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That's all, folks! New owner @Synacor says @NimbleTV is "discontinued" and will not return. http://t.co/00j6MBo80A
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Sling complement candidate #4: HDHomeRun

HDHomeRun Connect tunerMy 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, NextPVRMediaPortal, 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.

Will Simple.TV recover after Tuesday’s crash?

Man with gun pointed at his foot

© 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?

Sling complement candidate #3: Roamio OTA

Screen shot from TiVo Roamio OTABack 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.

Rest in peace NimbleTV

Tombstone for NimbleTV

© 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.

Sling complement candidate #2: DVR+

DVRPlusContinuing 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.

Sling complement candidate #1: Tablo

Tablo's projected Roku app interface

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.

 

Sling TV looks like a game-changer

Dish Sling TV booth at the 2015 International CESI’m almost recovered from another year of the International CES, and I have sooo much to tell you about. Sling TV from Dish Network won Engadget’s Best in Show award, so let’s start there. Richard Lawler of Engadget marvels at Sling’s interface, but it’s pretty close to DishWorld, which I’ve been trying out for over a year now.

When Sling launches later this year (it’s in invitation-only beta now), it will include ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family, and CNN, all streaming for $20 per month. Also promised are add-in bundles such as “Kids Extra” (Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV) and “News & Info Extra” (HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY, and Bloomberg TV) for $5/month each, plus an unspecified “Sports Extra” package.

One huge difference between DishWorld and Sling is the length of its replay feature. In lieu of a DVR, a DishWorld subscriber can watch any show on any channel from the past seven days. On Sling, for most channels, that will be limited to three days. Some channels, such as ESPN, will have no replay feature; it’ll be live only.

In the right combination with local over-the-air TV service, Sling could satisfy what some viewers need at a price that’s a lot less than traditional pay TV. But what OTA receiver would provide the best complement to Sling? Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about a few of the candidates that I saw at CES.

NimbleTV pulling the plug

hand holding electrical plug for TV set

© Depositphotos.com / Naypong

Just got back from the International CES in Las Vegas, where Dish Network unveiled Sling TV, an online-only set of pay-TV channels for $20/month. (I’ll write more about Sling TV later, meanwhile you can read more here.) I just knew something like this was coming, and I wondered what it would mean for my old friend NimbleTV, which sells online-only sets of pay-TV channels that it somehow receives from Dish. Yesterday, the other shoe dropped.

My NimbleTV “concierge” sent me a subscriber-only email announcing that beginning Monday, January 12, I will “not be able to access (my) account or recordings.” The email never mentions Dish or Sling, but claims that “we’ve decided to pause the NimbleTV service as it stands today so we can concentrate on developing something even better and more amazing than before.”

It’s been over a year since Dish blocked NimbleTV’s access for a few weeks before NimbleTV restored its service with new parameters. Since then, a Dish representative once characterized NimbleTV as “illegal,” but it has managed to continue operating without further interruption. Yesterday’s email signals the end of all that, unless and until NimbleTV relaunches its “new and improved service later this year.”

My uninformed guess about their relationship had been that Dish wasn’t excited about NimbleTV’s existence, but was willing to accept full-price monthly fees from its subscribers. (A full-blown fight or any serious complaining would have only led to the Streisand Effect of publicizing such a rogue.) That benign neglect ended the minute that Sling TV began offering a similar service. Sling TV is still in invitation-only beta, so the cutoff doesn’t have to be as abrupt as last time, but that reluctant partnership has to end, at least according to my unsubstantiated theory.

I don’t expect NimbleTV to return as anything like it was unless, as reported, the FCC reclassifies “multichannel video programming distributor” to include internet-only services. Absent that intervention, I don’t think that any streaming service will ever be able to do anything that content creators don’t want it to do, at least not for long. NimbleTV bent over backwards to ensure that creators were paid for what they provided, but it’s still drifting toward the failed experiment graveyard with ivi.tv, Aereo, and FilmOn’s US over-the-air channels. It was great while it lasted, but for now, it’s over.

For a really cheap DVR, there’s HomeWorx

If you’re looking for a really, really inexpensive DVR, and you don’t have a Windows 7 PC laying around, you could get a HomeWorX converter box/DVR. In fact, if your viewing life revolves around an old analog NTSC TV set, the HomeWorX might be a good fit. (Although it won’t explain how you’ve been watching TV for the last couple of years.) Otherwise, you could do a lot better. Let me explain.

I stumbled on the HomeWorX when somebody online had it on sale for an even cheaper price than its usual sub-$50. Hey, it says it includes a “PVR”, which got me wondering right there. Over a decade ago, TiVo asserted that “PVR”, or personal video recorder, was one of its trademarks; since then most companies talk about DVRs or digital video recorders. So I bought one of these to review it, because someone has to review the (taking a breath) “Mediasonic HW-150PVR HomeWorx ATSC Digital TV Converter Box with Media Player and Recording PVR Function/HDMI Out.”

As its official title says, this beastie’s main job is to be a digital converter box, allowing you to watch today’s ATSC signals on your old analog TV. It includes a DVR, which works as Samuel Johnson once put it, “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Like most over-the-air DVRs I’ve discussed in previous posts, the HomeWorX requires an external USB hard drive to record anything. Unlike most other DVRs, the HomeWorX never uses the internet; it pulls its program titles and descriptions directly from the broadcasters’ digital feeds. This is great because it means that there are never any subscription fees, but it’s bad because it puts the viewer at the mercy of the quality and length of each broadcaster’s over-the-air information.

