Saturday, May 8, 2021

My device of choice

While I've said time and again that I think anyone would do well choosing either Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Chromecast With Google TV as a streaming device of choice.

My personal choice is Roku, but I am not exclusive to Roku. I have Apple TV devices connected to TVs, and I have Chromecast With Google TV on multiple TVs, but I have Roku on every TV.

Why do I have multiple devices? Well, as streaming gains in popularity, more and more of the problems with mainstream TV come to streaming. As I write this, Roku and Google are having a pissing contest about YouTube TV, and probably about YouTube also. At the moment, YouTube TV isn't available on Roku, unless you already have it installed. 

This is much like the arguments with cable carriers and certain stations that happens from time to time. You know the deal, "Call your cable company and tell them to keep WPXLY-TV available" kind of thing. Now it's Roku and Google sending emails asking you to bombard the other one with emails and support posts threatening to take your ball and go home.

I'll rant more about that whole thing later. Right now, the point is just because a service or app you want is available on a device, there's no guarantee it will always be available. Amazon Fire TV has lost apps from time to time. Apple TV has too. And now Roku. All devices will be subject to this.

So, what's a person to do? Well, I have more than one device. I have two: Roku and Apple TV. 

No, wait, I have three: Roku, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. 

Okay, I have four: Roku, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV. Yes, the Fire TV device is not connected, but it's available if I need it.

My device of choice? Pick any two.

Sure, start with a single device, if you're just starting your Streaming Life. But do pick up a secondary device some time. They're relatively cheap, and different family members may prefer different interfaces.

Whatever you pick, have a backup. Just in case.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The perfect streaming device is ...

Image: NBC/Universal

I've spent over a decade streaming, using a variety of devices over the years. I've tried a variety of devices over that time, and I've spent a lot of money trying to get it right.

I've not tried every device on the market, but I have tried the major players: Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, TiVo, and others.

So, what's the perfect streaming device? Well, that's not an easy question to answer. You have to consider several things. 

  • Does the device carry the apps you want?
  • Is the device easy to use?
  • Is the device reliable?

So, with those things in mind, what's the answer? That's easy. The perfect streaming device is ... non-existent.

Oh, sure, some devices come close, but no device carries all the apps. There are some that aren't available on Roku, but are available on Apple TV, for instance. There are some that are only on Roku. Some are on Fire TV, but have a different, inferior version on another platform. 

Sure, there is a difference between a device carrying all the apps and a device carrying the apps you want. For example, if all you want is Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video, then any of the Big Four -- Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast -- will do that. 

But what about apps you don't know about? There may be some perfect app, a niche app, that has something that is just up your alley. But that app may only be available on Roku. If that's the case, Roku is your perfect device. But what if another device has a different app that is another service that is for you? Then it's that device. And what if these other two perfect apps are on two different devices? 

What if all the Big Four carry all the apps you truly do want? Well, is it easy to use? One thing I live about Roku and Apple TV is that the menu layout is consistent. Amazon Fire TV devices move things around on the menu, though. If you use an app, it moves it to the front of the menu so you can easily use it again. That's fine, if you like that, but if you prefer everything in its place all the time, that will drive you crazy.

And what abut reliability? The Big Four are reliable devices. Well, sort of. Apple TV is certainly a great device. And the upper tier Roku devices are fantastic, but I'm not that big of a fan of the lower, entry-level devices. And I've previously mentioned that I consider Amazon Fire TV to be underpowered devices, almost to the point of planned obsolescence. Chromecast has been good, but as they are the latest entry into the mix (of the Big Four) they're still working out the bugs. But I do like them.

If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said Apple TV was the closest to perfect device. More recently, I would have said Roku. Next year, who knows?

I have multiple devices hooked up to my TVs. I have Chromecast on some, Apple TV on some, but I have Roku on them all. So, no matter what I say, my actions say that I'm in Camp Roku.

I'm okay with that. But if Apple TV, or Fire TV, or Chromecast is your device of choice, you've made a good choice.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Replacing TiVo

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for TiVo. It was the first streaming device I had, even if I didn't know it.

Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, now that I think about it. I'm trying to recall just when I upgraded my first TiVo. It may have been after I bought the first Apple TV and Roku. It was around that time, though. And, that first TiVo may have had streaming capabilities, even if I didn't use them.

Regardless, I mentioned before that using TiVo helped me make the switch to streaming. I really liked TiVo, but after I stopped using it, TiVo faded from my thoughts, even though the devices were still connected.

I went without local channels often, because I didn't have cable and I didn't have an antenna. However, I eventually did put up an antenna and used it with TiVo. But, as I said, I rarely used TiVo.

Still, I wanted to have the capability of watching local channels, even if I didn't watch them. When my mother had a problem getting warranty replacement for a defective TiVo device, she decided she was done with them and canceled her service. I had lifetime service, but decided the old TiVo company I had known and loved was officially no more. I took my devices down.

So, what did I replace it with? I narrowed down the list to two separate devices and services: AirTV and Tablo TV.

They both have their good points and bad points. They both cost around the same for their top end devices. and the pricing for the services are comparable, though not identical.

AirTV is from Dish. They own Sling TV. I'll talk more about Sling TV in the future. For now, it's important to know that the Sling TV app is how you watch AirTV. You hook the antenna lead up to the AirTV and the content will show up in the Sling TV app. And, you don't have to have a Sling TV subscription. You can watch the free content, and the over the air (OTA) programming will appear in the menu and on the program guide.

Oh, and AirTV offers a free two-week program guide. So that's great. The only cost is the antenna and installation, plus the AirTV device. I went with the $200 one that has a large storage drive for DVR.

Tablo TV is similar in that you buy the equipment -- I got the one that's around $200 -- and hook the antenna to it. You add the Tablo TV app and use that to watch TV. The program guide is one day for the free one, or you can pay $5/month for a two-week guide. That's more than AirTV, but less than TiVo.

I like the Tablo TV interface better than AirTV's, but that simply means I'm not that big of a fan of Sling TV's interface, because, as I said, that's what it uses.

So, which do I use? That's easy. I use both.

At one house -- the one I co-own with two sisters -- I put up AirTV. It works great.

At the other house, I put up Tablo TV, and paid for a lifetime subscription.

They're both great. They work a lot alike, but have some small differences.

Which one would I recommend? Well, I'd say check for special deals on service bundles. If you already use Sling TV, go with AirTV. If you don't, go with whichever you can get a better deal on. You'll be happy whichever way you go.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Cold on Fire

As I continued my journey through this Streaming Life, I used a variety of streaming devices over the years. Roku, Apple TV, TiVo, Simple TV, Chromecast, Mi Box, and more. The most notable one I haven't listed is Amazon's Fire TV devices. This doesn't mean I haven't used them. I have. I've purchased several Firesticks. Today, I still have one. In a box somewhere. The others I gave away.

Why did I stop using them? Simple. I don't like the Fire TV devices. They're all much slower than the other devices I've tried.

Well, that's not really true. The Simple TV device was quite slow. TiVo devices, at least the older devices I used, were kinda slow. And the first Roku HDMI Streaming Stick (model 3500) was slow and sluggish.

It was particularly because the Firestick and the Roku Stick 3500 were so slow and sluggish that I didn't think much of sticks overall. I just figured they were underpowered devices. When I got a Roku Stick 3600, it was a little better, but not much. That sealed it for me: sticks were trash.

I eventually did purchase a Roku Streaming Stick+ model 3810, and was very happy with its performance. So that let me know that it wasn't that sticks were poor devices, it was that certain sticks were poor devices. The early ones were underpowered, both Roku and Amazon. My experience with Amazon hasn't changed, though. 

Maybe it's because I always had top of the line Roku devices that I was comparing against. Apple TV held up well, of course, because Apple makes really good, and expensive, devices. Amazon's Firesticks were cheap, both in price and in quality, at least in my experience.

You may have a Firestick and love it. And if you do, great. You're happy with your purchase. But my experience is not that. I've always found the Fire TV devices to be underpowered and underperforming compared to my Roku devices.

