Monthly Archives: July 2012
One year over-the-top, part 2
Last week, we examined some of the notable consumer trends coming out of my makeshift over-the-top (OTT) video lab. This week, and as promised, a bit more – starting with the remote control clutter multiplier.
The window ledge in the lab is already piled with more than a dozen hard, plastic remotes. We’re all wearily familiar with the desire for fewer remotes, but with over-the-top, there’s a multiplier: Software-based remotes.
Nearly every gadget in the lab comes with a software version of its guide. Which means alongside the “hard clutter” of the remotes on the ledge is a lot of “soft clutter” of remotes on the iPad, Droid and iphone screens.
Broadband usage in the lab: We all saw the kerfuffle, in May, right before the Cable Show, about Netflix not liking Comcast’s foray into the Xbox. That’s the one where Xbox users can view subscription video via the Xfinity app, and the bits consumed don’t count against their broadband bit cap, which was upped to 300 Gigabytes per month.
Here at the lab, it’s a little hard to fathom using 300 Gigs. (I realize I will eat my hat for this someday.) Comcast’s online account tools show that we used 10 GB in April, 16 GB in May, and 9 GB in June. Granted, the lab only goes over the top on OTT video activities one day a week, when my trusty assistant, Sara, comes in to put the 15+ boxes through their paces.
So last week, we turned everything on, and kept it on. At press time, the meter had jumped from 10 GB to 22 GB – 8 percent of the cap — even though the Roku timed out sometime over the weekend. Extrapolating that out, we’d spend maybe 60 GB a month, if everything streamed constantly.
Lastly: Finding signal for everything is “non-trivial,” as my engineering friends would say. Granted, most people don’t fiddle around with a dozen gadgets, all for the purpose of consuming television. But as this column has noted before, the more IP-connectable stuff you get, the more you’ll start thinking about signal.
In the case of the lab, this meant not just installing a second cable modem (IPv6!), but also an HDMI switch, to move around between the different devices. It’s not extraordinarily difficult, but it does involve a lot of futzing….someone hand me the remote?
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
A Year in the Lab
The OTT lab turned a year old this month and, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. It’s been a whirlwind year for streaming video, and we’ve seen a lot of changes in the services and devices over such a short time (with more change on the way.)
First off, we’re seeing a lot of new ways to control our streaming players. The new 2nd-generation Google TV devices (one of which is joining the lab this week) come with a 3-axis motion sensitive remote, which allows you to move the cursor across the screen with a flick of the wrist (versus 37 flicks of the trackball on the 1st-generation Sony remote). And I’ve already written about the state of remote control apps for iOS and Android, some of which include voice control features.
The Kinect camera for Xbox 360 became a lot more integral to the TV experience in the lab this year, and we’re beginning to see new methods of input for the other devices as well. On the Xbox 360, we can now use voice and gesture to control Hulu, Netflix and other TV apps – that is, as long as there’s not a lot of activity from humans or pets in the room. Which brings me to another happy addition to the lab: Little Ollie (with Aunt Stella in the background.)
s you might guess from the photo, the standard Xbox controller has been getting a lot more use than the Kinect lately. And my Thursdays, which were fun to start with, now have the added bonus of vicarious puppy ownership. (Note to self: Hide all plastic remotes from Ollie. His teeth particularly.)
Now, on to the services:
Amazon continues to improve its free streaming catalog for Prime members, bringing it more in line with Netflix’s content selection, and also expanded to more devices, including the Xbox 360 and Sony PS3.
Netflix is holding steady, following a tumultuous several months following the Qwikster Debacle — in which Netflix lost around 800,000 subscribers (it eventually gained most of them back.)
And all 3 of the major streaming services – Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon – made the foray into original content since the lab opened.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to see what materializes from the partnership between Verizon and Redbox for a streaming video service.
