Mailbag: 11/16/2013

The email address for this blog is thebeersoncomcast@gmail.com.  If you found the blog, but no answer, feel free to drop me a line.  Here are some responses to visitors’ questions…

Q: Can I attach an antenna to a Roku?

A: No.  Not yet at least.  Audiovox is supposed to release an antenna with a Roku Stick this quarter, but there has been no buzz about this since January.  I like the Simple.TV whole house DVR for this.  It has a single tuner that can be used by the DVR or up to five televisions tuned to watch a single channel of programming.  You can add as many DVRs as you like.  The new v2 DVRs are made by SiliconDust and include two tuners in the box.

Q: Can I get continuous programming on my Roku?

A: Yes.  Sort of.  The B/W channel is true Linear Programming.  Linear Programming means that someone plans 24 hours worth of programming and you watch whatever is on when you tune  in the channel.  If you just want to have something play continuously, there are a lot of channels that let you ‘Play all’ clips.

Q: Can I get Live TV without cable/satellite?

A: Sure.  Visit TVFool.com to see what channels you can expect to receive with an antenna and visit TitanTV.com to see what is on those channels.  No reception in your location?  Check out Aereo and Skitter.

Q: Is it illegal to ‘format shift’ DVDs I have purchased and stream them from a media server in my home.

A: Maybe.  I am not a lawyer.  You can read about Fair Use here.  The Copyright Office of the US concedes that, “The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years,” and that, “[the] distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined.”  Even as I key this, courts are conflicted as to what Fair Use is.  If you are making your digital copies available to others, then you are probably going to have a problem.  If you download digital copies made available by others, you are probably going to have a problem.  If you are making copies of copyrighted materials you legally purchased and are taking reasonable measures to prevent others from using the copies illegally, you are probably not on anyone’s radar, because you are not “[diminishing] the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.”  That said, you are on your own if the courts disagree.

Q: Is PlayOn/PlayLater legal?

A: No one is suing MediaMall.  Just the same, whether you are using a Roku, Plex, or PlayOn, beware of third party scripts.  It’s almost never OK to download copyrighted materials without compensating the copyright holder.

Q: Is there a YouTube channel for Roku?

A: Yes.  Quite a few.  What’s On (enter asecret as your zip code and restart to reveal YT content); VideoBuzz (must be side-loaded); Plex and PlayOn both have Roku channels that include YouTube scripts.

Q: What’s the best DVR for cable cutters?

A: Tivo — if money is no object.  Simple.TV is a whole house DVR that is smart like Tivo but less capable and less expensive.  SiliconDust and Simple are collaborating on a two tuner Simple.TV DVR.  If you just want to record shows off the air and pause/rewind/fast forward televisions, it’s tough to beat EchoStar’s DTVPal.  The DTVPal is out of production, but EchoStar and ChannelMaster are working on a new DVR that combines OTA recording with OTT features.  If you want to record web videos and Netflix streamed programming, check out PlayOn/PlayLater by MediaMall.

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Play*

I didn’t want to love Play*, but I can’t help it.  All they do it make it very easy for me to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it.  It’s only 480p, but 480p looks surprisingly good on my 43″ 720p plasma and amazing on my Kindle Fire.  For $70, Netflix, Hulu, Food Network, and the History Channel are always on for me.

So, what is Play*?  Play* is my nickname for MediaMall’s suite of streaming media programs.  The suite consists of PlayOn, PlayLater, and PlayCast.  PlayOn is software that streams files from web servers to your television.  Channels, scripts, and plugins format files from web servers for your television.  The files include episodes from many cable programs.  For cable cutters, PlayOn is a lifeline to the Food Network, the History Channel, and other compelling programming.  PlayLater is a DVR for this programming.  PlayLater lets you store programming you would watch with PlayOn for viewing at a later time.  The stored programs are saved as MP4 files that can be viewed with any software on any platform that supports the MP4 format.  PlayCast is a browser plugin that streams whatever is playing in your browser window to a PlayOn client.

