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 XD 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

Roku HD – The Future of TV

I bought my wife a Roku HD for Christmas.  She works out of town and wanted Netflix streaming for her little apartment.  Before the Roku HD left the house forever, I thought I’d play with it and see how it compared to my Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 Blu-Ray player.  In a way, I wished I hadn’t, because now I hate my LG BD390 Netflix streaming.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought the LG BD390.  I spent $100 over my budget to get the highly rated LG BD390 because it had wireless-N built in and Netflix.  The BD390 is great for playing Blu-Ray discs, but has been less than spectacular for Netflix and wireless.  I would have been better off buying a basic Blu-Ray player and the Roku HD, spending the same as I had on the LG BD390.  But I might not even agree with this decision by next Christmas.

I hooked up both the Roku HD and BD390 to the same wired Ethernet.  The BD390 has never liked my Linksys WRT160N version 1 router – but that’s Cisco’s fault.  Cisco won’t update the original model of this router and it needs it.  I mention these annoying tribulations because anyone buying network devices to add to their TV need to be prepared for pitfalls and aggravations.  However, even after I hardwired my den, the BD390 would not consistently work well with Netflix.  My internet reception was usually one half of the gauge or a little over.  On rare occasions I got HD reception and things looked fantastic.  I keep waiting for a BD390 update that would tweak its Netflix feature, but so far I’ve been living with average quality Netflix streaming.

I set up the Roku HD, which was a complete snap.  It’s a tiny device, weighing just ounces.  (Here’s a peak inside the older model.)  I’ve been watching an episode of Farscape every night, streamed via Netflix through my BD390, so I decided to look at the next episode on the Roku HD.  I got 4 dot reception, that’s Roku talk for their streaming quality meter, the highest level of streaming.  I was overwhelmed by how much better the image was over the LG.  On the BD390 I assumed the show was old and the visuals were crude.  But no!  On the Roku HD the make-up, costumes, and sets are gorgeous.   And my wife leaves this weekend taking the Roku HD with her!  Bummer.

This morning I got up and played with the Roku Channel Store and found all kinds of extra content (Mediafly, Twit.tv, Revision3, etc.)  Techie shows I love that drives my wife from the room.  I was amazed by how good Internet TV content looked on my 52” HDTV.  Since I’m already planning on building a HTPC that would replace my BD390, I’m now worried that anything I build won’t be equal to the elegant little Roku box.

Now take all of my enthusiasm for the Roku HD with a grain of salt.  Go to the Roku Forums to read about other people’s experiences.  Not everyone is getting 4 dot reception.  Many fight with bad network connections, rebooting Roku boxes, bad updates, etc.  Also, remember, generally only users with a problem come to the forums to begin with, so we don’t know how many people have fantastic out-of-the-box luck like I did.

But I am in trouble.  I don’t want to watch Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 anymore.  It’s a shame that Farscape isn’t on Blu-Ray, but for now I just put the DVDs into my queue and I’ll be networking the show via USPS mail.  I would jump over to Amazon and order another Roku HD, but I want to wait and see if I can build a HTPC that does a better job instead.  The Roku HD box has a very tiny chip to process the Internet video stream, so I’m wondering if a powerful CPU and GPU can do a better job.  Watching the same episode streamed through my computer looks way better than the BD390, but not as good as the Roku HD, but that might be because I’m sitting twenty inches away from the LCD monitor and I’m sitting ten feet from my HDTV.  Like I said, everything is very iffy with Internet TV watching.  Twit.tv looked fantastic blown up to a 52” HDTV via the Roku HD box, but it looks just as great on my computer.

Actually, I’m struck with the overwhelming impression that the Roku HD box foretells the future of TV.  We watched a HD movie over the Roku box and maybe it wasn’t Blu-Ray 1080p quality, but the illusion was damn close.  I gave up Comcast cable to live with over-the-air broadcasts and Netflix and I’ve been very happy.  If I could get all my TV from a little box like the Roku I would.  I’d give up DVDs and Blu-Ray discs too.  In my post about building an HTPC I wanted to reduce my entertainment center from 5 electronic devices connected to my Samsung HD to one. 

If that one device could be something the size of the Roku box that would be even more elegant, but obviously, the solution is to put the little Roku circuit board inside of the TV and have just a TV and sound bar, and even then, why can’t they build a great sound bar into the TV too?  You can see where this is going.  A flat panel on the wall with a power cord and an Ethernet cable.  No HD antenna, cable or satellite cable, and if wireless improved, the future TV wouldn’t even need an Ethernet cable.  While I’m wishing, if they could also take the small circuit board from my Roku SoundBridge M1001 that streams music, and put it inside the TV too, we’d really be living in the future.

