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.

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