Monthly Archives: November 2011
BLACK FRIDAY: What to Get for the Person Who Has Everything
This holiday season, a streaming video player could be just the gift for the person on your list who has everything. After all, “everything” probably includes at least one TV and a streaming subscription or two, right?
But there are so many devices on the market right now that selecting one for a gift can be overwhelming. Even if you’ve had the opportunity to try a few out, your favorite device may not be the best one for the person you’re shopping for – it really depends on what they like to watch.
Well have no fear this Black Friday, because you’ve come to the right place! We’ve sampled lots of streaming players over the past year, and logged many hours observing their individual strengths and weaknesses.
This list is far from exhaustive — there are other players we’d include if we could, and also tablets and game consoles — but we know you have other things to do and read today. So without further delay, here are our favorite streaming boxes this holiday season:
Great for kids of all ages.
Roku is one of the easiest boxes to set up and use (Disclosure: My parents got a Roku for Christmas last year). Roku also counts the best streaming content selection of the boxes listed here – it offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video, as well as a huge variety of free channels.
Roku’s streaming player comes in four different flavors, all of which include the same access to streaming content, but with slightly different specs:
* The LT ($50) is a little purple box with component out, perfect for connecting to an older TV.
* The HD and XD ($60 and $80, respectively) stream HD video – up to 720p for the HD, and 1080p for the XD model.
* The Roku XS ($100) is perfect for your favorite Angry Birds addict, with a motion-sensitive remote and a free copy of the game included.
Not the best choice for:
Someone who is primarily interested in watching digital content they already own. The Roku XS includes a USB port for playing media files, but the file support is sorely lacking. Roku devices don’t have DLNA [Digital Living Network Alliance] or uPnP [Universal Plug and Play] capability, so they are also unable to access files stored on your home network.
Boxee Box ($180)
Buy one for your favorite illegal downloader, cord-cutter or Slingbox owner.
If someone on your list owns a lot of home video or downloaded content, the Boxee Box really shines, in terms of file support. Boxee expertly handles video files on a network (it plays every file type we throw at it), and even pulls in cover art and metadata where it’s missing from your files. A built-in SD [Secure Digital] card reader makes it an ideal choice for viewing photos and home videos, too.
Boxee also does a great job of combing the web for free content, and puts it all into one place for easy browsing . Plus, it isn’t blocked from as many content provider sites as are GoogleTV devices. Boxee plans to support live TV next year – meaning that cord-cutters will be able to connect an antenna to their Boxee with a USB dongle, and Slingbox-owners will be able to access their content through its forthcoming SlingPlayer app.
Don’t buy it if:
You don’t favor frequent tech-support calls. The Boxee Box isn’t the easiest device to set up or troubleshoot, but it’s great for people who like to tinker. I love my Boxee, but I’d think twice before getting one for my parents.
Boxee’s handling of subscription video content is lackluster at best – Amazon video can’t be played, even through the Boxee browser, and it doesn’t include support for Hulu Plus either (though the Boxee website says it’s coming soon).
Recommended for the Macophiles on your list.
While the Apple TV is severely lacking when it comes to streaming video content, the user experience is everything you’d expect from an Apple product – attractive and well thought out. The iTunes integration is excellent, and the Netflix experience is the best I’ve seen on any connected device.
Not a good gift for:
The friend who recently told you about cancelling his Netflix subscription, and who refuses to buy content through iTunes. Netflix is the sole unlimited streaming service on the Apple TV — the only other option is to purchase video through iTunes, and that quickly adds up, by way of $1.99, $2.99 and $3.99 per title charges or $25+ per-season fees to purchase, say, the first full season of Modern Family. Plus, what you can purchase on iTunes is very likely not current. Note we said the first full season of Modern Family. For people who have already given up on Netflix, the Apple TV might just become an expensive paperweight.
Google TV devices ($99 and up)
Recommended for the Android enthusiasts on your list.
Google TV’s navigation is widely criticized as confusing, but for me it suddenly became easier to use after I switched to an Android phone. Google TV also added access to the Android Market and other app stores with a recent update, and the currently limited selection of TV-compatible apps is likely to grow.
