Spotify, You’re Killing Me!!!!

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 1, 2017

If you don’t use streaming music, this essay might be meaningless. But if you love music you should be into streaming music. The trouble is streaming music is in its infancy and is going through some annoying growing pains. For most people spending $9.99 a month for a massive library of music is the best bargain on planet Earth. And even with all its faults I gladly pay for streaming music. Right now I’m subscribing to two services (I’ll explain why later).

Spotify Logo

Once you start using streaming music, you realize it has the tremendous potential for being a music listening utopia. Anything that keeps your music listening experience from being perfect is as annoying as a skip while playing your favorite song on an LP.

Right now it’s possible to think of a song and play it within moments. This is where the problems arise.

  • How quickly can you play a song – once you find the song playing is almost instant.
  • The music you want isn’t available – right now I’m 95% happy. This is the best part of streaming music and why it’s worth $9.99/month.
  • Finding the music you want – menu navigation depends on the device you use.
  • How the music is organized – also varies from device to device
  • Creating and organizing playlists – again device dependent
  • Menu consistency between devices – see last three items
  • Managing your virtual library – needs work
  • Meta-data about the music – I want much more

I’ve been through several streaming music services, but for the last few years, I’ve used Spotify. I was euphoric with Spotify on the Roku, which is connected to by big TV, receiver, and floor standing speakers. It’s a fantastic way to listen to streaming music. Spotify on the Roku was the best system I could find for playing what I wanted with the least fuss.

Then months ago Spotify started acting up on the Roku. The problem was playlists. Other people also complained about the problem on the Spotify Community forums. I kept hoping they’d fix the problems. When they didn’t, I bought an Amazon Fire TV hoping Spotify worked better on it. It didn’t. It worked very different but had some plus features. Overall it was a step down from my streaming music nirvana on the Roku.

This week playlists just disappeared from the Roku app. On the forums, Spotify claimed they were working with Roku. Damn, damn, damn. Spotify on the Roku was a killer app for me.

Now I have some theories. If you look at my list of aggravations above you might notice a consistent issue. It’s the menu for Spotify working differently on different devices. Basically, the problem is you have millions of songs at your fingertips but picking them out is problematic, especially when the method is different on each device.

My guess is Spotify has put most of its programming dollars into creating great apps for iOS and Android smartphones. That’s how most people listen to music today. Thus writing programs for the Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, WebOS, and other streaming TV boxes is a pain in the ass, plus costly. At their forum, Spotify pushes using smartphones as controllers for playing Spotify on TV/stereo systems via Fire TV and Chromecast. And this could be the direction other device makers are heading too. Roku lets you use your smartphone as a smart remote. But I’m not sure I like this direction, but I might.

Smartphones have way more programming potential than streaming TV boxes. Plus the high-resolution touchscreen with a virtual keyboard is faster for looking up songs. Phasing out the playlist feature on Roku might be Spotify’s way of pushing users to use their smartphones. One advantage of using the smartphone for a controller is I can access my den stereo from any room in the house.

I can accept this in the long run as long as the music streams through my Ethernet to a TV streaming box that’s connected to my receiver by an HDMI cable. I hope it is not playing on the phone and being redirected to the Fire TV box. I want maximum fidelity.

One reason why I never tried Tidal music is that it didn’t have a Roku app. This makes me wonder if the Tidal app for iOS will stream to my Fire TV or AirPlay to my receiver, and would I hear the higher fidelity of their CD quality streams? To complicate matters, Spotify has reported it’s considering a CD quality streaming tier.

Because of my problems with Spotify on Roku I bought a Fire TV and signed up for Amazon Music. I wrote about that at “Spotify vs. Amazon Music” where I explained the advantages of Amazon music. But switching streaming music services is a pain. I’ve done it many times. The more you commit to playlists the harder it gets.

Using the Spotify app for Fire TV is very different from the Roku app. It’s far more visual, which has its appeals, but lacks many of the detail features the Roku app. Like being able to add songs to a playlist. Those features are on the Spotify for iOS app. The iOS app also has more features that are not on the Roku app. This leads me to believe the Fire TV app is actually a visual supplement to the Spotify smartphone app.

Spotify, if you want us to move to our smartphones as the standard interface for controlling your music library, you should just tell us straight out. I’m currently pissed at you because you’ve ruined the Spotify for Roku app, something I’ve used for years. You should have put explanations in the Roku app, so we knew right away what’s going on.

