Battle for the living room…Apple, Microsoft, Sony and Roku have sharpened their swords, so look out!

The battle for the living room is, once again, heating up. The question, however, is this: does joe and jane consumer really want it? 

For the next battle, we have Microsoft’s XBOX One, Sony’s PS4, Roku, Apple TV and a host of other boxes from Western Digital, Cisco and others. In addition, there’s a slew of cheap (under $100) Android based gaming consoles that, because they are Android, will likely also offer other services in addition to the gaming aspect.

Apple it readying a new release of iOS, iOS 7, that will also run on the Apple TV. iTunes Radio will be a feature of the update to Apple TV as will the new AirPlay. You will be able to stream your iPhones screen and audio to your HD TV via Apple TV. A sly way to give Apple TV yet even more reason to live.

Roku has introduced new versions of its hockey puck player and added gaming in the mix.

Microsoft, of course, has the XBOX One. The One has a ton of entertainment features and on line video features. With the XBOX Video and Music store readily available, plus agreements from Comcast, Warner and Verizon, the XBOX One can replace your cable box.  The Blu-Ray drive will allow the XBOX to play all of those discs in addition to DVD. At $499, it is the most expensive option out there.

Sony, of course, has its PS4. The PS4 is very much like the XBOX One in its feature list, but does not have quite as much to offer in the online arena and there are no deals with cable companies to offer cable programming via the console. What they do have, however, are enough popular services, like HULU and Netflix to keep anyone happy. Plus, the PS4 is $399, less than the XBOX One.

Perhaps the slyest of the sly are those Android based game consoles. I use the term console loosely as some of them look like over sized USB sticks and plug into the TV’s HDMI port.  These things will sport one of the more recent flavors of Android, cost under a hundred bucks and will work with true game controllers. However, since they are Android, that means they will be offered with minimal entertainment choices (perhaps Netflix and/or Hulu) or will be easily hacked to do so. I suspect these little boxes or sticks will gain a lot of traction because of the price and the fact that Android is the most popular phone platform.  And the games…the games are familiar and many, if not most, are free to play. Who wouldn’t want to play Candy Crush Saga or Plants V Zombies on their HDTV?

This will all boil down, however, to one thing: adding one more box to the TV.  Microsoft is betting that its offering will replace two or more other boxes. Same for Sony. Apple just wants its ‘hobby’ to mature. And the others? Those could be the ones that actually make it. Roku is very popular, but still not a household word, yet I think it stands a better chance of succeeding where Microsoft, Sony and even Apple will not. My five year old step son figured out how to use Roku in a matter of minutes. Most of the similar products are just as easy to use. They have to be.

Personally, I am amazed that the public were convinced enough that they needed some kind of video player/recorder and a video game console to the TV. The ease with which people accepted these devices will, surely, not be duplicated.  Even though HDMI is just ONE cable, people now must remember to hit the HDMI source button on the remote to ‘switch’ to that device. If the set has more than one, then that’s a real problem for many, who are easily confused and just want ‘channel up’ or ‘channel down’.  (By that same thought, Microsoft was smart to incorporate the HDMI passthrough for cable boxes.  The IR blaster part, however, could cause other problems.)

We’ll see how this battle plays out. We are in the early stages, so…take cover and keep your eyes open. The battle lines have been drawn.

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Comcast…What the hell is your problem!?

For the last week, I’ve not been getting all of the cable service that I am paying Comcast to deliver. Indeed, the cable box (a nice, small Motorola HD DVR) locked up and refused to work. So, I took it back and got another box. That one, another small Moto box, refused to ‘authorize’.  At first, I tried the online method. That failed. Then, I call the local number. That failed. My wife calls the customer service line and they ‘sent a signal’ and told use to wait 45 minutes. Of course, nothing happened.  I took it back.

I am now on the third box, another one of the ancient – a BIG – silver Moto boxes.  Get that one home, set it up, call the local authorization number and….nothing. Or, so it seemed.  I put on the tv guide and, viola! it started to load.

Thinking we were good to go, I started channel hopping.  Video! The Weather Channel, check!  CNN, check! Several channels down and all is go.  Then, it hit me…these were the crappy analog and SD channels that are just being carried digitally now.  Damn.

So, I go to the HD version of Weather Channel and….’you are not authorized’.  SERIOUSLY?! Dammit, Comcast, what the hell is your problem! was what I thought.

