  No kidding!  Real controllers, great graphics, and familiar titles make the FTV a terrific console for the casual gamer.  I’m just going to list franchises where appropriate, but search for Kittle Critter, GTA, or Final Fantasy to pull up a list of all available apps.

  • For the kids: I live ‘Living Books’ and an thrilled to see Little Critter, the Berenstain Bears, and the Peanuts come to the Fire TV.  Lots of Sesame Street too.  You will find language tutors, match games, and math drill apps.
  • Retro hits: Fire TV has the Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, and Sonic franchises.  Choplifter, Crazy Taxi, Prince of Persia, Tetris, and Pac-Man are on the Fire TV.
  • Top games: Minecraft, Candy Crush Saga, and Angry Birds are all on the Fire TV.

Here are some links you should bookmark…

Happy streaming!

Who’s Naughty, Who’s Nice (Updated 11/22/2015)

Updated on 11/22/2015 to include $299.99 with Lifetime!  Scroll down to DVRs…

Black Friday is a great time to shop for the cord cutter in your life.  This year, there are a lot of promotions and a handful of new devices.   This post is a guide to what I consider the best buys at this moment.

Let’s start with the ‘no brainers’…

  1. The Roku SE is selling for $25 at Kohls, Best Buy, and Walmart.  This Roku has a slower processor than the current Roku 2/3 models which are slower than the new Roku 4, but it has standard RCA composite out for older televisions.  Great stocking stuffer.  The composite cable is not included, but get one on ebay for $0.99 shipped!  Roku has great apps for Vudu, the Simple DVR, and the TabloTV DVR.
  2. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick is $25 at Best Buy, K-mart, and Staples.  It’s faster than the Roku SE and supports a voice remote.  Two features make it a no brainer.  Captive portal makes it easier to use hotel wifi with the Fire TV Stick.  Kodi support plus FireStarter allows the FTV Stick to easily slip in and out of a slick Media Center mode with virtually unlimited programming.
  3. Fire TV is $75 at Best Buy and Staples.  That’s about half the price of the new Apple and Roku streamers.  With wired or wireless game controllers, the Fire TV is a terrific, inexpensive video game console that also happens to be an awesome streamer.  The new model is more powerful, adds 4k support, Alexa integration, and 801.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, for better Wi-Fi video streaming.

Walmart is going to have the 1st gen Chromecast for $20.  Best Buy, Office Depot, Staples, and Costco will all have the 2nd gen Chromecast at two for $50.

My favorite DVR is steeply discounted on Black Friday and you do not have to leave home to get one.  Channel Master’s DVR+ will be on sale for $199 from 4-8 am Pacific Time on Black Friday.  (That’s 7-11 am for those of us on the east coast.)  That’s a pretty good deal.  Buy a pair for $299.  That’s a GREAT deal!

You will need to buy a disk for these, but 1 t usb disks are going for $50 these days, so you can shelve a $200 DVR with no monthly fees.  While the DVR+ is primarily an OTA DVR (which requires no internet or phone connection), plugging in to the internet enables additional features like an Enhanced Program Guide and Linear OTT or Channel Master TV (CMTV).  The enhanced program guide extends the length of the guide from a few days to a couple weeks while adding additional information.  CMTV streams media from the internet to your television continuously.  In other words, words select a CMTV station and watch television continuously until you change the channel.

I like Bloomberg TV, ABC News, WeatherNation TV, Biz TV, WGN TV, The Hunt Channel, Foody TV, Outdoor Cooking Channel, VevoTV-hits, RT Television, RT Documentaries, and Catholic TV (I’m not Catholic, but I enjoy some of the programming).  WeatherNation TV, on the other hand, is great when the weather is on my mind. I actually seek out that channel regularly.  They have recently added some new channels. I will be paying attention to DRTV (Doctor TV). I’ve stopped for a movie or a show on Backlight TV a few times. Got caught up in that. Stream Shift TV has been running a video called Blokes TV which is a bunch of Aussies riding dirt bikes across Southeast Asia, eating ‘happy pizzas’, and hanging out in strip joints. (It’s more entertaining than it should be.) Rivals is a good channel — when something is on. I have watched a couple college football games on Rivals. TWIT TV is terrific background noise.

The DVR+ is the DVR built for cord cutters and is worthy of your consideration next Friday.

Amazon has updated their listing for a TiVo Roamio OTA indicating it will be in stock on 11/26/2015 and can be pre-ordered now.  The Roamio/OTA is my wife’s favorite DVR.  We don’t love the TiVo ‘paradigm’, but do like that it streams Amazon Instant Video/Prime, Vudu, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, MLB.tv, and Plex.  It’s truly a single box solution for OTA first cord cutters.  At $299.99 with four tuners and a 500g disk, it is actually less expensive than the DVR+.  If you want to have a TiVo in a second or third room, you can buy a TiVo Mini for ~$130 or less.  The mini shares tuners and disk with a four/six tuner TiVo.

