Spring Streaming Update 2014
Spring snowflakes are flying in Colorado, as are the news headlines surrounding some of our favorite devices and services. So today, we bring you a sampling of the latest news items to sprout in the world of OTT technology.
Roku’s Streaming Stick is refreshed and ready to compete with Chromecast
Roku announced an update to its Streaming Stick on March 4th (to be released in April; yes we’ve pre-ordered) with a few changes that position it nicely as a backatchya to Google’s Chromecast. Starting with the happy fact that the Roku stick works on all HDTVs. Previously, it required HDTVs plumbed with an MHL (Multi High-Definition Link) HDMI port, so as to power the device. The price is also peppy, down from $100 to $50. Still not as low as Chromecast’s $35 price tag, but hey. Roku owns the category.
In terms of content and user experience, Roku’s Streaming Stick comes with the standard Roku remote and 1200+ channels, while Chromecast is controlled entirely from your mobile device (no physical remote) and has around 20 compatible apps. The two devices have DIAL functionality in common; Roku’s YouTube and Netflix apps allow you to browse and control the content from your mobile device, while all Chromecast-compatible apps are controlled solely from your mobile device.
We expect Roku to release a new version of its mobile app in April, integrating its Universal Search feature – meaning you’ll be able to search across services using your mobile device, then tune to your content without drilling down into the individual service to find it.
We’ll keep you posted on Roku Stick v. Chromecast as soon as the thing arrives.
Apple TV Moves Up
At the annual Apple Shareholders’ Meeting at the end of February, CEO Tim Cook revealed that Apple TV device sales grew by about 80% in 2013, reaching about 10 million units for the year. (What!) Total worldwide sales of Apple TV since 2007 sit at about 28 million units (compared with about 8 million Roku devices sold in the U.S. since 2008. Ouch.).
We’ve heard a lot of buzz about new Apple TV hardware for over a year now, but nothing’s been confirmed, yet again. What has changed is the amount of content available on Apple TV. Once the most limited in terms of content, Apple TV’s app lineup improved dramatically in 2013 with the addition of Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and a whole host of other payTV apps from A&E, Lifetime, History, Disney, Smithsonian Channel, and more. While Apple TV doesn’t have nearly as much content as Roku, it’s no longer just a Netflix-and-iTunes player.
Aereo Goes Dark in Denver
After ongoing court battles with broadcasters, on February 19th Aereo got slapped with a six-state injunction (covering Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana.) U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball granted Aereo a temporary reprieve on the 25th, allowing it to continue normal operations for 14 days.
Alas. Earlier today, March 7, Federal Court Judges Briscoe, Hartz, and Bacharach overturned the temporary 14 day stay. We kept Aereo streaming all day in the lab, wondering if it would suddenly go dark. It’s 7 p.m. as I post this, and I’ve still got the local news streaming on my computer. According to an email that hit my inbox about an hour ago, from Aereo founder Chet Kanojia, service in Denver and Salt Lake City will cease tomorrow at 10:00 AM MST (and we’ll be getting a full refund for the month).
It’s not over yet. Aereo and the broadcasters are expected to face off before the Supreme Court on April 22, so time will tell how all of this shakes out in the end. As Aereo has become a well-used service at the “farm lab,” where antenna reception is ridiculously bad, I’m hoping this injunction will be temporary.
DIALing up the competition
Last week, as I was fiddling around in the lab, I realized just how many of the devices in our lab were quietly using the DIAL protocol.
Example: I opened YouTube on my phone and tapped the “Cast” button, only to see a long list of devices including the TiVo Roamio, Roku 3, Chromecast, and even two generations of Google TV.
DIAL, or Discovery And Launch, is the protocol used for Chromecast, and, increasingly, other devices. It was developed by Netflix and YouTube, with a little help from Sony and Samsung, and has gained support from a number of other big players in both content and hardware.
In a nutshell, DIAL enables apps on 2nd-screen devices (such as your mobile phone) to discover and send content to 1st-screen devices (i.e. Chromecast or Roku) on the same network.
How does it work?
From the user’s perspective, you launch an app. Let’s say it’s Netflix. You launch it from your mobile device and choose an output device on the same wireless network.* Let’s say it’s Chromecast. Then, you can start playing content from your mobile device, and it sends a signal to the Chromecast to go and retrieve that content.
This means that the content streams directly from The Cloud to the DIAL-enabled device — not from the mobile device. This frees up your phone for checking email, browsing the web, searching out other titles to play, texting people, and all the other things we do with our phones/tablets.
Most importantly, it means that the second-screen experience won’t drain your battery life and then grind to a halt. Even with the phone powered off, the video plays on.
*Because the devices need to be able to talk to one another over the wireless network, DIAL won’t work on networks with Access Point(AP)/Client isolation – i.e. don’t bother bringing your Chromecast for the hotel room.
Here’s the tech talk of it. DIAL relies on UPnP (Universal Plug n Play), SSDP (Simple Service Discovery Protocol), and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).
DIAL consists of two parts: DIAL Service Discovery and DIAL REST (REpresentational State Transfer). In the first part, the DIAL client device (i.e. your phone) discovers DIAL servers (i.e. a Roku, Chromecast, etc.) and obtains access to DIAL REST on those devices. DIAL REST then allows the client device to query, launch, and stop apps on the DIAL server.
