WSJ Live on Apple TV 4.4, an underrated update?

With all the noise about iOS 5 today, it’s been pretty easy to miss the updates for the Apple TV.  In fact, with all the news surrounding Apple, the iPhone, it’s iCloud service, etc, you would almost forget that Apple still had this TV “hobby”.

Most users will be focused on two new features.  Display mirroring and iCloud sync for photos.  However I think the Wall Street Journal Live addition should get top billing for the new feature set.

When Apple added the NBA and MLB subscription services back on March 9th this year, this is the first showing of a streaming “channel” approach that would compare to the live streams on other “web enabled” television devices.

Obviously the hardware is prepared and can handle it.  I’ve watched quite a bit of today’s WSJ live programming (and not because I was interested in the content) and was impressed with the implementation.  Now it’s in the hands of Tim Cook to see if he can leverage Apples ability to deliver the content and persuade other broadcasters to get on board also.

I will eagerly await the next quietly deployed set of Apple TV features…

(Hey Tim, Apple TV App Store?  Anyone?)

Roku LT announced… looks like a Roku 2 HD with an instant rebate.

Roku announced yesterday a new device to it’s lineup, the Roku LT.  The Roku LT specs look amazingly similar to the Roku 2 HD.  Looking through multiple write-ups on the device the only discernible difference I can find (besides the odd Roku Purple color of the box) is the fact that it may (or may not) contain a microSD card slot.  Roku touts that the microSD is only to hold channels and games.  Since this device (like the HD) does not have bluetooth (for enabling the control of games) there shouldn’t be as much of a concern over the amount storage, thus no need for the microSD slot.

The omission of bluetooth may also mean the IR remote won’t have the incessant sleep problem that the bluetooth remotes have.  Here’s hoping… 🙂

So for omitting the microSD and bluetooth, Roku lowers the price to $49.99.  If your looking to use this device for what it was primarily designed for (streaming television) then you won’t miss those features and will appreciate having the extra $10.

Trials and Tribulations with the Roku 2 XS

Once there was agreement (after a lot of negotiation) that we weren’t getting the value out of our current television service provider, I needed to find a solution that would give us the option to watch some traditional network programming. We don’t live in an area where we can get any OTA (Over The Air) television reception without an extremely large antenna and amplifier (and that option had a low WAF I might add). Not wanting to purchase all the episodes of prime time television and not willing to wait until the season was over and watch them on Netflix, we were left with Hulu.  While not inclusive of all networks, Hulu does get most of the major prime time dramas (like Glee unfortunately) and other popular shows from network television.

The Hulu decision then drove the next.  How do we then get Hulu to our main television?  I could build a system or do the Mac Mini approach, but neither of those seem feasible for something we were going to just “try” given they are $500+ solutions.  The $59 Roku solution seemed to fit the bill.

As things usually go, if there is a low end and a high end model, it’s pretty predictable which I’ll end up with.  I’m sure the Roku 2 HD would have worked for us, but for only $20 more you step up to 1080p and only $20 more than that you get an “enhanced” remote plus an ethernet port (which seemed like it may be a good idea if it does 1080p).

During the first 30 days with the Roku, I was tempted many times to pack it up and return it to Best Buy.  Since most of my experiences to this point were with traditional set top boxes for cable or satellite and the Apple TV, I was accustomed to things working and working consistently.  What were the points of frustration?

  • Box freezing up – this would occur multiple times a day and be very frustrating.  Unfortunately it seems to occur more frequently on some “channels” than others.  This could be an indication of the fact that the channels are not written by the same people responsible for the Roku OS itself.
  • Remote responsiveness – I have not used an older Roku nor have I used the standard remote.  I’ve only used the “enchanted remote with motion control” that comes with the XS.  Often it take quite a few button clicks to “wake” the remote after it has sat idle for a bit.  After waking the remote, there is a lack of input response also.  After clicking a button, you can look to see the Roku box blink indicating it has received the remote input, however nothing occurs.  This causes you to continue to hit the same button expecting something to eventually happen.  Sometimes it will eventually take effect, other times all of the cumulative clicks seemed to get buffered and then happen all at once taking you somewhere in the system you didn’t intend to go to.
  • Justin.TV – okay it’s not specifically JustinTV, but the fact that channels are created and user supported.  I did find it interesting to be able to bring up some live television shows when they were being broadcast (sports, news, etc).  But the quality is deplorable and the reliability even less.  Remember OTA is not really an option for us, so this was worth trying, but not worth using that much.
  • Angry Birds – I will admit to having been suckered in like everyone else and spent entirely too much time playing Angry Birds on my iPad when we first got it.  I don’t know if it was just the addictiveness of the game or the competition with my wife to see who could keep the high score on each level…  But on the Roku, interacting with this particular game is not as eloquent as a touch screen device.  I appreciate that Angry Birds is a popular game and it may have helped to market the device to end users, but I think it was a bad choice/implementation.
What do I like about the Roku?
  • Picture/Sound quality – the one thing I can compare between the Roku and my Apple TV is Netflix.  So I’ve done quite a bit of A/B comparison and the video/audio quality on the Roku are noticeably better than the Apple TV.  While the Netflix interface isn’t as eloquent, we will watch more Netflix shows on the Roku.
  • Bluetooth remote – while I’m not happy with the inconsistencies of the remote, one interesting factor is it being bluetooth.  While everyone is very used to pointing the remote at the TV, it isn’t necessary with the Roku remote.  This means you can mount the box in a less conspicuous location and still be able to control it (unlike the traditional infrared remotes)
  • Size – Small. That’s cool and it makes mounting it easier.  Double sided tape and it’s almost integrated with your TV.  Certainly no need to purchase specific furniture or shelves to house it.
  • Justin.TV – if you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably thinking “wait, didn’t he say he didn’t like this?”.  I did.  But I think this shows a strength of the Roku in it’s user supported channels and content.  Over time I hope/expect that better offerings/implementations will be made available and the experience will be better.  I’m willing to wait and see.
  • Games – while I don’t think Angry Birds was a good choice for the device and it certainly doesn’t have the video processing to keep up with dedicated systems like a PS or XBOX, it has potential.
Would I purchase the Roku again?  Yes.  Would I get the XS?  Probably not.  I think I’d try the XD and see if the lack of enhanced features makes the remote use any more tolerable.

