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.

Vudu: Movies On Us

Some good news for people missing Hulu’s ad supported offering.  Login with your Vudu (or Walmart.com) email address, and you can start enjoying ad supported movies on Vudu.  If you do not have an account, you can sign up with an email address — apparently any email address as there is no verification.  Also, there is no need to provide a payment method.

According to the press release, there are THOUSANDS of ad supported movies.  I count about 2600 (easily distracted and lacking basic math skills; Vudu counts a season of a television series as one entry in the catalog.).  The catalog includes a lot of familiar titles.

I’ve watched two movies — one on a Roku 2 XS and one on a Channel Master DVR+.  Both experiences were excellent — no buffering, synch issues, or restarts.  Ads come in bunches of three 13-30s commercials with about 18 minutes between ads.  Sometimes the ads started in the middle of a movie scene, but there were no problems with the same ad running over and over (common with ad supported streams).  Programming is unedited, but Vudu has parental controls.

All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the free TV offerings and worthy of your consideration…

http://www.vudu.com/

Roku Unwrapped

Merry Christmas!  What’s that purple thing over there?  You got a Roku?  Here’s a little guide to help you get the most out of your new streamer…

TV Everywhere: Time Warner subscribers can use their Roku to access most TWC content via a custom Roku app.  Other premium providers offer enhanced access to subscribed content via individual apps.  Watch ABC, Watch ABC Family, A&E, BTN2Go (Big Ten Network), CNN Go, Comedy Network, Watch Disney, Watch Disney Jr., Watch Disney X D, Encore, Epix, Watch ESPN, Watch Food Network, Fox Now, FX Now, History, Lifetime, HBO GO, MTV, National Geographic, NBC, NBC Sports Live Extra, Nick, Nick Jr., ShowTime Anytime, Starz Play, Tennis Channel, and USA Now can all be accessed via your Roku if your provider and service level allow.  Generally, the process requires installing an app and authenticating with your provider.  All these apps are grouped together under TV Everywhere if you install them from the Channel Store on the Roku (as opposed to the store on Roku.com).

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

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

  • Premium: Acorn TV (British TV @ $4.99/mo), Amazon (movies and television @ $99/yr), CBS All Access (live and on-demand @ $5.99/mo), Cinema Now (buy/rent), 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), Tennis Channel ($11.99/mo), Vudu (buy/rent)
  • Free: Watch ABC, Watch ABC Family, A&E, Bloomberg TV, CBS News, CNN, Crackle, CW Seed, Fox Business, Fox News, Fox Now, History, Lifetime, MSNBC, MTV, NBC, NBC News, Nowhere TV (live streams), Pandora, PBS, PBS Kids, PopcornFlix, Red Bull TV (sports), Smithsonian, Spotify, TMZ, TubiTV, Weather4US, Weather Underground, Vevo, WeatherNation TV, YouTube

Private Channels:  Private channels are the Roku’s Final Frontier.  In the interest of discretion, I’ll just point you to a couple of sites that provide detailed information about these private apps…

Merry Christmas.  Don’t forget to put an antenna on your Christmas list.

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 to Add HBO

from Sling Announcements

Starting next week, Sling TV will be the first and only Internet TV service to offer live HBO and ESPN. Sling TV will offer HBO’s linear channel, as well as the mountain of on-demand content that HBO provides on its other platforms.

HBO will be available for $15 when customers sign up for the $20 Best of Live TV core package, and will be available on all devices that Sling TV supports: Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick; current-generation Roku players and Roku TV models; Xbox One; Android and iOS devices; and Macs and PCs.

So, $35/month gets a Sling subscriber: ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, TBS, CNN, A&E, Lifetime, History, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, IFC, H2, El Rey Network, Maker, Galavision, and HBO.

For another $5/month, you can add special interest packages to your subscription…

  • Sports: SEC Network, ESPNews, ESPNU, Universal Sports, Univision Deportes, beIN Sports, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Goal Line
  • Kids: Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV
  • Hollywood: EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Sundance TV
  • World News: Bloomberg TV, HLN, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, News 18, Russia Today
  • Lifestyle: truTV, Cooking Channel, DIY, WE tv, FYI, LMN

Sling only supports one stream per subscription.

What Roku Fanboys Stream

Perusing the Roku Fanboy Forum this morning, I stumbled across a discussion of top ten channels.  The top channels were obvious, but some of the others warrant investigation.  Either way, I thought this would be a useful list to share. Continue reading

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.

How to Build a Roku Channel $0.00

Just spotted a Kindle book called How to Build a Roku Channel by Gary VenRooy.  It’s 125 pages and was published in November.  I haven’t had a chance to test his methodology, but I have gone through the book and it is thorough and detailed.  I plan to use the book to create a channel then review the book here.  I’m posting this for those who cannot wait or simply want to download the book while it is free.