DIAL-enabled Devices (and how Chromecast differs)
Several of the devices in our lab already support DIAL, even though some of those devices are a couple years old. And because DIAL is based on UPnP, it may be possible to add DIAL support to other existing boxes through a software update.
Chromecast is a little different in that it uses Google Cast, which is based on DIAL but includes a few extras (of course it does) in the way of playback controls. It also has a more stable YouTube implementation than the other devices (it seems that way to us, anyway).
Chromecast also carries the distinction of using HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), for controlling your TV through the HDMI port. All you need to do is find a piece of content on your phone and send it to the Chromecast – it’ll then turn on your TV, switch to the right input, let you change the TV volume, and so on. This is a great feature and we wish more of the devices in the lab had it.
What apps support DIAL?
Currently, only a handful of apps use DIAL – on most devices it’s Netflix and YouTube only. Chromecast currently has a handful of other apps such as HBO Go, Pandora, and Hulu Plus.
More interesting is the DIAL name registry, which shows us which apps may be using DIAL in the future. Not surprisingly, Turner Broadcasting has entries for all or most of its apps, and Comcast is on the list as well. In the OTT space, Aereo, Redbox Instant, and Crackle are all on the registry. And as a heavy Spotify user, I was thrilled to see it listed there too.
However, just because a name is on the DIAL registry doesn’t mean that it will ever end up on Chromecast, or even have a working DIAL implementation – just that the app maker has started tinkering with DIAL in some capacity. As of this writing, the Google Cast SDK is still being finalized and Google is keeping the Chromecast partners to a select few. However, Google promises a busy 2014 on the Chromecast front, with a goal of bringing as many apps to the device as possible. Needless to say, we’ll be watching.
Your 2013 Guide to Streaming Stocking Stuffers
Still looking for some last-minute holiday gifts? You’ve come to the right place. Once again, we’re rounding up our favorite streaming devices in an attempt to make your holiday shopping research a little easier. After all, we follow this stuff all year long!
In keeping with the title, we’re focusing on the stocking stuffers of the streaming world – small, specialized, and relatively inexpensive. Because the price and features differ so much, we’ve left the game consoles and connected Blu-ray players off this list (they won’t fit in a stocking, anyway).
Without further ado, here’s our list (scroll down to the bottom for a side-by-side comparison of the apps that are currently available on each device).
For your tech-savvy friends: Chromecast ($35)
This little dongle made quite a splash earlier this year, and its low price point and small size make it a fantastic stocking stuffer. Unlike Roku’s streaming stick, Chromecast will work on any TV with an HDMI port. It currently has access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, and HBO Go, with more compatible apps joining the ranks soon. Chromecast isn’t as user-friendly as the other devices on this list, but it’s a great choice for anyone who enjoys playing with the latest technology.
For loved ones willing to pay for good TV: Apple TV ($99)
Despite no updates to the hardware for quite some time, Apple TV is finally getting more premium content. In past years Apple TV only had Netflix and iTunes, making it a tough one to recommend. But with the addition of Hulu Plus, and payTV apps such as HBO Go, Disney, and ESPN Live, the premium content selection is starting to look a lot more like Roku’s. And about HBO Go – many of the big payTV operators currently block access on Roku but not on AppleTV, so AppleTV is probably the best bet for any Comcast or DirecTV subscribers on your list.
For just about everyone: Roku ($50-$100)
This one won’t surprise anyone, because Roku is consistently at the top of our list in terms of value, content, and ease of use. (Disclaimer: My parents are still using the Roku I got them for Christmas 3 years ago).
There are a few different Roku devices to choose from:
Old TV? Roku LT or Roku 2.
Roku is the only manufacturer on this list that offers component out, making it a great choice to smarten up any dumb analog TV. At around $50, the Roku LT is a perfect gift for your relatives with an ancient TV. While the LT tops out at 720p, the Roku 2 ($80) streams full 1080p video and also includes a headphone jack on the remote – perfect for watching while other people are trying to pretend to work, or sleep.
For your favorite media junkie: Roku 3.
At $99, Roku 3 adds some premium features on top of the standard ones. Its processor is about 5x faster, and it includes a motion-sensing remote control for gaming (and a free copy of Angry Birds, as in years past). Roku 3 also includes USB and Micro SD ports, making it easier to put home movies and photos up on the big screen. But the thing we’re most excited about is support for DIAL (Discovery And Launch), the same protocol used by Chromecast – this makes it possible to control Roku’s Netflix and YouTube channels from a mobile device.
Google TV Android TV …just stick with Chromecast this year
Google retired the “Google TV” name and is now partnering with manufacturers to make devices “with Google services.” New devices from Sony and Hisense have been announced, and Google is also rumored to be building a “Nexus TV” device. We’ve yet to see the user interface, but the details released so far suggest the same old Google TV experience.
And remember, HDMI cables aren’t included with AppleTV and Roku anymore, so you’ll want to throw one in the box as well – no need for anything fancy, this will do.
Happy Thanksgiving from your Slingbox: What’s In the Much-Needed App Refresh
On November 18th, Sling Media released an overhauled version of its SlingPlayer app for Android and iOS. With this update came a lot of features that we really like, some of which even breathe new life into some of our old “televestigial” devices.
In case you missed our first Slingbox post, or aren’t altogether sure about what a Slingbox does, you can read up on it here.
