Universal Sports, part of Sling TV’s optional Sports Extra
I’ve had a few weeks to play with Sling TV, the new streaming service from Dish Network, not to be confused with the Slingbox hardware device of the same name. Sling TV, the Best in Show winner at the International CES 2015, has been touted as the answer for cord-cutters who still want ESPN and a few other pay-TV channels. It might be exactly that, but for me, I don’t know whether it’s worth the $20 or more monthly subscription fee.
First, the good news. Sling TV performed flawlessly every time I used it. That’s not very surprising since it’s based on the mature streaming technology of DishWorld, which has been running since 2012. (DishWorld will soon change its name to Sling International, but I digress.) Through announcements with AMC and Epix, Dish has indicated that it will add programming to Sling TV’s already decent lineup. As with DishWorld, Sling TV is already available on Roku, iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, and Sling TV is also promoting its new Amazon Fire TV app. The same pay-per-view movies are listed on Sling TV as DishWorld, including (surprisingly) free Bollywood movies.
One improvement that Sling TV offers over DishWorld is an intermediate viewing Window in its Windows app. The DishWorld app’s only options are a small monitor area in its menu window (see below) or full screen. The really big advantage is ESPN; for most households, Sling TV is the least expensive option for watching ESPN.
In fact, Sling TV only really suffers in comparison with other viewing options. Its worst problem is its lack of DVR; most Sling TV channels don’t even include the “last week on-demand” option present with every DishWorld channel. So I can watch ESPN or TBS live, but I can’t pause the stream, record it, or watch shows from earlier today. That’s standard behavior for watching TV in a hotel room, but most of us viewers have recorders, and we’re pretty used to them. (My family refers to live, unpauseable TV as “hotel mode” TV. But I digress again.)
Universal Sports on DishWorld
DishWorld recently began offering a Sports TV package with 21 channels for a measly $10 a month. That includes Universal Sports and beIN Sports, both part of Sling TV’s Sports Extra package, plus One World Sports, Willow Cricket, Trace Sport Stars, beIN Sports en Español, Nautical Channel, and 14 non-sports channels, including personal favorites FashionTV, Baby TV and more. If you want Sling TV for Monday Night Football, then DishWorld can’t help you. But if you just want to watch something and you’ve got an open mind, it’s a pretty good deal. I sometimes watch 21st-century Doctor Who episodes on demand from Ebru TV, and I’ll tune in to DishWorld’s news channels for a different perspective on events.
Here’s a chunk of perspective that you won’t find anywhere else: Sling TV isn’t as good as NimbleTV was before it had to shut down. By working as a streaming adjunct to a separate Dish subscription, NimbleTV provided more channels and a full DVR. NimbleTV’s iOS app was as good as Sling TV’s, and NimbleTV was working on adding other platforms. Its tier with ESPN cost a whole lot more than Sling TV, so I’d like to have seen those two products compete in the marketplace – the inexpensive, well-promoted Sling TV and the little-known, pricey NimbleTV.
Another option is to effectively host your own NimbleTV – spring for a full Dish Network subscription at home, then use Dish Anywhere apps for streaming on the go. If you can mount a dish and don’t mind spending over $70 per month, that provides a lot of advantages over Sling TV. But I think I’m still sidestepping the point: If you’re a cord-cutter who really wants to watch ESPN and can handle it live-only, Sling TV is your solution. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure Sling TV is worth buying.
© Depositphotos.com / scyther5
The last couple of weeks, a few TV trade magazines have been abuzz about something that’s old news to us free-TV enthusiasts: There are a growing number of digital subchannels available in markets all over the country. For over-the-air TV viewers, it’s like having a virtual pay-TV system except without the paying. The most remarkable thing about this burgeoning free entertainment menu is that few people seem to know about it.
A side note: What’s the best name for these digital TV subchannels? Michael Malone tackled that question in Broadcasting & Cable. “The channels are alternately referred to as diginets or multicast nets or dot-two channels or subchannels, creating confusion among viewers, and even industry types,” he wrote. Katz Broadcasting promotes the term “emerging broadcast networks,” but I think that’s an unwieldy mess. Headline writers seem to prefer “diginets,” but I like “dot-twos” because it describes how to find these networks, even those that are really at dot-three or dot-seven.