After a somewhat heated battle (I’d call it lukewarm) Boxee and Comcast are partnering to create a decryption dongle – similar to the live TV dongle we got earlier this year – that will allow us to pipe our encrypted Comcast services through the Boxee Box. We’ll see if anything comes of the Boxee DVR rumors this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see something along those lines come out of Boxee’s Cloudee service (which currently acts as a cloud storage service for user-generated video.)
And speaking of new ways to watch Comcast video, we got the AnyPlay service in the lab up and running, allowing us to watch live TV on the iPad. We’re lucky to be in one of the trial markets for AnyPlay, which will eventually be rolling out across the US. It consists of a streaming set-top box (the Motorola “Televation” box in our case) that takes the incoming cable signal, re-encodes it, and streams it out over the Wifi network. Oh, how I wish I could get this service at my house.
Given the amount of change swirling around OTT during the lab’s first year, it’s hard to guess what all will happen in the next 12 months. But I can make one pretty confident bet: The cable cord still won’t stretch as far as the farm where I live!
One year over-the-top
This week marks one year of sampling a large variety of over-the-top video hardware and software in a makeshift office lab. Why: To understand why people cut the cable cord, or hang out on the “connected” side of today’s Internet-connected TVs.
Seems a good time to share some findings.
1. What I use the most, of the over-the-top services: Amazon Prime. Why: Amazon was first to offer Downton Abbey Season 2, which I could watch on a Vizio screen at home, while “getting steps” on the treadmill. (I am OCD about 10,000 steps per day, thanks to the Fitbit, to which I am wonderfully addicted.)
After that, and still on Amazon Prime: Tanked. Tanked is a family viewing activity, marathon-style – but, alas, the main TV in the house isn’t Internet-connected. So I brought home a Sony streamer, which was dissed at the lab for its clunky on-screen remote (it’s as clunky on the Sony PS3.) But, it has Amazon Prime. The Tanked binging continued in the living room.
When marathon-viewing Nurse Jackie on the Vizio screen, for instance, the Amazon app keeps track of episodes I’ve seen with a simple check mark. No such feature on the Sony streamer upstairs. Same app, same show, but you need to remember which episode you watched last.
The flip side of that, which comes with DLNA, is that any software-based video app can leverage native device features that are cool or handy.
Example: At the Cable Show in June, on a back wall of the CableNET area, Cox showed how its Trio guide had taken advantage of a native feature inside a Sony connected TV, such that in-show navigation happens on a scroll bar, frame by frame. It looked great.
3. What I use the most at work: Comcast’s “AnyPlay,” fed by Motorola’s “Televation” box. Live streaming cable TV on the iPad. Love it. Make it do trick-play, I’d love it even more.
That’s a short walk through a year’s worth of OTT-ing in the lab. Next time: What all that streaming did to the broadband meter; the puzzle of getting signal to everything; the multiplier on remote control clutter.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Coming to the OTT Lab: Devices We Will (Or Won’t) Be Testing Soon
A lot of new devices hit the radar this summer, many of them from Google following its 2012 I/O conference late last month.
But Goliaths like Google aren’t the only action. On the smaller side, we’ve ordered another device from a startup company – Simple.TV. So while we wait (impatiently) for the toys we’ve pre-ordered, here’s a rundown of the gadgets that will soon be arriving in the lab, and those that we’ll likely leave on the shelf a little while longer.
Simple.TV is an 1080p HD tuner and video server that records over-the-air TV to your own USB hard drive, while supporying standard DVR trick-play functions, like pause/rewind on live TV. But Simple.TV also streams shows to other devices (currently Roku boxes and iOS phones and tablets; more to come soon, the company’s website promises.)
Simple.TV offers a premier service for $4.99 per month, which adds automatic recordings, an EPG and program metadata, and unlimited remote streaming for up to 5 users.
And in case (like me) you’re wondering how your slow Internet connection can handle 5 different video streams, the Simple.TV hardware also supports adaptive streaming – meaning that the video quality can be scaled back if the bandwidth is too low.