The nice folks at Sling Media sent us a Slingbox 500 after the first review. It’s a solid device with a few new features. It seems to drop the connection a bit less often than our Slingbox SOLO, but the main improvements are the built-in WiFi and ease of setup.
My main gripe with the Slingbox experience remains a tough one to fix – namely, the painfully long delay that accompanies each button press. This means that rewinding or fast-forwarding is a challenge not unlike parallel parking in a car with no brakes. And my slow broadband connection at the farm is like adding some potholes into the mix.
But enough with the holiday driving analogies. On to the latest SlingPlayer app update, which brings some sorely needed features to our fingertips.
Two screens are better than one.
Sling’s updated iPad app brings with it a second-screen experience, making it possible to control the SlingPlayer app on a whole slew of other devices. A SlingPlayer channel also landed on Roku. But (surprise, surprise) there’s a catch.
The free SlingPlayer app that populates our other streaming devices (NeoTV, WDTV, GoogleTV, and Boxee) comes with some basic controls for playing video. (I use the word “control” loosely here, as you can’t do much besides punch in channel numbers). But just keep your eye on that word “free.”
SlingPlayer for Roku doesn’t work this way. It’s free to install, but after that, you must use the SlingPlayer app on your phone to control it. (This is very Chromecast-ish, by the way.) So when you click on the Sling channel, you end up on a page telling you how to buy the SlingPlayer app for iPhone or Android. Huh?
About those mobile apps…
Ahhhh, right. Use-case stumble in the value chain that is payTV. Here’s what we mean: SlingPlayer’s mobile apps cost $15 each (yes, that’s fifteen dollars each), and are device-specific. You buy the tablet version,the phone version still costs you. And if (like us) you shelled out for the iPad version, can you use it to control your Roku? No.
But just as I was mulling over whether to purchase another app just for the Roku (again: fifteen dollars) , something buried in the iPad app settings caught my eye:
Connected device settings on iPad
You’re welcome? Anyway — yes — that’s right, now you can use the iPad app to control the SlingPlayer app on other connected devices. Who knew! Though at the time of this writing (just around Thanksgiving, 2013) you won’t find much (or anything) about it on their website or in the user forums. It took a chat with tech support before I figured out the correct sequence, but it works – quite well, actually.
Please do try this at home!
Step 1: First, log in to the SlingPlayer app, on whatever device that’s connected to your TV, and start streaming live TV.
Step 2: Open the SlingPlayer app on the iPad. Find something to watch. When you select the title, choose “Play on TV.”
Step 3: Wait for 10 to 20 seconds. Come on! You can do it!
Voila: The channel streaming on your TV will change. It did for us, anyway (we tested it on the 2nd-gen Google TV, NeoTV, WDTV Live Hub, and even the Boxee Box).
Today on FitTV, “Fabulous Cakes.” Wait, what?
This differs from the Roku implementation, in that the iPad is not talking directly to the device it’s “controlling.” It’s just changing the channel on the Slingbox, without taking over the video stream the other device is viewing. However, from your and my perspective, it’s the same general process: Select a show in the SlingPlayer app, tap “Play on TV.”
The latest version of the iOS for Slingbox app also adds AirPlay, so you can send the stream to an Apple TV as well. Bummer dude: When we tested it, the video continued playing out on the iPad screen, while the audio played out through the Apple TV. It’s an odd tug on the senses.
Other app features:
One of our favorite new things about the iPad app is the “Gallery” view. It’s an image-based guide that makes for a much easier browsing experience. The gallery view also lets you browse favorites only, if you set favorite channels (by tapping the heart icon in the guide). Favorites have long been a feature of SlingPlayer’s iPad app, but they work particularly well in Gallery view.
Gallery View on SlingPlayer for iPad
Another SlingPlayer for iPad thumbs up: Ahhh, there you are, metadata! In previous versions of the app, tapping an item in the guide would automatically tune to that channel. As people who expect guidance metadata — What show is this? What’s it about? — I had a lot of trouble with empty, trigger-happy channel changes.
The latest version of the app keeps the current channel playing when you tap an item in the guide. On the same screen real estate, it loads a description of what you’re watching, with the option to watch or record. As this is a table stakes capability we expected from the app all along, we’re glad to see it.
The updated Slingplayer for iOS apps also offer a “TV-out” feature, where you connect your mobile device to the TV using an Apple Digital AV Adapter and Component AV Cable. This is a mandatory option for Slingbox owners who travel a lot. It means you only need to pack a couple extra cables to replace the standard hotel lineup — with your own premium channels and DVR.
The growing trend toward two-screen control of our panapoly of OTT devices is a welcome one. We’ve long needed a remote control that lets you browse while you watch, controlling the TV from a handheld device. In other words, we’ve needed a cord-cutter’s version of the iPad guide apps that payTV companies rolled out years ago.
Fresh Meat! Sandvine’s Latest Work on Broadband Consumption Trends
By Sara Dirkse and Leslie Ellis
Sandvine released its Global Internet Phenomena report earlier this week, giving us a fresh look at how all these video streaming services — which we spend a whole lotta time studying — are performing.
Here’s the highlights.
Netflix continues to lead in fixed access (wired) downstream (toward consumers) traffic, with 31.6% of peak traffic during September. That’s down slightly, from 33% for the same period last year. But most of this data was collected before Netflix made SuperHD (1080P) content available to all subscribers – so Sandvine expects Netflix’s share of traffic to rally.
