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.
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…
An iPhone and an Incubator
Sometimes I don’t fully understand the usefulness of things right away. Ustream, for instance. When I first heard of it, I imagined nothing beyond webcam “concerts” and talk shows filmed from somebody’s living room. (Party on, Garth.)
But now I’ve tried it, and I say Ustream is for the birds. Literally. (Never mind the other obvious use cases, such as following police scanner feeds in Boston this week.)
I live on a farm, as you may already know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. Usually, that only comes into play here when I’m explaining how I became a cord-cutter or whining about my slow DSL connection. But now, even my chickens are getting involved.
I’ve been keeping a small flock of chickens since I moved to the farm, but this year I’m hatching in an incubator for the first time, with eggs due April 26th. And in trying to learn as much as I could about the process, I found myself actually using YouTube on the AppleTV for once.
But I really made the connection when I saw a mention of a live hatch on Ustream. I tuned in, first on my iPad and then a Boxee Box, and that night I watched a stranger’s chicks hatch across the country.
As it turns out, Ustream is great for this sort of thing: a camera trained on something interesting, preferably involving baby animals.
So, naturally, I had to try it myself.
After debating various combinations of cameras, computers, and encoding options, I chose the easiest possible setup:
An old iPhone, with a paperclip kickstand.
Not surprisingly, I’ve run into a few glitches with my slow connection (~2 Mbps upstream) and have to take the camera offline whenever I want to upload photos or do anything that requires a lot of bandwidth. I didn’t honestly expect it to work at all, so I’m pretty impressed with the video quality.
My chicks will be hatching on or about April 26th. Starting today, you can find the hatch cam on my new food and photo blog The Homegrown Gourmet. (If I’m not uploading anything, that is.)