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.

RIP: G4/TechTV, nerd tv is dead.

English: Leo Laporte

English: Leo Laporte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week marked the end of an era. At least for nerds, geeks and gamers.  G4TV ceased being whatever it was supposed to be.  The last episodes of Attack of the Show and X-Play, two shows that were all that was left of the once great TechTV channel. It’s interesting that none of G4’s original shows made it as long as these two did.

For those who may now know, TechTV, formerly known as ZDTV, was a 24 hour channel devoted to technology, mainly computers. It featured a programming block in the evening that consisted of shows like the Screen Savers, a news show, X-Play (video games), a roundtable discussion show called Silicon Spin (with John Dvorak of PC Magazine) and other similar shows. Paul Allen bought the channel from Ziff Davis and rebranded it as TechTV.

TechTV’s staple show, the ScreenSavers, featured mostly computer and video game related material and was hosted by Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton. It also featured people like Sarah Lane and former Internet poster child, Kevin Rose.

Allen got bored with the channel and sold it to Comcast, who had a 24 hour game channel called G4TV.  On it’s own, G4TV was OK. Some of its shows were actually well done while others, well, not so much.  Comcast merged the two and G4TechTV was born.  It was a short lived name, though. Eventually, all of the G4 programming was killed. And the only TechTV programming the remained was the Attack of the Show, which was the rebranded ScreenSavers show minus Laporte. Norton was offered a role on the new show, but declined. Rose and Lane were the initial hosts, but they left the channel. Lane eventually landed on Laporte’s “TWIT.TV’” podcast company (more on that in a moment) and Rose went on to start up and Revision 3.  Digg, for a brief time, was THE place to go on the Internet for hipster crap.  It’s pretty much dead now. Hipsters don’t stick around for long.  Eventually, Kevin Pereria and Olivia Munn hosted the show. Munn left to pursue what appears to be a successful Hollywood carerr and Pereria left.

Leporte, who went on to host his own ‘network’-which was really just a series of video podcasts, was never very kind to G4, even though many of the people he had worked with were still there. G4 was mostly gracious to him, though. They helped him cover several E3 shows and got his input on archiving of TechTv shows in which he starred.  He was, nonetheless, a little bitter at his treatment there. He was, after all, the star of TechTV and he was pushed aside when Comcast took over. Comcast wanted a younger, hipper crowd and the middle aged Laporte-who was the best host they had-was pushed out.

For the last episode of Attack of the Show, Laporte and Norton were asked to do a cameo. They would sign off the show and, indeed, what was left of G4 (which is around for a few months until Esquire-its replacement channel-come online. No new programming, however, will air on the channel.) The segment they did is akin to Bob Newharts last episode where the entire series was a dream. Laporte wakes up from a nap at a café where Norton was sitting. He explains that he had a bizarre dream. He then describes the whole run of Attack of the Show. The two get up and proceed to host the Screen Savers. It was funny and ironic. You can view the sequence here. Watch the whole video, the first half is a good bye from the current staffers.

And, so the great experiment in tech and gaming oriented television is over.  Over the years, the channel relied more and more on mainstream programming and less and less on it’s core subject matter and, indeed, abandoned it’s core audience (which went from more affluent 25-54 year old males, to teens.)  It proves, however, that niche programming does not have a place, even on cable. Sci-Fi Channel is gone (SyFy is but a sad remnant of what once was a terrific channel) and channels like MTV, VH-1 and even Headline News abandoned the formats that got them started.  But, I digress.

So, farewell G4/TechTV.  It was fun.

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Going satellite for television: ditching Comcast for DirecTV

Recently, we switched from Comcast to DirecTV for our television viewing. The package we chose is much cheaper than Comcast and the picture quality is vastly superior. Even the standard def channels look better than the cable equivalents do.  (Which, btw, I am perplexed that certain channels, like H2, do not seem to have an HD option.) The receiver box, a DVR, is also much nicer than anything from Motorola that Comcast foists on its customers.

The DVR, called ‘Genie’, can record up to five programs at the same time. Which means you can record four programs and watch/record a fifth channel at the same time. A very nice feature. Genie also has a half decent user interface, though it is still confusing in places.  There are also ‘apps’ available, including games and a Facebook client. Interesting, but I have not yet used them to any length of time nor can I see myself doing so in the future.

