Monthly Archives: April 2014
Another Device on the Lab Bench: Amazon Fire TV
One more device showed up in the lab recently, once again filling up the shelf space we so recently decluttered. Joining the ranks of Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast is the long-awaited new streaming device from Amazon: Fire TV.
Fire TV’s hardware is a small box, a bit slimmer than an Apple TV but with a slightly larger footprint – not the dongle form that some early reports predicted.
Fire TV has 2 GB of RAM, roughly 4 times that of Apple TV, and a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm CPU (which in theory should make it about 3x faster). While both devices are plenty fast for the moment, we did notice that Fire TV’s UI is extremely responsive, with no noticeable lag when responding to button presses on the remote. It makes quick work of scrolling through a bunch of titles, and stops scrolling immediately when you take your thumb off the button – I found myself “overshooting” a lot less on Fire TV than the other devices.
The remote control is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. With 8 buttons plus a directional pad, it falls in between Apple TV and Roku on the button tally. It’s simple yet functional, and the size is just right – it doesn’t disappear into my hand (and the couch cushions) like Apple TV’s, and it doesn’t feel overly thick and chunky like Roku’s. The voice search button is well-placed, and actually works (more on that in a bit).
Fire TV also has 8 GB of internal storage, and works with Bluetooth gaming controllers for casual gaming. We’ve yet to try this out, but the buzz is that while it’s a solid effort, it won’t be competing with game consoles like the Xbox One anytime soon.
When we started up the Fire TV, a cartoon man immediately launched into a very thorough explanation of how to use our new device. While this might well be helpful for someone new to streaming devices, I always like to jump in and start exploring right away, so I found this really grating. Especially when I pressed the home button, thinking I could bypass the video, and the enthusiastic cartoon spiel started over from the beginning.
Once we finally got past the intro video, Fire TV has a pretty nice user interface (UI), with (of course) a big emphasis on titles offered through Amazon. The home screen intersperses Amazon titles with other apps such as Hulu and Netflix, and has a section at the top for titles and apps that you’ve accessed recently.
I did find myself wishing that I could filter some of the categories to only display content offered for free through Amazon Prime – though it’s not hard to imagine why Amazon might not want to do this. Leslie also commented that the menu items in the left pane of the home screen were hard to read when not selected, and in fact I could barely get them to show up when snapping photos of the UI.
Fire TV’s virtual keyboard is right up there with Apple TV, using shortcut buttons to switch keyboards (CAPS, special characters, etc.) so that I don’t have to scroll all over the place to put in a password.
Fire TV also wins the prize for best screensaver, knocking Chromecast’s pretty pictures out of the way with some stunning photos and a nice “Ken Burns” effect.
Voice recognition technology is finally getting to the point where it works pretty well (with the exception of Siri, who doesn’t understand a word I say.) Fire TV is no exception – just say a title or actor while holding down the microphone button at the top of the remote, and it’ll pull up a list of related content.
In our tests, it recognized speech correctly about 99% of the time. However, at launch there was something notably missing with the voice search function – content from providers other than Amazon. This is changing; Hulu content is already appearing in voice search at the time of this writing — though when I searched for The Daily Show, I had to wade through several seasons of “unavailable” episodes to get to the more recent episodes that are currently on Hulu.
Clearly there are still some kinks to work out. Showtime and Crackle are integrating their catalogs with Fire TV’s voice search in the coming months, but we haven’t heard any word on Netflix yet.
If you’re self conscious about talking to your devices, you can also do a text search on Fire TV. However, for some reason Amazon doesn’t use their excellent virtual keyboard here – instead you have the painful process of scrolling through a single row of letters and numbers.
Fire TV also uses DIAL for its “second screen” experience, allowing you to control the video from a compatible mobile device and read more information about what you’re watching using Amazon’s “X-Ray” feature. However, this is currently only true for Kindle Fire HD and HDX devices – our earlier Kindle Fire doesn’t give us the option to send video to the Fire TV, nor do any of our iOS devices. Amazon says that the second screen feature will be coming to more Android and iOS devices at some point in the future, but with all the DIAL-compatible devices in our lab it seems a bit short-sighted to not have that functionality working right out of the box.
We like Fire TV for its interface and responsiveness, and think it has a lot of potential. It does an excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own content, but we’re looking forward to a more unified search experience and being able to take advantage of the second-screen features on more devices. At this point we’d have a hard time recommending Fire TV (at $99) over Roku ($50-100) or Chromecast ($35) as an all-around streamer, but it’s a great choice for anyone getting most of their streaming video from Amazon.
What’s Rich About the Rich Edge?
Long ago, in March of 2005, this column took on a popular term in tech-talk, at the time: “The edge.” Which one? Where is it?
And here we are, almost a decade later, still talking edges. Except something changed: The edge picked up some serious semantic bling, especially in the Prefix Department.
It’s not just “the edge” anymore. It’s “the rich edge.” “The intelligent edge.”