YouTube, on the other hand, grew 9% this year, and now accounts for 18.7% of peak downstream traffic. Together, YouTube and Netflix deliver more than half of all downstream traffic. (Note: This is only for fixed access — when it comes to mobile, YouTube tops the list — and Netflix comes in eighth. Go figure.)
File-sharing site BitTorrent continues to slide, netting just 4% of peak downstream traffic. BitTorrent remains #4 on the list of top traffic sources this year, but illegal/borderline illegal filesharing on the whole is losing traffic with gusto – more than a 20% drop over the past 5 years. This suggests that people will pay for streaming content, rather than going through the hassle, technically or morally, of downloading it illegally.
iTunes remains the czar of rental/VOD, in terms of traffic, but is down slightly in market share — dropping from 3.92% to 3.27%. Amazon also declined in viewing share, from 1.75% to 1.61%. That one surprised us, especially following reports of significant Prime subscriber growth in the past year.
Hulu cracked the Top 10 for the first time this year, with 1.29% of peak downstream traffic. Congratulations, Hulu. We’ll keep trying to remember to think of you first (or second, or third) when looking for stuff.
So thanks, Sandvine, for the update. There’s nothing like fresh data, from authentic spigots. It’s confirming to see some trends sustaining — like how streaming traffic continues to usurp peer-to-peer filesharing.
The jockeying of the streaming services, with toolkits inventoried with original content and service provider partnerships, are what we think will add the next contours of broadband consumption. We’ll be watching.
Much Ado about Aereo
On October 28th, Aereo came to Denver. It rolled out to the general public on November 4th, but we got early access because we preregistered months ago (and then routinely stalked Aereo’s website hoping for a rollout date.)
Aereo is over-the-air (OTA) television and local channels provided over the Internet – each subscriber has a remote DVR, plus a dedicated antenna, somewhere in a data center in Denver.
Maybe you’ve heard of Aereo in the context of the multiple lawsuits brought by broadcasters – Fox’s CEO publicly threatened to make all its content payTV only, and major networks such as ABC, CBS, and Fox filed lawsuits in multiple states. One or both seem destined to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
All this legal trouble stems from those antennas on the rooftop – Aereo claims that because each subscriber has a dedicated antenna, it is no different from getting those free-to-air channels using an antenna at home. Not surprisingly, broadcasters disagree — vehemently — and want Aereo to pay retransmission fees just like everyone else who carries their signals. So far, the rulings have been in Aereo’s favor, but another crop of lawsuits popped up in Utah on October 25th.
PayTV operators, which do pay handsome retransmission fees for those local channels, are of course watching these proceedings with great interest. A recent article in Businessweek says that DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are weighing similar technology options in the event Aereo prevails, and may have even considered buying the company.
We can’t help but wonder what would happen to the payTV ecosystem, were Netflix to buy Aereo. They both need each other — Netflix for live and linear; Aereo for a big catalog of on-demand fare. But we’ll set that aside for now.
So how does it work?
For $8/month, you get a single tuner and 20 hours of recording time. For $12, you can add a second tuner and increase your recording time to 60 hours. I doubt a second tuner or extra DVR space will get much use with 30 channels in our labs, but is probably a very sound investment for anyone who watches a lot of sports.
Aereo released a dedicated app for Android devices on October 22, and also works with iOS devices and web browsers. However, you won’t find it in the iTunes app store – you need to access Aereo’s website through Safari on your phone or tablet. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to drop a shortcut on your home screen so the end result is that you have an Aereo icon that takes you right to the website – virtually the same as using an app, and Aereo doesn’t have to give a cut to iTunes. Pretty clever, actually.
Aereo isn’t an official iOS app, but it’s easy enough to add an icon to your home screen.
Aereo works on Apple TV via AirPlay, and also has a channel on Roku. The Roku channel is not in the official channel store; you can only add it as a private channel. To do so, you go to the settings area of Aereo’s website and choose “connect to Roku,” then follow the link to Roku’s website to install the channel. Once the channel shows up on your Roku (I had to force a software update in order to see it), you just need to open it and type the confirmation code it displays into Aereo’s settings.
Aereo also has a “Two-screen Mode” for Roku that allows you to control Aereo from your iOS device:
Aereo on Roku, Two-Screen Mode. from Leslie Ellis on Vimeo.
In general, I like Aereo because it gives me a reliable way to watch local channels in an area where I can barely get an antenna signal. I’ve used a number of antenna-DVR combos, but more often than not my recordings were empty because the signal cut out.
But my Aereo antenna, about the size of a dime, is located on an undisclosed rooftop somewhere in Denver and gets an excellent signal – for the first time, I can get all the major networks, and I’ve yet to see a DVR recording that’s just a black screen.
Aereo suffers from my slow bandwidth connection, however (5 Mbps on a good day), so the video often pauses to reload even when on the lowest quality setting.
The playback on my Roku and my iPad appeared to be about equal on the Farm Lab’s DSL connection, and the two-screen mode on Roku worked equally well (this looks to be a Chromecast-type implementation where the Roku is retrieving the video from a URL rather than streaming it directly from the iPad). This also means that you can navigate to a different page or multitask on your device without interrupting the video.
Scheduling a recording from the iPad using Roku’s Two-Screen Mode.
