NextGuide: The Next Generation of TV Guides
Have you ever spent 30 minutes combing through multiple streaming video apps, trying to decide on something to watch? Me too. And apparently, we’re not alone.
At OTT-con, we heard a lot about this particular challenge from Jeremy Toeman, CEO of Dijit. He called it the “Chinese restaurant menu effect,” where we have so much to choose from that it becomes a burden. Dijit aims to solve this with NextGuide, an overhaul of the traditional TV guide that combines live and on-demand content into a single place.
NextGuide started as an iPad app, and released a web browser version last month. The browser version is still in beta (you can sign up if you’re registered on the iPad app) and it appears there are still a few things to be ironed out, but in general both apps work well.
NextGuide has much in common with other video discovery appslike Fanhattan (which just announced a new device) and Matcha (which just shut down its app, but claims to have something new in the works.) It hooks into many of the same content sources: Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Amazon, and live TV. (No HBO Go though.)
Like the earlier discovery apps, NextGuide lets you browse a bunch of sources in one place. When you pick something, it automatically launches an app (or website, in the case of the browser version) and starts playing the content. This worked solidly on both the iPad and web versions for me, and with none of the Netflix playback issues we noticed with Fanhattan.
Dijit’s recommendations go a step further than any other app or service I’ve yet seen. They work on an episodic level – meaning, you get recommendations for a specific episodes rather than the whole show.
Here’s how it works: You set customized categories based on your interests, location, favorite actors, and so on. Then Dijit combs through all the content it can see to identify episodes that might be of particular interest to you.
The iPad app has a section called “Your Picks” that highlights the top recommendations for you, but I was only interested in about 10% of the titles it gave me. To be fair, I didn’t give it a lot to work with: Dijit takes into account shows that you’ve “liked” on both Facebook and NextGuide, and uses these to fine-tune recommendations. It also lets you edit the “My Picks” section to veto things you don’t want to see.
The content is organized into a bunch of different categories, like “Denver” or “Sports,” which you can customize and browse through by selecting the icon at the top of the page or swiping right and left. You can choose the sources of content, and even select favorite channels in your live TV lineup.
But one thing that is notably missing is a separation between Amazon Prime and On-Demand content — it’s all combined, and my recommendations list fills up with a bunch of titles that I have to pay extra to see. One more button on the content filters would do a lot to help this experience.
On the iPad app, content is organized in a series of screens that you can flip through by swiping or tapping the icons at the top. It defaults to a section called “Your Picks” that combines all of your recommendations, and if you want to see content related to a particular interest or genre you just head to that section.
It also includes some other features beyond the typical content discovery mix. Last month, it added USA Network’s “USA Sync” technology, which uses ACR (Automatic Content Recognition) to recognize the content playing on your TV and bring up polls, trivia, and cast information on your iPad.
This feature only works with a few USA shows that this point, and only when they’re playing live – when I tried to test it at home with Burn Notice via Slingbox, the short delay (~10 seconds) was enough to make this feature not work on either NextGuide or the USA app. This would be so much more useful if it behaved more like Yahoo’s IntoNow app, which recognizes content whether it’s live, timeshifted, or on-demand.
NextGuide also includes a social layer that allows you to connect with Facebook friends and other users with similar tastes (this came from Miso, which Dijit acquired back in February.)
There were a few things specific to the iPad app that bothered me, after quite a few hours of using it. Like that it’s far too easy to accidentally switch categories while trying to scroll down. And the iPad app defaults to displaying 12 hours worth of content, so at first glance it was a jumble of shows with daytime television alongside 11 p.m. listings.
Fortunately, Dijit included a very intuitive way to change the date and time range for listings, I just didn’t notice it right away:
The browser version, released May 20, is a bit different in terms of functionality. Like the iPad app, the web version kicks you over to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon and starts playing your video automatically. But this version also lets you schedule DVR recordings (if you’re a Comcast or DirecTV subscriber, that is.)
NextGuide’s web interface
There are some discrepancies between the two interfaces – the website doesn’t display a “Your Picks” section, only favorites from the entire user base. And it allows you to add things to a “Watchlist,” but this same list is called “Bookmarks” on the iPad app. The web version is still in beta, so we’re guessing these inconsistencies will be ironed out before the official launch.
Final assessment: NextGuide is an app on a bit of a learning curve, with some minor inconsistencies that should be worked out – but it shows a lot of promise.
However: We’re still waiting to see one of these discovery apps make the jump to the big screen. Somebody tell me: How long until I can use my iPad to cue up content on my Roku? And will we see a NextGuide app popping up on some of our devices in the lab – or a white label version of if? I hope so, but only time will tell.
