Second-generation Simple.TV device

Second-generation Simple.TV device

Two small boxes made for recording and streaming over-the-air TV hit the news recently. They both sound interesting, though I’m unconvinced that they’re better than a couple of alternatives.

Simple.TV is now taking pre-orders for its second generation DVR. The newest version includes dual tuners, apps for iOS, Android and Roku, and a “Download to Go” mode for offline TV viewing. You’ve got to provide your own hard drive, and for a remote control you have to use an app on your phone or other mobile device.

If you’ve ever used a DVR, you know that an important benefit is browsing future TV listings and scheduling recordings to watch later. (Simple.TV’s new device will pull its data from TitanTV.com, my favorite source of programming information.) In free service mode, the Simple.TV will only be able to record what’s on now, and it will only be able to stream it across its local network. Subscribers to Simple.TV’s Premier service (about $60/year, $150 lifetime) also get the ability to schedule recordings in advance using a full program guide, plus unlimited global streaming for up to five users.

The Tablo sounds remarkably similar. According to its Indiegogo campaign page, the Tablo device is designed to stream OTA channels to HDTVs and devices, especially tablets. Just like Simple.TV, the Tablo requires you to add your own hard drive and uses an app on your mobile device as its remote control. The Tablo streams globally, just like a subscribed Simple.TV. And the Tablo will require a subscription of about $50/year, according to Engadget’s Tablo review.

Compare those costs to two other alternatives I’ve described here before. First, a Windows Media Center computer costs maybe $200 to put together, and its guide data is free. Side benefits: Also provides access to any video programming available over the internet. Probably plays DVDs and local video files. Also includes full computer, useful for sending email and reading blogs. Drawbacks: Microsoft might stop providing free guide data one of these years. Form factor is often unwieldy, and typically requires more electricity. Adding streaming or even a good remote isn’t that easy.

Second, consider an Aereo subscription, currently $8/month. With no upfront cost, you get the same functionality as the Simple.TV or Tablo. Side benefits: Works even where OTA antenna placement is impractical. No device to plug in or place on a shelf. Includes Bloomberg. Easily streams to lots of device types. Drawbacks: Requires third-party device to stream to most TVs. Only available in certain TV markets. Won’t stream outside of home market. Might not be legal.

That question of Aereo’s legality continues to gather amicus briefs as it heads towards a possible Supreme Court decision. More about all of that in tomorrow’s column. And later, I owe you a review of the Roku 3, which does a lot of things really well.

nimblesub2When it comes to online TV viewing, Aereo and FilmOn get all the headlines, partly because they also get all the lawsuits. Our old friend nimbleTV, on the other hand, stays supremely quiet, content for now with its single programming point of presence and its unusual relationship with Dish Network.

So I found it remarkable today when nimbleTV added over-the-air digital subchannels from New York City to my package. (Remember that I only get NYC locals because I have a NYC mailing address.) Normally, I receive the NYC locals exactly as Dish delivers them; for example, when Dish upgraded WNYE from SD to HD, so did nimbleTV’s version.

We still don’t know exactly how nimbleTV retransmits its Dish channels to its subscribers. My best guess is that nimbleTV records every program from every channel it receives, then streams a copy of that to every subscriber who requests it. If that’s true, and if Dish and nimbleTV have an agreement for such virtual Dish subscribers, that all makes sense.

So how can nimbleTV add these extra OTA sub-channels that it can’t get from Dish? Well, I know that nimbleTV’s offices are on a 12th floor in Manhattan, and when I was in a hotel room about that high, I could pick up those same sub-channels with a simple OTA antenna. (What, don’t you pack one?) In the absence of any direct knowledge, my guess would be that nimbleTV has hooked its own OTA antennas into its content retransmitter. For the reason why, I’d guess that after watching Aereo and FilmOn connect their subscribers to NYC OTA antenna banks, nimbleTV figured that it was fair game.