Recording Options on iPad
However, using AirPlay with my Apple TV to watch Aereo was a different story. The video, which was streaming from my iPad to the Apple TV, paused to buffer so frequently that it wasn’t worth watching. AirPlay also relies on the app being up and the iPad screen active in order to work so there’s no multitasking, or even letting the iPad screen go dark as you watch TV.
Other than Aereo, the only way I can watch local news and major networks is using the Slingbox we have hooked up to our Comcast subscription in our Denver OTT lab. While the Slingbox does let me access a lot more content, I mostly find myself using it to watch live local news when there’s something going on.
This scenario is considerably better on Aereo, partly because the streaming quality is slightly more reliable than the SlingPlayer app, and I can watch it on my Roku. What’s more, the Aereo lineup in Denver includes 24/7 News (a subchannel of Denver’s channel 7), which plays the latest local newscast 24/7 – I really wish I had this for the floods back in September, and I’ll surely be tuning in the next time a blizzard rolls into Colorado.
But as much as I like having Aereo at the Farm Lab, there is one little thing I wish they’d change: As someone who uses TV as background noise more often than not, I like live TV because it’s linear – I don’t have to select another piece of content in order to keep watching. So naturally, I expected Aereo would work this way.
Instead, whenever a show ends, it pops up a message telling you to select something else. So if I get sucked into the first 3 minutes of whatever’s on next, I have to clear that message, navigate back through the guide, and find the current segment. Silly.
There are also a few glitches to be ironed out in the Guide by Time – future airtimes don’t list shows in the correct time slot – i.e. looking at the 5 pm slot actually gives you shows airing at 7, and because the guide is organized by show you can’t just tune in to a channel – you’re only given the option to schedule a future recording. It would be nice to have a “tune to this channel now” option in the guide.
The verdict: I’d really like to see Aereo make its linear experience a bit more linear, so that I can keep watching without constantly picking up the remote. But while it’s not perfect, Aereo is something that I can see myself using because my antenna reception is so awful. After buying expensive HD antennas and running extra-long coax all over the house, paying $8 a month for a reliable signal (and DVR) seems like a bargain, even if I should technically be able to get those channels for free.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Finally, after weeks of waiting and delayed shipments from Amazon, the lab has a Chromecast. And we have it thanks to Leslie’s pal Ryan Petty, who loaned us one of his – thanks Ryan!
I’ve been putting it through the paces for the past couple weeks, and it’s left me intrigued for future applications (and a bit frustrated with the current limitations).
What it is: Chromecast is a streaming dongle that plugs into the HDMI port of your TV, so that it’s barely visible (much less taking up precious shelf space). It’s similar in form factor to the Roku Streaming Stick, with one big difference: Roku uses MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) to power the device, so it only works with a small subset of newer TVs. But you don’t need to find power for it.
This isn’t true for Chromecast – you need to find power for it. It uses micro USB, which means it plugs in to the USB port on your TV, and then to the included wall adaptor. Then you need to find another hole in the power strip.
So, while MHL devices like Roku’s Streaming Stick have the advantage of being completely cordless, with no powering requirements, Chromecast has the advantage of transforming any TV set with an HDMI port into a connected TV. But it needs power.
How it works: Chromecast receives signals from smartphones and tablets, and from computers using Google’s Chrome browser (with the Chromecast plugin installed). It can mirror any web page or video from the computer’s browser, on the TV screen, and it also works with a few mobile apps to play optimized video. The mobile apps work by sending a URL to Chromecast, which then retrieves the video, rather than streaming directly from the device– making for much better video quality.
The premium video content is limited — just Netflix and YouTube were available initially, and Hulu Plus just joined the crowd yesterday — but HBO Go, Redbox, Vimeo, and others have expressed intent to porting their apps to Chromecast as well.
So assuming those Chromecast-optimized apps arrive soon (and there’s no telling, since the Chromecast SDK isn’t even finalized yet), this device will likely be a real contender for the holiday season.
Chromecast setup involved me going to a URL on my mobile device, which then directed me to install the Chromecast app (on both my iPhone and laptop.) From there, I connected to the Chromecast from the WiFi settings on my iPhone (as if it were a wireless network) and gave it the name and password for our local network. Then, it was just a matter of connecting my phone to the home WiFi network again, and then opening an app on my iPhone (i.e. Netflix) and selecting a piece of content. A new button within Chromecast-compatible apps allows you to select the Chromecast dongle as your output device, so whatever you select from your phone or tablet automatically starts playing on the TV.
Bonus: Chromecast doesn’t tie up whatever device you’re using to control it – so you can start a video from Netflix, and then go back to checking your email and browsing the web on whatever device you’re using. Likewise it won’t keep calls from coming in, though I think it would be nice to see it integrated a bit with the phone features – I’m thinking of Boxee’s remote control app, which automatically paused the video when a call came in. Allowing the viewer to select options like “Do not disturb” or “Pause video when phone rings” at the start of a session might make for a better experience.
The Netflix app worked quite well, with no noticeable lag in picture quality or streaming performance. The quality was a bit diminished when I tested it on my slow (~4 Mbps) connection at the farm, as expected.
I did notice that the Netflix app on my iPhone frequently forgets that it’s connected to a Chromecast, especially if I’m using it in areas of my house where the WiFi signal is weak. Then, I’m unable to control the Chromecast or pause the video, and I have to scramble to mute the volume if a call comes in.