Matcha vs. Fanhattan, or, A Plea for Content Discovery Apps on the Main Screen
The most challenging thing about moving out of reach of the cable cord, for me, is content discovery. These days, there’s a lot of over-the-top content you can view on your TV through Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. — but most devices don’t allow you to browse all of that content from a single app. Instead, you have to go into each video streaming app, one by one, to see what’s on.
Rummaging around for content in several different apps requires significantly more effort than channel surfing on a cable box (I like to call this the “silo effect”, because the content is segregated into separate services, like silos. And also possibly because I live on a farm). And this “silo effect,” in my lab tester’s opinion, is the biggest problem facing cord-cutters right now. (Though some might argue it’s the inability to stream Game of Thrones).
Google TV comes pretty close with its TV & Movies app, which I’ve ranted about at length in another post. In short, it would work better if there were more content to discover on the Google TV.
Boxee also does a decent job of unifying content in one place, but like Google TV it lacks in paid streaming apps (for example, Hulu Plus and Amazon aren’t available). But unlike Google TV, Boxee’s browser isn’t blocked from every service provider website, and now can access selected titles on the Xfinity website (which are available without a pay TV login, surprisingly.) So it offers a pretty good selection of ad-supported web content.
But other players, like Roku and NeoTV, which do access most of the major streaming video services, don’t yet unify it — so you can’t search or browse in one place.
Mobile devices, on the other hand, are progressing a little faster in terms of content discovery. Because I’ve been watching a lot more TV on my iPad lately, I’ve been trying out various apps in the hopes that we’ll soon be seeing some of them on other devices.
So this week, we bring you a comparison of two of the most popular content discovery apps for the iPad: Matcha and Fanhattan.
Matcha is an iPad app that allows you to search and browse content from iTunes, Amazon Prime and Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus and Xfinity. You can also connect to your Facebook account, if you’d like to see what your friends are watching and do a little oversharing of your own.
Matcha’s user interface (UI) is pretty slick, with a row of buttons you can toggle on and off to include different sources, so the search results display only what you can authenticate into / access. (Meaning if you don’t do Hulu Plus, you can filter it out.) The main screen includes rows for recently watched titles and queue, which combine results from all the services you select.
Once you tap the link to watch a video on Netflix or Hulu, you don’t need to confirm your selection again before it starts playing – the ease of use is pretty stellar compared to similar apps I’ve tried.
Unfortunately, Matcha’s robust search capabilities outshine the iPad’s selection of video apps. Because there’s currently no way to watch Amazon video content on the iPad, for instance, those results are marked “web only.”
But even though you can’t click right through to watch Amazon content, it’s still very useful to be able to search so many sources at once – for example, Leslie recently asked me to find out which services could be used to stream Doctor Who. Traditionally, such a request would involve about 15 minutes of searching, one by one, on the various service provider websites. This time, it took maybe 15 seconds to get an answer (and it’s on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering).
Fanhattan is an app for iPhone and iPad, which will be coming soon to web AND TV according to the company website. (But is it coming to an OTT set-top box? A smart TV platform? We don’t yet know.)
Fanhattan combines results from Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, and the ABC Player app, and it has useful browsing categories like “Hottest,” “New on Hulu Plus” and “Netflix Marathon.” And like Matcha, you can connect Fanhattan to your Facebook account .
There are several things I like about the UI and the app in general — for instance the “Smart Browse” feature which allows you to narrow the selection to include certain genres, ratings, air dates, etc.
But while I really want to like Fanhattan, I’m sorry to say it’s just not ready for primetime yet. For one, Fanhattan seems to have a few issues with the way it redirects and opens the video. If you left off watching something within the Netflix app, that will launch instead of what you selected to play through Fanhattan. And about 90% of the time in our tests, the Hulu Plus app got hung up, crashing both the Hulu Plus and Fanhattan apps in the process.
And while I’m on the subject of Fanhattan and Hulu Plus, I noticed that many shows had limited availability on Fanhattan – for example, recent episodes from Fox and Comedy Central are on Hulu at least a week before they can be accessed via Fanhattan. I’m not sure why this is the case on Fanhattan and not Matcha (which allows you to access Hulu content the day after air), but I do know that I’m unlikely to use a content discovery app that further limits what I’m able to access.
Ultimately, the work of outfits like Matcha and Fanhattan can be categorized as “aggregation.” They aggregate the video aggregators, essentially, as it relates to the presentation of the metadata associated with “what’s on.” It’s progress, but I want more. (More on that another time.)