I’ve been watching dot-twos since The Tube and Universal Sports were on. (The Tube faded to black in 2007 and Universal Sports shifted to pay-TV distribution in 2012.) This happy by-product of the digital TV conversion has exploded since then. Of the 70 channels I can pick up here in Denver, 42 are dot-twos, and they include channels devoted to movies, classic TV, news and weather. Sure they also include a solid chunk of stuff I can do without – religion, shopping, and Spanish-language programming – but it’s nice to have something for everybody.
What hasn’t changed since the dot-twos’ early days is that few viewers are aware of them. (I couldn’t find any dot-two surveys, but almost no one I talk to knows about them.) You might say that you can’t pay for this stuff; only a handful of dot-twos are on cable systems, and none are on Dish Network or DirecTV. The only way to watch is over the air, which is great for cord-cutters and a little inconvenient for everyone else.
So why not put together some advertising to let viewers know what they might be missing? This could be a great way for broadcasters as a group to boast about another facet of their public service. At a time when it’s hard to find a movie on the major broadcast TV channels, wouldn’t it be a good idea to mention that there are over 100 movies available every week on these dot-twos? As wireless companies clamor for TV’s bandwidth, wouldn’t it be smart to show America that it’s already being put to good use?
The Cable Cutter antenna on my roof, with the Radio Shack yagi that it vanquished.
There’s been a major change at FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver. My decade-old yagi-style antenna (I always call it the old-school, pointy kind of antenna), featured in my brief burst of international almost-celebrity, finally met its match. It was defeated by HD Frequency’s Cable Cutter antenna, which now provides a wider selection of over-the-air TV channels to my OTA device test bed.
That yagi had a lot of history behind it. I bought it from Radio Shack way back in 2004 when Dish Network had its first major retransmission tussle with CBS. Since then, it survived a new roof and a growing list of new OTA antennas. Some of the contenders came close to the yagi’s performance, but none ever beat it.
One major factor in the yagi’s longevity was its emphasis on VHF signals. With the switch to HD, most stations moved to UHF, but two Denver channels stayed on the VHF band. The most magnificent, impressive UHF antenna isn’t any good to me if it can’t somehow deliver my ABC and NBC affiliates.
Then at the International CES last month, Theodore Head, CEO of SiliconDust, maker of the amazingly useful HDHomeRun tuners, told me about HD Frequency’s antennas. Head said that they were simply the best, and he referred me to HD Frequency founder Josh McDonnell, who sent along his top-of-the-line Cable Cutter for me to test.
One of the really nice things about the HDHomeRun is the number of tools available for it, both in-house and third-party. To measure the signal quality for various channels, I started out with Signal GH for iOS, but later switched to HDhomerun (sic) Signal Meter for Android. The Android app was a little easier for me to read, and it’s free. I’d recommend the Signal Meter app to help point or position an OTA antenna, but your mobile device OS will probably determine which one is better for you.
The great thing about either signal measurement app is that it provides a good, solid number for signal quality, which makes it a lot easier to compare one antenna to another. When I got my Cable Cutter last week, the first thing I tried was sticking it in my ground-floor window. I was amazed to see that from there it matched or beat my yagi’s numbers for every channel except that VHF pair, which were weak but usable. I could recommend the Cable Cuter right there as an excellent indoor antenna, but when I later moved it to the roof, it kept its strong UHF signal and matched my yagi’s VHF reception.
(I’ve got a whole page full of numbers for all of the channels and all of the antenna position experiments I tried, but I’ll spare you the details. I’ll only mention one fact, verified during this process: Signal quality can change from minute to minute even when everything else stays the same. It takes more than one pair of readings to verify that Antenna A picks up a channel better than Antenna B.)
