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.
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….
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.
Highlights from OTTCON
The who’s who of the over-the-top (OTT) video community met in San Jose a few weeks ago, at a trade show called OTTCON. Missed it? Me too. But I did dispatch Sara Dirkse, who runs our OTT video lab (and blogs on this web site.)
Luckily for us, she takes great notes. Here’s the highlights:
– Backhanded compliment of the year: “Dinosaurs with lasers” was applied to cable as a descriptor. “The dinosaurs are getting more advanced, so we can’t really call them that anymore,” said Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Digit Media.
– The words “1970s cable TV” came up repeatedly, as participants likened the current state of OTT to the programming heyday of yore.
– “Long form video” now means anything over 10 minutes. (!)
– When asked how many had seen every episode of the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” a third of the audience raised hands. (Every episode.)
– “Syndicated metadata” popped up regularly at OTTCON. It’s a way for content owners to ensure that no matter what app people use to get to their content, their metadata persists, so that the experience is rich and consistent.
– People with Apple products watch twice as much video on their phones and tablets than people with Android-based gadgets.
– If 10% of cable’s audience cut the cord, it would double the load on CDN (content delivery network) providers like Akamai, which is already moving just under 10 Terabits per second.
– The last mile network is not where the major congestion is occurring, said Will Law, principle architect for Akamai’s Media Division. “It’s like widening your driveway and expecting to reduce your commute time.”
– Making TVs into phones is a bad idea, said Digit Media’s Toeman. Skype on a tablet trumps.
– Watch for more original content from non-traditional brands (Red Bull, Funny or Die) and brands (Netflix, Hulu.) It won’t replace cable, but we’ll see a lot more of it.
– More than 850 display devices use Netflix’s API (application program interface.)
– Netflix is developing 4K streaming content. Which weighs 17 Mbps, if compressed with the best technique in the market today (H.264/MPEG-4.) With HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding), that’ll halve to 8.5 Mbps – but is still more than 2x the heft of today’s HD streams, compressed with H.264/MPEG-4.
Bottom line: Netflix doing 4K will seriously tweak that already tweaked 50% CAGR in broadband usage.
So, dinosaurs with lasers: That’s what the new kids are up to. Onward!
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
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…