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.
Much Ado about Aereo
On October 28th, Aereo came to Denver. It rolled out to the general public on November 4th, but we got early access because we preregistered months ago (and then routinely stalked Aereo’s website hoping for a rollout date.)
Aereo is over-the-air (OTA) television and local channels provided over the Internet – each subscriber has a remote DVR, plus a dedicated antenna, somewhere in a data center in Denver.
Maybe you’ve heard of Aereo in the context of the multiple lawsuits brought by broadcasters – Fox’s CEO publicly threatened to make all its content payTV only, and major networks such as ABC, CBS, and Fox filed lawsuits in multiple states. One or both seem destined to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
All this legal trouble stems from those antennas on the rooftop – Aereo claims that because each subscriber has a dedicated antenna, it is no different from getting those free-to-air channels using an antenna at home. Not surprisingly, broadcasters disagree — vehemently — and want Aereo to pay retransmission fees just like everyone else who carries their signals. So far, the rulings have been in Aereo’s favor, but another crop of lawsuits popped up in Utah on October 25th.
PayTV operators, which do pay handsome retransmission fees for those local channels, are of course watching these proceedings with great interest. A recent article in Businessweek says that DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are weighing similar technology options in the event Aereo prevails, and may have even considered buying the company.
We can’t help but wonder what would happen to the payTV ecosystem, were Netflix to buy Aereo. They both need each other — Netflix for live and linear; Aereo for a big catalog of on-demand fare. But we’ll set that aside for now.
So how does it work?
For $8/month, you get a single tuner and 20 hours of recording time. For $12, you can add a second tuner and increase your recording time to 60 hours. I doubt a second tuner or extra DVR space will get much use with 30 channels in our labs, but is probably a very sound investment for anyone who watches a lot of sports.
Aereo released a dedicated app for Android devices on October 22, and also works with iOS devices and web browsers. However, you won’t find it in the iTunes app store – you need to access Aereo’s website through Safari on your phone or tablet. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to drop a shortcut on your home screen so the end result is that you have an Aereo icon that takes you right to the website – virtually the same as using an app, and Aereo doesn’t have to give a cut to iTunes. Pretty clever, actually.
Aereo isn’t an official iOS app, but it’s easy enough to add an icon to your home screen.
Aereo works on Apple TV via AirPlay, and also has a channel on Roku. The Roku channel is not in the official channel store; you can only add it as a private channel. To do so, you go to the settings area of Aereo’s website and choose “connect to Roku,” then follow the link to Roku’s website to install the channel. Once the channel shows up on your Roku (I had to force a software update in order to see it), you just need to open it and type the confirmation code it displays into Aereo’s settings.
Aereo also has a “Two-screen Mode” for Roku that allows you to control Aereo from your iOS device:
Aereo on Roku, Two-Screen Mode. from Leslie Ellis on Vimeo.
In general, I like Aereo because it gives me a reliable way to watch local channels in an area where I can barely get an antenna signal. I’ve used a number of antenna-DVR combos, but more often than not my recordings were empty because the signal cut out.
But my Aereo antenna, about the size of a dime, is located on an undisclosed rooftop somewhere in Denver and gets an excellent signal – for the first time, I can get all the major networks, and I’ve yet to see a DVR recording that’s just a black screen.
Aereo suffers from my slow bandwidth connection, however (5 Mbps on a good day), so the video often pauses to reload even when on the lowest quality setting.
The playback on my Roku and my iPad appeared to be about equal on the Farm Lab’s DSL connection, and the two-screen mode on Roku worked equally well (this looks to be a Chromecast-type implementation where the Roku is retrieving the video from a URL rather than streaming it directly from the iPad). This also means that you can navigate to a different page or multitask on your device without interrupting the video.
Scheduling a recording from the iPad using Roku’s Two-Screen Mode.
Recording Options on iPad
However, using AirPlay with my Apple TV to watch Aereo was a different story. The video, which was streaming from my iPad to the Apple TV, paused to buffer so frequently that it wasn’t worth watching. AirPlay also relies on the app being up and the iPad screen active in order to work so there’s no multitasking, or even letting the iPad screen go dark as you watch TV.
Other than Aereo, the only way I can watch local news and major networks is using the Slingbox we have hooked up to our Comcast subscription in our Denver OTT lab. While the Slingbox does let me access a lot more content, I mostly find myself using it to watch live local news when there’s something going on.
This scenario is considerably better on Aereo, partly because the streaming quality is slightly more reliable than the SlingPlayer app, and I can watch it on my Roku. What’s more, the Aereo lineup in Denver includes 24/7 News (a subchannel of Denver’s channel 7), which plays the latest local newscast 24/7 – I really wish I had this for the floods back in September, and I’ll surely be tuning in the next time a blizzard rolls into Colorado.
But as much as I like having Aereo at the Farm Lab, there is one little thing I wish they’d change: As someone who uses TV as background noise more often than not, I like live TV because it’s linear – I don’t have to select another piece of content in order to keep watching. So naturally, I expected Aereo would work this way.
Instead, whenever a show ends, it pops up a message telling you to select something else. So if I get sucked into the first 3 minutes of whatever’s on next, I have to clear that message, navigate back through the guide, and find the current segment. Silly.
There are also a few glitches to be ironed out in the Guide by Time – future airtimes don’t list shows in the correct time slot – i.e. looking at the 5 pm slot actually gives you shows airing at 7, and because the guide is organized by show you can’t just tune in to a channel – you’re only given the option to schedule a future recording. It would be nice to have a “tune to this channel now” option in the guide.