Even without the playlist feature looking up albums is much nicer on the Roku than the Fire TV. But finding albums is even nicer on my phone. If that’s where you’re going just tell us. Come out and say the iOS/Android apps will be the standard UI for playing Spotify. If you can’t create the standard UI for Roku or Fire TV just say so. Don’t let us think its broke and you can’t fix it, or even appear to blame Roku.

Update: 4/2/17

Spotify is my current winner because the iOS Spotify app streams through my Fire TV box and I much prefer its UI. Amazon Music app on iOS downloads files to the phone and then streams it to my Denon receiver. That means playing songs aren’t instant because of the download time. It’s a shame that Amazon Music doesn’t remotely control the Amazon Music app on the Amazon Fire TV like Spotify. That has worked out very well. The phone UI is far superior to using a TV remote.

Also, Spotify wins on the UI front because it lists albums by reverse release year order. I wish they would list by both release year and recorded year because most albums get released over and over again. Spotify lists by the latest release date. I would prefer the recorded year because a 1970 album rereleased in 2009 will be much higher on the list making it appear like a newer album if you didn’t know its history. And that’s what happens when I’m trying out artists I don’t know. I’m currently checking out jazz guys who started in the 1950s. Most of their old albums are rereleases or compilations, so it’s hard to know their time order of creation. I usually go to Wikipedia to check on original release dates.

JWH

Amazon Fire TV v. Roku 3 v. Apple TV v. Chromecast

Amazon just announced their Amazon Fire TV with a quad processor and 2GB of memory.  Since my Roku 3 only has a dual processor and 512MB of memory, I’m wondering if I should put a Amazon Fire TV in my Amazon cart.  The Amazon Fire TV also ups the Roku 3 with gaming, offering far more games than the Roku, or the Apple TV, plus it can use an option game controller.  See list of games and apps here.  I’m not really a gamer, but it’s a consideration.  My wife plays games on her laptop, so she might like it.  I need to see more gamer reviews before I spend $99 dollars to try it out.  But it’s a big advantage point for Amazon.

AmazonFireTV

[Click image to enlarge]

What really tempts me is the tech specs.  My Roku 3 has trouble streaming certain channels in primetime.  Now, this is most of all a problem with the Internet, and maybe even Net Neutrality, and not the Roku.  All of these devices are heavily depended on the speed of your Internet connection.  Recently upgrading to the Roku 3 did show that more CPU power does help, and more memory will too.  The Amazon Fire TV has a quad processor and 4X the memory.

Netflix streams fine anytime on my Roku 3.  But HBOGO and Warner Archive Instant both will crap out in primetime, frequently going to the reloading screen.  In the daytime, I get a HD signal with fast start ups and no stopping, but in Primetime, especially on the weekend, things don’t work as well.  I just wondered if the Amazon Fire TV with 2GB of memory could buffer that problem.  I’m not quite ready to order an Amazon Fire TV to find out, but I’m awful curious.  I don’t want to jump in right away, and because Warner Archive Instant and HBOGO are not listed for the Amazon Fire TV at the moment.

By the way, my streaming problem didn’t happen until a couple of months ago.  I’ve wondered if its because more people than ever are using streaming TV services, or has Net Neutrality issues popped up?  The quality of the TV picture on these devices is directly related to your Internet throughput.  But content can be interrupted by overwhelmed servers at the provider site, just like the Obamacare servers.  So I wouldn’t buy one of these devices unless you had at least 6 Mbps or better Internet.   Try Speedtest.net to check your speed.  Make sure you click the Begin Test and not any of the other buttons that trick you into buying stuff.  I got a 19.60 Mbps for download, and I still have problems on weekend nights.  I don’t think it’s the Roku or my Internet, but the content provider servers and peering deals.  Netflix pays its peering partners, so they get good throughput.

The big hold back – will Amazon Fire TV have all my favorite Roku channels?  One of many reasons why the Roku is superior to the Apple TV is the vast away of channels.  And the poor pathetic Google Chromecast is really a no show.  I didn’t send my Chromecast back, because my wife thinks she might have a use for it, but I haven’t found one yet.  To me, it was a one horse race until Amazon showed up.

My fear is Amazon Fire TV will be like the Apple TV, mainly gearing its content to what Amazon sells.  The Roku has over a thousand channels, and their numbers are growing fast.  They have Rdio and Spotify, which apparently Amazon and Apple do not.  Sure, most of those channels are crappy, but it does offer a tremendous variety, and crap is in the eye of the beholder. 

