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?

ChannelMaster DVR+ guide screen showing Sling TV and local channelsFreeTVBlog World Headquarters is packed with way too many over-the-air TV devices. Heading into CES, I wanted to provide a quick roundup of the best choices so far for watching OTA TV, recording it with a DVR, and hopefully streaming it to remote devices.

I’ll start off with the one major OTA receiver that I haven’t tried – TiVo’s Roamio OTA. Over a decade ago, I used a TiVo to watch OTA and pay TV, and I’ve never held a better remote nor seen a better on-screen interface. The only problem with TiVo right now is its subscription fee of $150/year or (gulp!) $400 for a lifetime. That just feels much too high for a DVR for just free TV, but as you’ll see, it’s really a matter of degree.

Next up is Tablo, which is the OTA DVR that my family uses. The Tablo has a nice Roku interface, it does a good job when I skip forward while playing back recordings, and its customer service is the best of any company I deal with in any industry. On the other hand, when I connect from my phone for the first time in a week, I have to wait for 10 minutes of “Syncing” before I can do anything. Tablo’s subscription fee is $50/year or $150 for life, which is much more reasonable but not quite free.

Simple.TV was one of the first OTA DVRs, and I scored a great deal on a single-tuner unit with a lifetime subscription; otherwise it’s $60/year. That awkward-looking unit actually performs very reliably, though it’s slow to skip around within a recording. Since then, Simple.TV seems to be shifting its attention to the UK, where it was to introduce a cloud-based OTA DVR called ShowDrive.

On the other hand, TabletTV continues to make an aggressive push to capture attention for its inexpensive, subscription-free product, as seen in this recent hands-on review. The latest “Plus” version of the app integrates some streaming services, but the app is still limited to iOS tablets, which can already access those same services. When the TabletTV device can stream to my big-screen TV, to my Android phone, or anywhere outside my home network, I’ll be more interested.

My old favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVR had been Windows Media Center, which was included in Windows 7 and available for Windows 8. Now Windows 10 has shut the door on WMC, and last July Microsoft switched listing providers, making it a little tricky for users to keep WMC running.

My new favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVRing is the DVR+ from ChannelMaster, which just announced that it supports Dish’s Sling TV among its streaming channels. (Separately, Sling TV announced that it’s holding the line at $20/month for its basic package, including ESPN.) Another great thing about the DVR+ is that it works very well with the Slingbox video streamer, through which I can access my DVR+ from just about anywhere. The DVR+ guide and customer service are miles ahead of Windows Media Center and just one notch below Tablo’s.

I know that HDHomeRun has been working on its own DVR (a good thing, since I kicked in to help crowdfund it), and other companies may have OTA sticks to show off at CES. I hope to learn more in a few days, and then I’ll let you know.

Tower of TV antennas at dawn

© Depositphotos / kikujungboy

Hi there! Welcome to FreeTVBlog.com. This is going to be a fun place to talk about free TV, and I’ll bet you had already guessed that. The rest of this particular post will peel back the layers of this blog’s origin story. You have been warned.

This blog is a direct descendant from FTABlog.com, which I set up a very long time ago. Way back then, there were dozens of amazingly interesting free TV channels available via free-to-air (FTA) satellite, and the blog ran stories about them, from Fashion TV’s coverage of Carnival in Rio to Utah TV station KUEN’s movie night. These days, there are still hundreds of FTA satellite channels available on a medium-sized Ku-band dish, but few are like those general-interest English-language channels.

At the same time those great satellite TV channels were drifting away, similar streaming channels began appearing on the internet. Instead of watching a distant CW station from my dish, I could watch it via ivi.tv or Aereo or FilmOn. These new distribution methods kept changing, often shriveling under legal pressure, so they made great topics of conversation. Yet another development was the growth of local over-the-air digital TV, with plenty of new channels to watch. So the emphasis for this blog has shifted from free satellite TV to reflect the wider array of free TV options.

An important side-note: Although FTA was supposed to signify the perfectly legal viewing of unencrypted satellite signals, some pirates used the term to mean hacking protected commercial satellite TV. It was as if I had a blog about engraving, then counterfeiters started calling making fake $20s “engraving”. FTAList.com and FTABlog.com have always rejected piracy, which is an objectively poor gamble with significant risk and trivial reward. I mention all of this because according to Archive.org, when FreeTVBlog.com was most recently active, around 2007-2009, it wrote about satellite TV “testers”. That’s definitely not what I have in mind now.

You know that you have a bad name when you always have to explain it. Even when I mingled with savvy TV industry types, maybe one person out of 20 would recognize what FTA meant, and another one or two would mistake it for some piracy thing. Instead, this was always meant to be a blog about (legal) free TV, so when this domain finally became available a short time ago, I pounced on it. It’s going to take a little work changing business cards and such, but at least I’ll get to skip the explanations and get right down to business. I hope you enjoy it.