So, I call the customer service number.  Turns out, not only was the box I given not in the system, it seems the person I spoke with was not even in the damn country. Now, I don’t mind talking to someone in some far off land, even if they are pretending to be where I am, but, I do want to be able to understand them and this person just was not clear.  They had an accent, but it was not all that thick. No, the issue was that they were mumbling. Yeah, mumbling.  Like the dude on ‘King of the Hill.’

Anyway, he ‘guaranteed’ that what he was going to do would fix my problem. He sent several ‘special codes’ and ‘signals’ to my DVR, but nothing worked.  So, he tried one last time.  He tells me to wait an hour (bullshit, these things do not take that long) and then try again. ‘Picture be back, guaranteed.’ Some guarantee. Of course, it did not work.

Called them again today-I refuse to waist my time and gas going back to that bloody office, they can come to me and I WILL NOT pay for a house call either.

The young lady, clearly from somewhere in the continental United States this time, was polite, even though I was less than polite. Daisy, you did good, by the way. After explaining what happened, that my wife had JUST CALLED, an hour earlier (she really did, even had a ticket number) and that I was ready to cancel the service, she told me that there was a problem with my account, with the DVR and that more special codes and signals would be needed.  She tried four, maybe five times to no avail. 

So, Comcast is now paying me a visit in the next 24 hours.  We will see how that goes. Dish Networks, I’m looking your way.  If Comcast fails me tomorrow-they have one shot-I’m giving you a call.

Oh, and remember my glowing comments over Comcast a few posts ago? Yeah, you can forget that.

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Thinking about cutting the cord? Do it with a Roku

For quite sometime now, I’ve been displeased with Comcast’s service.  Unfortunately, there really isn’t much out there in the way of cable TV service that is any better. Quite the opposite, I have heard many people complain about Verizon, Dish, EchoStar and other such services. So, given our choices, we have decided to just cut the cord. Period.

However, we do enjoy quite a few shows that are not on over the air broadcast television.  What to do.

Well, actually, there’s plenty of options out there. Since we would keep the Comcast High Speed internet service, we had one major option.  Internet TV.  Dad’s are another.  But, I don’t want to buy a bunch of DVD’s, especially for things like Diner’s, Drive In’s and Dives.

I started looking at the various set top boxes (didn’t want to put a computer on every television in the house.) I immediately ruled out Apple’s Apple TV device, even though I am a fan of the device.  I pretty much forces you to buy TV shows through iTunes. Of course, it does have Netflix, but so does the Wii.  Big deal.

Western Digital has a nifty device, but it is mostly a ‘bring it yourself’ type of device where you supply the content.

Boxee Box, while fitting the bill, was just too costly. At nearly $180, I didn’t think it was really worth the money, considering you have to pay for many of the services (like Netflix and Hulu Plus) anyway.

Enter Roku.  Roku sells several boxes, ranging from $49 to $99.  The box I settled on was $79.  The tiny little box has composite and HDMI video and audio outputs. And packs a punch.  It is just slightly smaller than the Apple TV and has a somewhat more sophisticated remote control. 

Setup was spotty. No, actually, it was a pain in the ass.  Physical setup was a snap: plug in the cables and that’s it. No, the software setup was a pain. You NEED a credit card or PayPal just to activate the damn thing. While you don’t get charged, they do check the validity of the card. Without this vital step, you bought yourself a tiny little brick.

Once activated and your Roku account is all set, you can add channels to the device. This part was somewhat easier, but, as with anything, your mileage may vary.  Most of the channels will require some kind of payment, but they are worth the nickel and diming you will get. There are also apps available, though most are games.  And, some of those games require Roku TV game remote.

There are, literally, hundreds of channels to add. Some free, some free to add and others are paid channels. You have to be careful, some of them say they free, but, they are not. Some are free to add and then invoke a use tax, so to speak, saying that the preview channel is set to expire and you need to pony up the money to keep on trucking.

Most of the channel want you to ‘tie’ the channel to your device. You are given a URL on the ROKU, you go to the computer and type the URL in and, viola! You’ve got programming.

The quality of the video will, of course, vary with the source, but, when true HD video is playing, man…you realize just how good you have it.  Audio quality was hard to tell as we are using the television’s built in speakers.  Overall, it sounded great.

At $79, the device is well worth the money. I don’t know that I would buy the more expensive version as the only apparent difference is the remote.

Our experiment with cutting the cord is off to a strong start.The different service on the Roku make it easier to do this, but time will tell.  Now, we need some kind of DVR and then life would truly be great.

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