Time Warner Cable Wideband Internet or How to make all your Geek friends jealous for $99 a month…

If you know what DOCSIS 3.0 is, please stop reading now… this posting will be of no interest to you.  For everyone else (and I’m thinking that’s alot of people), please read on.

I’ve been through a few versions of Time Warner‘s cable modem offerings and spent some time as a system admin when the first cable modems were being deployed.  You can say that I’ve had some exposure to the technology on the delivery side and the consumer side.  I’ve even dipped my toes into the FTTH (fiber to the home) services like AT&T’s U-verse.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the quality and consistency I’ve received out of this service so far.

When I first ran a speed test, I giggled (and that’s not something you necessarily want to admit on the Internet).  I’ve seen $8000 a month commercial services try and have download speeds and ping responses at this level.  Granted the upload speeds are a 10th (as expected) but as a home user, other than uploading pictures to Picassaweb or Smugmug, it’s not that big of a concern.

The first day we had this, I had to share my joy (i.e. brag) so I posted the speed results to my Facebook wall.  One of my astute networking friends quickly asked “are you really going to use all that bandwidth”.  Well, no.  Not now at least.

What can I do with it?  More than I could with my previous 6Mb/s U-verse service.  With U-verse I couldn’t reliably watch Netflix.  Switching to TWC Wideband make the Netflix experience enjoyable.  At the time, I was able to stream Netflix to two different Apple TVs, a computer, and an iPad without any degradation.  Now that Netflix has limited you to one concurrent stream, I can’t do that anymore.  But I have the bandwidth if I could.

With this bandwidth as a springboard, we took the plunge and dropped the U-verse television service also.  With that, we have gone cable/satellite free.  And free is to be interpreted as “without” as opposed to “for less money”.  With the cost of the wideband service, plus the number of small boxes I’ve bought to interface with our TVs and the various subscription services (HULU, Netflix, PlayOn, etc) I’m not sure there are any financial benefits to this approach yet.

For about half the cost I could have had the TWC 30Mb/service.  But what fun would that have been?  The 50 meg service has a “guaranteed” 40Mb/s SLA (service level agreement).  I have this information from both the tech that did the install and the person I ordered it from at TWC.  Granted I’ve not found this anywhere else online, so I lack the ability to substantiate that claim beyond what I was told.  Many are not going to have a consistent measurement to see if they are getting the full throughput at all times (unless they have a spare Linksys running MRTG at home and I told them to stop reading in the first sentence).  At best I’m doing spot checks with a less than scientific website (speedtest.net) but I’m getting pretty pictures each time I check it. 🙂

Is any of this scientific.  No.  But as far as putting a stake in the ground as to what’s possible for the next gen of service offerings, I think TWC has done very well.

The real challenges of cutting the cord…

2011 is the year I took the plunge and finally separated my household from any cable or satellite service provider.  While my mother will say I’m just being cheap, it really is about a new way to consume entertainment/media that is “on your own terms”.  Fortunately my wife and children are very accepting of my quirks and have been (relatively) supportive during this endeavor.

Over the past couple of months I’ve done everything from changing ISPs, purchasing multiple “devices” to consume content on (or connect to my television), and tried a variety of online media outlets.  Rather than try to start at day 1 and recap how I’ve gotten here, I’m going to pick up from where I am today and then go back and fill in some of the history (hey, it worked for George Lucas!)

I’m going to also test out my (limited) WordPress abilities and try building out a specific section of the site to focus on this type of content.  Since today is October 4th 2011, my first post will be on what I was really hoping Apple would have released today… 😦