The Great Lab Purge of 2014
Landscapes are changing, both inside the lab and out. We’ve seen the “hardware streamer” category flare up and settle back down; the major players have been established, and the lab shelves are cluttered with “televestigial” devices and piles of remote controls. And so, the purge begins.
A few of the favorite televestigials get an honorary HDMI port — namely the Boxee Box and a 2nd-generation Sony Google TV. The 1st-generation Sony Google TV gets to stay too, because it’s another screen (but probably the dusty 91-button remote control will live in a drawer).
The multiple outdated devices from Netgear and Sony (not to mention the associated tangles of cords running behind the lab shelves) are getting the axe.
Fortunately for those of us dealing with cord-clutter, 2014 is shaping up to be Year of the Dongle. We’ll have offerings from Roku and (so we hear) Amazon joining the lab next month, and we’re looking forward to covering the next phase of OTT technology and branching out to some new areas as the traditional hardware streamer market dies down.
Meanwhile, I recently moved from the connection-challenged farm and am officially back on the cord. Happiness! My new house gets Comcast service, so I now have access to cable TV and 50MB internet – a big upgrade from the farm, where I’d get 4.7MB downstream on a good day. As soon as I find the boxes labeled “OTT,” I’ll be back with an update on how my streaming experience at home changes with a much faster connection. Stay tuned!
Cable at the Farm (well, sort of)
With winter approaching in Colorado, and a long commute between the farm and the lab, we recently added a Slingbox to the mix, so that I can access the lab’s Comcast/TiVo set-top box from home.
A Slingbox allows you to view and control your set-top box from outside your home network. It’s not new — the Slingbox SOLO we’re running in the lab is virtually unchanged for the past 3 years.
Naturally, Slingbox just released its first new hardware since 2009 – one week after we ordered the SOLO. But after looking at the specs and initial reviews, we’re not convinced it’s worth the trouble and price difference to exchange it for a newer model.
STILL NO WIFI? REALLY?
The main reason for this is that the new Slingbox 350 STILL DOESN’T HAVE WIFI. For a device that costs $180, this is absurd. The higher-end 500 does include WiFi, however, at $300, it costs 3x what we paid for the SOLO. (Uh, thanks, but we’ll just get another $50 router.)
The new Slingbox devices also both have an HDMI port, but still recommend using component in addition to HDMI when connecting to a set-top box. Why? HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection.)
In a nutshell, an HDCP device (the TiVo Premiere is one example) checks the receiving device to make sure it’s HDCP-compliant before transmitting video through the HDMI port. Because Slingbox devices are not HDCP-compliant, some or all of the channels may be restricted when connecting via HDMI, depending on your set-top box.
Slingbox uses an IR blaster to send signals through the IR sensor on your set-top box, controlling it just as your normal remote control does. (Hint: if you don’t know where your IR sensor is, just shine a flashlight at the front of your set-top box.)
You can access a Slingbox from a variety of devices. There’s a $15 Slingplayer app for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices; there are free web apps for Mac/PC, Boxee Box, and Google TV (buried within the Spotlight app.)
In practice, it turns out that watching cable TV through a Slingbox carries many of the same challenges as streaming OTT video — at least with my download speeds, which hit about 4.6 Mbps on a good day.
When I’m watching Hulu, for instance, there’s no way to fast-forward through commercial breaks. That’s by (their) design. On the Slingbox, it’s technically possible to watch time-shifted content, including fast-forwarding through advertisements — but doing so is almost always a losing prospect.
Why: Because each time I press a button through the Slingplayer app, the signal has to travel from my device at the farm to the Comcast set-top in the lab, and back to the farm. On my connection, this lag time averages about 10 seconds (though it goes as low as 4, and as high as 30.)
As a result, attempting to fast-forward through commercials usually lands me smack in the middle of the next commercial break, having skipped through at least 15 minutes of content while waiting for the “Play” command to kick in. The same thing happens when I try to rewind, and I end up in the commercial break before where I started. One step forward, two steps back.
This lag time also means that browsing VOD and the program guide isn’t worth the trouble. The mobile app does have a built-in program guide, but will run you $15 (on top of what you paid for the Slingbox hardware.)