I don’t have cable TV and I don’t miss it because of my Roku 3.  Right now, it would be a step back in terms of streaming content, to switch to the Amazon Fire TV.  Over the years I’ve convinced many friends to try the Roku and they’ve all been very happy.  Some have even given up cable TV too.  I know a few people with Apple TV, and I’ve set up one for a friend, and it just hasn’t impressed me.  Because my Mac friends haven’t gushed about their Apple TV I assume it was ho-hum.  Even the guys at Mac Power Users podcast seem to prefer the Roku. 

I’m on my third Roku.  My first generation went to a friend who is still using it, and my second generation went to my wife’s apartment.  It’s going to be hard for me to switch, but not impossible.  I like new gadgets.  It’s still too early to run and buy an Amazon Fire TV.  I think I’ll at least wait until the Roku 4 comes out.

Which makes me ask:  How far can these internet TV boxes evolve?  The competition is obviously heating up.  What’s weird, is over the air broadcasting is heating up too, with new channels popping up from time to time.  Now, with internet TV, the competition to cut the cable TV cord is getting intense.

The one thing that cable TV has that most won’t give up is the DVR.  Internet TV could completely invalidate both broadcast and cable TV because it’s not time bound.  A Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV  do not have a DVR, but their channels work just like everything was already DVRed.  Instead of watching shows live over the air, I can watch them later on Hulu Plus or the PBS Channel on Roku.  So Internet TV boxes could be the wave of the future except for one thing – live sports.  Since I have no interest in sports, I’m good to go.  But I always warn people who ask me about the Roku, is if they love sports.  If they do, cable TV is still their meal ticket.

I’m mighty impressed with the Apple Fire TV specs and rollout.  I’m very tempted to buy one.  Susan has a Kindle Fire.  We are Amazon Prime users.  I keep my MP3 music at Amazon Cloud Music.  The world is dividing into Android v. iOS users, and in particularly, Amazon v. Apple as content providers.  The Amazon Fire TV runs on a customized Android OS.  Is there room for the Roku?

Here’s where the Roku has to go up to the plate and hit a few more homers to prove itself.  There’s still plenty of room to innovate.  Take the Rdio channel.  It’s bare bones.  Now the channels are created by the content providers, but Roku should help them improve with programming tool kits and standards.  I’ve even considered switching to Spotify because the Spotify Channel is better on the Roku.  However, I prefer Rdio’s software on the iOS and web.  Warner Instant Archive recently did an overhaul of their interface, but in many ways it was a step down.  The new look is slicker, but hides the content.  The apps on these devices are all still rather primitive.  Apple which is legendary for its Mac UI, falls down on the UI for it’s TV box.

Amazon gives their users voice search at the remote, which is a huge jump forward because typing in movie titles or actor names is tedious on the other streaming TV players.  Of course, Roku gives their users a headphone jack at the remote which is a very useful option.  I expect these devices to find plenty of ways to innovate and compete in the future.  I know most iPhone and iPad users assume they need to get Apple TV, but they really should consider the Roku or Amazon Fire TV.  It’s still too early to be locked in, especially at $99.

If you don’t already own a streaming Internet TV box, the choice now will be very hard to make.  I think Amazon wins on tech spec and slickness, Roku on content, and Apple for dedicated iOS users.  Because Amazon is an 8 million pound gorilla, and because Roku is not a household name, I’d bet that Fire TV will succeed like the Kindle Fire.

JWH – 4/3/14

Google Chromecast–Practically Useless

When I saw the ads on TV for the Chromecast I got the impression that anything you could see on your smartphone, tablet or laptop could be sent to your big screen TV.  Cool.  Well, it doesn’t work that way.  I ordered a Chromecast from Amazon for one purpose only, to see Watch TCM from one of my tablets to my big screen TV.  My wife works out of town, and since she loves TV far more than I do, I let her have the cable TV.  However, she’s let me have the streaming apps for HBOGO and Watch TCMHBOGO however has a Roku channel, so I watch it through my Roku.  I love TCM, but watching TV on an iPad is no fun for me, so I didn’t watch TCM.  Then I saw the Chromecast and thought, wow, I can now watch TCM! Quick review:  No such luck.

chromecast

It turns out the Chromecast is designed to work with only a handful of optimized apps.   Of the twelve apps listed, I only like three, and all three are available on my Roku.  So the Chromecast ends up being useless for me.  I went on the net to see if I could hack it for some other fun use, and discovered some people casting from the Chrome browser – but evidently that’s only from laptops.  I can’t cast from Chrome on my iPad or Nexus 7.