And for someone who owns a lot of physical media, the Sony Blu-ray Player with Google TV ($199) is an excellent choice – it packs more processing power than some of the more expensive connected Blu-ray players on the market.
Don’t bother buying it for:
People who watch a lot of video through Hulu or Amazon Prime — all Hulu content is completely blocked on the Google TV, while Amazon Instant Video is accessed through a web browser and is difficult to navigate. Virtually all service providers have blocked Google TV’s browser from playing video from their websites, too.
And one more thing: Only Boxee and GoogleTV come with HDMI [High Definition Multimedia Interface] cables, so you’ll probably want to throw in one of those too. After all, nothing ruins a great gift like finding out you have to buy an overpriced cable before you can use it. It’d feel like you felt back when you discovered the Rockem Sockem Robots under the tree, then realized you needed batteries.
And while I’m on the subject, don’t bother with those gold-plated HDMI connectors — if you spend more than $6 on an HDMI cable, you’re paying too much.
Top Tech Trends of SCTE 2011: Broadband Bonanza
by Leslie Ellis // November 21 2011
ATLANTA–No shortage of data and deep-dive at the recent SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, held here the week before Thanksgiving. In no particular order, the highlights from my notes:
Objects that need or want an Internet connection will number 15 billion, worldwide, by 2015; Comcast alone anticipates that more than 250 million IP-connected things will hang off its cable modems within the same timeframe. That means PCs, laptops, and tablets, yes, but things like refrigerators, and the machine-to-machine scene.
Speaking of refrigerators: Samsung’s Eric Anderson said during an Expo general session that people are using the Internet part of its connected fridges for 1.6 hours per day, on average. No really: Apps like weather and Pandora top the list.
As for machine-to-machine, and talk about things getting chatty: Your smart phone receives something like 1,200 maintenance pings per day from your carrier, for “keep alive” activities, as well as to track state – online or not; keeping streaming activites smooth, as you move from one cell tower footprint to another.
Put it all together: Broadband capacity is going to need a lot of attention for the next bit of … forever. That’s why “CCAP” – tech-speak for “Cable Converged Access Platform” – was also high on the to-do list at Expo, as a way to collapse costs out of broadband gear at a rate hopefully faster than the unprecedented growth broadband usage.
As for all that growth: In hallway discussions, engineers are already mulling whether there needs to be some kind of Energy Star-ish program, for apps and bandwidth usage. The thinking is that just as you don’t leave the water running after you’ve brushed your teeth, nor would you knowingly use an app that chews up bandwidth.
Why send a 5 Mbps video image upstream from your home monitoring camera, if a 500 kbps version was available, and the end result was the same?
All in: It’s a broadband bonanza out there. The good news is, your tech brothers and sisters are all over it.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Surprise! (Not All Updates Are Equal)
With all the streaming devices I’ve tested over the past couple of years, one thing I’ve noticed (or ideally, not noticed) is the way their software gets updated. These devices have a myriad of different services and applications, so minor updates happen all the time. Depending on the device and the number of bugs that week, you might see multiple updates in a single day or none for several weeks.
The majority of the devices in our lab check for updates while they’re active — or in other words, at the end of a long day when you just want to catch up on your favorite show. And while most give you the option to download the update later, this typically means your TV watching experience is going to be interrupted by frequent reminders that there’s an update available. So, the fun grinds to a halt for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes while you watch your device update and restart itself.
Both at the lab and at my house, this is a constant problem because most of our devices aren’t being used on a daily basis. I’ve started checking for updates whenever I wake up a device, because I’d rather get it over with than be surprised while I’m trying to do something. As you might imagine, I’ve really grown to appreciate the few devices that handle their updates well.
Roku is number one on my list, because it checks for updates on a daily basis as long as it’s plugged in. The downside is that there’s no way to turn it off without unplugging it, but it doesn’t draw much power — in fact, the Comcast HD DVR box in our lab uses about 10x the power of an active Roku when it’s turned off. Because Roku checks for updates while it’s idle, I think I’ve only actually witnessed a software update once (and that was only because Hulu Plus was rolling out that day, so I was forcing it to check for updates). And with impatient people like me in mind, Roku shows not only the time of the last software update, but also the last time it checked for an update. No more wondering if a surprise update is going to hijack movie night!