Adaptive streaming is both blessing and curse, though. It’s tech-talk for what we used to call “down-rezing.” As in, “don’t down-rez my stuff, man.” For that reason, part of the testing will definitely involve video quality assessments on multiple screen sizes.
Unlike any of the other devices in our lab, Simple.TV comes from a small start-up company (we pre-ordered the device on the crowd funding website Kickstarter). With that in mind, it will be really interesting to give this device a spin and see how it stacks up against the others.
(image source: DigitalTrends.com)
Sony NSZ GS7 ($200 list price, available July 22)
I had a chance to check out this 2nd-generation Google TV device at CES, and we’re looking forward to putting it through the paces in the lab. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that too much changed, content-wise, since the first iteration of Google TV.
Meaning there’s still no Hulu Plus app, and Google TV’s browser is still blocked from playing video on virtually all service provider websites. But there are some pretty significant improvements to the hardware, in the form of a new ARM-powered processor and 3-axis motion-sensitive remote control.
We’ll keep you posted.
(image source: Engadget)
Vizio Co-Star ($100 list price, release date TBA) is another 2nd-generation Google TV device, with the same dual-core Marvell Armada 1500 processor as the Sony NSZ G27. But this device comes preloaded with the OnLive streaming game service (there are conflicting reports about when and if Sony devices will support OnLive)
(image source: VentureBeat)
Google Nexus Q is one of the more unique devices we’ve heard about lately – described as the “world’s first social streaming media player,” the Nexus Q is a mysterious spherical gadget that clocks in at very the high price of $299. Unfortunately, the price tag seems especially steep in this case because the Nexus Q has less functionality than a Google TV device.
(image source: Wired.com)
For starters, the Nexus Q only streams media from Google Play. You heard right, no access to Netflix or other services, and you can’t even play video files or music from a network hard drive or USB stick.
Why so expensive, then? The Nexus Q is supposedly designed with audiophiles in mind, with an internal 25-watt amplifier powering 4 stereo outputs (unfortunately, at this point the Nexus Q can only play compressed streaming content, the idea of which makes most audiophiles I know cringe). The Nexus Q also has a ring of LED lights around the center of the device, so you can impress your buddies with a light show that works in time with the music.
But first you’ll need to upload your music library to Google Music before you can play it on the Nexus Q (not an easy feat, if your music collection looks anything like mine). The Nexus Q is intended to be a social device – so theoretically you could have a bunch of people over, and using your own Android phones and tablets you can all collaborate on playlists (using the home library) and share your favorite YouTube videos on the TV. But theory doesn’t always work out in practice, and according to initial reviews the party was sort of a bust.
For starters, the Nexus Q doesn’t ship with a remote control and it doesn’t have hardware buttons – you need an Android phone or tablet to access most controls. And what’s more, according to Engadget’s review the Nexus Q app currently works only with devices running the just-released Android 4.1 Jellybean. Unfortunately, right now only 1 in 10 Android devices even have Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (Holy Fragmentation!). Google had better get on its promise to support “any Android phone or tablet running Gingerbread or higher” if it wants a successful release of the Nexus Q.
On the bright side, it appears that the Nexus Q might just be worth the exorbitant price when hacked. But as it is now, the Nexus Q won’t be joining us in the lab anytime soon. After all, we’re still running Android 3.2 (Gingerbread) here!
What is Title 6 video?
Maybe this is happening to you, too. A conversation begins. It’s about over-the-top video, or usage-based broadband, or any of the tangents that go with the new world of video on TVs and screens not necessarily connected to a set-top box.
Then you hear it: “Title 6 video.” Here’s an example, from several batches of notes. “Look. To be a multichannel video provider (MVPD), you have to comply with the Title 6 rules.” Here’s another: “Anyone with a video server at the edge of the network wants to think they’re an MVPD. But they’re not Title 6.”
And because “Title 6” is a term that’s been around for so long (nigh on 30 years), the natural reaction is to nod solemnly: Ah yes. Title 6.
Which raises the question: What is Title 6 video?
