12 Surprises from CES 2016

OTAOTTTrade shows
Long row of phone cases
Other news reports focus on self-driving cars and other cool stuff, but CES is always just as much about booths full of phone cases.

I’m back from CES (don’t call it the Consumer Electronics Show) for another year. There are so many things to talk about that I figured I’d write a notes column, but then a thought occurred to me: What’s the difference between a notes column and attractive click bait? Laying out those notes as a numbered list. So let me take another step towards modernization with these surprises from CES.

1. CES was as busy as ever. That doesn’t sound as if it should be worthy of a surprise, but its parent Consumer Technology Association had said it was tightening attendee eligibility and cutting out free exhibits passes. Those struck me as Cartmanland-style deliberate scarcity, or maybe just a grab for all that attendee cash on the table. In any event, my pre-show hotel price tracking indicated that demand was at least as high as last year’s record attendance, and my experiences at the show matched that estimate. We’ll get the official numbers any day now. Update: CES reports that the attendee number was about the same as last year, and the number of exhibitors rose by about 5000. That accounts for the increased hotel demand.

2. My one weird trick for Las Vegas transportation still works. Although CES promoted both Uber and Lyft with coupon codes, the best solution to get from McCarran Airport to the Las Vegas Convention Center remains the humble RTC bus. For just $2, less than the airport surcharge for taxis or those rider services, the 108 bus delivered me to the LVCC door. More and more visitors have figured this out, but as usual, there was still plenty of room on the bus.

3. There’s a company called FiveByFive that’s trying to do what Apple TV couldn’t – license enough live TV content to support a streaming platform. Its xFaire device and Beyond DVR service are supposed to bring 4K video to home subscribers, and its mockup demo screens show ESPN, HBO, Cartoon Network, and some local channels, although it doesn’t directly support over-the-air TV. FiveByFive CEO George Tang told me how networks want to support his offering, and that the service would launch later this year. I’d love to see that happen, but I won’t hold my breath.

Tablo screen shot on Apple TV4. Speaking of Apple TV, Tablo showed off the beta version of its interface for Apple TV. I thought its responsiveness on my Roku 3 was adequate, but the Apple TV version is so much faster that it makes me want to switch streaming devices. The Tablo beta app even includes voice-controlled navigation. I’m eagerly awaiting this release.

5. A company called Aura Media has built a product that I had often stitched together in my head. Aura has taken the open-source Kodi Media Center (formerly XBMC) software, added a nicer interface, and plopped it onto a new Android-based receiver with a built-in over-the-air TV tuner. The Aura receiver has all the ingredients to be exactly what the free TV enthusiast wants. I’ll post a full review here once I get a chance to run my sample unit through its paces.

6. Just before the show, chip company ViXS issued a press release announcing that it had introduced the CordCutter TV Stick, “a precedent setting, low cost, low power, small form factor solution to stream free Over-the-Air (OTA) content easily, seamlessly, and reliably to your smart mobile device.” But when I talked with a ViXS VP, he told me they were probably going to be partnering with another company that could bring such a device to market faster under its own brand. Wherever it comes from, that could be interesting.

7. Multichannel News’ CES notes included something I missed: a mention of Tubi TV making a deal with Starz to carry some of its original content. Tubi is a fine, free, ad-supported streaming service like Crackle, and it’s great to see it grow. Tubi wasn’t listed as an official exhibitor, another suggestion of how many meetings and contacts take place in town but outside the show.

8. Although TiVo still sells the Roamio OTA receiver that I wrote about in my previous post, it’s hard to find on the TiVo site. That’s a sign. TiVo now promotes its Bolt ad-skipping receiver as a superset of the Roamio OTA’s features, complete with a new $599 All-In (don’t call it Lifetime) service plan. The Bolt does a ton of amazing things with a great interface, but that’s seriously expensive.

Continue Watching and Recommended strips on Sling TV9. Sling TV, of which I am a tiny shareholder through Dish Network, announced an updated user interface to better blend available shows and movies with what’s live. It’ll integrate ESPN3, add strips of Recommended content, and allow the viewer to Continue Watching interrupted shows. (I’m already very happy to see the addition of Turner Classic Movies on demand as part of the Hollywood Extra add-on package.) I’m looking forward to seeing this show up on my devices in the next month or two.

10. And speaking of Sling TV, Channel Master was deservedly excited about Sling TV’s integration with its DVR+. Its version of Sling matches what I see on my Windows Sling app, and the Channel Master folks told me that the DVR+ will continue to pass through whatever improvements Sling will make to its user interface. This free over-the-air DVR and low-cost streaming Sling make a very attractive combination.

11. Folks kept giving me TV antennas to test. There was PVC Antenna, whose Magic Stick looks just like a short, narrow piece of PVC pipe with a cord coming out of it. (Its fast-talking president, Omar Naweed, took some time to suggest that this free TV stuff is pretty good before I could convince him that I already know a little about the concept.) The much mellower Josh McDonnell of HD Frequency gave me a Cable Cutter Mini as a competitor to my current pick for best inexpensive antenna. And even Aura Media co-founder Cody Tuma was proud of the little telescoping, magnetic-based antenna he includes with the Aura receiver. I plan to test all of these and post the competition results here soon.

12. A recurring theme I heard from exhibitors is that cord-cutting is real and accelerating. Several reported increased interest in free over-the-air TV over the past year or less. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to change this blog’s name away from FTABlog. What do you think?

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