onlineTV application window showing Ellen on NBC New YorkGiveaway of the Day is a web site that offers a free software download every day, typically the previous version of something its developer is trying to sell. The gimmick is that it’s only available on one calendar day and must be downloaded and installed only then. Today’s suggestion, a streaming TV and radio app called onlineTV 13, fits the usual pattern; its German developer includes a special offer to upgrade to version 14. But is it legit to use, and how would I tell?

The source checks out. Giveaway of the Day has been operating for years, and the handful of times I’ve downloaded the software of the day, it was authorized by the developer and gave no hint of irregularity. The developer is apparently Engelmann Software, which has been creating and selling utilities since at least 2008, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The About page for onlineTV says that it has been “downloaded several million times” since it was launched in 2002.

There’s only one reason for me to question whether it’s okay to use this program. Among its “130 stations from 11 countries” are the New York City affiliates of NBC and CBS, plus several BBC channels from the UK. After installing the app, I could watch them all. In fact, the info page for the latest version specifically notes that it bypasses the “geotargeting” that many broadcasters use to restrict where their channels may be watched. Considering what I know about how conservative NBC, CBS, and the BBC are about redistributing their feeds, I’d guess that those folks probably aren’t happy with onlineTV.

(On their Legal page, the developers are less boastful, claiming that “Responsibility for the content of external links (to web pages of third parties) lies solely with the operators of the linked pages. No violations were evident to us at the time of linking. Should any legal infringement become known to us, we will remove the respective link immediately.”)

Now let me quickly point out a counterexample. Pluto TV is also available as an app with dozens of live channels including Bloomberg, Stadium, Fox Sports, CNBC, Mystery Science Theater 3000, movies and much more. I read way too much industry news, so I feel pretty confident that Pluto is legit. But how would the average user recognize whether one service’s offerings are more legitimate than another’s?

I’m not here to pick on onlineTV, whose full slate of channels might be perfectly legit for all I know. I point it out in hopes that you’ll remember it the next time someone talks about penalties for anyone caught watching TV the wrong way. There are times when the average viewer can’t easily tell whether the way they’re watching is right or wrong.

Stadium TV network logoThe digital TV subchannel that had been at the top of my wish list has finally arrived at FreeTVBlog World Headquarters in Denver. Stadium, the sports channel co-owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and a subsidiary of the Chicago White Sox, must have been turned on here in the last few days, because when I did a channel scan with my new Stream+ last Monday, it wasn’t there yet.

I first noticed the new channel on my local listings page on TitanTV, the remarkable online service that I often praise. In my travels, I had seen its predecessor, Sinclair’s American Sports Network, and was eager to check out the latest version. Ever since Universal Sports moved to pay-TV, Denver had been without a dedicated OTA sports channel, so Stadium is particularly welcome.

Maybe it’s that White Sox connection, but for whatever reason, Stadium’s lineup is dominated by major league baseball replays from 2017 this week. College action is limited to a softball game scheduled Friday and a lacrosse match Saturday, which is odd considering the number of college games available live on the Stadium web site. Oh well, considering that Stadium just launched in September 2017, maybe they’ll find a way to blend more live sports into the mix. I’m just glad to have another good channel available for free.

Two receivers, a goofy little antenna, and my lovely business card holder

The Stream+ receiver sitting atop its older brother, the DVR+.

During CES this January, I thought I heard a tinge of sadness when Channel Master executive vice president Joe Bingochea explained that his freshly launched, Android TV-based Stream+ relied on Google’s Live Channels app for its live TV and DVR functionality. At the time, I chalked it up to the bittersweet necessity of discarding the work that his company had done to create a pretty good DVR for its slightly older device, the DVR+. Looking back on it today, I’m not so sure.

I wanted the Stream+ to be great. Scratch that – I expected the Stream+ to be great, which is why I bought it on the day it was announced. Pairing Channel Master’s DVR expertise with Android TV’s wealth of apps was bound to be a huge upgrade over the limited over-the-top channels available on the DVR+. After weeks of delays, a Stream+ arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m sad to say that it is not yet great.