One more disadvantage of the yagi is that it’s very directional. Most of the channels in Denver come from Lookout Mountain, about 12 miles east of downtown, so that’s where the yagi pointed. There are a couple of other channel clusters that are broadcast from a point over 20 miles north of downtown. From my roof, those two towers are about 80 degrees apart, and my carefully aimed Cable Cutter can just see them both.
Thanks to the Cable Cutter, for the first time I can actually receive all the channels that TVFool.com says I ought to be able to get. For anyone who needs an OTA antenna, I can’t imagine a better choice.
Left to right: Kris Alexander, Akamai; Jeff Binder, Layer3 TV; and Michael Goodman, Strategy Analytics, three of the panelists at an Internet TV conference session at CES.
I promised myself that this year, at the International CES, I wouldn’t take photos of the zillion iPhone cases on display. If you wanted to see that, you’ll just have to content yourself with last year’s set. Instead, I’ll close the book on CES 2015 with truly useful insight.
Not my insight, of course. In this case, it came from a conference session called “InternetTV – The Disruption – Skinny TV – Mega Premium”. CES has plenty of conference tracks, but in general I find that the speakers at conference sessions either tell me what I already know or merely promote their companies’ initiatives, usually just new products or services. But this session ran before the show floor opened and at the same time as the opening keynote address. Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a newsworthy CES keynote.
This conference session was better than most. The panelists discussed changing consumer behavior both caused by and driving internet-based TV viewing, especially as it related to the pay-TV bundle. Downplaying reports of widespread cord-cutting, Michael Goodman, Director of Digital Media for Strategy Analytics, said that millennials have always watched less TV and were less likely to subscribe to pay TV. In support of pay-TV bundles, Jeff Binder, CEO of Layer3 TV, said, “I think that consumers have not changed a whole lot. Each household has different constituents that watch different channels.” That echoed an earlier statement by TiVo’s Evan Young, who said, “Consumers are not monolithic. It’s different if you’re single.”
Later, the panelists discussed the economics of multi-channel TV, largely agreeing the the content owners ultimately, albeit indirectly, set the price to consumers. Goodman saw that, for example, Netflix’s low-cost contracts with content owners would all eventually require renewal and renegotiation. “Netflix is not going to cost $9-10 (per month) a year from now,” he said. “It’ll be $20 or $30.”
It was all surprisingly meaty, interesting discussion about the always unknowable future, with equal doses of inevitable change and unyielding status quo. But it was Kris Alexander, Chief Strategist at Akamai, who distilled the future of TV into one sentence. When it comes to competing TV systems, Alexander said, discovery and curation are critical.
That was a great thought to keep in my head for the rest of the show. When Tablo, Channel Master, TiVo and even SiliconDust were showing off their latest, they all were looking to offer new channels and suggestions to the viewer. When I would mention those two keys to the TV future, exhibitors would pause, then nod in appreciation for that clear vision.
As we move toward free TV (as in free speech, not free beer) where every viewer can choose what to watch and when to watch it, the winning viewing platform will be the one with the easiest interface and the best suggestions. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out on top.
My flu is over, so it’s back to this list. From the first days of hi-fi through roughly the 1980s, a home audio system was something to be assembled. An audiophile would carefully pick out a turntable, a tape deck (reel to reel for fidelity or cassette for convenience), a receiver, and often, a separate tuner. All that tuner component would do is bring in AM and FM signals; it needed an amplifier, often that receiver, for anyone to listen to it.
The fourth possible complement to Sling TV that I saw at the International CES is the TV equivalent to that old tuner component – SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun over-the-air TV tuner. All it does is tune in OTA TV channels and provide them to a local IP-based network. To provide a typical DVR experience, the HDHomeRun requires some help, but the good news is that it’s designed to perform well with others.
Unlike so many products that try to be every viewer’s full solution, the HDHomeRun works simply as the perfect TV tuner for whatever you watch to stitch together. I’ve been using it with my Windows Media Center computers (both Windows 7 and an upgraded Windows 8.1), and it works as easily as a USB-based tuner, with equally snappy channel changes. The HDHomeRun web site features great free support and downloads for using the tuner with Windows Media Center, NextPVR, MediaPortal, and the legacy DVRs of SageTV and BeyondTV. Or if you just want to use HDHomeRun to stream live TV to all of the devices on your local network, it handles that too.