Short version: It’s an outgrowth of the FCC’s Communications Act, and is the chapter that includes the Cable Act, etched in 1984. Title 1 is general info; Title 2 regulates common carriers; Title 3 applies to broadcasters, and so on up to Title 6, cable.
It mandates all the things one needs to do, in order to be a cable operator. Or, in regulatory lingo, an MVPD.
Here’s a sampling of what’s in the Title 6 rules: Franchising. Closed captioning. Must carry. Ownership. Emergency alerts. Blackouts. PEG channels. Program Access. Navigation devices.
There’s more, but it turns out that Title 6 is more dated than practical, these days, given the volume and pace of technological change over the last 28 years. Why: Those rules were made at a time when signal paths were in silos, and few of them. Phone service came from the phone company over twisted pair. Cable TV came from cable operators, over their plant.
These days, everything’s an app, with plenty of pathways into the home.
Should any guy with a video server at the edge of the network be considered an MVPD, without complying with Title 6 commitments? The kneejerk answer is no. But maybe a better question is this: Rather than try to shoehorn old rules into a new scene, why not ask what’s to be expected from video providers?
There are those who would say that the over-the-top video community views such regulations as a toolkit, from which to help themselves to the assets of others. Take the good or doable parts – think program access and compulsory copyright. Leave the rest, like retransmission consent and the complexity of the Title 6 obligations.
That’s a very short look at a very complicated cog in the tech regulatory machinery. More to come.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
When deleting unused apps from my Android phone last week, I realized just how many remote control apps I’ve downloaded. My iPod touch is in the same situation. My virtual remote control clutter now rivals the piles of physical remotes that threaten to take over the lab, and my home office:
(and many more are lurking in my basement)
While some of these apps offer clear benefits over the traditional remote, most don’t offer any additional functionality. And although there are a number of “premium” apps out there that will set you back a buck or three, in most cases the free apps offer a much better experience.
So, instead of leaving you to weed out the bad remote control apps, we’ve done the legwork for you. Here’s a breakdown of our favorite remote control apps:
Roku holds the dubious honor of having the largest collection of remote control apps, with examples from about a dozen different developers on each platform (Android and iOS). Many of these are paid apps, but they don’t really offer any new functionality over the physical remote. Even worse, some of the paid apps have gone a couple years without an update and no longer work.
The official Roku app, for iOS and Android, works pretty well except for the occasional issue auto-connecting to my Roku device.
(Roku official remote)
It does require you to sign in to your Roku account during initial setup, but once up and running the app is similar to the physical remote. It adds some nice features, such as the ability to browse the channel store and install new channels:
Romoku (Sojo Software LLC), is another good free app for Android devices. This remote control includes a scrolling channel row above the normal remote control buttons, so you can jump to another channel without going through the home screen.
Able Remote for Google TV (Android only)
This app works pretty well and is generally less cluttered than the official Google TV remote control app, but is still more complicated than any of the remotes for Roku and Boxee.
When I first tried out this app months ago, it had a “voice control” option that allowed you to search using Google TV’s browser, launch apps, and the like. This feature is still there, but it’s now hidden – you have to go into the app settings and swap out one of the existing buttons for voice control.
In using the voice control feature again, I noticed that it no longer launches apps, where it had no trouble before. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, Able Remote did a fine job of picking up the words I said to it, but then pretended not to understand when I ask it to launch an app. If I said “launch Netflix,” for instance, I get an error “unknown voice command: Netflix.” But if I say “search Netflix,” the app will pop up in the search results and I can launch it from there. Curious.
Best in Show: Boxee Thumb Remote (Android Only)
Boxee Thumb Remote (Creator: Menny Even Danan) is a free remote control app for Android devices that lets you control your Boxee Box with a single thumb. (side note: Leslie, sorry I didn’t know about this one when you were laid up with The Hand!)