Google’s Live Channels has its benefits, such as episode descriptions within its program guide, but it has serious drawbacks compared to the DVR+. As Sebastian at Cord Cutting Helper pointed out in a review of that app, the program guide is limited to about 48 hours and cannot be searched. For a recording in progress, you can’t watch the beginning until the entire recording is finished.

Channel Master’s Stream+ support pages also blame Google often enough, with their frequent postscript, “Channel Master is not responsible for ‘Live Channels’ functions or issues. All Guide data, logos, and images are provided by Google. Any Guide data issues & questions, and bugs should be reported to Google.” Channel Master’s lengthy Known Issues page lists a bunch of problems and feature requests related to the Android TV OS and the Live Channels app while pointing out that its hardware appears to be fine. And don’t get me wrong, I believe everything Channel Master says about it.

On the other hand, no one’s offered a clear reason why Netflix isn’t available on the Stream+. On the Air TV Player, a very similar box also made by Technicolor but for Sling TV, Netflix is so integrated that it has a button on the remote. On the Stream+, Netflix doesn’t show up in the app store. Even after I sideloaded the latest version, the Netflix app refused to run, reporting that it was “not compatible with your device” even as the Who’s watching Netflix? screen loaded in the background.

(Bingochea also said he wished that the Amazon Prime app was available, but that appears to be a problem with most Android TVs including the Air TV Player. Unlike Netflix, the Amazon Prime app ran just fine after I sideloaded it.)

I have a few more minor quibbles with the Stream+. It’s recommendation bar is dominated by a link to a short YouTube video advertisement for the Stream+, which seems pointless in a post-purchase setting. Adjacent to the Live Channels is a Channel Master app; when clicked, it’s only message is Coming Soon. And on a personal level, the DVR+ knew the codes to control my five-year-old, admittedly off-brand TV/monitor, and so did the Air TV Player, but the Stream+ remote didn’t.

Now that I’ve got the griping out of my system, I need to also point out the good things about the Stream+. It has a Micro SD slot for recordings because one of the Known Issues about Live Channels is that the “External USB hard drive intermittently disconnects”. An external USB drive is cheaper per gigabyte than a Micro SD card, but the added slot shows that Channel Master wanted to find a hardware workaround for what it thinks is a Google bug. (I’ve also heard it whispered that an external USB drive usually works okay, which speaks to CM’s commitment to reliability.)

That wealth of Android TV apps remains Stream+’s biggest advantage over the small, fixed collection of internet TV channels in the DVR+. Its technical specs match up well against those of the Air TV Player’s, particularly its two internal tuners compared to the single USB tuner made for the Air TV Player, which uses a USB drive for recordings.

Two of those Android TV apps that I loaded are for Tablo and HDHomeRun’s DVR. Both of these OTA DVRs require separate hardware plus subscription fees, and both are a clear step above Live Channels. Like every other non-Netflix app I tried, they worked fine on the Stream+.

As I type, the Air TV Player is $130 (and includes a $50 Sling credit) and shipping today; the Stream+ is $150 and only available as a pre-order. For now, if you can get by with a single tuner (a big if!), and if you believe that Air TV’s DVR will remain free after its beta period is over, the Air TV Player is a better deal.

I definitely sympathize with Channel Master’s choices. Without subscription income, the DVR+’s homegrown Linux-based system was probably going to be a dead end. The natural way to provide a full spectrum of TV options was to embrace the equally free Android TV OS and Live Channels. The currently empty Channel Master app and the (hopefully?) placeholder YouTube video suggest that improvements are in the pipeline. The Stream+ has the potential for greatness, and I hope it gets there soon.

Smart network logo

SMART, Channel 276, is available in both America’s Top 120 and the Welcome Pack.

Today, I finally did it! After months of family discussion and weeks of Dish-less viewing, I finally cut the cord on my Dish Network account, though not so deeply as to break it completely. I did it by switching to a package I’d used once before, but only indirectly, all to preserve a few channels that I absolutely cannot get anywhere else.