Unlike a USB TV tuner or a PC card, the HDHomeRun can be shared by multiple computers. The HDHomeRun won’t help resolve program conflicts (as when three simultaneous recordings are requested from two tuners), but if you can avoid such foolishness, it becomes a great resource for the whole home network.
I still think that if we ever see a truly popular OTA DVR, it’ll be inexpensive to run and easy as a toaster. The TiVo Roamio OTA is about that easy, but not inexpensive. The HDHomeRun has no monthly fees, but it takes a bit of work to fully use its features. Maybe some entrepreneur will pair a bunch of old Windows 7 computers with HDHomeRuns to sell $0/month Windows Media Center solutions to cord-cutters. Or maybe some programmer is working even as I type to create the next generation of free DVRs. If he is, he’s probably got a way to plug in the HDHomeRun.
© Depositphotos.com / hyrons
Sorry, but I’ve got two reasons to add another interruption to my rundown of great over-the-air TV solutions that I saw at the International CES. First, despite getting the flu shot in October, I came down with the flu Friday. The worst is over, though I’m miffed that I won’t get a refund on the flu shot. I’ve been using my downtime to enjoy the hours of OTA shows and movies that I had recorded on my Simple.TV receiver. Monday, that was great. Tuesday, Simple.TV caught its own version of the flu. That’s my second reason.
Based on posts at Simple.TV’s community forum, on Monday the company sent out an email to some subscribers (not me) noting that it would perform “essential maintenance to Simple.TV’s online systems” in the wee hours Tuesday morning from 4-8 am Eastern. “During this period your Simple.TV will not be available.” Not so bad. Then came another email early Tuesday morning that said in part: “While carrying out a scheduled upgrade of our online systems we have encountered an issue and the Simple.TV service will be offline while we fix the fault.” I first noticed this later in the morning after Simple.TV had updated its home page to say that the service was temporarily down.
That outage lasted all day and into the early evening, but when service was restored, we users learned that wasn’t the worst of it. Apparently, Simple.TV has resorted to a backup that was about a half-year old, so everything that had been recorded since then remained unavailable for viewing even though the recordings remained on each user’s local hard drive. There were lots of other fun changes with reactivating receivers (carefully, so as not to wipe the hard drive), rescanning some channel lists, making fresh account passwords, and about anything else caused by having the Simple.TV cloud six months out of sync with its receivers.
When I wrote my comparative review between Tablo and Simple.TV, I failed to highlight one difference between the two because it didn’t seem very important at the time. Tablo keeps a lot (all?) of its data on the local receiver while Simple.TV is cloud-based. That’s not an issue unless, somehow, the cloud comes crashing down.
This afternoon, Simple.TV sent out another email, again not to me, noting that all those unviewable recordings “still physically exist on your connected hard drive (make sure not to format it) and we are actively doing our best to restore as many of them as we can, as quickly as possible.” I’ve verified that post-crash shows are easy to record and play back. If Simple.TV can restore everyone’s access to their recordings in a couple of days, maybe they can find a way to bounce back. But if they’re getting out of the hardware business and users can’t trust their cloud, what does Simple.TV have left?
Update: After a week, Simple.TV updated its cloud to show that there were “recovered recordings” on those local hard drives. The only information available was the time and date for each recording (making them a lot like the recordings on a HomeWorX DVR), but at least they were viewable again. Thanks to an Android program that can download those recordings, I pulled my 100+ shows to my PC, where I could identify and label them. Thanks to Simple.TV for doing what it could to set things right.
Back now to my reports from the International CES about over-the-air TV receivers that might be worthy complements to Dish’s announced Sling TV service. The next box to consider is TiVo’s Roamio OTA, which might be better than its competitors in every way but one.
TiVo pioneered the DVR and has the patents to prove it. Its iconic “peanut” remote control remains the gold standard for ease of use despite being stuffed with so very many little buttons. TiVo’s idea of “suggestions” – filling the DVR hard drive by recording shows you didn’t ask for but might like – remains unique among DVRs, suggesting to me that it’s one of TiVo’s patents.