The verdict: I’d really like to see Aereo make its linear experience a bit more linear, so that I can keep watching without constantly picking up the remote. But while it’s not perfect, Aereo is something that I can see myself using because my antenna reception is so awful. After buying expensive HD antennas and running extra-long coax all over the house, paying $8 a month for a reliable signal (and DVR) seems like a bargain, even if I should technically be able to get those channels for free.
An Update on Redbox Instant
A few months ago, I reviewed the latest streaming service to hit the lab, Redbox Instant by Verizon. Back then it was still in the beta test phase, and the experience (and lack of content) made that all too clear.
But the beta tests are over, and Redbox Instant launched publicly on June 3rd. So how is it doing now?
Devices and Playback:
Redbox Instant originally worked only on mobile phones, tablets, and computers, with an Xbox 360 app added during the beta phase. In early June, GoogleTV devices (2nd-generation and later; the Intel-based devices don’t work) got a Redbox app too. What’s more, we’re told we’ll have an app on Roku before the summer’s over.
I tried out the GoogleTV app (which doesn’t automatically appear with the latest update — you have to search for it in the Play Store) and I liked the interface well enough, but the app crashed a couple times during playback. Though to its credit, the app did remember where it left off and was able to resume when it crashed.
Of course, with any new app glitches will be discovered and resolved, so this kind of thing is somewhat expected. You may recall that I experienced a few playback issues with the iPad app for Redbox Instant, back when I tested it during the beta phase. Those issues have cleared up and the Redbox app now performs as well as any other video service on my slow connection. We’re expecting the same from the GoogleTV app, and the Roku app when it eventually launches (don’t disappoint us now, Redbox.)
I also found that the resolution was noticably lower on Redbox than when I streamed the same title on the same device through Netflix — while Netflix and Hulu Plus have some titles at 1080p, Redbox and Amazon Prime top off at 720p. This was especially pronounced on my slow DSL connection at the farm, so I think the way each service handles adaptive streaming plays a role as well (in our experience Netflix seems to be particularly good at this.)
Redbox Instant’s web interface
Last time, I complained about the fact that Redbox Instant has very little subscription streaming content, and that most of what’s available isn’t exclusive – so if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, there’s not much on Redbox that’ll be new to you. That’s still largely the case, though we have seen Redbox’s streaming catalog expand to about 8,000 titles since the beta launch (for comparison, Amazon Prime has about 33,000 titles in its unlimited streaming catalog.)
The latest streaming content from Redbox (on Google TV)
The catalog is still movies only, no TV, and it still combines titles that you can see for free with your subscription with those that you have to pay extra and/or drive to a kiosk to pick up. While they offer the flexibility of unlimited streaming and per-transaction titles, and you can do things from the app like reserve titles at a kiosk, it all starts to feel a bit cluttered. There are filters for each content source – kiosk, rental, and subscription – but I occasionally found myself accidentally browsing everything of just the unlimited streaming content. It’s hard enough to choose something to watch, without deciding on a title and then realizing you have to drive to a kiosk or pay extra to watch it.
Browsing titles to rent or buy on Google TV
What’s next for Redbox Instant?
Like virtually every other streaming video service, Redbox Instant plans to create some original content in the future. According to CEO Shawn Strickland, the primary focus will be family-oriented programming, a genre he claims is lacking in other services. (We’re not so sure – Amazon has three new original childrens’ series planned, and just scored a deal with Viacom to pick up a bunch of Nickelodeon programming. Not to mention Netflix’s exclusive deal with Disney.)
But if you listen to Redbox tell it, they don’t want or need to compete with Netflix and the other services – disc rentals are an important part of their plan, as that allows their customers to get new releases from a kiosk before they’re available to stream. Their plan is to focus on disc rentals and then upsell streaming packages to those customers who are already heavy users of Redbox kiosks. So they’re betting that there’s still enough life in physical media to carry them through.
Us, we’re not so sure. But we’ll be watching to see how this all shakes out.
Roku at CES 2013: TWC TV app and Streaming Stick Uptick
It’s been a good year for Roku, which is officially the first OTT player to get the TWC TV channel. This allows Time Warner Cable subscribers to view around 300 live channels and program their DVR from a Roku, and could clearly pave the way for Roku and other devices working as additional PayTV sources in the home.
Naturally, the next question is: When do we get an Xfinity TV app on Roku? Yes, Comcast, we’re looking at you.
In other news, Roku signed on a whole lot of new TV manufacturers to package its Streaming Stick with their 2013 Smart TVs.
In case you missed it, the Roku Streaming Stick is the size of a USB thumb drive and has all the capabilities (and channels) of the other Roku players. Many are Chinese manufacturers, looking to jump into the smart TV market. By bundling the Roku Streaming Stick with their devices, they can get around developing a proprietary smart TV platform (and frankly, offer a much better experience in the process.)
The Roku Streaming Stick is sold on its own too, however unlike other Roku devices the Streaming Stick won’t work with all HDTVs – only those with MHL-compatible HDMI ports.
MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) is a new industry standard for connecting mobile devices to HD displays — in essence the technology allows the mobile device to receive a charge while playing audio or video through the display. We saw a handful of TVs at last year’s CES touting MHL, but compared to HDMI, it’s still a very small subset of digital HDTVs that use it.
As we saw at this year’s CES, many new TVs are adopting the MHL standard. But it remains to be seen how fast these MHL-capable TVs gain market share (or don’t.) People who purchased HD TVs within the last 5 years might not be in a hurry to replace them. And though virtually everything at CES is billed as a “game changer” (is anyone else sick of that phrase yet?) it’s unlikely that MHL or massively expensive 4K displays will inspire the same adoption rate that we saw with HDTVs.
So it’s a good thing Roku is still in the business of making its little hockey puck-shaped streaming players, too.