Who Says You Need a TV Service Provider to have a DVR?

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Back in February, I wrote a multi-part blog series on cutting the cable television cord. In that series, Step 3 was Setting up an Optional Digital Video Recorder (DVR) for over the air (OTA) programming. In July, I did this myself. Now it’s September and I’ve had a couple of months to get accustomed to this new TV paradigm. I’d like to share my experiences with you.

First, I bought the TabloTV 4-Tuner whole-house DVR from Nuvyyo (Kanata, Ontario). I’ve discovered that the concept of “whole house DVR” takes my friends and family two or three times of hearing it before they finally get it. The easiest way to explain it is this: the box sits next to the router and has the antenna connected directly to it. I can watch it anywhere I can get on the WiFi, with my iPad or Android tablet.

Second, I began wanting to view the content on my large TV so I bought a Roku 1 and downloaded the Tablo app onto it. When I launched it, it automatically found my Tablo, being on the same subnet in the house. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) felt natural for the Roku, but was different from the iPad app. It didn’t take me long at all to find some shows that I had already recorded. Watching them was a breeze.

In the mornings, I tend to watch live TV, such as news and weather, but in the evenings I only watch recordings from earlier. I use my Roku almost exclusively to watch the content because I like the large picture and full sound. If you have a new AppleTV, you can use Airplay to watch the content from your iPad. Google’s Chromecast is supposed to work, too, but I don’t have any experience with it.

Even though I love having it, and saving the $100+ a month from having dropped cable TV, I still found the software lacking, albeit serviceable. The mental list got so long, I captured it on the TabloTV community forum thread here. I really would like to see a full 9-12 months of feature and functionality improvements on their GUI before they begin to call it stable.

But I have no regrets with my choice and, for the money I’m saving, I have been able to adapt and overcome the withdrawals of having 200 channels and a DVR. Now I have TabloTV plus Roku with Netflix, Amazon Prime, WatchESPN, Hulu+, A&E, History, NFL Now and Qello to keep me entertained.

If you decide to go this route, do yourself a favor and bump up to the 4-tuner model, rather than skimp on the 2-tuner. You’ll be resolving conflicts left and right if you don’t. But you certainly don’t need to pay ridiculous prices to have television piped into your home and a DVR. Go antenna plus Tablo and save big.

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Is Amazon Fire TV Worth It?

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Amazon Enters Streaming Product Fray with Fire TV

Amazon Enters Streaming Product Fray with Fire TV

And then there were four.

Apple, Roku and Google are already competing for your streaming business. And now Amazon enters the fray with its $99 Fire TV. But is it worth it? It’s a “Version 1” product, with scant few apps (or channels) out of the gate. How does it compare with The Big Three, namely Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku?

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Apple TV?
The Quad-core Qualcomm processor in the Fire TV gives it pure speed — fast menus, fast downloads and fast playback. Meanwhile, the Apple TV is getting long in the tooth with it’s mono-core A5 chip. The Amazon Prime and Cloud Drive services are well-integrated, as you would rightly expect, while the Apple TV works well with your iTunes, Macs, iPads and iPhones. Licensing and/or business strategy probably explains why HBOGo, Disney, MLB and PBS are missing on the Fire TV, and why Amazon Instant Video, Flixster and Pandora are missing on the Apple TV — and why Vudu and MGo are missing from both. With both of these units costing the same $99, the Fire TV is better in a context-free competition, but if you like your Apple environment, hold your cash for the 2014 version of Apple TV.

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Google Chromecast?
Google Chromecast still feels like an experiment in its early stages. The dongle idea has merit but Chromecast has four drawbacks: it’s a dongle that needs an external power source, it doesn’t come with a dedicated remote, its single-core processor is sluggish and it is missing some decent second-tier apps (Crackle, WatchESPN, NBA, Qello and Vimeo). Worse still, as with the Apple TV, Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon Instant Video. By contrast, Amazon’s Fire TV is a thin box, it comes with its own remote, it’s blazing fast and supports more channels. Chromecast does have HBOGo and integrated Google Play support, which are both unavailable on Fire TV, so it’s a viable option for HBO fanatics and Android phone / tablet users, but otherwise, Amazon’s Fire TV is the better choice, despite its size and price tag.