As a word that routinely crisscrosses between everyday talk and shoptalk, the “edge” can befuddle. There’s the edge of the counter, and then there’s the edge of the network.
Back then, we polled engineers: Where’s the edge? Responses: “It’s where RF goes to IP, or visa versa.” “After the headend, before the eyeballs.” “At the output of the set-top box.” (Still my personal favorite: “It’s where the bits fall off.”)
Our conclusion, back then, was that “the edge” is in the eye of the beholder, because different work disciplines see edges differently.
And now, those edges are rich and smart. What happened?
First of all, this is “rich” as in “having or supplying a large amount of something that is wanted” more so than “sacks full of cash.” In a connectivity sense, edges are places where stuff gets handed off: Backbone traffic to regional fiber rings; fiber rings to nodes; nodes to homes and the connected stuff within them.
The “large amount of something” is where the intelligence comes in. It’s the addition of compute and storage resources — those building blocks of “cloud.”
The quest for rich, intelligent edges is the reason why traditional cable headends are becoming headend/data centers, with racks and racks of servers adjoining the traditional functions of signal demodulation, encryption, processing, re-modulation, and combining.
It’s most evident right now in video services. Remember when VOD began? Storage was distributed, per market. Titles were “pitched” (via satellite) to hundreds (thousands?) of recipient “catchers.”
Then “CDNs” (Content Delivery Networks) happened, with big “origin” servers in the middle, and video zipping to markets over terrestrial fiber.
“Rich edges” are morphing VOD yet again: Small, nimble storage, buttressing the big servers in the middle, and designed to both anticipate and locate the most popular content closest to viewers.
VOD is but an early example of a “rich edge” transformation. It’s what happens when “connectivity” (broadband) gets gussied up with the building blocks of cloud, so that our “connected” things work better — faster, and more intuitively.
Nonetheless, our advice remains the same, when it comes to the edge: Always ask. Asking “which edge?” and now, “what’s rich about it?” does two things. It shows the speaker’s knowledge precincts, and it spares you envisioning a different edge than the one being discussed.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
A Dongle Duel: Roku v. Chromecast
A Roku Streaming Stick showed up at the lab recently, so we’ve been putting it through the paces alongside Google’s Chromecast stick. While both devices have quite a bit in common (such as a dongle form factor and DIAL functionality), they are also fundamentally different. So which dongle do we like best? Read on.
PRICE: Roku’s Streaming Stick will set you back about $50; Chromecast $35.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX: Both dongles ship with a micro-USB cable for power. Roku’s Streaming Stick includes a full-size remote control, while Chromecast is controlled by mobile devices only. Chromecast also includes an extender in case the HDMI port on your TV is a tight fit.
APPS: Both dongles play content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Vudu, and Crackle. Roku carries hundreds of other free and paid channels, including Amazon Instant Video. Chromecast’s library of compatible apps is still small, but growing. So Roku wins on content depth and breadth.
HOW THEY STACK UP: Both Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick use DIAL, which means that within a DIAL-enabled app on your phone or tablet (Netflix or Hulu, for example) you can choose a piece of content, select the little antenna-looking icon, and begin playing it.
Again, this is the only way you can control Chromecast, because it doesn’t come with a remote control.
Roku includes a lot of channels (apps), but lots of them don’t yet work with DIAL — hence the physical remote. (Which is kind cluttering up our recently-decluttered lab). And, alas! The remote for Roku’s stick doesn’t come with the fabulous headphone jack, or motion control, that came with the Roku 3 remote. And while you can buy those separately, they don’t work with the streaming stick.
AUTHENTICATION: Another area where the dongles differ is authentication – signing in to Netflix, Hulu, etc. to get the content you pay for. Chromecast does all of this without prompting you, assuming you’re signed in to whichever over-the-top video app on your mobile device. It does this by sending a token from your mobile device to the dongle, over WiFi.
Not the case on Roku, where you have to sign in to each app the first time you use it. This is a bit of a hassle. Say, for instance, you don’t have HBO, your friend doesn’t have an Internet-connected TV, and you both want to watch Silicon Valley. On Chromecast, you can do this from a mobile phone without authenticating on the dongle itself. Roku makes you enter user name/password, using the onscreen remote. The stick then remembers your friend’s login unless you go in and clear it out.
MOBILE APPS: Chromecast’s app is for setup purposes only, for streaming content Google Cast is embedded into existing apps (such as HBO Go). We find that to be a good thing, because app clutter is as bad or worse than remote control clutter.
We were intrigued to see that Roku’s mobile app for iOS now includes a search feature where you can put in a title, actor, or director and see which content providers are currently streaming what you want to watch. (The feature has been on the hockey-puck Roku devices themselves for quite a while, but it’s new to the mobile app.)
In theory, putting Roku Search on the mobile app is huge, because it lets you sort through the vast amount of content from a handheld device, rather than rummaging around for the plastic remote. Then seamlessly start playing whatever you picked, on the big screen. Sounds great.
Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a bit of disaster. Here’s why. Say you search for Mad Men. You’ll see a bunch of different content providers that have the show, including Netflix. But when you tap on a season of the show on Netflix, expecting to see a list of episodes, you’ll instead find that it immediately starts playing that season from the beginning – and it doesn’t remember where you left off.
Worse, Roku’s search feature on its iPhone app doesn’t work consistently. Selecting a season of a show from Amazon or HBO Go will bring up a list of episodes on the TV screen – I’d rather browse and read episode descriptions on my phone, but at least it works. In the case of Netflix and Hulu, this feature is broken. Selecting a season on Netflix from the iPhone app sends the first episode of that season to your TV (if you’re lucky; often it just times out). It doesn’t remember where you left off and doesn’t let you browse on either screen. In the case of Hulu, this is what we got, every time:
Which begs the question: Why bring the search feature to the Roku mobile app if it doesn’t work in a way that’s consistent or actually useful? This one’s gotta be a bug.
Roku’s stick also seems to have trouble remembering state — that is, if you stop a piece of content midway through, it doesn’t start mid-way through when you resume playout. It typically starts from the beginning when you go back to resume it. Annoying. This hasn’t been an issue with Chromecast.
Another area where Chromecast beats Roku’s Streaming Stick is in CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Chromecast will turn on your TV and switch to the correct input when you start playing a piece of content (assuming, of course, that it’s not powered from your TV’s USB slot.)
CEC is what lets you do things like control the TV volume from your mobile device. This is a very useful feature, and we wish Roku would start incorporating it into their devices already. Instead, I found myself juggling two remote controls and a mobile app while using the Roku Streaming Stick.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Roku’s devices have been my and our all-around favorite for a long time, but I find their Streaming Stick to be pretty disappointing, out of the box. While it does make any digital TV into a “connected” TV, and does bring all that OTT content in without cluttering up the TV stand, it seems to lag behind the hockey-puck-shaped Roku devices in our lab when it comes to processing power. I’d recommend it over the Roku 1 (which is also $50 but doesn’t include DIAL or dual-band WiFi), but all things considered I’d rather put a little more money and space towards a Roku 3.
Though it has less content than Roku at this point, Chromecast feels far more unified. And let me tell you, I never thought I’d prefer a TV device made by Google over one from Roku. But I found that I prefer Chromecast’s simplicity and lack of a physical remote. The huge variety of content on Roku (and multiple ways to control it) actually started to feel a bit overwhelming.
So: Roku’s Streaming Stick does some things well, but for the price I’d stick with Chromecast.
If a Broadcast Tower Is Tall Enough, Is It In the Cloud?
This week, the people of broadcast television make their way to Las Vegas, for the annual gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters.
For broadcasters in particular, it’s a weird time to be in television. The word itself — television — is equal parts strongly nostalgic, and tele-vestigial. Say “television” to a millennial, you’re a relic. Say it to any of us who grew up with that one screen as the central viewing device, it’s home.
The identity crisis facing traditional television is evident even in the show’s tagline this year: “Where Content Comes to Life.”
We took a quick poll of our favorite go-to, broadcast-side technologists over the last few weeks, to find out what’s on their shopping lists for this year’s show. Not surprisingly, 4K video, and its consumer-facing brand, UltraHD, will be the main event — but not all technologists are convinced it’s a go.
“I want to see if live TV production gear, like big production switchers, has made any progress — we’re building a big new production facility, but so far it’s only being outfitted for HD,” said one network-side technologist.
Refresher: UltraHD and 4K video is the next big thing coming from the consumer electronics side of the television eco-system — but the rest of that eco-system is still catching up. From the HDMI connectors into 4KTVs, to the physical media (Blu-Ray is arguably still “not big enough” to hold 4K video), to the bandwidth requirements, to the cameras, and whatever else we’re missing, there’s work to be done.
But! The challenges facing the rollout of 4K are nearly identical to those facing HD, when it first hit the market. And if the NAB show floor is any indication, and to use a medical analogy — there are plenty of white blood cells flooding all the problem areas, seeking to make each juncture healthy and well.
And then there’s the other stuff that typically lines the floor of a convention for broadcast engineers.
“Betcha I don’t see any transmitters or towers,” said another, who wondered when the “B” in “NAB” switches from “Broadcasters” to “Broadband.”
And, like everywhere else, “cloud” and the transition to Internet Protocol everything, from image capture to production to post-production to screen,” will crowd the exhibit hall. “It will be interesting to see how many possible functions can be stuffed into the cloud, or say that they can,” noted a content-side technologist.
Added another: “Wait a minute: If a broadcast tower is high enough, does that count as being in the cloud?”
Ah, the existential engineers in our tele-vestigial worlds. What would we do without them?
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Imagine Park: RDK in Action – Ericsson (The Cable Show 2013)
“User Defined Sports Ticker” Laura Oberholtzer Director, TV & Media Solutions Ericsson. Filmed June 10-12 2013. Video courtesy The Cable Show.