From Googling around I discovered other people trying to do the same thing I’m doing, buying a Chromecast in hopes of seeing TCM on their TV from their laptop.  Through this research I discovered Watch TCM is online and I can now watch TCM on my big screen TV via the computer that’s attached.  So I really don’t need to Chromecast at all.  However, since I don’t like sending things back I started looking around for other fun things to do with a Chromecast.  I hoped there might be a way to put Android on my TV using the Chromecast, but couldn’t find anyone that had done that.  About the only thing I found even slightly useful was to play YouTube on an older flat screen TV that doesn’t have a Roku.  And even this works very flaky. 

I started a one hour lecture on speeding up Python, but I couldn’t shut it off.  Once the film began it appears the Chromecast might not be getting the film from the iPad, but off the net.  I haven’t tested this thoroughly, but closing the YouTube app doesn’t stop the film.  Neither did shutting off the iPad screen.  I didn’t try shutting off the iPad.  I did shut off the TV.  Then turned it back on and the film was still playing.  I then started the iPad back up, launched YouTube app, and found I could then shut off the film.

The Chromecast is a nicely made product, that comes in packaging that reminds me of something from Apple.  The trouble is, Chromecast is so limited in what it can do, especially if you have a smart TV or Roku, that it’s practically useless.  My guess is its useful to people that have a TV with a HDMI port, but no other connected devices or smarts.  If Chromecast had merely mirrored my Nexus 5 or iPad screen to my TV it would have been wonderful to me.  And such a feature might be forthcoming in future updates.  So I don’t know if I should keep the Chromecast or send it back.  I was hugely disappointed.

Evidently, there’s a lot of us old baby boomers that love old movies that don’t want to buy a zillion cable channels we don’t want to watch.  Our alternatives to TCM are improving.

Note #1.  To TCM:  Put Watch TCM on the Roku and charge $7.99 a month like Netflix and Hulu Plus.  TCM is the gold standard for old movie watching, but not worth buying cable just to watch old movies.

Note #2.  For you old movie fans, try Warner Archive Instant on the Roku.  At first it looks like it has a very limited selection, but poke around.  Plus new films are cycled in each month.  I find plenty to watch, except that in the past few weeks net traffic keeps it from working during prime time hours.  Warner Archive focuses on the 1920s through the 1980s. 

Note #3.  If you live in one of these cities, Sony is now broadcasting old movies over the air for something called getTV that appears to be capitalizing on the TCM craze for old movies.

Note #4.  Try Classic Flix.  It’s a disc rental service like Netflix, but focuses on old movies.  Unfortunately, it has only one mailing location – California, so it takes 3-4 days for me to send back a movie.  I get about 4 movies watched a month for $10.99.

[Translation.  By old movies I mean movies from the 1920s to the 1950s.  I keep meeting young people that translate old movies to mean movies from the 1980s and 1990s.]

JWH – 3/23/14

Why Does Hulu Plus Show Commercials?

I used regular Hulu.com off and on for over a year before subscribing to Hulu Plus.  I was used to the commercials and accepted them.  I don’t expect to get anything for free.  However, when I started paying $7.99 a month I assumed the commercials would disappear.  That didn’t happen.  Why?  Here’s what they wrote at the Hulu site:

“We include advertisements in Hulu Plus in order to reduce the monthly subscription price of the service. Premium content — especially from the current TV season — is not only expensive to make and license, but we also want to compensate our content partners fairly for the valuable entertainment they provide.”

hulu-plus

I imagined that Hulu Plus would be like a premium cable channel and be commercial free.  That’s turned out to be a false assumption on my part.  But is my assumption that ads are natural for free content, but paid content should be ad free not valid?  I’m watching the same shows, so why am I paying $7.99 a month?  What am I getting that makes the plus in Hulu Plus?

To get the free Hulu I have to watch it through a computer.  Until my HTPC died, I had a computer to watch web content on my big screen TV.  I also used this computer to record shows.  It was like a home built DVR.  Until I replace it, I’ll have to reply on a Roku box to see web content on TV, but the Roku doesn’t offer free Hulu, just Hulu Plus.  So essentially I’m paying $7.99 to stream through the Roku.

