It showed up in some nice packaging and the box itself is oddly clean. The same can't be said about the remote control, which is so complex looking at first sight that I literally laughed out loud when I saw it. Turns out there are even worse controllers, the Logitech GoogleTV controller looks even more complicated and less like a remote control but at least the Sony remote has a nice feel in the hands (it is basically a Playstation controller with many more buttons) and the principal interaction is a nice thumb-powered mouse controller.
I'll start with the highlights first: GoogleTV is the best (and almost only) way to watch any random Flash video you find on the web on your TV. I watch a lot of online feeds of European bike racing, and often it's someone's stream of local Belgium TV feeding to a Flash widget on a website, and GoogleTV can load those pages, play those videos and I can run them full-screen to minimize the web browser-ness of the whole thing.
I haven't found flash video on any site that wouldn't play in GoogleTV, and though I've heard that behind the scenes GoogleTV is running an older version of Google Chrome's browser with Flash, it works wonderfully for websites. I'd venture to say that the web browser in GoogleTV is the best web browser I've used on a TV before -- the fonts are readable sizes, the thumb/mouse controller on the Sony remotes is fast and easy to use to click around, and most websites render well on the device.
I haven't had any problems with the Blu-ray player, it seems to function just fine, though I'd say that complicated remote controller that seems necessary when using the device as a computer browsing the web is a bit of a pain if the phone rings and you want to find a pause button among the 80-90 buttons on the remote. I don't watch a ton of Blu-ray discs, I prefer to watch streaming HD movies on my xbox 360 or AppleTV, but all the typical Blu-ray functionality that is supposed to be there seems to be.
I'll openly admit that I didn't test out the main feature of GoogleTV, which is to provide a "wrapper" around your live TV viewing experience by letting you bring up a screen of supplemental material. This lets you do things like bring up Twitter streams while you watch a live show and though I've heard it's kind of cool, it seemed like a dream scenario only for the ADD set. Enabling that also meant two lame things: I'd have to rewire my A/V cabinet to funnel all content through my GoogleTV unit, and it would mean I'd always have to have my GoogleTV player on and interact with it constantly (the remote is Bluetooth, which universal remotes largely don't speak). GoogleTV was supposed to famously provide a TV-based interface to network TV websites as well, but quickly after the release of GoogleTV, networks began to filter out GoogleTV and effectively block it. As a result, I don't do much in the way of live TV interacting with GoogleTV.
GoogleTV also features a slew of installed apps, but I can watch Netflix on half a dozen other devices connected to my TV, and I don't use any of the streaming music offerings. I pretty much only use GoogleTV for the web browser and my home screen on GoogleTV isn't filled with apps, but instead has a bunch of links to sites I often access for video (cyclingfans.net, My YouTube favorites, a list of my recent SendTab.com bookmarks of video to watch later). There were rumors that a new version of Android/GoogleTV would be released with a real app store like Android's, and it looks like leaked screenshots support that. I'm looking forward to seeing what sorts of apps will be available for GoogleTV when the version 2.0 OS gets released.
Overall, it's a not-too-shabby Blu-ray player and an amazing web browser for your TV. Whether or not that is enough justification to purchasing one is up to the reader, I personally have no other way to watch ridiculously niche content (I get up at 4am to watch bike races broadcast with Flemish announcers). It also has a lot of promise in the form of an upcoming revamp of the operating system that may allow lots of additional custom apps.
A couple years ago, I started playing with the early Boxee betas available for PCs and eventually on a hacked AppleTV. I followed the development of the software for months, running the latest betas and having to reinstall it whenever Apple released new patches for the unit rendering my hacks inoperable.
Eventually I grew weary of the choppy network streaming and the inability to play video with higher resolutions than 480p. I considered the Boxee box when it was first released but found my previous experience with the beta software on other devices so rocky that I avoided it until a friend boasted about how great it was.
He said things like you'll be able to play 720p and 1080p video without issues. You can watch video streaming from YouTube, Vimeo, and almost anywhere you've marked with the "Watch Later" bookmarklet on your computer. I decided to pick one up and it quickly became my favorite go-to device to play internet video.
The Boxee box is pretty simple and the interface is even nicer than the already clean UI it boasted on hacked first-gen AppleTVs. Network streaming was a cinch to set up but I found I could only reliably stream video up to a couple gigabytes in size before it would stutter and buffer repeatedly on my 802.11n wifi network. It was then that discovered one of the great things about the Boxee box: the extensibility.