The Boxee Box also handles its updates well, especially considering it has an off switch — so unlike Roku, the Boxee Box usually downloads and installs updates while you’re using it. That’s right, you can actually continue using the box it while it updates. It does display a warning that it might be slow to perform some functions while it updates, but I honestly haven’t seen much of a difference. And it’s important to note that Boxee’s updates typically don’t require a restart of the box, so your viewing won’t be interrupted when the update finishes installing.
As for the others, they all seem to handle updates about the same — that is, not very well. They update while you’re trying to use them, and don’t allow you to do anything other than watch the progress bar as the update happens. The one unfortunate standout in an our group is the Sony Streaming Media Player (SMP-N200), for the sole reason that it shuts down completely instead of restarting itself once the update is complete. What gives, Sony? By the time an update finishes installing, I’ve usually started doing something else and it’s hard enough to remember what I was about to watch. If I have to remember to turn the device back on after a 20 minute update, I’ll forget that I was even trying to watch TV in the first place.
Your SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2011 Jargon Descrambler!
by Leslie Ellis // November 14 2011
The cable industry’s technical ranks descend upon Atlanta today, and by the looks of the sessions, workshops, and meeting requests, this year’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo is going to be another jargon doozy.
Starting with other current events: If you happened to catch last Wednesday’s test of the national emergency alert system (hint: pretty glitchy), and wondered how that whole thing gets fixed to work correctly, details will abound in a Thursday session entitled “EAS Using CAP: IPAWS From End-to-End.”
Translation: EAS, obviously, is the Emergency Alert System. “CAP” stands for “Common Alerting Protocol,” and “IPAWS” has nothing to do with the what’s at the end of the appendages of your cat, dog or ferret. (Although the inventors could get credit for almost anthropomorphizing a term.)
“IPAWS” stands for “Integrated Public Alert and Warning System,” and is the new way of handling national emergency alerts. Equipment manufacturers are under mandate from the FCC to get their stuff in shape by the end of June, 2012.
As for vendor fare: The top term that cropped up with the most frequency, in a happy barrage of jargon-studded meeting requests from vendors, is CDN – Content Distribution Networks. (Some people say “content delivery networks.” Same thing.) Here’s an example: “The product suite includes a unified origin server and unified edge server… and transmuxing capabilities to reduce the complexities of delivering multi-screen video.”
CDNs are all about finding efficient ways to deliver live and linear video using HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) streaming – think Apple HLS, Adobe HDS, and Microsoft Smooth Stream. They work by plucking requested content from the server that’s geographically closest to the viewer. And they’re big, big, big, in terms of cable engineering to-do lists.
Also on the docket: “FTTT,” for “Fiber to the Tower,” a critical component for those MSOs dabbling in the lucrative and growing work of hauling cellular traffic for carriers; “DASH,” an MPEG suffix that stands for “Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP;” and “layer one multicast over DWDM,” where “DWDM” stands for “Dense Wave Division Multiplexing.”
And that’s just a tiny sampling of what’s floating in the tech soup this week in Atlanta. Aaah, can’t you just taste it? (Don’t answer that.)
The great thing about SCTE Expo is that everything is a deep dive, so if you’re going, be ready to take really good notes. And if you’re not going, fear not – Todd and I are, and we’ll be translating the scene back to you in the days and weeks to come.
This column originally appeared in the “Platforms” section of Multichannel News.
Who Did Coin the Term Cloud Computing?
by Leslie Ellis // November 07 2011
In the Oct. 31 edition of MIT Technology Review, writer Antonio Regalado delves into the origin of this ample ingredient in tech jargon: “Cloud computing.”
His research puts the date at November 1996 – almost exactly 15 years ago. That’s when a renegade group of technologists inside Compaq Computer (later bought by H-P) coined the phrase, as a strategy to sell more servers to Internet Service Providers (ISPs.)
