Amazon Echo – A Boon to Baby Boomers
When the first Amazon Echo device was released back in June of 2015, we questioned whether it would really take off in the mainstream. At that point Alexa was basically a glorified Bluetooth speaker that could control the lights and add items to an Amazon shopping list. But over the past couple years we’ve all seen new functionality, and some amusing-yet-compelling use cases, thanks to Amazon’s TV ad campaigns.
Since then, sales numbers skyrocketed, and especially over the past year – survey estimates this past summer put Echo sales at more than 10 million units. And now there are all sorts of Echo spinoff devices, like the Echo Dot, and the newer Echo Show, a video-enabled version.
Never be without your lyrics again — Echo Show, $150
More than two years after adding a few Amazon Echo devices around the house, I still have mixed feelings. The low-level creepiness of knowing she’s always listening never quite goes away, but thanks to some special skills I’ve set up (more on that later) the Echoes are useful enough that they’ve kept their rightful places in my house.
The true test came when my uncle stayed with us for a night over the Thanksgiving holiday. We gave him a quick introduction to the Echo Dot on the nightstand, and showed him the commands for controlling the Philips Hue bulbs scattered around the house. As we turned in for the night, we heard Alexa reciting the news headlines in his room.
I awoke the next morning to find my uncle browsing Amazon while using Siri to text message his friends about the Echo. “I gotta get an Amazon Alexa, period. She’s great, exclamation point!”
He put down his phone and turned to me. “This morning I asked her if she could play me Willie Nelson and she just started playing Willie Nelson! I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off though.” I heard Red Headed Stranger still quietly playing from the other room, and stuck my head in the doorway. “Alexa, SILENCE!” My uncle resumed browsing on his phone. “I might need to get a couple of these.”
And with that, and as-important developments like Comcast’s voice remote, I think we’ve officially reached the point where speech recognition devices are advanced and intuitive enough to actually be useful to the average person. These days it’s easier to use voice commands than to squint at phone screens and use tiny virtual keyboards, especially for the older generations. Even my Mom, who back in 2005 threatened to disown the entire family when we surprised her with a cell phone upgrade, is already on the Echo bandwagon.
A few of the services that currently work with Echo devices
What about privacy?
With all the devices now listening in around the country, we’d be remiss not to mention privacy. Sure, it can be a little unsettling to own a device nearby that may or may not be recording your conversations – speaking of which, did you hear about that Google Home bug that caused some devices to record 24/7 and store it all in the cloud?
At least a few times a week, I’ll see the Echo in my living room light up randomly, without the “wake word” ever being spoken. If you ask “Alexa, is Jeff Bezos spying on me?” she’ll respond coolly, “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear the wake word.” Really, in this day and age, what device isn’t collecting information about our habits and trying to find a way to make sense of (and monetize) all that data?
For most of us, it really comes down to how useful a device is versus how concerned we are about the data we might be sharing with it. Security breaches are a part of life these days, when even buying a can of paint can result in the headache of having your data compromised and your card reissued.
Turns out it’s increasingly not that hard to overlook privacy concerns — when the product makes life easier. Sure, I worry that my data will end up in the wrong hands. Do I worry enough to unplug all my devices, stuff them into the closet, and go back to the dark ages before Alexa turned on the lights for me? Nope. But if I were engaged in more behavior that Jeff Bezos and Uncle Sam would find interesting, I might feel differently.
One thing is for sure, when it comes to Alexa: I feel for people whose actual name is Alexa. When I run into human Alexas, I always ask them: So – how’s it going? The answers vary, but in general, they either don’t own the device, or they’ve changed the wake word….
Streaming Stick Showdown: How Different Dongles Measure Up
Google Chromecast, $35
Features we love:
Chromecast’s small form factor and low price created a big ruckus when it launched back in the fall of 2013, even though the content selection was pretty much limited to YouTube and Netflix at that time.
But because it’s relatively easy to add “Cast” support to most iOS and Android apps, the Chromecast library continues to expand quickly and now most of the major video apps are represented – including HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Hulu Plus, in addition to YouTube and Netflix.
We also like the experience of browsing for content on our mobile devices, versus scrolling through titles on a big screen – to a certain point. Which brings us to the next section.
Things we’d change:
The thing that we find most compelling about Chromecast is also the thing that drives us nuts: No physical remote. Initially we found the simplicity charming – just a device that catches whatever streams you throw at it from your phone or tablet.
But the lack of remote really backfires when pausing involves fumbling for a smartphone, closing the email you were typing, etc. Back in September I was still quite enamored with the Chromecast. But I got increasingly frustrated as I battled frequent connection issues that caused the transport controls (rewind, pause, etc.) to stop working.
Fortunately, a recent Chromecast update largely resolved this issue, by allowing Chromecast to accept signals from most TV remotes. This uses the same CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) function that allows you to power on your TV and control the volume using Chromecast, only in reverse. It worked like a charm on my Samsung Smart TV, but may not work with all TV models.
As of today, this feature works with almost all the Chromecast-compatible apps – with the big exception of Netflix. No word on when that update will drop (Netflix is often a little slower to build new Chromecast features into its apps), but by incorporating a remote without adding another one to our pile, Chromecast is back in our good graces.