Is Amazon Fire TV better than Roku?
Roku 3 is the comparable box to the Fire TV at the same $99 price point. Both have a very good user interface, are responsive, support Ethernet as well as WiFi MIMO, and come with a remote control. Amazon is touting their voice search as a primary differentiator, so much so that their Gary Busey ad focuses entirely on that feature. But voice search only gives you results within the Amazon ecosystem, ignoring Netflix and HuluPlus entirely, even if you have paid subscriptions to those services. On the channel front, Roku blows all the other competitors out of the water with its 1000+ channels — more than any of us can watch, but enough that all our itches for weird niches get scratched (50-year-old westerns anyone?).  Roku puts up the best fight for the subscription-averse TV viewer by providing so many free entertainment options.

Summary
The Amazon Fire TV is fast and works great within the Amazon eco-system. It supports a reasonably decent experience for the casual couch gamer and has excellent voice recognition. If these are important to you, and you don’t intend to stray outside the Amazon Instant, Netflix and Hulu worlds, you’ll be happy with this unit. It’s selling like mad right now, so go load up. If, however, you want access to your iTunes content or want hundreds of channels, wait and give Apple, Roku or Google, whose units are more than a year old, a chance to play leap frog on the Fire TV this summer. The competition benefits all us consumers and Amazon just fired their first salvo — I’m quite glad to have four companies in the mix.

Do you own a box already? Will you get an Amazon Fire TV?

Copyright 2014 Lance Olive, All Rights Reserved.

Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

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Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device

Have you been feeling like everyone else around you has figured out this “streaming movies and TV shows” thing, and you are standing on the fringes thinking you’ll eventually figure it out? But so far you haven’t really done anything about it.  So let’s get into some of the products that can help you.  Let’s figure out how to get you a media streaming device.

On February 17, I started a series for “cord cutters”, with a Blog entitled 6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable.  In that, I presented a summary of what would need to be done in order to dump cable or satellite TV in favor of using a combination of Over The Air (OTA) for local stations and Streaming content from the Internet.  In yesterday’s blog, I elaborated on Step 3: Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder.

In today’s blog, I elaborate on Step 4: Get a Media Streaming Device.

You can get streaming services built into the TV, BluRay player or game system.  You can also buy a separate box such as a Roku or AppleTV, or a dongle in ChromeCast.

a) Built into the TV – additional $100
If you read Step 1 of this series, you considered a new TV.  Some are marketed as “Network Ready”.  This generally means you have a set of built-in applications that can get you Netflix, YouTube, hulu+, and perhaps a few other oddball services.  This is great if you only plan to use one or two of these and don’t want to stream through a home theater system.  Otherwise, you’ll want a separate device, and all of the following fit that category.

b) Built into a BluRay player or Game System – $100 to $400
Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Sony and other BluRay players have a Network feature that, when connected to an ethernet or WiFi local area network (LAN) in your home, will access the internet to using many of the apps listed above.  Game systems, such as Xbox and PlayStation 3 (and the new 4) have the same type of functionality.  The benefit of this method is that you will probably be using your BluRay/DVD player or game system anyway, and it’s one less connection to your home theater.  The down side of this is that a component failure kills off two of your functions at the same time.  It may also make upgrades harder to afford.

c) Roku 3 (CNet Review) – $50 to $100
This small black box provides access to the most streaming services of any device known.  The interface has also gotten very good reviews from new users, meaning it should not be too difficult to learn.  With up to 1080p, HDMI, WiFi, 100Mbps Ethernet and a simple remote, this unit will let you watch shows on demand.  The “3” model has the faster processor and will help alleviate frustration when loading apps and shows since many of the previous models were underpowered and most of us have a low tolerance for sluggish technology.

d) Apple TV (CNet Review) – $100
Mac users have known about Apple TV for years, and have continuously thought that the next generation will fix their issues.  But each time the next generation comes out, the product has only been improved marginally and Roku has moved ahead yet again.  It’s like the guy who coughs around the office for weeks but won’t take a couple of days off to actually get well.  Apple has never committed itself to a “get well” program that would make this product completely outstanding, which is really disappointing to people like myself who see the potential, already enjoying the iTunes, video and audio support that is there.  The silver bullet would be a source-neutral interface that lets you find, let’s call them, “viewables” that are in any of the services to which you have access through login credentials.  For example, imagine that you could search for “CSI: Miami” and you don’t have to know which service it came from.  That would be completely amazing, considering how many stream options there are out there.  Lastly, the included AirPlay functionality helps with integration to other devices that support it.

e) Google ChromeCast (CNet Review) – $35
The ChromeCast is a “dongle”, a small device with no cable that plugs into your HDMI slot.  Well, that’s not entirely true since it requires power, so you’ve got to connect a wire to the nearest USB slot, or to a AC converter.  ChromeCast is very good with Google products, such as Play music and video.  Android smart phone users will find this an attractive option for them.  iPhone users will likely gravitate to AppleTV (Mac users) or Roku (PC users).  The next generation ChromeCast will likely be a leap above this one and you would be forgiven if you decided to wait until then to buy one.  One thing is undeniable… they are small and discreet, able to be hidden in the plan of a 6-yr-old child.