Plug any USB external hard drive you like into it and the Boxee box will be able to scan for playable video files. You can also enable file server connection on your Boxee box, which allows you to do things like transfer new movies from any computer on your network to your Boxee's connected USB drive. This also means you can do things like set up Hazel scripts on a desktop Mac to scan a downloaded video directory and automatically transfer it over to the Boxee box while you sleep.
Once you have a large connected drive loaded with video, you're no longer constrained by the speed of your network. I could bring up 10Gb 1080p video of Blu-ray rips instantly. I could fast-forward and rewind through 1080p video without any delays as the video would seek ahead. Picture quality and sound were unbelievable all around.
One of the best things about Boxee is the software. It's really simple out of the box, offering you some staff pics that glean the best of YouTube and Vimeo on the home screen, and scanning network shares for playable movies is a pretty easy affair. It'll display the weather and it's loaded with a bunch of apps to play video from all sorts of sites. But the software lets you do much more advanced things as well. Like the aforementioned networking capabilities that allow you to map Boxee connected drives over your network for loading/editing. There are all sorts of other crazy options in the deep advanced menus. You can enable AirPlay for iOS devices. You can use an iPhone app as a controller over wifi. You can enable its webserver and interact over the network via various APIs.
The remote is a stroke of genius. It's a best-of-both-worlds mix of Apple-like beauty and simplicity on the front, with just three buttons and a directional pad. Flip it over to a full (albeit small) querty keyboard for entering passwords, filling out forms, etc. In my sea of remotes, the Boxee is a breath of fresh air. It isn't complicated like the GoogleTV controller but offers much more functionality than AppleTV's simple two button + directional pad remote. About the only drawback is that it works via bluetooth (or maybe IR?), so you won't find too many universal remotes that can talk to it.
Boxee isn't just a device or software, it's also an online social network and video service, but I have to say after over a decade of dabbling in social networks and a full list of about 50 friends on Boxee, none of us really use the sharing/rating features all that much. I rarely bother to "like" a video to report back to the Boxee site and all my friends. My friends feed contains just one or two friends using Boxee extensively and I haven't discovered much in the way of new shows as a result. One feature that is useful is the "Watch Later" bookmarklet you can add to your computer's browser. If you invoke it on a webpage featuring video playback (usually Flash), in most cases Boxee will recognize it and add it to your Watch Later list. You can pull this list up on the Boxee website or your Boxee box connected to your TV. This makes for a handy feature for things you catch on Twitter or at work and want to share in your living room.
Overall, the Boxee delivers by playing any crazy video I've ever downloaded. I watch a lot of British shows that don't play in the States or don't arrive on my shores for months to years after they play live for a UK audience, so I am downloading a lot of shows I want to enjoy in my living room and not my computer. The Boxee box is deceptively simple and offers enough flexibility to do much more than simply play internet video and it comes with one of the finest remote controls I've seen in years. If you download a lot of video online and need a way to easily play it on a TV, you can't go wrong with a Boxee box.
It all started innocently enough -- I'd gotten a new xbox360/kinect unit as a xmas gift but I was out of HDMI ports on my 5 year old A/V unit (it had the most HDMI ports you could get at the time: 2). After switching HDMI cables with other devices I realized I needed a new more capable home theater A/V unit. I punched up Denon's US site and found a similarly priced (about $700) and named model as my last unit now boasted 6 HDMI input slots. I was in HDMI port heaven.
It was at that moment that I decided to upgrade everything in my A/V cabinet, with an eye towards the latest and greatest. My goals were simple: I wanted to be able to play any video from any source I could possibly want on my TV. Funny YouTube clip I found on my desktop? British broadcast-only TV show not destined for the US shores for another year? Flip video from my daughter's ballet recital? Show off a movie I just shot on my iPhone?
From the new A/V unit, I fired up Amazon.com and ordered up a slew of devices. The final tally is below and the absolute mess of seven remote controls shown above is what controls it all. I'll post in-depth reviews of each device over the next week.
Denon AVR-2311CI - I was looking for two basic things: tons of HDMI inputs and a price tag under a grand. It delivered on both points.
2nd generation AppleTV - I replaced the first generation (hacked) AppleTV just to get AirPlay, so I could pull up any movie or photo off my iPhone or iPad for everyone to view in the living room.
Boxee box (Full Review here on PVRblog) - I was hesitant to try a Boxee box after playing with the software on my 1st generation AppleTV. It wasn't until a friend gave a glowing review and mentioned how flexible it was that I gave it a try.