As we teeter on this potentially unstable pile of guesses and theories, let’s try to add just one more. If all that I supposed happened to be true, then local broadcasters would probably pounce on nimbleTV because, according to these guesses, each nimbleTV subscriber probably isn’t directly connected to an OTA antenna Aereo-style. So that means that I’m probably wrong about this logic problem somewhere along the way, but at least I showed my work.

Mind you, I do enjoy these OTA sub-channels, although they might not be available to me for long. A worker there told me that nimbleTV was just “running a test with our platform”. But as I type, those channels are still there. Update: Between the time I posted this and when I tweeted its link, the sub-channels were gone again. Let’s see whether they return.

Judge with gavelOne of these days, FilmOn is going to win a case in court, but it probably won’t be today. Washington DC District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer slapped down FilmOn’s request to be allowed to stream over-the-air TV in Boston. Her earlier ruling that bans FilmOn from carrying OTA TV without permission still applies everywhere but in the New York-based Second District.

This chapter of the FilmOn saga began last Thursday, Oct. 10, when Boston District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton denied broadcasters’ request for a preliminary injunction against Aereo, allowing it to continue to stream OTA TV in Boston. Within hours, FilmOn founder Alki David announced that he would “defy” Collyer’s earlier injunction and begin streaming major network stations from Boston.

Yesterday, FilmOn officially requested that Collyer revise her order to reflect the Boston court’s finding. Tim Bukher at LawTechie.com saw this as a slam dunk. “It is fairly likely that Washington will accede to FilmOn’s request. If it does not, FilmOn could just sue for declaratory judgment in Massachusetts nullifying Washington’s injunction within its borders,” Bukher wrote.

Instead, Collyer responded today with what I would consider a worst-case scenario. Not only did she refuse to modify her order, Collyer also asked FilmOn why she should not hold it in contempt for streaming Boston TV stations before her ruling. According to Multichannel News’ John Eggerton, “FilmOn countered that was only an antenna test.”

As of this writing, the Big Four network stations in Boston are no longer available on FilmOn, but it’s still carrying Boston’s PBS, CW, and ion affiliates. (Probably still testing those antennas.) And as of now, FilmOn is still looking for a US court that will give it a win.

Hopper mascot at Dish Network's CEDIA booth

Hopper mascot at Dish Network’s CEDIA booth

“What nimbleTV is doing, Dish regards as illegal.” That’s what a press relations contact for Dish told me this afternoon immediately after consulting with Dish executives at their booth at CEDIA Expo. I had asked Dave Arland about the nature of Dish’s relationship with nimbleTV, prompting him to withdraw to a lengthy discussion before returning with that short answer.

When I pointed out that Dish had already shut down nimbleTV once and asked why Dish didn’t simply continue cutting off its service, Arland replied, “It’s not that simple.” He said that nimbleTV had “workarounds” and declined to elaborate further.

That description of nimbleTV contradicts its often-stated goal of keeping its programmers fully paid and therefore happy. I’ve reached out to nimbleTV for a reaction to today’s Dish comment, but at the time of this post, I haven’t received a reply.

Clearly something happened in the weeks between Dish cutting off nimbleTV and the resumption of nimbleTV’s Dish-based packages. I had theorized that Dish required certain changes that nimbleTV implemented in the interim – local channels restricted to in-market subscribers, and fewer simultaneous recordings. There was one other change that I hadn’t mentioned, one that Dish would be unlikely to request. In my bottom-tier package, drawing from channels in Dish’s Welcome Pack, my non-local channels such as Comedy Central and TBS are now in HD. Before the service interruption, nimbleTV had delivered those in SD, matching the quality that direct subscribers to the Welcome Pack would see. If Dish mandated those changes, why allow HD upgrades to Welcome Pack subscribers? If Dish didn’t mandate those other changes, why did nimbleTV make them?

