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

 

netlogos2016

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/

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.)

Stream Shift TV

This morning I discovered a new Channel Master DVR+ Linear OTT channel called Stream Shift TV.  Since I tuned in, SST has been streaming BlokesWorld TV.  BWTV seems to be about a bunch of guys from Australia who are on a dirt bike adventure in southeast Asia.  The visit tourist attractions, bike through the countryside, shoot automatic weapons, eat ‘happy pizza’, and relax in strip joints.  All the while, sports headlines scroll across the bottom of the screen.  BWTV beats the heck out of CNN as background noise.  Give it a look but be warned BWTV is not suitable for work or the family room!

Channel Master Teases Sling/Linear

slingondvrplus

 

Two weeks ago, Channel Master teased that last week was going to be a ‘good week’.  Friday afternoon, CM added a couple videos to their Facebook page.  The first showed Sling TV running on a DVR+.  This is a big deal.  While OTA-first cord cutters may not be particularly excited about a pay service on their no fee dvr, many do pay for Netflix, Prime, and Hulu.  Of course, Channel Master is targeting people who are on the fence — those reluctant to cut their cord because they cannot miss a an episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, or because they wake and fall asleep to ESPN.  For $35/month, Sling delivers 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

The second was another demo of Linear OTT.  The quality of the video was poor, and the accompanying text did not clear things up, but it looks like the DVR+ is going to get some watchable content…

  • Bloomberg TV
  • ABCNews. com
  • CBS News
  • WeatherNation
  • BIZ TV
  • Pursuit
  • Hunt Channel
  • FOODY TV
  • Outdoor Cooking Channel

At CES, CM demo’d Linear TV featuring Bloomberg, Al Jazeera America, CNN World, WGN, NASA, BBC World News, Vevo TV, and QVC.

Let’s hope Channel Master delivers something soon.

$189 Open Box Special on CM DVR+

On their facebook page, via twitter, and in a targeted email, Channel Master has announced that it will sell off a limited stock of open box DVR+s at $189 beginning Monday March 30 at 8:00 am PST (11:00 am EST)…

 Folks, we never do this, but you’ve been asking for discounts and we’ve got a great one for you! Starting Monday morning, click the ad on our home page to get an Open Box DVR+ for just $189!
ONE DAY ONLY, WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!
Some of these have been gently used for media reviews and demonstration events, some have never been used at all. Tested and certified, full warranty, free shipping. These won’t last!

I bought three of these on BF to replace (awesome) aging DTVPal DVRs. This is the best OTA DVR not named TiVo. I chose this over the TiVo because…

1) one year warranty vs 90 days for TiVo (can’t spend $500 on a device with 90 day warranty)
2) completely untethered (TiVo requires internet or phone connection)
3) price

This is a great set top box for cord cutters. First, it has a very nice channel guide. The thing most people miss when they lose their cable box is the guide. The DVR is very good. Two very good tuners capture shows by name and by time. (I like to record blocks of sitcoms that play when I am at work to watch when I get up in the morning.) Playback controls are excellent — you can rewind, pause, fast forward all with preview (i.e., you can see where you are in the show as you rewind and fast forward.) These last two features are not available on simple/tablo alternatives. External storage makes it easy to swap out disks. This is very important because there is a free DVR Lister program which will let you download files from the usb disk to a PC where they can be converted to mp4 and played back on a media server. While the DVR+ uses an enhanced guide while connected to the internet, it used OTA data to build a guide when not connected. This is huge because it means your DVR+ will continue to function if Rovi pulls the plug (as it did with the DTVPal OTA guide) or Channel Master stops supporting the DVR+ for any reason. OR is you have to be off the grid for any reason — you can use this DVR when dry camping or when your power and internet are lost.

The DVR+ has some streaming capability. It can stream Vudu (movies), Pandora (music), and YouTube. Beginning next month, Channel Master will be streaming other programming to the DVR+. This programming will be more like traditional television than ondemand alternatives. Still very little information available.

I highly recommend this DVR. This is the second best ever price for the DVR+ and, though these are open box, they carry a full warranty.

Happy streaming!

A&E Coming to Sling this Month!

from Sling press release

Sling TV today announced that four A+E Networks’ channels – A&E, HISTORY, H2 and Lifetime – will be available in its “Best of Live TV” core package by the end of March. The company’s core package will remain priced at $20 per month.

Sling TV’s “Best of Live TV” $20 core package delivers ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, IFC, El Rey, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel, CNN and Galavision, with A&E, HISTORY, H2 and Lifetime coming soon. This package additionally features access to WatchESPN, including ESPN3 and an array of VOD entertainment.

Sling previously announced an agreement with AMC that will bring AMC, BBC AMERICA, BBC World News, IFC, SundanceTV, and WE tv to their $20 core package.

Add a second stream, and I’m in!

Apple to Launch TV Service

from the Wall Street Journal

The idea is to offer consumers a “skinny” bundle with well-known channels like CBS, ESPN and FX, while leaving out the many smaller networks in the standard cable TV package.

Pricing for this 25ish channel service is rumored to be $30-$40 per month.  Lauch is scheduled for fall.  Apple is the exclusive launch partner for HBO’s standalone streaming service as well.