My caution is that TiVo makes their money on monthly and annual fees.  These Lifetime offers are fleeting and often prohibitively expensive.  If you get a single DVR and a couple Minis, you may feel compelled to replace a broken fee-free TiVo with one which has a monthly or annual fee.  I recommend you buy at least two for this reason.

If you cannot decide between a TiVo and a DVR+, post a comment below and we can figure things out together.  (I have three Roamios and three DVR+s.)

Kodi for FTV (UPDATED: 11/11/2015)

On a tip from aftvnews.com, I decided to install FireStarter and Kodi on a Fire TV Stick.  As I type this out, I am repeating the process on a second stick because my WIFE has taken custody of the first one.  Yes, WAF for this enhancement is very high.  Here’s why…

After installing in this manner, the FTV Stick still comes up as it always did.  Jumping into Kodi is as easy as pressing the home button.  Double pressing the home button returns to FTV mode.  Adding sources is fairly simply as well and navigating the sources is intuitive.  Once inside a source, you often have the option to Play From Here which plays every file at the source beginning with the selected file.  So, navigate to Food Network, scroll down to Barefoot Contessa, and Play From Here for hours of fun. Continue reading

Tale of Two Updates

This month — the first anniversary of the Fire TV launch — Amazon and Roku ‘refreshed’ their product lines.  Exactly how this was done says a lot about the two companies. Roku added voice search to their Roku 3.  This change required a new remote and a software update.  Instead of sending out a software update and offering a new remote, Roku is forcing customers to purchase a ‘new’ Roku 3 to get the new remote.  Worse, the new remote did not add a button for search, so Roku reassigned the instant replay button.  In summary, for $100, you get voice search but lose instant replay.  The old Roku 3 is now being sold with an IR remote and is called the Roku 2.  This stripped down Roku 3 does not include the remote listening feature. For some reason, early previews and reviews of the Roku update reported that the new Roku 3 was faster than the old one.  The Roku wiki page says it uses the same processor as its predecessor.  There are already reports of sporadic reboots (Hulu, Vevo) since the update. At the same time, Amazon refreshed their streamers.  This FREE update was software only and included all models.  Some of the improvements…

  • USB storage (FTV only): expand storage for downloaded apps and games
  • Captive Portal Support: enables connections to Wi-Fi that requires web authentication—this includes Wi-Fi at most major hotels, as well as some universities.
  • X-Ray: identify actors and songs in the current scene, explore actor bios, and more.
  • Private listening (FTV only): support for wireless Bluetooth headphones.
  • Browse and search Prime Playlists: Prime members can now take advantage of Prime Music playlists directly from Amazon Fire TV—there are hundreds of expertly curated Prime Playlists to choose from based on your mood, activity, artist, or decade of choice.
  • Hidden PIN entry: With the new PIN entry screen that hides the numbers selected, you can now make sure your kids can’t see your device PIN as you enter it on-screen to confirm a purchase.
  • New shortcuts: Quickly put your Amazon Fire TV to sleep or enable display mirroring by pressing and holding the Home button on your remote.

BTW, the Fire Stick has always supported voice search with the Fire TV remote and this remote is available as a $29.99 replacement/upgrade on Amazon.com. After one year, the Fire TV has 1,463 apps (including 717 games) and not one single crash (in my home, anyway).

Sling TV Deal on Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1002998021&tag=aftvndeal-20

Get a free Fire TV Stick or $50 off Amazon Fire TV when you sign up for Sling TV

Sling TV delivers live TV—without the cable company—directly to your Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick. Get the best of live TV—sports, current shows, movies, and breaking news—instantly. No hidden fees, just a clear-cut monthly rate. And for a limited time, sign up for Sling TV for three months and get $50 off your purchase of Amazon Fire TV or get a Fire TV Stick FREE.

Get the best of live TV for $20 a month with ESPN, ESPN2, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, TNT, CNN, TBS, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Best of Maker, plus more channels to add on.

Sign up HERE.

Back to Basics in 2015

If you ask me to help you cut the cord in 2015, I will simply advise that you put an antenna in the attic and a Channel Master DVR+ on each television.  That’s really all you need.  No need to get on the roof.  No need to worry about grounding your system.  You don’t need internet access at all.  The cost is $0.00 per month.  That’s a measurable, meaningful savings.  Add up the cost of installation and divide by your current cable or satellite monthly bill to determine your break even point.

You will likely be surprised at the number or channels and the quality of programming available via an antenna.  In the five years I have been doing this, my dial has swollen with new channels — very good channels.  Right now, my lineup looks like this…

ABC (WCVB, WMTW, WMUR, MeTV), BOUNCE, CBS (WBZ), COZI (WMFP), CW (WLVI, ZUUS), Escape, Fox (WFXT, Fox Movies!), getTV, Independent stations (WBIN, AntennaTV, Grit, WSBK), ION (ION, IONLife, Qubo, QVC), MyNetwork (WSBK), NBC (WHDH, This TV), and PBS (WENH, WGBH, WGBX, Create, Explore, Kids, World).