We wanted it in our bedroom as well, so we got a client box. The box, much smaller than the Genie (which is HUGE, original XBOX huge) and ‘dumb’, comparatively speaking. As it turns out, Genie is also a server. It can serve up video that you recorded on the Genie and pipe it to any client in the house. A nice feature. There is also an additional piece of hardware and matching software that lets you stream DVR programming to just about any device in the house.

DirecTV also has Android and iOS applications that you record programs while away, and also watch selected programming away from your home.  Also a nice feature.

While the hardware selection you get is really nice, better than cable’s offerings, it’s the programming that really matters. So, how do they stack up?

Well, OK, as it turns out.

For all of Comcast’s shortcomings-are there are a ton of them-they do seem to excel in programming.  We had a hundred plus channels to watch on Comcast. They were of many types and I only watched a couple of dozen with any regularity.

DirecTV, on the other hand, is heavily tiered. We got a middle of the road package and, thus, lack what were basic or ‘enhanced’ channels on Comcast. Things like Sprout and Hallmark Channel on Comcast are on a higher tier on DirecTV.  That’s fine, I chose the package we have and get all of the channels we want (but Sprout.)  Here’s the rub, though: a third of the channels, perhaps more, that we get are shopping or all ads.  The program guide is littered with these things.  With the sheer number of such channels, I would expect a bigger price differential that there is.

Overall, I am pleased but I have realized that I am not really saving much over my previous Comcast installation. I still have Comcast for Internet access, which is eighty dollars (US) a month. Add the fifty for satellite, and I am back up where I was with cable a few months ago. Admittedly, one of the reasons we dropped Comcast was because it was going up to $180 next month—so I am going to save, just not as much as I had hoped.  The Best Buy salesman said we could get Comcast internet for half of what we do…not true. It would have been if we were new to Comcast, but we are not and I do not want to cancel and re-sign since I would lose my email address, which I do not want to do.  If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to offer them up.

Now, what channel is Food Network again?

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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Comcast: new consumer focus?

So, I’ve been pretty harsh on Comcast-with good reason. However, I have to share a rather pleasant trip I had to the local Comcast office.
I had two DVR’s and neither of them worked right. One would not authorize and the other stopped displaying the HD channels and refused to record or playback. Since we only need a DVR on one TV anyway, I decided to swap one for just a digital box. So, we went to the Comcast office and not only did we not have to wait (went Saturday afternoon) but they were pretty efficient. The damned window booths are gone. They are using iPads to pre-screen customers so they can go to the right person and, in our case, that was just two feet away. The young lady who waited on us was not only helpful and patient (I couldn’t make up my mind as to what kind of box I wanted) she was also very nice.

Unfortunately, the experience once I got the gear home was different. The DVR installed quite easily, but the digital converter did not – and it is much simpler than the DVR. Calling the local authorization number did not help. I had to call the national number. However, it was not a difficult ordeal as they now use voice prompts instead of the keypad on the phone. Once I told it which box to authorized, it took just a few seconds to get the box working.

The DVR, however, does not work with HBO, which I pay for, and the Video On Demand. It is giving me the old ‘not authorized’ message and a funky error screen. So, another call is in store.

Overall, though, I have to say, the Comcast of old appears to be going away, replaced with a better, more consumer focused company.

The recent change to the data cap, the better attention to consumers via Facebook and Twitter and the revamping of the local offices all add up to a more pleasant experience.

Good on you, Comcast!

Comcast, you win…the cord is no longer cut

A few months ago, we decided to cut the cord and go cable free. We thought that with the variety of over the air stations and the digital sub-channels plus our Netflix, Apple TV and Hulu Plus, we would be set.  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Sooo….

We are watching cable tv. Again.

For awhile, we did fine. But, as time went on, we found our alternatives to be lacking.  Especially Hulu Plus. We watch our programming either on the iPad or that little device known as TELEVISION. We have a Roku and an Apple TV, plus the two Wii’s (possibly the greatest gaming console ever,) two Xbox 360’s and a very dusty, thrown in the back Sony Playstation 3, all of which give us online entertainment. Hulu is available on all of them. Problem is, even with Hulu Plus, you cannot watch everything they offer.  Much of the programming is restricted to COMPUTER viewing only. Now, no television in my house has a true Windows or Mac PC connected to it.  Those days are gone.  And we are not going to huddle around a 20 inch screen just to watch something on Hulu that I WAS PAYING FOR! Oh, the bloody adverts.  Why the hell am I paying to watch adverts? 

Hulu Plus is no bargain.  For the same amount, I can get Netflix. At least they offer WHOLE seasons worth of tv series and a few recent vintage films. And, therein lies my beef with them.