Sony Blu-ray player with GoogleTV (Full Review here on PVRblog) - I ditched my PS3 as a movie player and needed a Blu-ray device and thought I might as well test out GoogleTV. So far it has seen limited use and I would say the appeal is limited, but it is the only device I have that reliably plays any online flash video I've thrown at it.
TiVo Premiere Elite - I just recently replaced my Premiere unit with a new Elite and so far it has been stellar. Two terabytes of storage and four tuners sounds like overkill but it means you'll never run short of shows to tape or space to hold them.
Xbox 360 - After spending years designing interfaces for websites I never thought I'd say I loved a user interface designed by Microsoft, but the xbox experience is fantastic and my family uses it as an entertainment device much more than I thought we would. Netflix is great, ESPN is killer, and the HD blockbuster movies available for download are awesome.
Samsung C8000 50" 1080p Plasma - I bought this TV simply because it was the best looking device to watch movies on. I looked at nearly a dozen options but when I saw the latest and greatest side by side, the black levels on this plasma TV were incredible and I've been a happy owner ever since.
I've now lived with this setup for about 8 months and though it requires too many remote controls and is difficult to tell friends and family how to operate all the devices (a Harmony remote wouldn't work with some of the bluetooth remotes here), it is otherwise fantastic and fulfills my hope of watching any video I want from any source on my TV in the living room.
It was an odd coincidence this morning to see two people with personal blogs I follow both talk about TV and the possible future ahead.
Marco mentions how he and his wife no longer have cable or watch live TV -- it's all on demand, Netflix or AppleTV stuff and he goes on to describe how in the new Steve Jobs book there is a passage about possibly reinventing TV in the same way Apple tackled music players, cellphones, and tablet computing.
Rafe talks about the decline of TiVo and how it really needed to be included as software for cable companies in order to succeed and how their future looks grim as young people move away from TV towards more internet streaming.
Rafe's point about people moving away from broadcast cable TV reminded me of how last week when I upgraded my TiVo to the latest Elite version, I thought of my circle of friends when thinking who could have my TiVo Premiere with lifetime service I bought a couple years ago. I literally had to go about ten people down before I found someone willing to take it, and even they didn't have a full cable package and mostly wanted to record OTA signals. My circle of friends includes a lot of early adopter geek types, but if they are the canary in the coal mine for cable companies and TiVo, know that they are moving in droves to downloaded content instead.
Ed note: What follows is written by John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge, the non-profit group that "preserves the openness of the Internet and the public's access to knowledge, promotes creativity through balanced copyright, and upholds and protects the rights of consumers to use innovative technology lawfully."
I've linked to Public Knowledge in the past when issues around CableCARDs and Internet access have come up. They do great work and when John contacted me to say that the cable companies are trying to kill the latest initiative to broaden consumer choice (a new CableCARD-like technology called AllVid) I asked him to write something up.
Last week I wasted an hour with a cable company rep trying to move my CableCARD from one TiVo to a new one and like all the other times, it required a scheduled visit from someone that had never worked with a CableCARD before (I've probably seen 6 or 7 techs in the past five years and I'm always the only customer they've met using CableCARDs). It took a couple calls from the tech to the corporate headquarters to re-authorize the card and in the end the tech said I would miss all the on-demand stuff anyway. Oh well.
Why is TV gear so proprietary and weird, and how can it get better?
You can use any computer with any ISP: you don't have PC-only or Mac-only Internet providers, and people don't expect to rent their computers from Comcast or Verizon. Because of the subsidy model, mobile phones are more complicated, but there are global standards for mobile phone networks, and if you get an unlocked phone you can use it with any compatible carrier.
But pay TV didn't work out that way. Different MVPDs (multi-channel video distributors, the term that encompasses cable and satellite as well as newer telco-provided services like FiOS TV and AT&T's U-Verse) each use different technologies, and with minor exceptions which we'll get to, as a result you basically have to rent set-top boxes and other equipment from your MVPD.
An engineer might say that there's a reason for this--different cable networks sprouted up at different times in different ways, and each handled the transition to digital differently. Satellite and telco TV are, technologically, entirely different.
But Internet access is provided over the most heterogenous group of technologies you can imagine. You have dial-up, DSL, cable modems, satellite, fixed wireless, mobile wireless, different flavors of fiber connections, and more. Yet there's a simple model that makes sure that you don't need to throw away your computer gear every time you get a new ISP--the gateway model. Cable, DSL, and fiber "modems" all translate from whatever protocols that different ISPs use internally into something your computer can understand, such as ethernet or WiFi. There's nothing technologically impossible about standardizing a service over different kinds of networks.