How does Play* work?  PlayOn and PlayLater are software packages that can be purchased from MediaMall and must be installed on a Windows PC running Internet Explorer.  The programs read files from your media server and/or web servers and streams the files to a device on your network that can interpret the stream and output it in a format compatible with your television.  PlayCast is a browser extension that streams files from your web browser to your PlayOn compatible device — Chromecast for *every* streaming media platform.

Why you will love Play*!  First, there is a one time charge of $70.  For this fee, you get a lifetime subscription to PlayOn plus the PlayLater DRV, and PlayCast.  You can watch content aggregated and formatted for viewing from the couch.  That’s a pretty good deal.  You can also timeshift or placeshift this content.  The shifted contented is saved as MP4 formatted files which are suitable for playing on a tablet of phone, so you can enjoy your media even when there is no internet at all or where access to the internet is restricted.  For instance…

  • Last week, I was traveling on business.  Before I left, I dragged some files from my PlayLater folder to my laptop for the plane ride.
  • When I got the the hotel, I plugged a Roku 2 XS into the television.  I had installed the Nowhere USB channel and was able to enjoy a USB drive of PlayLater content without internet access/authentication.
  • We lose our power frequently and for days at a time.  I have a generator and a tv antenna, but internet access is limited to cell phones.  PlayLater provides entertainment absent internet access.
  • We will use these files with the TV and Roku we take camping
  • When a web site removes or rotates content, I can still play it off my DVR

Why you might NOT like Play*!  For starters, it is only 480p.  I played some PlayLater recordings on a 55″ set and, with glasses from six feet, it looked fine, but it’s 480p.  A lot of recordings fail.  Sometimes you can restart and enjoy success, but some simply do not record.

Let’s get started!  Installing and using Play* is pretty straight forward, but here are the steps…

  1. Before committing to Play* consult the compatibility list and forums to make sure you have the hardware to support the software and check the channel list to make sure you will watch what PlayOn serves.
  2. Buy, download, and install PlayOn.  Hint: if, during installation, you are prompted to close a browser which is not apparently open, open task manager, look for browser processes, and close them.  For me, Chrome was running in the background.
  3. Enable PlayCast for your browser.  Open up PlayOn Settings and click on the Browsers tab. Click on the checkboxes to enable PlayOn for your favorite browsers then click the Apply button.
  4. (You may need to enable the PlayOn helper app in your browser)
  5. Open your browser to a media page and click the PlayOn icon and a window will open and play the media.  Once the video begins playing in this window, click the Next button.  Click the Record To or PlayCast To button, select your target device, and enjoy!

Remote Access  For me, accessing Playon from a cell phone was a lot like having sex for the first time. I thought I knew what I was doing, everything was a little different than I expected. In the end, I was extremely satisfied, but wasn’t sure what had happened.

First base: The auto configuration failed, so I tried to manually configure my router. Once I was in the port forwarding area I returned to Playon to read the helpful hint provided upon failure. The hint was gone, so I selected automatic and hit apply and it worked. My guess is that it would have worked had I not changed the userid and password on my router. Having logged on, it was able to do the rest.

Second base: I installed the app from the app store on the S3 phone. No problems at all.

Third base: Had no problem locating my server via WiFi and we were quickly streaming. I’m still not sure what ‘additional configuration’ is required for 3g/4g only access.

Home: Turned off WiFi and streamed some PlayLater recordings to the phone.

It does work and performance was very good. One thing you notice when browsing the Android app is that once you are presented with a PlayTo menu that allows you to play to ‘this device’ or any of your Rokus, so you can PlayTo without running back to the PC — just use your android device to manage the service from your easy chair.

Epilog  That’s all I’ve got.  I think PlayOn, PlayLater, and PlayCast are a delightful addition to to any entertainment ecosystem.  Give Play* a try.  If you don’t like it, MediaMall will refund your $70.