Now TiVo has improved that wonderful, friendly user interface with the integration of streaming services. As you can see in the accompanying photo, if you’re not getting enough Two and a Half Men episodes from your local CW affiliate, the Roamio OTA indicates that more episodes are available from Amazon Instant Video and Vudu. It’s the perfect way to fill in episode gaps for binge watching.
The Roamio OTA can even stream like a Simple.TV or Tablo with the addition of the little TiVo Stream device. The list price for the Roamio OTA is a ridiculously low $49.99. There’s just one drawback, its fatal flaw: the excessive service fees required to operate it.
Let’s compare service fees per month, and over a three-year period.
- DVR+: $0/month, $0/3 years
- Simple.TV: $50/year, $150/3 years (lifetime)
- Tablo: $5/month, $150/3 years (lifetime)
- Roamio OTA: $14.99/month, $539.65/3 years
The Roamio OTA is ineligible for any TiVo lifetime subscription, so it gets expensive very quickly. Yes, the service is top-of-the-line, but does TiVo really need to charge that much for maybe 50 channels of guide data? Its competitors suggest that it does not. If you’re a cord-cutter with money to burn (if such a person exists), then the Roamio OTA should make you very happy. If you’re cutting back to save money, the Roamio OTA isn’t your best choice.
© Depositphotos.com / HitTune
I must pause from my International CES reporting to report the demise of a unique TV streaming service. NimbleTV, which had continued to collect emails for a 2015 relaunch after it “paused” on Monday, was acquired yesterday by another company. Synacor, which helps its clients deliver branded, personalized media, picked up NimbleTV’s patents and personnel, then told re/code’s Peter Kafka that NimbleTV had been “discontinued” and would not return.
On its web site, NimbleTV’s signup links now forward to a thank-you page (still named “signup.php”) which verifies that “we have decided to end our direct-to-consumer service.” That page claims NimbleTV had planned all along to be “a technology enabler for companies interested in boosting their streaming and TV viewing capabilities” as well as a streaming service.
I don’t believe it. Go watch NimbleTV founder/CEO Anand Subramanian’s June 2012 speech where he outlines his plans. What I saw in that video was a guy from India with a great idea to enable internet-based cable TV subscriptions, eventually including subscriptions from India. Subramanian made sure that every cable or (as it turned out) Dish TV subscriber paid full price to that company, plus a little extra for NimbleTV’s video concierge service. That sounded fair to me, but apparently the cable and satellite companies (under pressure from their content providers?) didn’t like it that they weren’t consulted.
I must reiterate here that my only knowledge of the innards of NimbleTV were the glimpses I saw as a paying customer. I know that NimbleTV signed me up to a Dish Network subscription for which I received exactly one paper bill before it presumably switched to some sort of NimbleTV autopay. I know that the pay-TV channels carried Dish ads, and that bad thunderstorms around New York could disrupt my service. The rest is speculation only.
My guess is that the fate of NimbleTV was determined by its Indian service and whatever happened to it. For a while, it offered several channel packages from a few different India-based cable companies, then that vanished without explanation. (Scroll down here to see a screen grab.) Was it pressure from Dish, whose DishWorld subsidiary also sells channel packages from India? Whatever torpedoed the Indian connection must have been devastating to NimbleTV’s founders. Also around that time, NimbleTV apparently started pulling in over-the-air channels (not offered on Dish) to package for verified local cable subscribers, who would have therefore paid any retransmission fees. Perhaps that was the point when NimbleTV began positioning itself more as a potential partner or acquisition candidate?
In my head, it all worked out this way: Back in July 2013, Dish had shut off service to NimbleTV for a few weeks but restored it after NimbleTV made some changes including never again mentioning the word “Dish.” After that, Dish was willing to take NimbleTV’s subscribers’ money rather than cause a public stink about it. Around December 2014, Dish told NimbleTV that it was going to launch Sling TV at CES, and that it was time for NimbleTV to gracefully cease reselling Dish programming. NimbleTV cut off new signups in late December and announced its “pause” during CES. With no income sources, it was time to cash out, so Synacor picked up a well-tested technology and the people who created it. That is the theory that I have, and which is mine.