Not Google, in 2006. Or Amazon, with its Elastic Compute Cloud (abbreviated “EC2.”) Or Dell, who tried to trademark the term in 2008, only to get lambasted by the ever-vocal computer programming community.
Given the reach of the publication, and the incendiary nature of such a topic, I’m betting a dime that Regalado gets lots and lots comments (and mail flames) on his linguistic timestamp.
Think of this in plain old cable terms. Ever ask an old-timer who built the first cable system, and where? It always comes out at least two ways: Oregon and Pennsylvania, in a dead heat.
Besides, it just seems to me that “cloud computing” must twist back farther than 15 years.
Here’s how the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently defined the term: “A model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g. networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”
“Or service provider interaction”? Not to quibble with the nation’s standards setting body, but for the readers of this publication, and as this column has pointed out before: Cable is a cloud. Ever more so these days, as operators and program networks race to place clickable icons on all of our screens that can play video, but aren’t necessarily connected via a set-top box.
Think about it: Headends are morphing into “data centers,” and every operator in the land is readying its “as a service” suffixes – in the cloud world, these go by “infrastructure as a service (IaaS),” “software as a service (SaaS),” and so on.
Which brings into question whether “cloud computing” is synonymous with “network-based computing.” I’d say yes.
Out of curiosity, and because cable’s engineering community is generally game for such controversy, I posted the link to the piece on Facebook, seeking harrumphs.
This is when I realized (again) that I’ve collected a friend base of smart alecs: “Tim Tebow” and “Timothy Leary” showed up, as well as this comment from pal Bill Sheppard: “I cannot tell a lie — it was me.”
Regardless of where you stand on the matter, you can’t ever go wrong in reading MIT Technology Review, which last year brilliantly asked whether what’s going on is a cloud – or a swamp.
One line stood out to me in Regalado’s piece: “’Cloud computing’ captures a historic shift in the IT industry as more computer memory, processing power, and apps are hosted in remote data centers, or the ‘cloud.’”
So, be super nice to your IT people. They’re who will make sure you’re a cloud, and not a swamp.
This column originally appeared in the “Platforms” section of Multichannel News.
Roku Gets a New Remote: Would You Like a Pandora Button?
In the news this week, Roku is releasing a new remote control with dedicated buttons for Netflix, Pandora and Crackle. The remote is being bundled with the new $50 Roku LT, and it’s not yet clear whether current Roku owners will be able to purchase the remote control for their existing device.
I have to admit, this is an idea I’ve found amusing ever since I first spotted the Netflix button on the remote control for our Samsung Blu-ray player in the lab. As we’ve all seen with Netflix and Amazon lately, popularity of a service can easily surge or decline with a single mis-step or content acquisition.
It’s easy to imagine the day when these remote controls will be a quaint relic of our streaming video past, when Netflix and Pandora were popular enough to have their own buttons. Funny, but not particularly useful — it’s not all that hard to navigate to these services. But when I looked at the comments at the end of this Slashgear article, I seemed to be alone in my incredulous response. All of the comments were positive, and a few of the commenters said they’d love to have the new remote. Although one person did make a good point: Why no Hulu button?
To that we add: Why no xfinity button? Road Runner, for Time Warner territories? Cox? Charter? Bet you a dime that’s the scene in 2012…
Streaming Devices a Thing of the Past? Not So Fast
In-Stat released an interesting report earlier this year, questioning the long-term viability of dedicated streaming players. The report suggested that the growth of other connected devices, such as TVs and Blu-ray players, would eliminate the demand for dedicated streaming devices, and went so far as to predict that the popularity of standalone streaming players would peak this year before experiencing a rapid decline over the next five.
I’m not so sure.
Many of the connected TVs and Blu-ray players I’ve tried don’t quite seem ready for prime time. While dedicated streaming players are designed to stream video, these other devices have a different primary purpose and processing power often suffers as a result (game consoles are the obvious exception here, with more than enough power to handle streaming video).
