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.

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The Roku Channel

The Roku Channel

Just wanted to let everyone know that Roku has introduced a new channel featuring ad supported movies and programs.  Kind of a soft launch.  You need to add the channel from the channel store.  Movie selection is great.  Quality is very good.  Ads are unobtrusive — though plentiful.  Oh, and it’s free.

If you have a Roku, it is certainly worth a look.

The Roku Channel joins Crackle, SnagFilmsTubi TV, and Vudu as very good FREE options for streamers.  If you can recommend other FREE streaming movie channels, please post in the comments.

Apple TV: My New Favorite Streamer

Last month I signed up for three months of DirecTV Now.  I thought my iBoy would like the included Apple TV.  He has an iPhone and an Apple laptop.  iBoy is blind to the obvious shortcomings of each — no reason he wouldn’t embrace this overpriced streamer.  He did.  No surprise.

Here’s the surprise: I like it too.  The PRIMARY reason for my affection is that it has a sleep timer that powers off the display which powers off my television.  This is a feature which is lacking in the Roku and Fire TV devices I own.  But there’s more…

  • ATV’s remote controls the volume on my TV
  • ATV’s CEC switches TV input
  • Single Sign-on minimizes relentless re-entering of credentials

These features have been on my streamer wish list for a LONG TIME.  The Apple TV works like a TV accessory should — pick up the remote, touch a control to switch HDMI input, adjust volume, and enjoy.  Single Sign-on means you only need to enter credentials for your premium provider once for all the ‘go’ apps.

Apple TV has most of the important apps.  For cord cutters/trimmers: ABC Live/News, CBS/News, Crackle, DirecTV Now, HBO Go/Now, Hulu, NBC, Netflix, Showtime/Anytime, Sling TV, Snag Films, Sony Vue, Starz, Tubi TV, and YouTube plus all of the expected ‘Go’ apps.  There is a Plex client.  There are hundreds of games for the Apple TV.  All are required to work with the included remote, but you can associate a console quality controller for better game play.

AirPlay lets me stream from iPhone apps not supported on Apple TV — Amazon Instant, Simple TV, and Vudu, for instance.  It works as advertised.

Security is pretty complete.  I like that I can require a password to buy apps but download free apps without entering the password.  You can also control what devices can use AirPlay and what apps use location services.  Not really a security issue, but Siri works well entering passwords — even if you have upper case letters and special characters.

I got the Apple TV as part of a DirecTV Now promotion.  DirecTV Now has been a mixed bag for me.  At times, buffering has made DTN unwatchable.  It has gotten better — much better since I began using the Apple TV.  That may be stuff happening behind the scenes, better hardware, better software, or a combination of all of these things, but DirecTV Now is better with an Apple TV.

Finally, there is that funky remote control.  I don’t care for the touchpad.  I’d rather have a D-pad.  I find myself pulling up menus or changing channels fishing around for the remote.  I overshoot letters typing in passwords and sometimes the cursor moves when I am trying to press the pad for OK.  iBoy says it takes getting used too (unusual criticism of anythig Apple), but I suspect I will get used to Siri first.

Regardless, this is an excellent streamer and I highly recommend it.

 

Free TV for Me

 

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I am celebrating the seventh anniversary of the purchase of my Ooma Hub and Scout.  Before Ooma, we relied on our ‘land line’ for phone communications and our ‘land line’ was Comcast VOIP.  The hardware cost me $205 which comes down to $2.44/month — less than fees and taxes on a traditional phone line.  Eliminating phone service did not save me much, since I lost my ‘Triple Play’ discount, but it left me just a little less reliant on Comcast.  The following May, I replaced Comcast’s internet service with less expensive Fairpoint and Comcast’s television service with an antenna.  With Black Friday and the holiday season at hand, I thought this might be a good time to take stock of things.

In the Attic: For most of the last six years, I have had two antenna systems — one inside my attic and one on a mast above the roof line.  This spring, I took down the mast.  My attic installation has proven to be as good as the outdoor antenna, is much easier to maintain, and is out of the weather.  The attic installation consists of a DB8e ($128.02) and a pair of Stellar Labs 30-2476 ($34.99 x 2) antennas coupled via an RCA TVPRAMP1Z Preamplifier ($24.11).  I have extended a Stellar Labs 30-2476 with the front half of a second to improve gain.  I distribute and amplify the output of the system with an EDA-2800 ($75.98) distribution amplifier.  Total cost of the three antennas, pre-amp, and distribution amp comes to $274, as of this morning.

On the TV: I have some kind of set top box on each television — one DTVPal DVR ($170 when I bought it, but no longer available), three Channel Master DVR+s ($250 plus $50 for a 1t USB disk), three TiVo Roamio OTAs ($400), and two TiVo Minis ($146).  I also have a couple Fire TVs (current gen is $89.99), a pair of Fire TV sticks (current gen is $39.99), and two Roku 2 XS streamers (no longer available, but roku sticks go for $39.99).  Total cost of $2586.  I know this is a big number, but we have eight televisions.  It comes to $323.25 per set.  Assuming five years service per device, $5.39/month/set.

What We Watch: We are OTA-first cord cutters which means that most of the time, we are watching programming received via an antenna (live and time shifted).  There’s plenty to watch: 2.1 WGBH Boston (PBS Prime), 2.2 PBS World, 4.1 WBZ Boston (CBS), 4.2 Decades, 5.1 WCVB Boston (ABC), 5.2 MeTV, 7.1 WHDH Boston (NBC), 7.2 This TV, 9.1 WMUR Manchester, NH (ABC), 9.2 MeTV, 11.1 WENH Durham (PBS Prime), 11.2 PBS Explore, 11.3 PBS World, 11.4 PBS Create, 25.1 WFXT Boston (Fox), 25.2 Escape, 25.3 LAFF, 38.1 WSBK Boston (MyTV), 38.2 Heroes and Icons, 44.1 WGBX Boston (PBS), 44.3 PBS Create, 44.4 PBS Kids, 50.1 WBIN Derry, NH, 50.2 Antenna TV, 50.3 Grit, 56.1 WLVI Boston (CW), 56.2 BUZZER, 62.3 The Works, 62.4 Comet, 66.2 BounceTV, 66.3 GetTV, 66.4 Escape, 68.1 ION, 68.2 Qubo, and 68.3 ION Life.  We no longer pay for a streaming service.  VuDu has a great ad supported service and Crackle is very good.  I find myself buying discs again — they are so inexpensive and the quality is unsurpassed.  A lot of movies include a digital code, so my Vudu-Amazon-Disney library is growing.  I watched the election returns on Newsmax TV.  I like the ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, and RT News free streaming apps.  That’s about it.

I look forward to 2017 with a $50/month communications and entertainment budget.  It’s not exactly free tv, but it’s free enough for me.

 

 

 

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/