No, the reasons why you (usually) have to use provider-supplied equipment to access MVPD services are business ones. Standardization is not in the interest of pay TV providers, because they all would like to keep as much control of the user experience as possible. They want you to see their services, they want you to use their VOD, they want to upsell you. They view talk about increasing competition in video devices as consumer electronics manufacturers and Internet companies trying to muscle in on their turf, and argue that they need to provide complete user experiences, and not just raw video feeds. (I'd going to argue that this is a false choice.)
The problems with this are twofold: One, letting providers keep top-to-bottom control of the user experience has been a recipe for stagnation. TV technology advances as a glacial pace compared with mobile telephony, computers, and other areas of consumer electronics. Competition, almost entirely missing from the video device market, drives those areas forward. Two, it's against the frickin' law. Please excuse my legal mumbo-jumbo.
In the 1950s and 60s, the courts and the FCC repeatedly said that AT&T was behaving unreasonably when it refused to allow "foreign attachments" to the telephone network--every telephone used to be rented from Ma Bell, and showed up as a line item on your monthly bill. In Hush-A-Phone v. United States, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals said that AT&T had to allow a company to market a privacy-protecting muffler device that attaches to telephones. In its Carterfone decision, the FCC said that AT&T had to allow people to use any harmless device with their telephones. (The device in question was a kind of cradle that allowed people to connect telephones to a radio system--so that someone on a CB radio, for instance, could be connected to someone via telephone.) The FCC followed this up with an order requiring that AT&T deploy a standard connection interface to make it easier for people to purchase their own telephones, and use devices like answering machines, fax machines, and modems. The "registered jack" standards that resulted, coupled with rules that prevented the phone company from keeping its customers from using their phone lines to dial into BBSs or ISPs, are partly responsible for the growth of the consumer Internet. It's hard to predict what kinds of innovations might develop if people were as free to interconnect with MVPDs as they are with the phone network. (That's kind of the point.)
To follow up on this successful policy, in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress told the FCC to "adopt regulations to assure the commercial availability, to consumers of multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming systems, of converter boxes, interactive communications equipment, and other equipment used by consumers to access multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming systems, from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor." (This is Section 629 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and it's been codified at 47 U.S.C. § 549.)
The FCC's implementation of this is CableCARD--a little piece of electronics that's supposed to slot into third-party devices to let them communicate with a given cable provider. But the problems with CableCARD are obvious to anyone who's ever tried to use one. Cable companies have never been thrilled with them and as a result they're a pain to get--often requiring a site visit from a technician. (Third-party cable modems are much easier to set up, usually just requiring a phone call. That's because broadband companies don't gain much value from controlling the modem--they usually just provide one as a convenience.) Cable companies have subsidized their rental boxes with service fees, which can make CableCARDs seem like an unnecessary expense. They can't access on-demand content--and as entire cable channels are sometimes sent down the wire only when someone wants to watch them (these are called "switched digital" channels), that means that CableCARD devices can't even access a subscriber's entire programming line-up. And, of course, CableCARDs only work with cable--other MVPDs are mostly left out. Recently the FCC has taken some great steps to improve the CableCARD process--but there's only so much you can do to improve a model that's fundamentally inadequate. CableCARD does make it so that some people--mostly tech and TV enthusiasts--are not stuck using equipment rented from their cable providers. But it's fallen far short of the broad ambitions of the law, and has not done nearly enough to crack open the TV.
That's why the FCC proposed something called "AllVid"--a system modeled on the gateway approach that works for broadband, where each MVPD would have to convert its proprietary back-end technologies into an industry standard that the competitive consumer electronics industry can build against. People would be able to make more uses of content, view it on any screen in the house (such as smartphones, tablets, and computers), and seamlessly integrate online video sources with MVPD video. Importantly, AllVid would open up a lot of the things that are already possible for the kind of people who read this blog, to average users. They could go into a store, buy a device like a TV with an integrated PVR, and have it "just work" when they got home, regardless of who their provider is.