As of last week, my Dish service was the America’s Top 120+ package, a standard set of channels plus the local regional sports networks. That’s $68/month, plus $12/month for local OTA channels if desired. (As I wrote earlier, I dropped the locals months ago when I was saving just $10/month.) I also pay $7/month for the five true superstations, which Dish stopped offering over four years ago; if I ever drop them, I won’t be able to get them back. To keep the door open for this unique set of perfectly legal out-of-market stations while cutting costs, I needed a really inexpensive package.

Dish’s quiet, unpromoted answer is the Welcome Pack. I had encountered its oddball collection of channels years ago when I subscribed to Nimble TV, which was a “concierge” service that resold the Welcome Pack with New York City locals. Nimble is long gone, but Dish continues to offer the Welcome Pack, which still includes a subscriber’s actual local stations. Unlike a switch to any other core programming, self-service isn’t an option; a Dish customer service representative has to make the change. In my case, a quick online chat with a CSR fixed everything in less time than it takes for me to type this post.

The cost of my new package is $23/month, up recently from $20, but that includes the locals. To spare you the math, I’m saving $45 or $57/month, depending on whether you count the locals’ cost. The return of locals also means the return of Prime Time Anytime, where my Hopper DVR automatically records the prime-time satellite feeds of the four major OTA stations in town. And the Welcome Pack includes a surprising number of channels that aren’t included in AT120+: Bloomberg, Boomerang, Discovery Family, Hallmark, Hallmark Movies, and Oxygen.

Most of the sports and other channels I would miss are waiting for me with my Sling Blue subscription, which also includes even more channels that I wasn’t getting with AT120+. I also have access to the Watch ESPN app because of a complicated story that I keep forgetting to tell you. There’s no hope for my regional sports networks, but considering the other channels and the money savings, well I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. If something compelling comes up, I can always switch back. For now, everything looks good.

An antique clock in a glass jarAs I prepare for the short Daylight Saving weekend (pictured), I notice that over at TechHive, Jared Newman addressed a topic I mention too rarely – some TV viewers are not good candidates for cord-cutting. Newman is mostly on the mark but I think I can do better.

Let’s start with the reasons Newman gave. Your must-have channel list is too long. That deserves the top spot, because if you can’t live without channels X, Y, and Z, then you need a service or combination of services that will deliver them all. I would add that this is an opportunity for reflection whether that set of channels is really worth that much money to you.

Your DVR needs are too particular. Some over-the-top services are fussy about which channels can be recorded and for how long. Over-the-air channels require a device or service to record them. In general, I doubt this is the deal-breaker very often.

You have lots of TVs used simultaneously. This situation is made for live OTA TV. But if you rely on OTT services, they allow a finite number of streams. Then again, supplying a house with a half-dozen different shows at once is going to be pricey no matter how you go about it unless it’s with OTA antennas.

Your ISP still gives you a great TV deal. Except for short-term promotional offers, I don’t see such great bundle deals any more. Though internet service providers are important, as I’ll explain in a minute.

You fear change. That sounds harsh, but if you widen this just a little to say that you don’t want the hassle of changing how you get TV, then that’s more understandable.

I’ve got three more reasons why some households aren’t good candidates for cord-cutting. You can’t get good OTA reception. This might be the case if you live in an apartment in the basement or on the side of the building opposite the broadcast towers. It’s also true for customers living on the edge … of a TV market. Some of the OTT services will sell some of those stations in some markets, but for the full breadth of local OTA channels, you may need cable or pay-TV satellite.

Your ISP has usage caps. Although the need for them is questionable at best, usage caps are spreading to more cable-TV territories. They’re an excellent way for cable companies to generate more income while herding viewers to their own zero-rated content. If you’ll watch enough OTT TV to start bumping into those caps, it might not be worth switching.

You can’t get decent broadband. As of last summer, 34 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet service. Some of them get their TV via satellite, either pay-TV or free-to-air or both. Until that broadband gap gets filled, they’ve got no good cord-cutting alternative.

Most of the time, cord-cutting becomes a lifestyle choice. When someone gives up $5 lattes, it’s usually not because they can get them for $2.50 somewhere else. It’s usually because they pondered the question of whether the money they were spending could be used better elsewhere. A lot of cord-cutters aren’t looking for cheaper alternatives; they’re deciding what they no longer need to buy.