Moving

I hope you enjoyed this blog. It was a catchall for my ideas and experiences as I transitioned from cable to broadcast tv. I’ve organized all of my thoughts in a new blog which is from the perspective of one who has been there. Take a look…

http://freetvforme.wordpress.com/

This is the last post to The Beer’s On Comcast.

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Fire TV Torches Competition!

After much anticipation and a little delay, Amazon finally released their streamer yesterday.  It’s called Fire TV (FTV).  FTV, at $99, competes with the Roku, Apple TV, and, to a lesser extent, Chromecast and Ouya.  I predict it will kill them all.  Let’s look at the specs (click to enlarge)…

firecomp

For less than $100, FTV has impressive specs.  With a quad core cpu, 2G of memory, optical audio out, and wired/wireless ethernet, FTV is a pretty expensive box.  Amazon is probably not making much money on the hardware and this is going to be a problem for competitors that rely on hardware sales to pay the bills.

Then there’s the software.  FTV streams almost all of the important stuff — Netflix, Amazon Instant, HuluPlus, WatchESPN, ShowTime, Crackle, and YouTube.  Not enough?  Install the Plex app and enjoy hundreds of internet streams via Plex.   Plus it does flash.

And the accessories.  ATV comes with a bluetooth remote and a bluetooth game controller is available.  Chances are pretty good that your PS3 controller or Kindle keyboard will pair with FTV.  It’s also, apparently, pretty easy to side-load apps.

And everything else.  In advance of yesterday’s presser, Amazon quietly reduced the prices for their Kindle Fire products.  These tablets are a great FTV companion.  The Fire can be mirrored to FTV or used as a second screen as Amazon extends X-Ray to television.  Free Time for television lets parents their kids’ use of FTV.  An integrated microphone allows for voice activated media searches.

The Fire TV comes with a one year warranty.  Compare that to the 90 day warranties of the other products.

All of this is wrapped in a beautiful gui and coupled with Amazon free apps and media.  If you have been considering a media streamer, Fire TV looks like a winner.


Reviews/Previews

 

Channel Master DVR+

The thing my family missed the most when we cut the cable was our DVR.  We did not record a lot of shows, but we did pause, rewind, fast forward, and slow down programming.  After toying with a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), we decided to go with a dedicated DVR.  Once we decided on a DVR, there were only really two choices — TiVo or DTVPal.  While the TiVo has some compelling features, the monthly fee was not consistent with my cord cutting goals, so we took a chance on the EchoStar DTVPal.  Flash forward four years and very little has changed.  HTPCs are still more hassle than they are worth, TiVo is still too expensive, and EchoStar still makes the best standalone DVR that isn’t a TiVo.  This time the EchoStar DVR is called DVR+ and it’s being sold by Channel Master for $250 — $300 with 80 hours of HD storage.

The DVR+ is small.  It’s about 8″ deep x 10.5″ wide x 1/2″ tall.  Except for the blue LED on the front, you might confuse it with a mouse pad.  The back is a neatly organized array of connectors — antenna, digital (optical) audio, HDMI out, ethernet, two usb ports, power, and a jack for an IR extender.  With the IR extender, you can store the DVR out of sight.  The remote is comfortable with most common controls organized around a D-pad type controller.  I wish the remote used more common batteries, but CR2032 batteries are readily available on ebay for $0.30.

Setup was intuitive: select language and country, plug in coax and TV plus optional network and disk, scan for channels, and set zip code/time zone/time mode (automatic vs manual).  If an external disk is detected, you are prompted to use it and, if necessary, the disk is initialized.

The DVR+ stores programs on an internal 16g flash or an external USB disk.  You can use the DVR+ with no usb disk, but storage is limited to two hours.  With no usb disk, the DVR+ includes a channel guide, allows you to pause and rewind programming, and provides access to internet services like Vudu.  You must add a usb disk to store recorded programs.  At this time, maximum supported disk size is 3t.   Storage is about 160 hours of HD video per one terabyte of disk.  The first drive I plugged in was an ancient Maxtor 500g OneTouch 4 usb disk.  It was immediately recognized and I was guided through the initialization process.