The other thing I don't like about Firesticks isn't really Amazon's fault. Well, maybe it is, but I blame them less for it. Firesticks are the device of choice for pirate TV services. They're easy to crack in order to load software that will allow illegal streaming services to operate. I'm highly opposed to pirating content, and the fact that the devices are so often and so easily used for that purpose leaves a bad taste. If you're not sure what I'm talking about with illegal streaming services, I'll talk about them one day. Right now, it's just another reason, rightly or wrongly, for me to no like Firesticks.

Maybe I'll buy another Firestick one day and try again. But that day isn't today.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

More and more devices

Image by Y2kcrazyjoker4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
During the early years of my Streaming Life journey, I tried several different devices. As I mentioned before, I started with TiVo in 2006, added Apple TV and Roku in 2010, and a Windows Media Center PC in 2011.

The Windows device was first to come out. TiVo usage dropped over time and was completely unused despite being connected for many years (lifetime subscription meant it wasn't costing anything to keep it running).

That would seem to indicate I had settled on Roku and Apple TV as my streaming devices. But that isn't what happened.

I tried a product called Simple TV. It was rough around the edges, but I thought it had potential. So, in 2013, I added that to the mix. 

As I said, rough around the edges. Quite rough. It allowed you to put TV stations on your network and watch them via Roku, very much like what Tablo TV does today. Simple TV was a trailblazer, but didn't complete the journey. I stopped using it entirely by 2015 and the company shut down in 2017.

The other device I used in those early days was the Chromecast. I both loved and hated it. It allowed my to easily put stuff on my TV from my Chrome browser on my computer, and I loved that. I didn't do it a lot, but there were times where that was the easiest way to do it.

I also hated it, because it didn't have its own remote, and I had to use another device, such as my phone, to find content then launch it to the Chromecast. I could not stand doing that. And I never used the Chromecast that way. 

When Chromecast upgraded, I got new ones, and even today, I have the latest version, Chromecast With Google TV. It's an okay device, but I'm not a huge fan of the interface. But, it has an interface and I don't have to use my phone anymore. Unless I want to. I don't want to.

One other device I tried was the Mi Box, which is another Android/Google TV device. It was an okay device. It worked well, and I still have it. In a box. On a shelf somewhere. Again, nothing really wrong with it, just that it didn't bring anything new to the table. Roku and Apple TV together had everything I wanted. 

While the Mi Box went on the shelf, Chromecast stayed connected, and I have a couple of Chromecast connected to TVs today, along with Apple TV and Roku devices.

And that covers the streaming devices I've tried. Except one. And it's a really popular device, but it didn't set my world on Fire. And I'll talk about Fire TV another day.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Divining the right device

As I've mentioned on my last couple of posts, when I started streaming, I had multiple devices connected. The reason was because I wanted to have options. Streaming was new to me, and I wasn't sure how many of these devices would remain, and what would go belly up.

I really liked Roku devices, and kept upgrading to the newest devices. For my main device, I had my original Roku XD|S, then a Roku 2 XS (bought it in summer 2011), then a Roku 3 (bought in spring 2013), and finally a Roku Ultra (late 2017). I also had other devices, some the same, others different from those, along the way on other TVs.

I had Apple TV devices, too. My main TV kept one available, and always the latest model. There were about as many different ones. I started with the Apple TV second generation in 2010, then a third generation device in 2012, a fourth generation in 2015, and a fifth generation in 2017. I haven't decided when I'll buy the new device that was just announced, as of this writing, but I expect I will get one.

TiVo eventually fell completely out of favor, at least with me. I started with a refurbished Series 2 in 2006, then upgraded to a Series 3 (also called the HD) in early 2009, and then a Premiere (Series 4) in 2012. I wasn't as eager to replace the devices as often, as they cost more. 

By the time I was ready to upgrade to the Series 5 Roamio, they had actually replaced it with the Bold. That TiVo Bolt was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen, and I wasn't going to have something looking like that in my house. I did buy a Roamio OTA, as they were in the lineup longer, and I wanted something to record TV shows over the air, but then found I rarely used it. It turned out to be a waste of money, but not due to anything about the device, just my viewing habits had changed.

I'm not sure when I actually removed the TiVo devices. I stopped using them long before I removed them. As I had purchases lifetime service, it wasn't that big of a deal to leave it running; it didn't cost anything as I'd already sunk the money into it.