I’m disappointed to have to add NimbleTV to the internet TV graveyard with ivi, Aereo (I remember when it was Bamboom), FilmOn (oh wait, FilmOn’s not dead), and Flo TV. There will always be demand for TV when and where we want to see it, through the internet. I look forward to the day when someone is allowed to sell us viewers what we want.
Continuing my survey of contenders to provide an over-the-air complement to Sling TV’s streaming pay-TV channels, next up is Channel Master’s DVR+. Unlike Simple.TV and Tablo, DVR+ won’t stream TV to your tablet or office, but it provides an easy way to watch and record OTA shows. And one of its best features is what isn’t there; despite robust, up-to-date guide data, there are no monthly fees with the DVR+.
(Apparently that lack of outbound streaming can be fixed with a Slingbox 500, recommended by Channel Master as a complement to the DVR+. That Slingbox 500 receiver had recently been renamed to Sling TV, but it’s unrelated to the Sling TV service that Dish announced last week at the International CES. I’ve read that the 500 will soon revert to its original name. How’s that for confusing?)
The most interesting changes in the DVR+ will be a huge expansion in the number of internet channels it will display in addition to OTA TV. You can catch a glimpse of what that might look like in my photo above, and you can find a more thorough rundown of the possible extra channels at Zatz Not Funny. That guide expansion is due to roll out in early 2015 as a software update for all existing DVR+ receivers.
When I reviewed the DVR+ last year, I focused on its even standing vs. a Windows Media Center PC. Since then, the DVR+ keeps improving while Windows Media Center, which was never as simple to use, stands still. If you’re a cord-cutter looking for an easy solution with no monthly fees, the DVR+ might be your best choice.
Tablo’s projected Roku app interface
As I wrote last time, Sling TV looks like it could be the low-cost streaming solution for some viewers, particularly with the
(temporary?) demise of NimbleTV. But Sling only works if the viewer also has a set of local over-the-air broadcast channels to complement it. I saw several candidates for that job at the International CES, and the first was Tablo, an OTA tuner, DVR, and streamer.
Before I start, I should mention Tablo’s main competitor, Simple.TV. It was just last year that Simple.TV used CES to announce the launch of its first two-tuner receiver. This year, Simple.TV had no official presence at CES. When I asked before the show, a rep told me that some Simple.TV folks would attend, but that there wouldn’t be any opportunity for meetings. While I was at the show, I heard rumors from two other companies that Simple.TV is exiting the hardware business to focus on its software. My single-tuner Simple.TV still works solidly, albeit slowly, and the company continues to release maintenance updates. Simple.TV is still around, but it’s not giving me a lot of reasons to recommend it.
At CES, I met with Tablo CEO Grant Hall, and he was excited about the improvements that are in the Tablo pipeline. Hall was showing off the innards of his next receiver version – the Tablo METRO, which includes a couple of OTA antennas built into the box. (You can see a photo at the Tablo blog.) I can’t imagine folks who don’t want a rooftop antenna, just like I can’t imagine folks who don’t think the Three Stooges were funny, but I guess they’re out there, and this receiver could give them everything they need without an external antenna. That’s if it works as advertised; we’ll see when the METRO comes out in a month or two.
The other update on the horizon is to Tablo’s Roku channel. The current version looks like a lot of other Roku channels – manageable but nothing like a modern program listing grid. As you can see in my photo above, the new Roku channel will look exactly like a modern program listing grid. Shoehorning this kind of functionality onto the Roku platform will be quite an achievement if it works. Hall was basically showing a mock up, but he wouldn’t do that if he didn’t think his team could pull it off.
When I reviewed the Tablo, I thought it was already a little better than Simple.TV. If these improvements pan out, I might have to consider buying a Tablo receiver and shelving my Simple.TV. Then again, maybe one of the other two major Sling complement candidates will work better. More about them next time.