Out of the remote control apps we’ve tested, this is the only one that I consistently use in place of the physical remote. It’s never had trouble auto-connecting to my Boxee Box via the wireless network (this tends to be an issue with many of the apps we’ve tested), and it has a lot of little things built in that really improve the TV experience.
For starters, the Boxee Thumb remote displays the program information for what you’re watching, be it a local file on your network or a web video (though this didn’t work for live over-the-air TV when I tried it). When the phone’s in landscape mode you can view the episode description; in portrait mode the image (which doubles as a touchpad) dominates the screen.
My favorite feature of the Boxee Thumb Remote app is that it will automatically pause the video you’re watching when the phone gets an incoming call. I discovered this while poking around in the settings, and I think it’s absolutely genius. In my tests this feature worked flawlessly when playing files from my local network, though it doesn’t seem to work at all with live TV and sometimes fails if web content is still loading when the phone rings.
(And look at all the other stuff you can customize. Touchpad too sensitive? No problem!)
I’m hoping that we’ll eventually see these features implemented in remote control apps for the other OTT devices, but I suspect Boxee’s APIs may be a little more open than most (just a guess.)
Remote control apps can be a wonderful thing, saving the day when your Boxee remote is wedged between the couch cushions or repurposed as a chew toy. They can also make text entry much easier, as I’ve said before. But the glut of poorly-designed “me too” applications can make it hard to find the good ones.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go delete a few dozen apps from my phone.
Note: There are plenty of other OTT devices with remote control apps that I didn’t mention here, for example the WDTV and NeoTV. These two devices have Android and iOS apps created by the manufacturer, but don’t have all the mediocre 3rd-party apps clogging the search results.
Tools, Tools, and More Tools
by Leslie Ellis // July 09 2012
More than a decade ago, an MSO exec halted a staff meeting to make this exasperated observation: “Tools, tools, tools – can we just have one meeting where I’m not being asked for more tools? How many tools do we really need?”
At the time, Comcast was AT&T Broadband, and the tool in question related to the monitoring of an “open access” (remember that?) trial.
But the question – how many tools do we really need? – is decidedly evergreen.
The latest case in point is the home network, itself an extension of the HFC plant, with gadgets and screens that live better with signal. And they’re all cross-linked.
Today’s home networks make mixed use of MoCA (Multimedia Over Coax Alliance), Ethernet, and Wi-Fi to move stuff around. On top of that, there’s DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), poised to let us share component resources – tuners, hard drives – amongst screens. And that’s just the IP (Internet Protocol) side of the equation.
Here’s how one engine-room guy put it, over a fish taco last week: “So in the home you have a QAM set-top that’s pulling video into the home network. And an advanced wireless gateway, handling data and voice. And lets throw in an IP set-top.
“The IP set-top gets video from the QAM box, but it gets its user interface through the data side.
“A customer calls: Something’s wrong with my set-top. We say, is it a video problem, or a data problem?” (At which point he made the “d’oh!” face.)
Which brings us back to tools. And silos of people — video people, data people, voice people.
One answer getting a lot of play in tech circles is TR-069, where the “TR” stands for “Technical Report.” It’s an outgrowth of what’s now called the Broadband Forum (formerly the DSL Forum; DSL is a telco thing, which might explain why cable’s coming around to it only now.)
TR-69 is sort of like an IP-based SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), in that it provides ways to move data back and forth, for purposes of troubleshooting, say, a home network. Or, as the Broadband Forum itself puts it: “The TR-069 standard was developed for automatic configuration of modems, routers, gateways, set-top boxes and VoIP phones.”
Great, right? Yes, if you’re ok with devils and details. While TR-69 can fetch data from different networked devices –assuming they’re plumbed with the right client profile – it lacks the job-specific tools to make diagnostic sense of that data.
What tools are needed? One for bridging into workforce management. One for customer care reps. Engineering tools, to see what’s going on. And some kind of blended video/data tool, because how things work for QAM-based video are vastly different than how they work on IP-based video.
So. How many tools? I’d go with “lots.” (And good luck with that.)
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.