Netflix, where are the freaking new movies?  If I want NEW films, I must pay extra to have a DVD mailed to my house.  What?!  Ya gotta be joking!  No, sadly, they aren’t.  So…Netflix, you are nearly as bad as Hulu.

Which brings me to the Roku. This is a nifty little box that has lots going for it.  Problem is, though, many of the channels I would want to watch are EXTRA. Yup. Ya gotta fork over more bucks.  There are a lot of ‘free’ channels, but ‘free’ as in you didn’t need to buy them from the Roku ‘store’.  And the ones that truly are free, well, they are a hit or miss thing.  Channels like CNet and TWiT are there, which is fantastic, but others show public domain movies…many of which I can or have downloaded-legally-from places like

So, if I add up the channels I MIGHT pay for, plus Hulu and Netflix (and the cost of just Internet access through Comcast) I have pretty much equaled the cost of Internet access plus the tier of cable that I had. I would not save anything plus I would be paying for commercials too.  So, what would be the benefit?  None.  So, Comcast, you win.  We get the crap we want, plus a ton we don’t.

And, for the record, over the air television can be spectacular. The local NBC and CW stations broadcast in 1080i and the others in 720p.  The 1080i stuff, when actual HD content is shown, looks terrific. And our local Fox affiliate carries all Fox Network programming in 720p. Let me tell you, the Fox broadcasts of the NASCAR events look great.  The digital sub-channels are very enjoyable.  The netlets that are available in the Richmond, VA area, for example, include: MeTV, MyTV, Antenna TV, Bounce,The Cool TV and the PBS station carries a variety of programming on two sub-channels that range from BBC news to Al-Jazeera America.  Good stuff and a news perspective that everyone should get.  And, don’t be fooled by Al-Jazeera, it isn’t what you think. At least, the American version isn’t,

Oh yeah, Hulu will start requiring a cable tv subscription for much of its programming, so they definitely will not be an alternative for anyone wanting to cut the cord. No word on when this new requirement will start, but I can imagine it will be sooner rather than later.  I also see it’s subscriber base dwindling down. 

So, the great experiment is dead.  All I have left to say is…Food Network, I sure missed you!

Beware the bandwidth usage cap…you could lose your internet service for a year

So, Comcast and other ISP’s want you to use all of the new and existing  services that they provide.  Things like online video on demand, online backup, photo sharing, streaming services and other things that involve data usage.  And, for the most part, the services are included in your monthly bill and are of a decent quality too.  But, there is a catch.  One big, gigantic catch.


Comcast has a now public cap of 250 gigabytes per month.  If you exceed that cap, you get warned the first time.  Do it again and you lose service for a year. Yep. A YEAR.  Great way to keep your customers, huh?

What most people do not realize and what these company’s fail to share is that this cap is a two way street: it applies to UPLOADS as well as downloads.

What that means is that all of those music, video and photo sharing services as well as those BACKUP services count.  Those photos you upload to flickr, Facebook or the ISP provided service eat into your bandwidth usage.  Try to do the right thing by performing your online backup and, well, yeah, that counts too.  Saving your music collection to a cloud service? Yep.  It is probably the single biggest offender here too.

Watch Netflix or Hulu much? Or Xfinity? Better watch that meter.  These companies do not bluff either.  They WILL cut you off.  Comcast did so recently with a gentleman who was trying to upload his music collection to an Amazon ‘storage cloud’ service that would give him access to his music from anywhere.  Now, he’s with out service for a year.  He told them to cancel his service and they send him to-yep-customer retention who promptly asked what they could do to keep him as a customer. He replied ‘restore my Internet’.  He’s no longer a customer of Comcast.  Nice.

These caps are ridiculous.  Yeah, the average user probably won’t use a tenth of that, but if these companies keep advertising these services then more and more people will take advantage and could easily end up like that guy.   It costs Comcast no more if I use 300 gigabytes or if I only use 20 gigabytes.  The egregious people…those uploading terabytes of questionable material…should be dealt with, but your normal user (and this guy was normal, he just had a lot of music) should never have to worry about things like bandwidth cap and losing service just because they used a service that the ISP provides.  That’s ludicrous and just bad customer service.  Maybe if enough of Comcast’s users blatantly did this for two months and were cut off, it could put a dent in the earnings picture and make them take another look at this now antiquated method of network management.  Nah.  It wouldn’t.

Have you received a warning or been cutoff by your ISP?  If so, please comment and share your story.