Simple.TV

Woot!  Woot!  I got a Simple.TV on Woot last week for $105 (shipped).  I have been intrigued by the Simple device since it was offered on KickStarter.  At $100 including lifetime Premier Service, I jumped in.  My logic was that I was getting the tuner for free since the Premier lifetime license was $150.  This is particularly attractive since Simple has promised the license will support their v2 device and that the v2 device would be compatible with legacy hardware.  From their FAQ

Rest assured whether you buy a unit today or upgrade to a new unit a year from now, we won’t charge you extra for the subscription. Every Simple.TV subscription can accommodate new units as long as you have a valid Simple.TV subscription.

We believe in value and we don’t nickel and dime you to death. Our subscriptions are tied to you (the viewer) and you can choose to have one unit or many units on your account. As long as you’re the primary subscriber, you can have as many units as you wish.

Since our subscriptions can cover multiple units, you can get started with us today and upgrade your Simple.TV unit at anytime in the future — risk free.

What is Simple?  According to the manufacturer, “Simple.TV is the first personal DVR that streams live and recorded TV to your favorite devices, wherever you are. Get all your broadcast TV favorites on your iPad, PC, Mac or Roku box.”  That pretty much sums it up.

What they do not say, however, is that the Simple completes the Roku.  If you have a Roku and are missing local programming and/or your DVR, Simple is what you need.  Look at this…

wholehouse_small

Instead of routing your broadcast signal to each television, feed the signal into a bank of Simples and stream programming to Rokus.

You will want one Simple and one Roku for each television plus one Simple to serve as a whole house DVR since the Simple serves as a tv tuner for the Roku.    Of course, any/every Simple can be a DVR, so designating a lesser used tuner (guest room) is fine.  In this configuration, you can schedule favorite shows to record with the Premier software.  It will record only new shows or new shows plus reruns.  Either way, it will not re-record an episode already saved.  From your Roku equipped television, you can pause, rewind, fast forward, and record live television.  You can watch shows recorded on any Simple device on your network.  You can do all of this on the road as well (I haven’t tried this yet).

So, that is the concept.  How does it work?

Let’s start with the DVR.  Before connecting anything, you need to set up an account using the provided code.  Then you plug in a USB disk, an ethernet cable, an antenna, and power.  The web app will discover the DVR, prompt you for local information, and set up your guide.  It will offer to format the USB disk.  Once the disk is formatted, you are ready to begin watching live tv via the web interface and schedule recordings.

dvrScreens

DVR Screens

dvrScreens2

 

Roku Channel Screens

Setting up the Roku channel is even easier.  Install the private channel.  Open the channel, type the code into https://www.simple.tv/roku and you’re done.  The Roku channel is about an [un]impressive as any Roku channel — simple drill down navigation with 2D scrollers, limited search and programming — but it works and some of the screens like ‘upcoming’ are pretty nice.  They key missing features are…

  1. Device oriented
  2. No play all in My Shows
  3. No search for programs to record
  4. No slow motion
  5. Limited record functions

By device oriented, I mean that you have to select a DVR in the Roku menu before you can use it to tune channels or watch a show.  If you save programs on multiple DVRs, you need to know which one recorded the show you want to watch.  If you connect to a DVR that is currently recording a show or on which someone else is already watching television, your connection will interrupt the current activity.

One other shortcoming is that the Live TV list is a list of programs not channels, so if you have the same program on a strong and a weak channel, you may not be able to select the strong channel.

Some Roku channels have an option to record all programs.  The Simple pops out to the show description upon completion.  Search is limited to shows on the DVR.  Via the Roku channel, recording options are limited to record this episode and record the series.