I had assumed and hoped when I sprang for Hulu Plus the commercials would go away.  Boy was I wrong.  Now that I’m using Hulu more, the commercials stand out.  They are getting annoying, especially since they seem to show the same ones over and over.

I love streaming Netflix because a hour TV show is only about 42 minutes.  On Hulu Plus they aren’t back to a full hour, but I’m losing sleep because I’m staying up later every night because of the commercials.  Commercials that I hate to watch.

Hulu Plus is a marginal service for me.  I gave up cable years ago.  I love watching TV shows on DVD and Netflix streaming, but if I want to watch anything current I have to watch it live over broadcast TV, pay Amazon $1.99-2.99 an episode, or get it from Hulu Plus.  So my $7.99 pays for a five week window to watch current shows.  If I miss Revolution on Monday nights at 9pm, I can still watch it for five weeks.  I can do it for free on the computer and pay for my supper by watching commercials.

Or I can pay $7.99 a month, AND WATCH COMMERCIALS, if I want to use my Roku box connected to my TV.  I won’t shout that’s unfair, because that’s how Hulu plays the game.  I’ve just got decide if I want to pay twice for the convenience.

It is true Hulu Plus has more shows, and for some shows, complete runs instead of the most most recent five episodes.

I’ve read that Hulu Plus streams at 720p instead of 480p, and that is indeed worth some money.

This still doesn’t answer why Hulu Plus, a premium service, has commercials.  That bugs me.

I’ll use it for a month or two, and see if I get addicted to it, but I tend to think I’m going to cancel my subscription.  I really hate paying for commercials.

Hulu Plus should be free if we have to watch commercials.  It’s only delayed broadcast TV, and unlike DVR TV shows, we can’t skip over the commercials.

JWH – 10/9/12

Rdio on Roku

I got a Roku 2 XS for Christmas and the first channel I configured after Netflix was Rdio.  Roku is a tiny box that connects to your TV and home network allowing you to watch various “Internet channels” on your TV.  Programmers create apps for the Roku that act like TV channels – some are free, others cost money, like Netflix and Rdio. 

Rdio is a streaming music service with several price levels to use, starting with free, $4.99, $9.99 and $17.99.  You need to be on the $9.99 Rdio Unlimited plan to use it with the Roku.  I love Rdio for streaming music because it has the best web page for managing music, and it has fantastic social networking features for sharing and discovering music.

rsz_rdio_logo

Rdio is also available on mobile phones and tablets if you have the Unlimited plan, so you might think, why listen to music on your television?  Well, if your television is hooked up to a surround sound system to support your home theater it can play music far better than what you can hear through computer speakers or through earbuds.  Most people have no idea how rich music sounds if they’ve always listened to it on earbuds.  Music on a home theater system is like listening to music in the car with a good car stereo system.

Now while the web interface to Rdio is rich and powerful on the computer screen, the Rdio interface on mobile devices and the Roku is severely limited.  You can play your music collection, playlists, and search for songs and albums, or go to the New Releases and listen to new albums.

BUT RDIO ON THE ROKU IS VERY LIMITED IN HOW YOU PLAY SONGS! 

First off there’s no random play.  Basically you see album covers and call them up to play.  You do not even see a list of songs on the album, or even told how many songs are on the album.  All Rdio does is show the first song and gives you three options:  play/pause, next song, previous song.  Now this is fine if you want to put on an album and listen to it, but that’s skips most of Rdio’s wonderful features.

I assume this is Rdio’s first effort and more features will show up on the Roku and mobile devices soon, but here’s a list of critical features I’d like to see much sooner than later:

  • Random play for playlists and albums
  • Show song list for albums with up and down arrows for selecting
  • Show song list for playlists with up and down arrows for selecting
  • Allow us to add album to collection
  • Allow us to add album to queue
  • Allow us to add song to playlists
  • Allow us to create a new playlist
  • Show large photo of album when playing (hey, we’re using 1080p TVs here)

After those very basic requirements are met I’d like to see:

  • All the current social networking features of the web version
  • Wikipedia like info about songs, albums and artists
  • Lyrics to songs (again, we’re combining music with a big screen.  I have a 1080p TV and computer monitor – make the most of it)
  • Allow us to create multiple collections on all devices (this isn’t even on the web version)

Many of these features are missing on my iOS version of Rdio too.  I’m hoping they will also be fixed there too.