For example, I’ve seen a lot of complaints from people who have purchased connected TVs or Blu-ray players to watch Netflix or Hulu, and end up with poor resolution or a video that keeps pausing to reload. The first instinct is to blame the service provider, but in many cases the device is really the problem. When these same people try a standalone streaming device on the same connection, the problems often vanish altogether. Even on the very slow DSL connection at my house (about 5 Mbps), I get crisp video with no interruptions on all streaming devices.
Connected devices like TVs and Blu-ray players will certainly catch up eventually, but the fact remains that consumers don’t make those big purchases very often. At this point, streaming players offer a better experience at a much (much) lower price. I think it’s likely that many people will wait a few years to see what happens before purchasing their next TV.
Another thing this study fails to address is that a lot of people still have old TVs, and they will for a while. Many people keep their old TV around when they get a new one, and many of these streaming players (especially those with component output) are an ideal companion to a “dumb” TV in the guest room or kid’s room. In an era when there’s a lot of talk about home gateways, a small inexpensive set-top still has a lot of potential.
This month Roku is releasing the LT, a scaled-down version of its popular player, with a $50 price tag. Not only is it bright purple — a cosmetic first in streaming players — I have a hunch the Roku LT will be the first in a long line of budget streaming players. The LT supports 720p video and composite video out, or, all you’d need for an older digital TV. All the same subscription services are available as on the more expensive models, and initial reviews are very positive.
I think there’s still a lot of demand for dedicated streaming devices, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that demand continues to grow over the next few years. HDTVs are less expensive than they were a few years back, but they’re still expensive, and they become obsolete quickly. If you just bought a fancy connected TV, chances are you may find yourself connecting it to a Roku in a few years.
New Device in the Lab: Netgear NeoTV 200
Several new inexpensive streaming players are hitting the market this fall, and another device we picked up recently is the Netgear NeoTV 200. Netgear first released its “NeoTV” line of streaming players a year ago, with the NeoTV 550 (original price tag $219, now $199). The first device has DLNA and uPnP compatibility so that it can stream video from networked sources; the less expensive NeoTV 200 (available on Amazon for just under $75) doesn’t include this functionality.
The NeoTV 200 is relatively small — just slightly larger than an Apple TV. It’s encased in shiny black plastic, which highlights the rippling effect where the top meets the sides. While this doesn’t affect performance, it does make NeoTV 200 look flimsy alongside virtually all the other devices in the lab. The remote control is nice enough — not too large, and the rubber buttons have a satisfying click, though at times the device seems slow to respond to button presses.
Setting up the Neo TV 200 was a pretty simple process, due in part to the fact that there weren’t many subscription services to set up (the box only supports Netflix, Vudu and YouTube, so far.) The layout of the onscreen keyboard is average, but the remote control could be a little more responsive. I didn’t have to enter much text, though — the setup for this box is very similar to Roku in that it displays a 5-digit code for you to enter into a web browser.
User Experience and Content Selection
The main menu is where the NeoTV 200 really shines. The menu text could be a bit larger, but it is crisp and easy to read from 10 feet away. The sponsored movies from Vudu add interest to the top of the screen without making it feel cluttered. The logos for the various services dominate the screen, but I found myself thinking it would look a lot better if the Hulu and Amazon logos were up there alongside Netflix (Again – it only has access to Netflix, Vudu and YouTube). Netgear used the standard Netflix interface instead of designing a custom interface, which is not always a bad thing (see also: Sony SMP-N200).
(more after the break)
Like Roku devices, the NeoTV 200 provides access to a lot of free content sources. However, the NeoTV does more in the way of organization. Applications are grouped into categories, which I found much less overwhelming than browsing the Roku Channel Store. The flipside is that there’s no way to group your favorite channels together in one place.
I find myself comparing the NeoTV to Roku quite a bit, which is interesting because Netgear was an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for Roku, effectively giving Roku a foot in the door at many big box stores. (That agreement ended in 2010, as Roku quickly grew some pretty big feet of its own).
Unfortunately, Netgear hasn’t been able to secure the same agreements with service providers, and as a direct result, their device falls short so far. That’s far from a death sentence, though: Netgear has done a lot of things right with the NeoTV, and new services can always be added in a future update.
Google TV 2.0: Too Little, Too Late?