As for video quality, it’s passable but not great. The Slingplayer app allows you to choose video quality manually (from the options “Basic,” “Good,” “Better,” and “Best” – “Best” is disabled at my internet speeds.) It also allows you to test your connection speed within the app (my Internet to SlingPlayer speed was 3.564 Mbps; Slingbox to SlingPlayer 2.171 Mbps.)
Unlike the SlingPlayer iPad app, the free apps for Boxee and Google TV don’t appear to do anything in the way of adaptive streaming. They do recommend a certain setting based on your current bandwidth, and by default they enable optional “video quality messages,” meaning that whenever your bandwidth isn’t sufficient the SlingPlayer app pops up a message recommending that you select a lower video quality.
I don’t know about you, but I find that a pop-up message alerting me every time my bandwidth drops is super helpful and not at all annoying!
On my connection, I can choose “Better” or “Good” video quality with occasional interruptions to the video stream (especially when I download a file or send an email,) or I can choose “Basic” video quality and enjoy uninterrupted video. Since most of my TV watching tends to fall under “background noise,” this is an easy choice.
“How about that picture?”
I will say that the Slingbox really proved useful during the second presidential debate. I was watching over-the-air HD coverage on the Boxee Box, on one of the few channels that comes in crystal clear — until the wind started blowing. I pulled up the Slingplayer app on my iPad, and –voila!- it picked up right at the point where I lost reception.
Even with the sub-par picture and occasional choppiness, live cable TV at the farm is a novelty. As someone who’s normally limited to just a handful of local channels through my Boxee antenna dongle, I’m pretty easy to please.
In The News
A lot’s been happening in the world of over-the-top this spring — from new Google TV devices and old TV series coming back from the dead, to rumors that Hulu is about to turn the screws on cord-cutters. So this week, we bring you a recap of some of the current events:
RUMOR MILL: First on the agenda? Rumors that Hulu is planning to require users to have a cable or satellite subscription in order to use the service. It’s not clear whether this would apply only to the free content available through Hulu’s website, or if Hulu Plus subscribers would need to authenticate with a pay TV subscription as well. I’m hoping for the former, since I can’t get cable at my house and rely on my Hulu Plus subscription for a lot of my TV content. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out, if it does – but keep in mind this move to an authentication model could take years to complete, according to the NY Post.
On a more positive note, Hulu has changed its approach to Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” feature to make it more clear to users what they’re sharing to Facebook. It is now easier to turn “social sharing” on and off, and a popup reminds users that the video they’re watching is being shared to Facebook. Most importantly, Hulu’s social sharing is now opt-in instead of opt-out.
NEW GOOGLE TVS: LG is set to release two new Google TV models in the U.S. later this month, priced at $1,699 for the 47” model and $2,299 for the 55” model. These HDTVs will be the first of the 2nd-generation Google TV devices to be released, and include 3D capability in addition to a motion-sensitive remote control and Google TV’s new ARM-based processor.
DO THE MATH: We may be seeing a $99 Xbox Kinect bundle from Microsoft as early as next week, according to The Verge. This may sound like a steal, considering a 4 GB Xbox 360 with Kinect currently retails for about $300. But there’s a catch: With the $99 bundle, you’re locked into a 2-year contract with the Xbox Live Gold service at $15/month. Over the course of 2 years, you’ll end up paying $459 instead of the $420 you’d pay if you buy the console at full price and sign up for the Xbox Live Gold service separately. Plus, you’ll be charged an early termination fee if you break the 2-year contract.
“ORIGINAL” NOW MEANS “REALITY” TV: Amazon is getting into original programming, like competitors Netflix and Hulu. Amazon Studios is asking viewers to submit ideas for comedy and children’s programming to be offered via Amazon Instant Video. Amazon says it plans to select one project per month, which will be tested with the audience. If a show is chosen for a full-budget series run, the creator will get $55,000 along with other royalties.
REVIVAL SURVIVAL: And finally, Netflix is reportedly in talks with CBS about reviving what would be its second network show, the sci-fi cult favorite “Jericho.” Last month, Netflix announced plans to bring back the sitcom “Arrested Development,” which will return in 2013.
With all 3 of the major OTT service providers now producing original programming, I have to wonder when we’ll start seeing services like Netflix bundled with cable and satellite subscriptions. As with just about everything else, it’s “just” a matter of negotiations…