Amarok, a music player from the Linux world and KDE, also available for the PC and Mac, has a central window for showing song lyrics and album, artist and song information.  Sitting in front of a TV listening to music sort of demands making use of the large screen don’t you think?  Of course, when I really get into a song I close my eyes.

I know we’re at the beginning of a new era for playing and distributing music.  Right now only MOG and Rdio are available for the Roku, which is the working man’s streaming device.  Rhapsody is on the Sonos, but I can’t afford that system, and besides, it doesn’t have the wonderful melding of music and TV that Rdio and MOG have with the Roku.  (Rhapsody, are you listening?)

I don’t know how many people have Rokus or other streaming music boxes.  Is Rdio available on the Apple TV box?  And I know these services are starting to be built right into TVs and Blu-ray players, but until millions of people see how cool it is to combine TV and streaming music they will not see the amazing potential.

I kid you not, this could be as big as MP3 music players.  Plopping down in front of the big screen and using the clicker to control a music library is brilliant.  I can lay my fat ass body on the couch and with one hand holding the tiny Roku remote and using just one finger, I can call up songs so easily that I went through a dozen new albums in the New Releases section in about 30 minutes.  Of course I didn’t play the whole albums but I play enough to get the feel for them, and if I had had a button to add them to my queue I would have saved three to play later, to give them my full attention.

Rdio has an amazing New Releases page.  Most other subscription services put up a screen or two of new releases each week, usually giving well known artists the promotion.  Rdio just shows what’s coming out from everybody and they have page after page of new releases.  Some of them are pretty crappy, but I often find stuff I like from groups I’ve never heard of, and that’s what its all about for me – discovering new music.  Playing subscription music on TV could be a huge way to promote new groups.

With the current software on the Roku if I want to remember a new album I need to have a pen and paper handy to write down the info so I can go to my computer and process it there.  That’s a drag.

I want Rdio to let us create multiple collections.  I also wish the Queue was a collection too.  Right now if you play an album in the queue it disappears when Rdio goes to the next album in the queue.  I’d rather the finished album stay there until I manually delete it from the queue.  I put stuff in the queue to study.  I’m trying to determine if the songs and albums are worthy of adding to my permanent collection or playlists. 

And that brings up another problem.  As my permanent collection grows it gets harder to find albums.  I want to organize my collection – so I want multiple collections and even sub-collections.  That way I could create a collection called Jazz, and then within it create sub-collections for Bebop, Cool, Big Band, Fusion, etc.

Rdio has tremendous potential, far more than I can even imagine now.  Listening to music ten years from now we’ll all look back and think how primitive these times are.  Politics might be a mess, and the economy is going down the drain, but the future of music looks very bright.

JWH – 12/27/11

Sony BDP-S570 3D Blu-ray Disc Player

I bought my wife the Sony BDP-S570 3D Blu-ray Disc Player for Christmas to keep at her apartment where she works out of town.  My wife has never been fanatical about video quality but slowly came to appreciate Blu-ray beauty from my watching 1080p shows on my LG BD390 Blu-ray player.  Last year I had bought her a Roku box so she could stream Netflix and the Sony BDP-S570 now replaces it, because not only does the Sony play BD discs, it streams Netflix, Amazon Videos on Demand, Pandora, Youtube, and many other internet video services.   Plus it supports DLNA networking to fetch photos, music and movies off our computers.

I was reading this weekend a review comparing the Roku, Apple TV and Boxee Box devices and it made me wonder if these gadgets had much a future if televisions and Blu-ray players are going to build in the same functionality?  Then today I was helping a friend who has an older MacBook find a cable that would allow her to output Netflix streaming to her television set and we discovered the cable that would handle video and audio was $99.  I told her for $79 she could get a Roku box for streaming Internet video, or spend $20-50 more and get a Blu-ray player that also streamed Internet video.

Of course, if I was helping a friend buy a new TV, I’d recommend they pick a set that had Netflix streaming built into the television.  Many sets offer various levels of Internet support.  It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to predict the future here.  If technology can eventually stream content with Blu-ray quality – why have any external boxes at all.

The El Dorado of cable subscribers is to have a la carte channels.  As the television becomes a node on the Internet it’s easy to envision this happening.  Right now you can get several paid channels this way, Netflix, Amazon on Demand, Hulu Plus, MLB, etc.  Of course TCP/IP and the Internet isn’t structured for this, but that doesn’t mean it won’t adapt.