I have a total of 47 channels in Boston.  BOUNCE,  COZI, Escape, Fox Movies!, getTV, AntennaTV, and Grit have been added since we quit Comcast.  CBS Decades is supposed to launch this month.  Broadcast television gets better every day.

You can run directly from antenna to your digital televisions if price is your top concern, but I think a DVR with a grid guide makes a big difference.  My choice for a set top box is the Channel Master DVR+.  For $250, it allows you to pause, rewind, fast forward programming, has a pair of high quality tuners, includes a cable quality, grid style program guide, and can store 140 hours of HD on an inexpensive 1t disk.  If you do have internet access, the DVR+ adds a two week program guide, streaming programs via Vudu, streaming music via Pandora, and lots of fun with a YouTube app.  Bloomberg, Al-Jazzera America, WGN, WeatherNation, Daystar, Almavision, NASA, BBC World News, Sky News, France 24 (France), NHK World (Japan), CNN World, QVC, Home Shopping Network, TV Mas (Mexico), Vevo TV, 360 North (Alaska), Outdoor Cooking Channel, DW (Germany), and JewelryTV  will stream to this box later this year.

Let’s chat about the things that I’m no longer recommending.  Probably have to start with the whole house DVRs.  I have a bunch of Simple DVRs.  They are pretty amazing.  I really like that I can watch my antenna and recordings on a tablet by the poor or at an airport.  I like that I can schedule recordings across time slots and channels — if I want to.  Tablo demo’d a really impressive Roku channel at CES.  Still, I cannot recommend either Simple or Tablo for watching television.  When things work as intended, the tuners are hobbled by the internal splitters and too slow to change channels.  When you pause, rewind or fast forward, neither has visual cues.  When things go wrong — and they do go wrong — it is difficult for a less technical person to troubleshoot.  If you really remote access to your antenna, keep your eye on woot.  Woot recently sold the dual tuner Simple DVR with lifetime for $105.  It $350 for a pair of tuners plus lifetime, I can’t recommend a Tablo at all.

I’m not recommending streamers at all.  Most of the country lacks sufficient bandwidth to reliably pull HD video.  I know this stuff works great at CES and CNET, but a lot of people are having problems.  I can’t see this getting better as 4k, Sling TV, and Linear OTT come online.  Things only get worse inside your home.  Roku and Amazon offer inexpensive wireless sticks.  These seem to have problems due to television interference.  Chromecast and the FTV Stick come with hdmi extenders.  Roku will send you one.  Biggest concern is ‘other’ devices on your wireless network  Every Roku update is like playing the lottery — lots of losers.  I recommended the Roku 2 XS to a lot of people who no longer use them.

Streaming is no bargain, anyway.  By the time you pay for uncapped, unthrottled, high speed internet, Hulu, Espn, and Netflix, Comcast is competitive.  If you want to stream, I recommend a wired device.  Get the most stable device that supports the apps you want to stream.  Just don’t expect support from the streamer, the hardware manufacturer, or your ISP.

Plex Update for Fire TV

I noticed that the version of Plex listed on the Amazon App Store was newer than the version on my Fire TV, so I deleted the app from my FTV and re-installed it.  Voila!  Version 3.6.3.269!  What is new in version 3.6.3.269?

  • Hide “Sync Now” option from preplay screens in tablets
  • Fix progress of sync’ed video items not being properly updated during playback
  • Fix crash in widget when back pressed before player connected
  • Fix problems during remote playback if play queue modified on the controller (for instance by deleting an item)
  • Fix “repeat one” option in audio player
  • Fix bug where sync didn’t work if app was started without network connectivity
  • [TV] Fix for some texts getting cut in movie preplay screen

I didn’t notice any of these problems.  What I did notice is that now I can continuously play episodes and movies.  If I hit the Play button on my remote when the focus on in the right tile, the contents represented by the tile are added to a Playlist which plays continuously.  Once the Playlist is created, I can navigate the list by pausing play, navigating to the rightmost icon (three rows of a dot and a dash), moving up and down the list and selecting an episode of movie.  Here’s how…

Movies: On the front page, move focus to Movies in the MY LIBRARY section.  The first movie in your library will begin to play.  Click Pause, navigate to the rightmost icon (three rows of a dot and a dash), move up and down the list and select a movie.

TV Shows: Navigate to a season of a show you want to watch.  Navigate to the triangular Play icon in the upper left corner of the screen and  press the enter button (middle of the circle) on your remote.  Click Pause, navigate to the rightmost icon (three rows of a dot and a dash), move up and down the list and select an episode.