I didn’t notice the same problem with the YouTube app, which was somehow able to maintain a connection with the Chromecast as my phone dropped off and on the WiFi network.
Streaming from my laptop, I quickly learned why it might not be such a big deal that people are able to mirror Hulu’s free web content up to the TV using Chromecast – the audio skipped almost constantly, and the reduced picture quality and large frame around the video made for a truly sub-par experience. Fortunately, Hulu finally released a compatible app yesterday so we won’t have to suffer through it any longer.
Chromecast does a lot for $35, but still lacks content – however, it appears that the content situation might get a lot better. If we get apps like Spotify and Amazon Instant Video down the road, this might be my go-to device. I really like being able to browse on a mobile device, rather than using a remote control to browse on my TV screen. Could it really be that Google TV finally got it right?
Well, maybe. Enter Sony’s Bravia “Smart Stick,” which breathless media reports dubbed a “Chromecast competitor” as soon as the first FCC filing surfaced — not so. For starters, the “Smart Stick” only works with Sony Smart TVs, and it requires MHL – that’s a very small percentage of the market.
The idea is to unite Google TV features with Sony’s Smart TV features, plus cable or satellite service using an HDMI pass-through. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Sony Google TV device without the same overly complicated remote control that shipped with their last device – surely a big part of the $115 price tag.
We’ll stick with the Chromecast, thanks. And wait to see what Comcast and its brethren have up their sleeve….
Rumor Mill Roundup: The Rise of Virtual MSOs?
We’ve been hearing a lot about “virtual MSOs” lately – companies developing payTV subscription plans to be delivered exclusively over the Internet, as an alternative to the traditional payTV infrastructure.
Virtually every tech giant explored, or is rumored to be exploring a virtual MSO model. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sony, Intel — the list keeps on growing, but we’ve yet to see a content deal nailed down.
The first real development (allegedly) came from Sony: In mid-August, we heard that they inked a preliminary deal with Viacom. Of course, we’ve got no confirmation of this from either party, and Sony hasn’t even officially announced that it’s working on a virtual MSO service. So there’s that.
We’ve also heard a lot of buzz about Intel over the past year. Intel’s service, supposedly called “OnCue,” is due to launch by the end of this year – though we can’t help but notice that the days are getting shorter, and still no announcement of content agreements or possible release dates.
Intel’s service will run on an Intel-powered set-top box, and also boasts a server farm with the ability to record every piece of content for 3 days, storing it in the cloud so viewers can go back and watch their shows without ever setting the DVR.
However, it’s not clear how (or if) this is going to work for the content providers, which typically require that there be a copy in the cloud for each subscriber, as with Cablevision’s remote DVR service. So essentially, Intel would need to record every piece of content for 3 days, multiplied by the number of subscribers – or perhaps work out something more along the lines of a VOD agreement.
Regardless, it’s going to be expensive. Because new virtual MSOs like Intel are just starting out, their content costs will be spread out across fewer subscribers. Intel reportedly offered to pay 75% more for the same content compared with cable operators, and the company remains optimistic despite not having any confirmed deals. In an interview with Barron’s back in June, Intel Media head Erik Huggers said, “We see incredibly serious engagement on the part of every programmer we talk with. I feel very good about our ability to get the right terms to move forward.”
Other wannabe MSOs are trying new approaches to get content, too: Apple is said to be developing a service in which viewers are allowed to skip ads, and Apple pays programmers for each ad skipped.
But despite all the buzz, it seems these companies are still having trouble obtaining the content that they’ll need in order to compete with existing MSOs. Contracts between MSOs and content providers, some of which have clauses preventing content from being licensed to any company that “does not control its own infrastructure,” may have something to do with this.
When (or should I say if?) if happens, the first virtual MSO will be a big deal for a variety of reasons. For me, living in a rural area, it means I might finally have a choice for payTV other than satellite (though what I could really use is a faster internet connection, so here’s hoping they get the adaptive streaming right).
For existing MSOs, it could have an even bigger impact. Assuming that a new virtual MSO is able to lure customers away from existing cable operators, we’ll probably see a big shift towards usage-based pricing for broadband service. Why: Because overall broadband consumption has been growing at a compound annual rate of more than 50% since 2009, and somebody has to pay to make sure capacity stays ahead of demand.
Many operators are already trialing usage-based plans, ostensibly as a cheaper option for light bandwidth users – but this will also give MSOs an opportunity to charge more to heavy bandwidth users (for example, people getting their TV content over the Internet).
It’s also important to note that at this point, the big operators spent the last 60 years building and maintaining (read: paying for) franchise agreements, town by town by town. As such, they tend to stick within their traditional geographic footprints and don’t typically compete with one another. But as more virtual MSOs and operators roll out IPTV services, those territory lines may start to blur – if that happens, you can bet we’ll see the competition heat up overnight.
This is Leslie’s observation, in proofing this blog: “MSO” stands for “Multiple System Operator.” The “system” part of that acronym points to the fact that cable operators spend billions of dollars every year on the physical plant that drops off all that services to subscribing homes. Unless Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Sony and any of the other shaker-uppers own infrastructure, they’re really more accurately a “ZSO” — “Zero Systems Operator.”