That meant that after a few years, I was down to using two device: Roku and Apple TV, right?

Nope. Another device made it's appearance. We'll look at that later.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Simplifying and complicating

My original streaming setup was very complicated. I had:

  • A Roku device for Amazon and Hulu Plus (the paid version of Hulu)
  • An Apple TV for iTunes content
  • A TiVo for both antenna and some streaming
  • A Windows Media PC for Hulu (the free version of Hulu)

Now, that whole thing about a free version of Hulu might confuse some of you that are new to streaming. But way back in 2011, there were two Hulu services. 

There was the free version that you could access on a computer using your Web browser. You had to sit through commercials, just like on regular TV, and like today's standard Hulu service.

There was also a paid service called Hulu Plus (or Hulu+). It was for streaming devices and cost around $6/month, if I remember correctly.

The free Hulu service and Hulu+ had different content libraries at first. If you could watch it on Hulu free, you couldn't watch it on Hulu+. Likewise, if it was on Hulu+, it wasn't available on Hulu free service. That's why I needed both the Windows Media PC and a Roku device.

Honestly, I didn't use the Windows Media PC for anything other than Hulu, and I rarely watched that. It was more convenient to purchase the shows from Amazon or iTunes than deal with yet another remote and the buggy Windows Media PC.

Eventually, Hulu had merged Hulu free and Hulu+ into a single service, named Hulu+, but it contained nearly the entire catalog. That was the final nail in the coffin for the Windows Media PC, and I removed it first, bringing the devices down to three: Roku, Apple TV, and TiVo.

There was still the issue of having four different remotes:

  • The TV
  • Roku
  • Apple TV
  • TiVo

So, I bought a Logitech Harmony remote to control them. That worked fairly well, so the simplification continued.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Finally cutting the cord and saving pennies

As I mentioned before, I spent a year analyzing my TV usage, and calculating to see if I could stream what I watched instead of paying for cable, and doing so for a better price,

In late 2009, I concluded I couldn't. But it was close. So, I decided I'd wait a year and try again. So, for all of 2010, I kept cable and we watched TV, time-shifting/on-demand watching via TiVo most of the time. Then, toward the end of the year, I pulled out my trusty spreadsheet and updated it with all the shows I watched on cable, and figured out how much it would cost me to stream that same content.

Now, at the time, that would be by purchasing the shows from Amazon or from Apple's iTunes store. But, as I was watching on-demand anyway -- watching a recording from TiVo is no different than on-demand -- that wasn't a problem.

After crunching the numbers, calculating what we paid for Internet and Cable during the year, then figuring how much just Internet would have been, plus adding the cost of buying the shows -- except for those that were on Hulu -- I got my answer. I would have saved $63/month.

That surprised me. I figured it would be close again, maybe saving $5-10/month. But $63/month? I didn't see that coming. I decided I would start streaming. But how?

Well, if I wanted to watch via iTunes, I would need an Apple TV. And, at the time, if I wanted to watch via Amazon, I could use TiVo and wait for the downloads, or stream with a new device, such as a Roku. I decided on a Roku. And I decided I'd buy a Roku after Christmas and start streaming.

Oh, I did buy an Apple TV, too, but that was before Christmas. My wife wanted to listen to her music from iTunes on her computer, and asked for better speakers for her laptop. Instead, I got an Apple TV (second generation) so she could listen through the big sound system connected to the TV. She loved it. Good husband.

I got the Roku XD|S device and hooked it up next to the Apple TV. With Roku, I could get Hulu Plus, which was the paid service that was for streaming devices, but didn't carry all the shows. I also had a computer running Windows Media Edition to watch regular free Hulu, that carried all the other stuff.

Yeah, that meant that we had four different devices to watch TV: Roku, Apple TV, Windows Media PC, and TiVo (which was still connected to cable, but would connect to antenna for local channels). That was a lot, and not what I wanted, but for $63/month, I'll put up with a lot. 

After college football season ended, I dropped cable, connected TiVo to an antenna, and started living the streaming life.

Again, not ideal, but it would get better.