My ideal Roku channel would be device independent.  If I wanted to watch live tv, the first available DVR would be connected.  The Live TV list should include all tuned channels even if the same show is on two channels. Recordings should start on the next available tuner.  When I choose to watch live tv, if a tuner is already in use, I should be prompted before it is disconnected (this tuner is recording the Super Bowl, do you want to interrupt the recording?)  I should be able to search programs on all local DVRs.  When I choose to watch a show, an option ought to be to watch all recorded episodes.  I’d also like to be able to start and stop recording manually or record channel 38 from 6pm to 8pm every week night.  I’d like to be able to rewind something and watch it in slow motion.  This is essential for sports and wardrobe malfunctions.

Let’s think through some use cases…

  • You cut the cable and installed an antenna and have run cable to your televisions and are enjoying broadcast programming.  You have installed a Roku for Netflix and other internet programming.  You might install one or a few Simple devices to record programs and to use to view, pause, rewind, and fast forward for some programs.
  • You want to put a tv where you have no coax and do not want to run coax.  You install a Simple DVR where there is coax and stream wirelessly to a Roku where the television is.
  • You want to watch tv by the pool or on the deck.  Simple can stream to a laptop, a tablet, or a wireless Roku by the pool.
  • I have five DTVPal DVRs scattered throughout my home.  We also have five Rokus.  We just installed our first Simple DVR.  I program it to record shows we like and we watch them using the Roku channel.  Five Rokus can stream a program at the same time.  This is a great way to intelligently record programming without spending for a Tivo.

I’ve only had this for a couple weeks and I love it.  I’ll post a followup once I have had a chance to use it for remote viewing (college boy is supposed to test this for me).  In the meantime, I strongly recommend anyone watching unencrypted cable or broadcast television grab one of these.  Watch Woot — these have been $100 with lifetime twice.  In case you missed the link in the first paragraph, here is a big on to the specs on the v2 device…

http://www.silicondust.com/images/hdhomerun/stv_sellsheet_2013USA.pdf

 

VideoBuzz: Open and Easy!

The popular banned Roku channel is now open source and it’s developers have automated the installation process.  Enjoy!

http://utmostsolutions.github.io/myvideobuzz/

What is VideoBuzz?  VideoBuzz is an opensource roku channel that plays videos from popular Internet video sites.

Why Would I Want Another Roku Video Channel?  VideoBuzz is a very well written Roku channel that provides easy access to YouTube including subscriptions and search.  Roku provides no official access to YouTube and has ‘officially’ banned private YouTube channels.  While Roku ‘insiders’ have access to YouTube via SECRET features of sanctioned channels, none compare in quality to VideoBuzz.

How Do I Install VideoBuzz?  Roku allows developers to install a single channel directly on their Roku.  This ‘side-loaded’ channel is not subject to Roku oversight.  VideoBuzz is a ‘side-loaded’ channel.  The developers have created a script that automates this process for you.  You can use this script or manually put your Roku in developer mode and side-load the channel yourself.

If you are interested in developing Roku channels, VideoBuzz makes an excellent template.  The developers have made the source and scripts available for analysis and modification.

Chromecast, Aereo Rescue CBS Fans

Unable to reach a contractual agreement by their Friday, 5 p.m. deadline, Time Warner Cable dropped the No. 1 primetime network in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas and several other markets.

USA Today is reporting that a contract dispute has left TWC customers in eight markets without CBS programming.  This includes six of Nielsen’s top ten programs and, potentially, NFL Football.  The affected markets are… Continue reading

Aereo: First Impressions

I have updated this post to add some Aereo channels.  Notably, Aereo has added Movies! which is an excellent 24×7 movie channel.  I noticed that the current version of Playon adds an Aereo channel.  I’ll be reactivating my Aereo account to test this.  The results will be documented here and this entry will be linked from a new post to ensure people see it.  Great summer for cable cutters in New England! 

I received my invitation to try Aereo on May 27, 2013.  By this time, Aereo had already changed their pricing plan.  Instead of getting two antennas for $80 per year, I would get one antenna for $8/month or two antennas for $12 per month.  That’s about an 80% increase in price!