Summer Streaming Update
The original content battles are heating up this summer, and we’re seeing some interesting developments on the hardware side as well. In keeping, here’s a Summer Streaming roundup from our OTT Video Labs.
Chromecast: A successful TV device from Google at last?
In case you haven’t heard, Google released a new TV device on July 24th called “Chromecast.” Ours is set to arrive this week. Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle, similar in size to Roku’s streaming stick, but with some different features.
For starters, it uses a USB power source (either from your TV, or a wall socket adaptor), which means it works on HDTVs without MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link)-compatible HDMI ports. MHL allows devices to get power via the HDMI port, for instance the Roku Streaming Stick (which requires MHL). But most TVs in use today aren’t MHL-compatible, so we’re glad to see Chromecast will work for everyone.
And, it enables you play web video you select from a computer, tablet or phone, on the big-screen TV. It’s much like AirPlay Mirroring (or AirParrot) on AppleTV, meaning you can use Chromecast to watch browser-only content from Hulu or other sources, on your TV.
This last one is a biggie. Recall that when the first GoogleTV devices hit the marketplace, in 2010, Hulu and most networks blocked GoogleTV’s browser from accessing their content. With Chromecast, because the viewer is “flinging” content from another device to the TV, rather than tuning to it from an on-board browser, there’s no easy way to keep that “web-only” content off the TV. Hulu would have to either block the Chrome browser on all devices, or switch from Flash to Silverlight – both of which seem very unlikely.
Instead of putting up a fight, Hulu seems to be taking the position that Chromecast is about connectivity more so than access – that it’s just slightly easier than using an HDMI cable to connect a computer to a TV screen. Its bet: People will pay for easier. Plus, there’s the whole “more eyeballs” angle, always a factor.
Like Netflix and YouTube, Hulu is working to make its mobile app Chromecast-compatible. These compatible apps (located on the mobile device, not the Chromecast stick itself) provide much better video quality, because Chromecast essentially receives a URL link to the content, then pulls it directly from the public Internet, rather than streaming from one device to another.
We’ll be putting Chromecast through its paces in the lab over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for a full review.
And speaking of game-changing devices: Fanhattan’s FanTV box is now in trials with Cox in Orange County, Calif., for an IPTV service it calls “flareWatch.” FanTV is a small, attractive device that replaces the traditional cable box to combine live TV and DVR with streaming services. In the Cox implementation, access to Netflix or Hulu isn’t an option, at least initially. Cox says this is because they’re early on in the trial and just testing the user interface at this point, but we suspect it might have more to do with contractual obligations between the networks and OTT providers.
Redbox and Roku, together at last
And finally! We got the long-awaited Redbox Instant channel on Roku. While Redbox continues to add new content and devices, the selection is still quite limited when compared to other services, particularly because there’s no TV content – only movies. Assessment: Yawn.
Another almost-sale for Hulu
Hulu Plus was up for sale for a second time, and once again its owners pulled it off the auction block, opting to instead plow another $750 million into it. For what? As many as 20 original series premieres this year, two of which were released earlier this month: “The Awesomes” on August 1, and “Quick Draw” on August 5. Unlike the Netflix model, these are released on a weekly basis rather than all at once.
Hopefully these original series pay off for Hulu, because they’ve been losing content to exclusive deals between copyright owners, and competitors Netflix and Amazon. For example: Last month Netflix got exclusive rights to past seasons of Fox’s “New Girl,” so now Hulu Plus users will only have access to a few episodes at any given time. Before, it was the entire series.
Original content is taking off
Speaking of original content, Netflix is up for 14 Emmy Awards for its original content, nine of which are for “House of Cards.” (That’s up from zero nominations, any time before.) A new Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black,” is also getting rave reviews.
So it’s hardly surprising that we’re starting to see headlines calling Netflix “the new HBO.” More content is on the way, with the Ricky Gervais series “Derek” premiering September 12. Netflix also has quite a bit of original children’s content in the works, through its partnership with Dreamworks.
And to keep it all separate, Netflix recently introduced “identities,” allowing families to create multiple logins under the same account — so parents will no longer be inundated with Disney flicks, nor will they have to worry about their kids getting recommendations for “Breaking Bad.”
Let us not forget Amazon, also very busy with original content. It just announced another 5 new pilots, all geared towards children. As with its last round of pilots, Amazon involves viewers to participate in which shows get greenlighted for a full series.
With all this high-quality content now being produced by OTT providers, we’re interested to see where it ends up – will we eventually see the next big show coming from Netflix, and syndicated on cable TV? And if so, how will pay-TV providers incorporate it into their offerings?
We’ll keep an eye on it for you.
Boxee: What went wrong?
Once upon a time, at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, a plucky startup gleefully intercepted a tour of visiting cable television executives, asking if they’d like to see how their technology – named Boxee – was going to kill the cable industry.
On July 8, Samsung quietly bought Boxee, paying $30 million. And while we may see hints of Boxee in future iterations of Samsung Smart TVs (or maybe a streaming device?), it’s curtains for Boxee’s Cloud DVR service.
Shortly after going public with news of the acquisition, Boxee posted this on its website:
We were so hopeful that someday – eventually – we’d get Boxee’s Cloud DVR service in our area! But alas, as the months stretched on, our anticipation dwindled. Despite promises to roll out service to 26 markets by the end of the year, at the time of sale Boxee’s DVR service was still only in 9 of the largest television markets (Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Seattle.)