I am getting Roku if I buy soon.  If Apple finally releases an update to the AppleTV that is worthy of considering, I’ll probably get that too.  I’m likely to pass on the ChromeCast, unless the next generation is amazing.

Which one is right for you?  It may depend upon your intended use (home theater or simple TV) and what you are currently doing with your smart phone (iPhone vs Android) and home computer (Mac vs PC).  Is it obvious to you by now?

6 Steps to Cutting the Cord of Cable

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A Modern Home Network Can Enable Streaming Content Without Paying Monthly Cable or Satellite TV Bills

A Modern Home Network Can Enable Streaming Content Without Paying Monthly Cable or Satellite TV Bills

In these days of on-demand streaming services and high-speed Internet access, do you wonder why you pay so much for hundreds of channels that you don’t watch?  Do you wonder why you can’t just choose a la carte the channels you watch most?

I did.  So I began the quest of planning out what it would take to make the big switch and “cut the cord.”  I’m starting from having Time Warner’s Signature Service, which includes Ultra Broadband Internet (50/5 Mbps), Unlimited VoIP Telephone within the Continental U.S., and HD TV with 2 DVRs that can share shows.

Your process will vary depending on your starting point and where you want to end up, but here are the steps that will approximate a replacement to cable TV.  Over the next several days, I’ll elaborate on each of these steps, but for now, I’ll stick to a single paragraph and you can use this as a summary.

1) Start with a High Definition Television (HDTV)
Most new TVs have a built-in digital tuner and HDMI input.  Let’s call this step “table stakes”.  If you’ve never replaced your old “glass” TV, stop reading now and go get yourself something like this Vizio from Walmart for under $200.  You can spend up to $2000 on a TV, but this post will be much better if we assume this is in place before we go any further.

2) Get an Antenna for Over The Air TV – $20 to $100
There are lots of options for digital antennas, and more than half of them are mediocre at best. My favorite style antennas are the multiple bow tie that can be used for 95% of the HD stations.  There are others that can work and I’ll go into details in a future post.

3) Get an Optional Digital Video Recorder – $200 to $400 plus guide service fees
TiVo was the first big dog to this party, to the point that, back in 2003, the word “tivo” was being used a verb, meaning “to record television show on a hard drive in digital form for later viewing.”  There are newcomers to this market now that have reinvented this market and are worth considering.  This will also be part of a future post.

4) Get a Media Streaming Device – $35 to $200
There are three primary competitors for this, Apple TV, Roku and ChromeCast, although there are lots of options.  They help put your content on your TV.  Many BluRay players and game systems come with network apps that provide interfaces to many content providers, which leads to the last two steps…

5) Get a WiFi N Router – $40 to $60
Many of us have had G-speed routers (802.11g), which supports 54Mbps shared bandwidth, but if you want to have multiple wireless streaming devices in your home network, it’s really better to be running at N-speed (802.11n).  Doing so will ensure you minimize any video streaming jitter and buffering.  Of course, you can avoid this need if you run Cat5 ethernet cables to your devices, but many devices today are WiFi only.

6) Create Logins and Subscribe to Streaming Services – $10 to $50 per month
Streaming services give you content on demand, which means you can start it, pause it and finish it anytime that is convenient to you.  The easiest way to introduce this topic is by example, so here are some that you probably have heard of: Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Prime and vudu.  There are many others, specializing in niche content, such as Mexican soccer, NBA, old westerns, YouTube videos and independent films.  Some are free, some require subscriptions that are usually less than $10/month.

Those are the five steps that you need to evaluate in order to cut yourself loose from Time Warner Cable TV, DirecTV, Dish Network or AT&T Uverse and replace them with Internet-based content.  In each of five future posts, I will dedicate to the above five steps.

Take your time to plan your attack.  Read my future posts for ideas on the steps and map out your transition along with me.