So the question:  What to buy now?  Last year I bought my wife the Roku for $99.  A few months later the Wii started streaming Netflix.  If we had waited we could have skipped the Roku.  Then, this year, Susan wanted a Blu-ray player, which doesn’t replace the Wii.  But if the Wii played Blu-ray discs like the Playstation, we wouldn’t have needed it.  I love Blu-ray video quality, and right now Netflix HD is very nice, but not Blu-ray 1080p.

What I’d recommend is buying the cheapest device that streams Netflix at Netflix’s HD quality, and that’s the $79 Roku 😄 box.  However, if you really love movies and want to enjoy Blu-ray now, I’d recommend spending $20-70 more and getting a Blu-ray player that does both.  I got the BDP-S570 for $138 before Christmas on sale.  Right now it’s commonly sold for $149.  There are Ethernet wired only BD players for under a $100 that can do this.  Units with Wi-Fi built in are about $50 more. 

The BD disc players won’t have as many Internet channels as a Roku or Boxee device, but most people will be happy with Netflix.  Look for Amazon Video on Demand and Hulu Plus if you’re willing to rent movies individually, or pay for a bunch of TV shows.  The Netflix all you can eat pay model is a much better deal though.  However, when I saw True Grit at the movies recently and wanted to see the old John Wayne version, the quickest way was to pay Amazon $2.99 to stream it, which I did and it worked great.

The lesson in all of this is the television is becoming a major Internet appliance.  The trend might even kill off the cable and satellite business, and I expect eventually people will prefer to stream content rather than buy discs.  All too often I let my Netflix discs sit for days because it’s easier to stream.

The beauty of the Roku and Boxee devices is they can be upgraded to handle more Internet channels.  Blu-ray players can too, but my LG390 only added a couple of paid services.  LG did add more services to later models, which really irked me.  I hope newer Blu-ray players will be designed like the Roku and Boxee machines to be expandable.  The first time I upgraded the Sony BDP-S570 it added several channels, and it has an expanding menu, so that’s a good sign.

JWH – 1/11/11

There’s No Such Thing As Free TV

In the early days of television it appeared the shows were free, just put up an antenna and watch your favorite programs for nothing.  But as we all know, we paid for our viewing by watching commercials.  Then came cable TV.  We paid a small fee to avoid the hassle of messing with antennas, but we still watched a lot of commercials.  However, this started the upward cost of watching television.  Cable providers slowly added more channels and raised their fees.  They even offered commercial free networks like HBO and Showtime, but at an even greater cost.  It’s not uncommon today to pay over $100 a month for cable or satellite access.  Then they charged even more for DVR boxes and services so we could skip over the commercials.

Now people are abandoning their cable/satellite services to save money and going retro by using antennas again, and getting over-the-air (OTA) HD television.  They supplement their viewing variety with Netflix, HTPCs and now DLNA compliant devices.  Getting TV from the Internet gives the illusion that we’ve finally found a way to get free TV.  Don’t count on it.  We still pay $25-50 a month for broadband Internet access, and we still watch a lot of commercials.  And if the movie and television industry has their way, they’ll find new ways to charge us for watching our favorite shows over the Internet.

Netflix, at $8.99 for 1 disc service and streaming video via a Roku box is probably the cheapest way to get the most TV watching bang for the buck.  Now Netflix is under attack by the Hollywood Studios.  As the Business Week article points out, studios don’t like the all-you-can-eat streaming pricing.  They want a cut of the action for each movie you watch, because they consider streaming equal to cable/satellite pay-per-view movies, that cost viewers $4 a pop.  And the studios, like Warner Brothers, want to slow the access to movies that Netflix rents because Netflix is cutting into sales of DVD/BD discs.  I know I don’t buy discs anymore, so I can understand this.  And if you haven’t noticed lately, a lot of streaming content on Netflix started showing expiration dates.  Bummer.

Generations of television viewers who grew up after the Baby Boomers don’t remember “free” TV.  Every house had an antenna sprouting from the roof and you didn’t have to pay a monthly bill to watch your shows.  Of course, we didn’t have the power to skip commercials, and we only had 3-4 channels in our nightly lineup.  We had NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies showing new to broadcast films, and each station had a library of old films they could show at odd hours of the day, usually in the middle of the night.  Life was simple then.  Of course, so were the shows.