Like many other early adopters, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Honeycomb update that was originally scheduled to hit the Google TV last June, and which finally began rolling out October 30th (first to Sony devices, followed by Logitech).
The Honeycomb update was not only long overdue, it was also sorely needed. Google TV launched with a lot of fanfare last year, but the excitement quickly fizzled as Hulu, followed by all the major service providers, blocked Google TV’s browser from accessing their streaming content.
Lack of content wasn’t the only problem. The initial screen layout was difficult to use in a living room setting, and many users complained about the complexity of the navigation and remote controls (the Logitech Revue uses a full-size wireless keyboard, and Sony devices come with a large white controller that is easily mistaken for a label maker.)
On the whole, and as Leslie often quips: The first iteration of GoogleTV didn’t work well as a TV or a PC.
Consumer uptake waned. As a result, in July, Logitech dropped the price of its Revue to $99 (about a 60% reduction) after returns eclipsed sales. In early August, Sony followed suit by slashing prices on its Google TV devices across the board. The Sony NSZ-GT1 Blu-ray player, which was $399 last November, dropped to $299 and is now selling for $199. D’oh!
Google TV 2.0 looked good on paper. The Android Market with apps optimized for TV, a simplified user interface, an improved YouTube experience, and improved search with a dedicated TV & Movies app? Sounds like a great idea. But, as usual, the devil is in the details.
The “TV & Movies” feature seemed very promising — especially because it included search results from Amazon Instant Video, which previously existed only as a link to the main Amazon website in Google TV 1.0.
Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed. The app displayed search results from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other sources, but that’s where its utility ended. It didn’t show which results were Amazon Prime titles (and therefore free to Amazon Prime partakers), and it didn’t know which we’d already purchased.
I had to follow a link to buy the title, which kicked me back out to the Chrome Browser to select my video. The Netflix integration wasn’t much better: The Netflix app crashed the first few times I tried to play a video, and required another button press to start the video once it launched. It ended up feeling like a whole lot of work for something that was supposed to make things easier.
News of the Android Market coming to Google TV had me excited, I’ll admit. I imagined all sorts of useful apps, optimized for the television, and I couldn’t wait to give them a spin. But then I opened up the Android Market for the first time, and was greeted by the top TV app: AOL HD. (Sigh.) The featured TV apps also included a word scramble game, a couple of news reader apps, and an unintentionally hilarious app called Classy Fireplace.
The most useful app, Clicker for Google TV, was buried beneath all the others. Unlike the preinstalled TV & Movies app, Clicker can actually tell which Amazon titles you already own, and which you can stream for free through Amazon Prime. Hallelujah!
Clicker is also supposed to pull in free full episodes from the web that aren’t blocked on the Google TV, but every episode I tried gave me the old “Sorry, you can only view this video on a standard laptop or desktop computer.” In other words, “Nice try, but we know that’s a Google TV you’re using.”
Poor selection aside, I ran into a major problem while trying to install these apps: They take a surprisingly long time to install. To boot, the install progress isn’t shown, but the application appears to be available right away. This resulted in about 20 minutes of cryptic error messages while I tried to launch an app, before I finally got a popup notification that it had been successfully installed.
(more after the break)
The most disappointing aspect of the “new” Google TV is that they removed useful functionality for apparently no good reason. In Google TV 1.0, pressing the menu button in any service or application gave you the option to exit. Alas. This is no longer the case, and only a few applications like Netflix actually have the option to exit. Instead, you’re left to push the “back” button repeatedly, or just pressing the home button (which leaves the application visible behind the home menu). Even more perplexing is that for the Sony Blu-ray player, there doesn’t seem to be a way to exit the Disc Player app at all — even the back button doesn’t work.
I was really rooting for Google get it right this time, but once again great ideas were dampened by poor implementation. For all its delays, the Google TV platform still feels like a rushed beta version.
Ever the optimist: With new hardware on the horizon in 2012 (Samsung and Vizio are confirmed to be among the vendors), maybe Google will iron things out. A girl can hope.
Google TV Honeycomb Update
Overview of the new user interface and features added with the new Google TV update (November 3, 2011)