Roku Streaming Stick, $45
Features we love:
Roku is always near the top of nearly every streaming device roundup we’ve posted over the years, mainly because it has the widest variety of content. It still does, and tends to be on the forefront whenever a new app is released.
We also like Roku’s universal search feature, which ties together all the major content sources so that you can search in a single interface.
Things we’d change:
With all its good features, it hurts us to say that the Roku Streaming Stick falls a bit short. It packs considerably less power than the Roku 3 or the Fire TV. Where Roku 3’s WiFi remote is responsive to every button press, the Streaming Stick lags and seems to have difficulty getting signals from the remote (also WiFi) when plugged in to the back of the TV.
Last Spring, we wrote about the Streaming Stick’s issues with DIAL – the process of casting content from Netflix or YouTube to the TV was buggy, and often didn’t work reliably. This is still largely the case, but it’s true for Chromecast too.
Roku is certainly the winner in terms of sheer content, but that might be a dubious honor. Sometimes all that content can be overwhelming, as is definitely the case when I look at all the free niche channels in Roku’s channel store.
Amazon Fire TV Stick, $39
Back in December, Amazon started offering Fire TV in dongle form. It sports a dual-core processor instead of the quad-core found on the larger Fire TV, but we didn’t notice much of a difference. Content between the two devices is the same, other than the $99 version having access to a larger selection of games (probably where that quad-core processor comes in handy.)
Features we love:
Amazon’s Fire TV devices support a bunch of different video services, but do a particularly excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own video selection (both Prime and additional content to rent or buy.) If you mainly watch Amazon Prime, you’ll enjoy this feature. The Prime content also includes metadata from IMDB, making it easy to browse for other titles that include the same actors or director.
Like Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV also allows you to “Cast” content from your phone or tablet – and if you have a premium subscription to Spotify, Fire TV lets you control the music with your phone via Spotify Connect (a feature that is sorely lacking on Chromecast and Roku).
Like all Amazon devices, installation was a breeze. The Fire TV showed up pre-authenticated to the account it was purchased from — you’ll still have to sign in to Netflix, Showtime, and the other services on the box, but you can start watching video right out of the box.
And like Roku, Amazon also offers a (nearly) universal search feature. You can search across Amazon and other services like Showtime and Hulu Plus – just not Netflix. Which brings us to the next section:
Things we’d change:
If you like to get your content from multiple sources, the Amazon-focused UI on the Fire TV can be a bit over-the-top (see what I did there?). Most of the screen space is devoted to layers upon layers of Amazon content, with the other services jammed into a single row.
Netflix titles are conspicuously absent both from the search feature and the IMDB recommendations, which is annoying, if somewhat understandable. Sure, Amazon would probably prefer that I pay $2.99 for an episode of Mad Men instead of watching it on Netflix at no extra charge – but I wouldn’t.
Also worth considering, if you’re a premium cable subscriber in the market for a new streaming device: While all three devices have apps for HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, not all of them will let you sign in. If you’re a Comcast or Charter subscriber, you won’t be able to watch Showtime or HBO on your Fire TV until they strike a deal – and in the case of Roku, that process took years.
So which dongle is our favorite?
We get this question a lot, but it’s never an easy one to answer. The Fire TV stick is currently getting the most screen time in my farm lab, and at the lab-lab, and at Leslie’s house – but the Roku Streaming Stick still has a solid content selection. Chromecast was falling short, but controlling it with the TV remote is a game-changer. One thing we know for sure is that these services and devices can look very different in a year, or a few months. Stay tuned for our next update.
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.
2014 Year In Review
After thumbing through every 2014 issue of this magazine, five tech trends rose to the top:
1. We’re now squarely in the middle of the transition to “all-IP” (Internet Protocol), as the umbrella covering cloud-delivered services, bandwidth (wired and wireless), connected devices, TV everywhere, and all else in the technological vogue. It began with the cable modem, in the late ‘90s. Nobody really knows when the “all” part of “all-IP” will happen — but “not in my lifetime” is a seldom-heard response.
2. This year, the term “OTT” — Over-the-Top — became less a categorical description of Netflix, Amazon, and the rest of the new ilk of video competition, and more a common technological ingredient, used by all. In short, with every step toward cloud, operators are “over-the-topping themselves.”
3. The recognition that “the competition” now extends beyond satellite and telco-delivered services, to the OTT camp, brought with it a new “tech culture” reality. Vendors, operators and programmers alike spent a sizeable chunk of 2014 retooling to work at “web speed,” which means adopting agile software and “DevOps” strategies.
4. RDK, the Reference Design Kit, rose in strategic importance this year, again, and big time. Evidence: In October, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries off-handedly called RDK “a DOCSIS moment,” referencing the cable modem specification that changed the economics of what became the broadband industry.
5. “Speed vs. capacity” will sustain as one of the more important tech subtleties. It’s the “gig” that can gum things up: GigaHertz is a unit of capacity, Gigabyte a unit of storage, and Gigabit a measure of speed. But! As important is throughput, or, the amount of stuff we’re moving to and from our various screens. Knowing the distinctions matters.
That’s the short list! Merry merry, and may your 2015 technologies be kind and useful.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
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.