I’m a little ashamed to pick on the manual. I’m grateful to have any paper manual these days, but the HomeWorX’s defaults to the old developer-centric method of just detailing what each menu option does rather than explaining answers to what will be frequent “How do I?” questions. As is often the case, those multilingual-English option descriptions don’t help much. One begins: “PVR: Depends on user’s choose, there are some functions like remove/edit/delete and so on.” Take me through some common tasks, please.

I found two more flaws that knock it out of contention for me. First, after brilliantly grabbing show titles from the airwaves and showing them to the user to assist in scheduling recordings, the HomeWorX discards that information when it makes that recording. When the user digs into the menus to find that file, the file name is “(Station name) (date / time)” instead of “(Show name) (date / time)”. For example, three movies recorded the same day on the local This affiliate would be distinguishable only by the time of day they were recorded even though the receiver knew their titles.

The second flaw is easier to explain: The HomeWorX digital tuner just wasn’t as sensitive as most. I know that OTA reception varies over time, but using the same input antenna, my Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-955Q USB TV Tuner handled my weak channels much better, and any of my digital TVs easily outperformed the HomeWorX. So I’ve boxed it up and put it on the shelf.

To sum it up, if you’ve got an old portable analog TV, the HomeWorX will put something on its screen again with a pokey little DVR bonus. But if you’re getting ready to cut the cord, you’ll want a better OTA DVR.

C-band has some great FTA channels to watch

1.2-meter dish with C-band LNB

My 1.2-meter dish with its C-/Ku-band LNB

I’ve been having a great time lately with my 1.2-meter dish. Smaller, normal-sized Ku-band dishes are easier to precisely aim, but that larger surface area prevents rain fade and enables some C-band fun. Let me explain.

Long ago, I bought this fine, huge dish, then had to spend a couple of weeks wrestling with motor mounts till I got it set up to scan the skies. Then I tried to attach a combination C- and Ku-band LNB, which required a lot of tweaking and eventually conical scalar rings, which helped quite a bit. You see, C-band dishes tend to be prime focus dishes, where the LNB is in line with the direction it’s pointing. Ku-band dishes tend to be offset, where the LNB is mounted to catch the signal’s reflection. Those rings help collect that reflection for a stronger, better-quality signal.

Anyway, I experimented a bit with C-band to see which channels I could pick up. Based on Global Communication’s fine FTA C-band list, I was getting about 30% of the channels a regular, full-sized C-band dish could receive. After awhile, I swapped my sensitive Ku-only LNB into place and put away my thoughts of C-band.

A few weeks ago, a kind soul pointed out that a couple of Ku-band news channels had appeared at 99W. After I’d pointed the dish and verified those, I remembered that 99W was the best place to find viewable C-band channels. So I took off the sensitive Ku-band LNB, reached for my C/Ku combo on the porch and, yick! The year or so of exposure to the elements had not been kind. The label was off. A little bit of plastic that had kept me from looking all the way inside the LNB was gone. It was dusty and a little cobwebby. I figured I was going to have to order a new one, but what the heck, I might as well try this one first. I cleaned out the LNB, used its same old mounting bracket, whipped out my SatHero signal meter, plugged it into the right C/Ku connector on the second try (you’d think that the C would be the one in back), and Beep, Beep, Beep. Galaxy 16 was coming in clear as a bell, and I soon verified that the dish was already in position for peak signal quality.

Here’s what’s available for me just from that position:

  • KRBK (Fox Osage Beach MO) and MeTV
  • KCWY (NBC Casper WY)
  • NBC, Fox, and This TV affiliates from the Virgin Islands
  • KNLC (independent St. Louis)
  • A cluster of channels, including Cozi, from LeSEA
  • Living Faith TV
  • GEB America and God’s Learning Channel (bleeding over from 101W)
  • Heroes & Icons, Movies!, and TouchVision (101)
  • AMG TV, and The Walk/Dr TV (97)

Those bleeding-over channels aren’t always available (more on that later), but I could still make a case that this little bunch of English-language, general-audience channels are more valuable to me than all current FTA Ku-band channels combined. (Especially if you don’t count the PBSs of 125W, where that dish in the background of my photo is always pointed.) I watched an out-of-market NFL game Sunday (even though I already subscribe to Dish Network’s NFL Red Zone) just like the good old days of Equity Broadcasting and Galaxy 10R.

I kept looking around, and it just got better. Over at 87W, I’m able to pick up the 30+ Luken Communications affiliates and channels, including Retro TV, Tuff TV, My Family TV, PBJ, Heartland, and Rev’n. At 91W, I see BYU TV, KLUZ (Univision, Albuquerque) and TV Montana. There are a few feed sources and other oddball channels, but this is nifty!

It’s all great stuff, but it’s erratic. Sometimes channels won’t come in for me, especially those bleed-over channels I mentioned, no matter where I point the dish. Other users tell me that similar setups pick up more or fewer C-band channels depending on latitude, satellite footprint, and who knows what. These are the reasons why I can’t easily add them to FTAList.com for folks who use a certain dish size. Maybe there’s a way to map who gets what where, but I can’t wrap my head around it yet. For now, I just wanted to share this with you. Maybe it will inspire your own mini-C-band experiments.