There has been a lot of debate about exactly what AllVid means: Would MVPDs have to use it for devices they themselves provided or could they use private technologies? Would AllVid provide electronics with a simple protocol for accessing video, like UPnP or DLNA, or would it provide some kind of user interface for third-party devices to render? This technical debate is rather moot for the moment, however. The MVPD lobby has pushed back on the FCC on AllVid pretty hard, and apart from a few meetings and discussions, nothing's happened to bring it closer to reality in months. I think the MVPD opposition to AllVid is misplaced: if they allow outsiders to innovate, they will only increase the demand for their services, in a time when leading edge of tech-savvy viewers have given up on cable altogether, and the most interesting TV products (like the Apple TV and Roku) don't even bother trying to hook into MVPD content. True, they'd have to give up a little control, and their content might be displayed right next to competing content from services like Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video. But even in an AllVid world, MVPDs would be free to provide equipment to customers directly, just as they do today, and certainly many viewers would stick with what's familiar.
In the meantime, MVPDs have--very slowly--gotten better. Cable systems are rolling out apps that let their viewers watch some channels on some devices while they're in the home. Telco MVPDs have leapfrogged cable and offer superior interfaces, better simultaneous viewing capabilities, and (with U-Verse) even let you use an XBox instead of a regular set-top box. That's progress, but it still falls short of what could happen if there were a real nationwide standard.
So, what can you do? The primary thing is to be an informed, demanding consumer. Use CableCARD devices, no matter how much of a pain your cable system makes them. They're still better than the boxes they want to rent to you. Let your provider know there's demand for products beyond what they offer. Make a lot of noise online. If you can, cut the cord and get your video from the Internet--all the content isn't there, but services like Netflix blow away MVPDs in terms of their ease of use, and the devices you can watch them on. Voting with your wallet can be remarkably effective. If you really want to get your hands dirty, you can file a comment in the FCC's AllVid docket (number 10-91). Sometimes agencies need a little encouragement to enforce laws that have been on the books for fifteen years.
If you love MVPDs, you should want them to get better. AllVid is the tough medicine that they need, but it's hard work to get them to take it.
If you care to follow this blog via Twitter, I've set up automatic posting to @PVRblogfeed. Follow that account on Twitter, and you'll see pointers to new posts (like this one).
A couple weeks ago, TiVo announced the newest high-end product in their line, the TiVo Premiere Elite. It's a whopping four tuners combined with a 2Tb hard drive, giving you the ability to record four shows at once (instead of two like the TiVo Premiere) and ups the storage from 1Tb to 2Tb. The biggest change otherwise is that OTA (Over The Air) recording is not available in this device, making it digital-cable only.
I don't live in an area with any OTA HD channels, so I never used that capability. I suspect TiVo's own research showed much of their customer base either didn't know or didn't care about OTA recording and they decided to simplify their latest device to keep costs down. List price is $499 and lifetime service was a whopping $500 extra (monthly service is up to $20/month, so their lifetime pricing is still holding at about 2 years of monthly service).
If you're upgrading from the previous TiVo Premiere, it featured the use of a CableCARD mcard, or multi-stream card. My Frontier/Verizon TV tech claimed I could just remove the card from one device and slide it into the other without problem, but we found only the free major network channels worked. None of the cable channels worked higher in the line-up. After a few minutes of me insisting that he needed to call home base and re-authorize the card, he eventually did and they re-authorized it and all my channels worked.
Moving to a new TiVo allowed me to use a pretty great feature for the first time, the ability to transfer Season Passes on TiVo.com between the two boxes on my account:
It only took a few minutes after guided setup for my new TiVo to appear in my account, and with a couple clicks, my new TiVo box resumed recording everything I had set up on the old box (though the passes were out of order, dang).
I'll report more on the new TiVo after I get a chance to use it over the next few months but so far the out-of-the-box experience has been pretty good. TiVo is really smoothing out the setup process, but unfortunately, having to schedule a cable company technician visit just to call a number and authorize a cable card is the biggest stumbling block and unfortunately, one TiVo has no control over.
Just about two years ago, I was diagnosed with a tumor at the base of my brain and in an effort to simplify my life, I shelved a lot of projects, including PVRblog. I sold it to a small company in Texas and over the past two years they were pretty busy with other projects and let the site sit idle. In the past year or so I've spent a great deal of time researching and trying out PVR-related products in my own home theater setup and I always wanted a place to write up my experiences with them, so I recently got in touch with the new owners and asked if they were interested in selling the site back to me, gave them an offer, and they accepted, so PVRblog is officially back under my control.
I'll be posting casually here (probably on the order of a couple times a week) about new TiVo releases, Boxee, GoogleTV, AppleTV, video game systems as entertainment centers, TVs, and more.