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Aereo, at Last!

from Aereo Press Release

Boston, Mass. (April 23, 2013) –Aereo, Inc., today announced plans to launch its groundbreaking online television technology in the Boston metropolitan area. Beginning May 15, consumers who have pre-registered with Aereo will receive a special invitation to join and be one of the first to experience Aereo’s technology. After May 30, Aereo will make membership available to all eligible consumers across the Boston designated market area (DMA), which includes more than 4.5 million consumers in 16 counties in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Boston has some of the highest cable rates in the country.  In less than a month, people from Cape Cod to Southern New Hampshire will have an inexpensive alternative.  For $80 a year plus the cost of a Roku,  cord cutters will receive 28 over-the-air broadcast channels live.  Aereo also includes a DVR function.  Interested?  Preregister here.

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Solved: Youtube on Roku (Updated 8/8/2013)

VideoBuzz is now opensource and can be installed using a script.  More here.

YouTube is a popular channel on OTT streamers.  Roku has never officially supported a YouTube channel, but there are a number of private channels that support it.  One of these has been removed.  The VideoBuzz channel has been ‘voluntarily’ removed from the list of Roku channels.  VideoBuzz was unique among Roku YouTube channels in that it was simple to install, easy to use, and worked.

Why did Roku VideoBuzz Roku pull the channel?  No one knows.  Roku won’t say, but the mods and VCMs on http://forums.roku.com claim that there was an IP issue…

There’s been a fair bit of speculation about VideoBuzz and the reason it is being deactivated. I want to take a moment to elaborate:

Every developer agrees to abide by the terms of the Roku developer agreement when creating a developer account. Among the requirements in the agreement, we require that every channel publisher must have the appropriate rights or permission to distribute the content within their channel through Roku. Other requirements include written authorization is required for channels with international or foreign language content. Channels that violate the developer agreement are subject to deactivation, though typically we do give them a chance to come back into compliance (or prove they are not violating it) before acting on it — we do realize that it can be a complicated world when it comes to rights for content. Sometimes we’re made aware of channels through formal notices (e.g. DMCA takedown notices or cease and desist notices) and other times we are notified more informally. Since we respect all content owners’ rights, we have to take each notification seriously and explore it for violation. Regarding VideoBuzz specifically, we don’t believe that today a Roku channel can stream from YouTube without violating YouTube’s terms of service (at least specifically section II paragraph 14 of the YouTube Developer TOS).

That’s not really true.  It can’t be.  The mods and VCMs have been promoting the use of Plex as an alternative…

Plex on Roku, out of the box, won’t receive YouTube. If the user modifies the setup to enable it, neither Plex nor Roku is at fault. They took deliberate steps to prevent YouTube on Roku through Plex, and the user subsequently took deliberate steps to enable it.

Playon also streams YouTube to a Roku (right out of the box without the user deliberately doing anything except installing server and channel) — despite the fact that mention of the channel can get you banned from the forums.

There is the issue, here is the solution…

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Time to Buy a Roku?

This week, early adopters began receiving their Roku 3 streaming media players.  Already, the Roku 3 is the ‘#1 Best Seller in Multiroom Digital Music Systems’ on Amazon.com — whatever that means.  Should you buy a Roku 3?  Will a Roku 3 let you cut the cable?  In the next couple paragraphs, I’ll try to help you figure that out.

This is a blog about cutting the cable not streaming media, so any review of streaming media players has to begin with a discussion of where the media player fits into the cable cutting strategy.  Obviously, this kind of a discussion is going to be subjective — people who watch Netflix 80% of the time are going to be more excited about streaming media players than people who turn on the local news in the morning, the evening news at night, and syndicated sitcoms in between.  I fall into the latter group and am not terribly excited about streaming the internet to my television.  Just the same, I own eight streaming media players of which five are Rokus. Continue reading