We can’t help but notice what the first Boxee Cloud DVR markets all have in common: Wal-Mart. When Boxee switched focus to a cloud DVR service, you see, it signed an exclusive brick-and-mortar deal with Wal-Mart. So last Christmas, if you were considering a Boxee TV device, you had two options: Wal-Mart, or Boxee’s website.
Here’s the problem: Wal-Mart stores inhabit rural areas. In metro areas where Boxee first launched its DVR service? Not so much. (Whoops.)
Add to that the fact that many retail displays failed to point out the fact that Boxee’s “No Limits DVR” indeed had one very big limitation: The service just wasn’t available in most areas. Wal-Mart shoppers across the nation were (rightly) indignant at spending $100 and expecting to be able to use a service that wasn’t actually available yet. As you might imagine, this led to angry returns. (Nobody wants to be the one who gives – or receives — the lackluster Christmas gift.)
It got worse. In the markets that carried Boxee’s DVR service, people complained. The box was buggy. It crashed all the time. People felt like they were paying to be beta testers.
Adding to the frustration, Boxee’s Cloud DVR could only record from an antenna signal. DVR for unencrypted basic cable (ClearQAM) was promised, but not implemented.
That meant it was possible to hook the Boxee TV up to basic cable and watch ClearQAM channels live — but DVR only worked with an antenna signal. Maybe this was a technical limitation, having to do with how Boxee uploads files to its cloud. Maybe it was a rights thing – recall that Cablevision Systems fought a vicious rights battle for its “remote storage DVR” service, which twisted all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It won, with two concessions. It had to store one copy of a video asset for every subscriber seeking a view — so if half a million people asked to see “Heat,” it has to store half a million copies. Not one copy that it could share amongst the 500,000 subscribers. And, they had to call it “Remote Storage DVR.” The point: Distribution rights are tantamount to success in the video marketplace.
We do know that recording ClearQAM content isn’t an issue for Simple.tv, nor the upcoming device from Channel Master and Echostar, both of which use local storage for recordings.
And it also ate up a lot of bandwidth, with all the constant uploading to the cloud (20 GB/day, according to one user.) Even if the service rolled out to our “Farm Lab” and other rural areas, I doubt our bandwidth would’ve supported it. If Boxee TV offered a local USB storage option in addition to cloud, maybe we’d be telling a different story today.
As CE Pro pointed out, Boxee’s DVR service was probably intended to subsidize the hardware, which was about half the price of the original (and now “tele-vestigial”) Boxee Box.
In theory, “no-Limits DVR” would encourage users to record as much content as their dual tuners would allow, amassing a huge library of shows to keep and maybe someday watch. (Speaking of Cablevision Systems – it just bumped its cloud DVR capacity to 10 simultaneously recording tuners.)
And so, in theory, subscribers would keep paying the monthly fee and recording more content, and hopefully they’d have enough invested to stick around if and when Boxee decided to jack up the subscription price. So much for cutting the cord!
But this most definitely did not happen. First off, the OTA reception in many areas (and especially my house) isn’t great, so there’s not much content available to record. And full catalogs of most network TV shows can be found readily on streaming services for a smaller monthly fee.
At this point we’re up to six major problems that plagued poor Boxee, the cable killer. And there’s more. Apparently, recording stuff wasn’t all that simple either. There was no way to pause live TV or start a recording using the box itself – recordings could only be scheduled by accessing Boxee’s website from a computer.
What’s more, recordings were often plagued by technical issues. One user described glitches with the timeline on his DVR recordings that made the shows jump back and forth, as if the content had been “chopped into chunks and shuffled like a deck of cards.”
Another common complaint was the heat coming off the coax, where the antenna attaches to the box – it’s hot enough that I’ve burned my fingers. It’s just never good when you have to worry about your gadgets setting the house on fire.
Clearly, Boxee’s Cloud DVR was nowhere near ready for rollout to 17 more cities. That said, there probably aren’t a whole lot of people out there sobbing over the fact that all their recordings vanished when Samsung pulled the plug.
Here’s a question: What happens to Boxee TV with respect to 3rd party software, especially if the technology gets bundled into Samsung’s TVs? Will we eventually see a hack like Boxee+ that might allow us to record to a hard drive, or will the Samsung treatment of Boxee TV stay so closed (or so poorly designed) that it will never support new software?
And here’s another question: What does Samsung want with Boxee? Nicholson Baker, a writer for The New Yorker, did a piece in the magazine’s July 8, 2013 edition, titled “A Fourth State of Matter.” In general, it was about liquid crystal display (LCD) technologies, most of which come from Korea. But nestled within the article was this nugget, which may explain why Samsung bought Boxee (or it may not):
“A hundred and fifty years ago, Young-hwan Kim said (I was listening to a simultaneous translation through headphones), Koreans had no weapons and were the pawns of other countries. Then, in 1984, some Korean farmers started a revolution, resisting their oppressors with poles and shovels. Now, Korea was the builder of many of the ships on the ocean, and Korea was one of the world’s great automobile makers, and Korea was a leader in the steel industry, and the preeminent supplier of liquid crystal displays. What was missing? Software. Korean must do better with software.”
So, goodbye, Boxee. We loved your pluck, and the freaky-cool design of your original hardware. And we hope your software genes are what Samsung needs. We’ll be watching for you…