In other words, maybe I should hold off on building my HTPC.  By Christmas 2010 or 2011 such a simple elegant TV solution might show up on the market.  There are already TVs out with built-in Internet access, but they are limited.  Obviously, such an Internet TV will bring about a tremendous paradigm change in the TV business.  The Netflix model, of one monthly fee to watch exactly what you want to watch, and only that, is too powerful to ignore.  Why pay big bucks to cable and satellite providers for 250 channels you don’t watch?  Why hassle with HD antennas if the Internet provides better reception.  Why buy DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and mess with storing them when Netflix will do all the work for you?

The Netflix model for video and the Rhapsody model for music should be the standard for the future, but will the content providers allow so many revenue streams to be dammed up?  Will the Roku box change the TV world?  If on-demand streaming content can approach the visual quality of Blu-Ray, why not?

JWH – 12/30/9

The Joys of Technology

Today, the title of my post is in all seriousness.  I’m having a very good technology day.  Other days, the title would be sarcastic.  For years now I haven’t quite figured out how to live with MP3 music.  I don’t like listening to music on my iPod – instead I want to play MP3 music on my living room stereo.  To that end I bought a Roku Soundbridge M1001 last year.  This nifty gadget plugs into my receiver and listens to my WiFi network and watches my computers for iTunes, Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody and other UPnP AV MediaServers where I store MP3 files.

What the Roku does is display a list of songs stored on my computers in other rooms that can be played on the connected stereo system.  It displays lists by artists, albums and songs via a small LCD readout and lets me select and play them with the aid of a palm-size remote.  The trouble is I have over a thousand CDs, and flipping through their titles one LCD line at a time is a pain.  I thought at the time I first set up the SoundBridge it needed a TV output which would let me select songs through a TV interface.  There are media servers that also fetch video and photos from your computer, as well as songs, which are controlled through your TV screen.  The SoundBridge is just for songs.  By the way, the newest Roku is for Netflix online films and does work with your TV.  It’s too bad they didn’t combine the functions for a single product.

This morning I jumped on the web because I just knew there had to be an answer to my desires, and I found an excellent solution, Visual Media Remote.  Installed on my laptop, which normally sits in the living room, this program lets me to control the SoundBridge.  I know this sounds weird.  My music is stored on a machine in my library/office.  The SoundBridge is in the living room.  The laptop could be in any room but it controls the SoundBridge.  If I had SoundBridges in other rooms, it would control them too.  This screen shot taken from the VisualMR site best illustrates why the software is so useful:

visualmr_pc_jukebox

This display shows a listing of artists on the left, their albums in the middle, and the songs from the highlighted album on the right. And I can filter too, by genres. This very quickly lets me drill down into my collection and find songs and add them to the player queue. I can sit in my La-Z-Boy with my laptop on my lap and just lean back and play songs about as conveniently as I could ever imagine, other than using telepathic mind control over my computer.  VisualMR has been around a long time, but I didn’t have a laptop for the task before.  VisualMR will also work with PDAs.

Searching through Google shows a lot of people use this same setup, but I don’t think it’s a massive crowd.  My guess is most people give up on stereo systems when they get an iPod, or they buy a cradle that attaches to their receiver that lets them use their iPods as CD players.  And I thought about reducing my music world down to one handheld device, like the iPod.  I could reduce my equipment footprint if my laptop had a large enough hard drive to store all my music.  Or I could just buy some high quality headphones and listen to the music directly from the iPod.  Hell, no one seems to like to listen to music together anymore, although I got my wife singing and dancing last night while we made dinner when I was showing off my SoundBridge setup.  But I had to play the songs she liked.

I’m happy with this present setup.  I wished iTunes and Windows Media Player used the same three-pane approach to selecting songs like VisualMR.  I can pack up my CDs and store them away.  Now that music is sold as DRM-free MP3 songs, this kind of equipment might become more popular, because it’s very easy to just shuffle these tunes from machine to machine and room to room.  Microsoft has sold Windows Media Center for years hoping the idea would catch on, but it hasn’t – not big time.  Linksys, Dlink and Netgear all have media servers that work with their wireless equipment.  The tech is there, I just don’t know if they are popular solutions.

Like I said, the iPod has changed everything and I think people have just adapted to it.  It makes me wonder if sales of CD players and receivers have fallen since the success of the iPod?  Well, duh, if people aren’t buying CDs, sales of CD players must be tanking.

All of this reminds me of the fat people in the movie Wall-E – they don’t notice the world around them because everything comes through their video screen, inches in front of their faces.  Now that iPods have added cell phones, movies and television shows to the music lineup, as well as photos and audio books, there’s all the more reason to stay plugged in to your iPod 24×7.  Who knew that electronic gadgets would bring so much fun and joy to people.

Jim