The DVR+ includes a network adapter.  Wired ethernet is built in and wireless is available via an optional usb network adapter.  Network access is not required.  The DVR+ is completely autonomous.  It includes a PSIP guide and can accept updates via a usb device.  Connecting  to the internet facilitates updates, provides access to an enhanced Rovi powered guide, and allows use of internet apps.

The thing you do most with a DVR is watch television so a good DVR has to have a good tuner and a good program guide.  The DVR+ has two excellent tuners and a terrific guide.  My DVR+ picked up 47 channels — more than either my television or simple.tv DVR.  The guide is a grid of two hours of five channels that covers the bottom half of the television screen.  The Rovi guide is good for about two weeks of programming and the PSIP guide is good for as much as 24 hours of programming.  I find the PSIP guide more reliable and complete than the PSIP guide on my DTVPal DVRs.  Navigation is quick.  Pressing the OK button in the grid pops up a record dialog.  You can choose to Watch this program, Record program, or Create manual recording.  If you select to Record program, you then choose between Record just this program and Record all programs with this name.  If you select Create manual recording, you choose channel, start time, end time, and whether you want to record that time block one time (none), Weekly, Mon-Fri, or Daily.  I love this as  I record a block of sitcoms on WSBK Mon-Fri from 3:00pm to 8:00pm.  You can record programs via the guide, by name, or by time and channel.  The only recording option I don’t see if start/stop Manual (press record to start recording and press stop to stop recording) which I like this for sporting events.  Fortunately, you can accomplish this by setting a manual recording for a very long time then manually stopping it.

Watching the DVR+ is very intuitive.  The DVR button takes you to a list of recordings, the Record button starts recording a program, and the Guide button calls up the guide.  Pressing the Info button in the Guide calls up a program description on the tuned channel.  Programming is automatically cached, so if there is a great play, or you missed the weather report, or you want a closer look at a costume failure, the DVR+ is ready.  The remote has jog buttons so you can skip forward or back ten seconds at a time.  Hit the rewind button to rewind at 2x.  Hit it again and again for 8x, 32x, and 64x.  Hit pause then forward for 1/8x slow motion.  Hit forward again and again for 1/4x, 1/2x, then full speed.  When you rewind and fast forward, the video is visible so you can see when you get to what you are looking for.

Saved programs are sorted by date recorded with the newest recordings at the top of the list.  If multiple programs have the same name, they are stored in a folder.  When you click on a folder, you are prompted to browse to the folder contents or delete the folder.  Within the folder, all the programs have the same name, but can be renamed.  Once you rename a recorded program, it pops out of the folder since it no longer shares a name with another program.  You can protect recordings and can toggle the New Status which indicates whether the show has been recorded.

I like the fact that the DVR+ has a 0/4/5/6 hour sleep timer.  My plasma tv notices when the DVR shuts down and shuts itself down.  Parental controls provide pin protection to channels and content with user selectable ratings.  You can also block unrated events.

The DVR+ is an excellent DVR and I highly recommend it.

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.

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.

TV Fool

I do not believe that streaming files from the internet or a media server is a satisfying alternative to cable or satellite service.  For me, television viewing begins and ends with programming.  At my house, this programming is broadcast television.  Broadcast television is superior to internet streaming for local programming and noninteractive viewing.  It can be superior to cable and satellite for cost and image quality. Continue reading

Plex (review)

Plex is a suite of products that facilitates the aggregation and distribution of media. The Plex Media Center is open source, the Plex Media Server is closed source, and various Plex clients are free or commercial. Plex also offers a sevice called MyPlex which is free, and PlexPass is not free but offers access to premium features through MyPlex. Plex aggregates content via plugins. Many plugins (channels) can be installed via the various Plex user interfaces, but others are only available for manual installation. This article will attempt explain the purpose, installation, configuration, interactions, and use of the various Plex components.  It’s intended to help you decide if Plex is worth investigation and walk you through a functional installation. Continue reading