If Dish is right, could it have been that nimbleTV’s programmers somehow created some “workarounds” to continue offering service despite Dish’s desire to cut them off? Is nimbleTV account stacking, running too many receivers on each Dish account and letting too many subscribers view the results? I have a hard time believing that nimbleTV’s slow, careful buildup would culminate in aw-heck-with-it illegal access. NimbleTV could clear the air by simply telling the world how it delivers all those Dish-originated channels to all those streaming customers. In the absence of those facts, I’m confused as usual about nimbleTV. And even now, I sure hope it’s legal.

ebruscreenAfter I wrote about DishWorld last week, I knew I needed to give it a try so I could let you know what it’s like. It turns out that DishWorld offers some interesting wrinkles on how to stream TV over the internet.

DishWorld offers TV programming packages in 15 non-English languages. All of them include a bonus set of international English channels, and some also include a few English sports channels. I chose the Mandarin package, which includes 22 Chinese channels plus the English and sports sets for $14.99 per month. Other languages are more expensive. For example, Filipino provides just two native channels plus English and sports for $19.99, and Hindi provides almost as many channels as Mandarin but for $44.99. Since I don’t get any special discounts for being a Dish shareholder, and since I can’t speak any of the 15 available languages yet, the cheapest package works best for me.

In addition to all that programming, there are plenty of on-demand movies available on DishWorld. A few dozen Bollywood movies are free on demand, and hundreds of US-made new releases and older films are available to rent, most for $3 or $4.

The English-language bonus pack includes:

  • ND 24×7 – News channel from India.
  • Fashion TV – My old favorite former-FTA channel featuring people who dress skimpy and walk funny.
  • France 24 – News channel from France.
  • Ebru TV – US-based general entertainment channel majority-owned by Samanyolu Broadcasting Company.
  • BabyTV – International channel for babies and toddlers. Not to be confused with Baby First TV.
  • Blue Ocean Network – News channel from China.
  • Eurochannel – European culture and lifestyle movies and shows.
  • Euronews – News channel from Europe, of course.
  • Trace Urban – International urban music channel.
  • Luxe.TV – Luxembourg-based channel “dedicated to the world of luxury and art of living”.
  • RT – Formerly Russia Today, news channel from Russia.
  • Zoom – Bollywood channel from India, of course.
  • Bloomberg – US-based business news channel.

And the four or five sports channels include:

  • One World Sports – International sports offshoot of the America One over-the-air network.
  • Nautical Channel – Covers boating and board sports.
  • Universal Sports – Former over-the-air digital sub-channel concentrating on Olympic sports.
  • BeIN Sport – Qatar-based channel with lots of soccer.
  • BeIN Sport 2 – Bonus soccer that wouldn’t fit on BeIN. Off the air otherwise.

That’s an interesting set of channels for $15/month, not to mention the bewildering (to me) variety of Mandarin channels I can watch. It’s all available to stream on PC and Mac, Android devices, and particularly Roku. DishWorld offers a free Roku LT or half off a Roku 3 for prepaying the first four months of service. (I picked the Roku 3, which is very interesting in its own way. More about that Roku 3 in a future post.)

Unlike nimbleTV, FilmOn, and Aereo, DishWorld doesn’t offer a cloud-based DVR, but it provides an interesting alternative. DishWorld’s guide shows the last eight days of programming on each channel, and every show from that period is available on demand. When I first activated my subscription, I was able to watch an episode of Doctor Who that had aired a week earlier on Ebru. When I change channels in the middle of a program, DishWorld asks whether I want to watch it live or from its beginning. It’s like having the PrimeTime Anytime feature from Dish Network’s Hopper, except all day for all channels, but without automatically skipping commercials. This week-back feature is so cool, I almost don’t miss being able to record. Almost.

For some channels that are hard to find anywhere else, $15/month is okay. For plenty of entertainment in your non-English native language, it’s probably worth whatever your package costs. For a glimpse of how all TV might be delivered 10 years from now, DishWorld is priceless.