Decades later, television shows and movies cost untold millions to make, far more than what broadcast commercials and movie tickets can finance.  Movie makers want to maximize their profits by selling their films several times, in a standard tiered released system where they get the maximum revenue at each stage:

  • Theatrical releases
  • DVD/BD sales
  • Pay-per-view
  • Premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc)
  • Basic cable
  • Broadcast networks
  • [Netflix streaming?]

So where in the hierarchy do they release titles to Internet streaming?  And if DVD/BD sales are hurt by rentals, when do you release titles to Netflix?  Right now, I pay the most for movies because I watch a lot of flicks on the big screen.  I could probably save $500 a year by waiting for movies to come to Netflix.  This is one reason why I don’t care about getting cable TV anymore, or when movies get to Netflix.  But if you aren’t big on going to the movies, this does matter.

The trouble for movie makers is Netflix is so damn efficient and cheap.  Even without streaming, for $8.99 a month you can watch about a 100 movies a year, and with streaming, your selection is overwhelming.  Who needs to watch more?  And if you count that Netflix rents/streams TV shows and documentaries, that makes $8.99 a month the cheapest form of TV watching other than OTA viewing.  Sports is the main thing missing, and probably why more people don’t give up cable/satellite.

Now Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is catching on, allowing you to stream video content off the Internet directly to your TV, without using a computer.  Geeks have been hooking up their computers to their TV for years, but it’s not an elegant consumer oriented solution.  All the major TV manufacturers are starting to build DLNA technology directly into their TVs, meaning you won’t need a Roku box to stream Netflix and Amazon videos.  Each manufacturer can choose which streaming system to support, or in some cases, they can support PC servers like PlayOnTv that will talk to your TV directly, or via your Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360, so you can watch Hulu and other emerging Internet TV networks.

Essentially, online TV networks like Hulu.com, CastTV and TV.com are ways to get broadcast and cable network shows free off the Internet, or free if you ignore your ISP bill.  But when content providers realize that these services will undercut services higher up the economic viewing ladder, will they continue to offer their content for free?  Will there be more commercials, or even subscriptions required?

I installed PlayOnTV on our Wii and played around with Hulu.  The Wii remote made a decent TV remote and worked well with the Hulu menu system.  This bit of testing provided an epiphany for me.  Internet TV is like cable TV – too many channels and too much to see!  Since I’ve given up cable TV and lived for a few months with just ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Netflix, I’ve learned to love simplicity.  I thought I wanted more documentaries which Internet TV might offer me, but it’s not worth the hassle of finding them. 

I like the higher quality of watching Blu-ray discs, or even DVD quality, over watching Internet TV quality.  Broadcast HD seems better than cable HD, and Blu-ray 1080p is even better yet.  I’ve gotten used to pristine picture quality, and for me at least, visual quality is better than viewing quantity.  I don’t mind waiting for BD discs to come in the mail.  I know my viewing habits aren’t typical.  My wife is a channel surfer and loves to see what’s on by flipping through hundreds of channels.  If you’re like her, then you’ll need to pay for cable/satellite, or spend the money for Internet TV options.

I pay $16.99/month to Netflix for 2 discs out at a time with Blu-ray.  That’s as cheap as I can get while getting the most TV watching for my dough.  If the movie studios force Netflix to charge more for streaming, I’ll live without streaming.  I’m a little annoyed that Blu-ray discs cost more to buy and rent than DVDs when they look physically identical, but the extra visual quality is worth it to me.  I don’t mind watching Big Love or Weeds months after their HBO and Showtime broadcasts.

TV isn’t free, but it doesn’t have to be expensive either.  How much you pay for TV depends on how impatient you are to see new shows and films.  As I get older I’ll probably stop going to the theater as much, because paying $10 to see a movie the first week it’s out won’t be as important.  I know a lot of old guys who stopped going to the movies altogether.  If you’re young, restless, twitchy and impatient, then you’ll probably love flipping through 300 cable channels and won’t mind paying $100 a month for that pleasure.

When I heard Warner Brothers wanted Netflix to wait a whole month before renting movies that had just gone on sale, I laughed.  At 58, a month is nothing.  To a teenager or twenty-something, waiting a month is probably unbearable.  I’m still finding new movies from the 1930s to watch, and I’ve seen thousands of them already.  I’d much prefer Netflix maintaining it’s low rates than getting movies sooner.  Let the young finance the movie and television industry – if you’re patient you can save your money for retirement.

JWH – 1/17/10