Air TV channel guide window

Now on Air TV, the OTA channels begin to the right of where the Sling TV channels end.

As I wrote when I first received my AirTV a couple of months ago, it came without all of the functionality that I saw at its demo at CES. Over-the-air channels were pushed aside, not integrated, and it took several clicks just to get over to them.

It’s taken a long time, even longer than promised, but AirTV has fixed the problem. I suspect the delay may have had something to do with a change in direction; instead of choosing a few favorite OTA channels to join the Sling TV crowd, they’re all integrated in the same channel guide bar complete with logos.

AirTV is still without a DVR, although Sling offers a lot of on-demand programming from its networks. With my Sling app on my Android phone and tablet, I can record most OTT network programs, but there’s no OTA channel support. I’m guessing it’ll be a long time before Sling/Air can straddle that divide, all the more reason to keep my Tablo and Channel Master DVR+ around.

I’ve been struggling to summarize what I feel about ATSC 3.0, the upcoming broadcast TV standard. On one hand, it will enable reception in motion (perhaps in phones?), superb early warning capabilities, and possibly 4K video. But on the other hand…

Fortunately, Wayde Robson at Audioholics has released an excellent long article describing a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks. Here are some highlights:

ATSC 3.0 is IP-based, like the internet. It’ll need a new tuner, but we’ve got a few years to prepare for that. Besides, that antenna and tuner won’t need to be near the TV (now a monitor) because it will be able to feed the signal over the home network. And since it’s IP-based, its possibilities will be open-ended. As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai put it:

“Imagine a world in which TV broadcasts of your favorite show or new programs were delivered in Ultra High Definition and immersive audio. Imagine a world in which programming was hyperlocalized and broadcasters could deliver niche content to specific geographic areas within a station’s signal areas. Imagine a world that offered Americans with disabilities far better accessibility options for experiencing broadcast television. Imagine a world in which every consumer smartphone could serve as an over-the-air programming device.”

Then Robson gets around to the dark side. “(I)t’s unlikely ATSC 3.0 will result in any long-term gain for free access to digital entertainment,” he writes. “In fact, ATSC 3.0 opens the door to fully authenticated, tiered broadcast services. … the next generation of TV will be hungry for new ways to get paid.”

That’s part of what I worry about. What if every tuner has to be registered and kept online, the better to target advertisements and reap viewing data? What if some sub-channels or even major networks begin demanding a paid subscription? What if every show includes DRM to prevent piracy, with the side-effect that all third-party OTA DVRs (think Tablo) have nothing to record?

One of the major players successfully pushing for quick adoption of ATSC is Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which has a long history of serving its shareholders. As FierceCable put it in January, “Sinclair and (its subsidiary) One Media are considering multiple ways of monetizing the data captured by ATSC 3.0 Next Gen-enabled devices.” The industry is rushing to adopt the new standard, but I worry that cord-cutting free-TV viewers aren’t who they have in mind.

AirTV receiver and remote

The AirTV receiver and remote look great in their box.

The new AirTV receiver, made to integrate Sling TV and other over-the-top sources with over-the-air local channels, was a big hit at CES. As I wrote and photographed at the show, that AirTV allows users to mix OTA channels with Sling channels in a favorites list, making it easy to switch between say, NFL Network and the local CBS station.

Having heard reports of a two-week or longer delay in shipping for some signups, I was so excited to get my AirTV box delivered today. It has a lot of great features, but it does not have that OTA favorites integration. A call to support verified what I experienced, but they assured me that those features will probably arrive in a future software update. How disappointing to be shown one set of features at CES only to find them unavailable 10 days later!

The AirTV starts up as an Android TV box before defaulting to SlingTV. It has full access to the Google Play Store for apps, movies, TV and music. The receiver comes with Sling TV, YouTube, and Netflix preloaded, has Chromecast baked in, and it works fine with Hulu, Crackle, Vudu, ESPN, and any other Android TV app I’ve tried on it. Even Tablo works; that’s another OTA channel source. The remote is a little wide (about 2.25 inches) but has a nice, smooth feel. There’s a small, easy-to-remember set of buttons, including dedicated Google, Netflix, and Sling access. The remote also has a mic for voice commands.

After I plugged in the AirTV OTA Adapter, really a Hauppauge USB dongle, the AirTV recognized it and, after prompting me, scanned in my local channels. It missed the goofy channels that broadcast without identifiers (looking at you, KHDT) and missed my Movies! affiliate, but pulled in the majors just fine.

For me, the biggest disappointment is how awkward it is to watch OTA channels on AirTV. After that initial scan, the only way to access locals is to scroll all the way to the right in the Sling TV guide, click the unlabeled blank TV for “View Over the Air and Internet Channels,” then click Launch. That brings you to the most recently viewed channel; the remote’s up and down buttons will channel up and down. After some trial and error, without the benefit of documentation, I discovered that holding the OK button for a second before releasing it brings up a list of previous channels, plus a link to the OTA program guide. That guide can import OTT live channels such as those in Pluto TV. But clicking the Guide button on the remote drags the user away to the Sling guide and the most recent Sling channel viewed.

The AirTV has two USB ports – presumably one for the OTA dongle and one for an external hard drive. Although it recognizes a USB drive, it will only use it for Android-based storage; there’s still no DVR. Another oddity: my TV set reports that the HDMI signal from the AirTV receiver is just 720p. My other HDMI sources, including my ChannelMaster DVR+, serve up the full 1080p. AirTV is reportedly capable of 4K, but I don’t have any 4K sets to test.

In summary, the AirTV is a perky, responsive TV box. I had hoped to see exactly how well it integrates OTA with OTT only to discover that it hardly integrates them at all. This receiver has a lot of promise, and the right software, especially if it includes a DVR, could make this the perfect cord-cutter device. As it works today, it’s still missing some pieces.

AirWave antenna receiver

The AirWave, as seen in the Mohu suite at CES.

There were so many new and interesting devices available at CES that I hesitate to talk about one that isn’t quite ready yet. A lot of people have been writing about the Mohu AirWave, the latest over-the-air TV receiver meant to integrate with over-the-top streaming services, so I guess I’ll add what I saw.

The AirWave takes a different approach to OTA-OTT integration. Its OTA antenna is built-in, and it uses wifi for streaming access, so it should be particularly attractive to literal cord-cutters. The AirWave provides a nice OTA guide with free program data, plus access to the usual OTT suspects. Once it reaches your shelf, it will be able to send that OTA-OTT signal to just about any viewing device you can imagine, including those that get attached to the TV set.

(Mohu was also excited about its free Untangle.TV web app, which launched in November. Untangle interviews visitors about which shows they want to keep, then illustrates how much money they’d save over cable with strategic OTT subscriptions and a Mohu OTA antenna. Nice to have to show cord-cutter wannabes.)

There’s so much to like about the AirWave that I feel sad about its drawbacks. The first kicker is its release date. The AirWave won’t be available until “late Spring 2017,” and only at Best Buy. The second, as noted by Streaming Media, is that it’s still fairly limited, with only a single tuner and no DVR. That could change by the time the next version comes out, but that’s even more speculative than saying version 1.0 will make it to Best Buy before June 20.

Like so many devices, the AirWave strikes me as about 3/4 of a perfect cord-cutter OTA-OTT solution. There are a bunch of almost-perfect devices out there, and each seems to be missing a different piece.

Tablo tuners and TV guide screen

Tablo’s new guide interface and the new Tablo Live tuner.

At CES this year, there was more over-the-air TV on display than in the previous five years put together. (More about that in a later post.) Many of the products on display worked to combine OTA with other technology to appeal to cord-cutters. Tablo took the opposite approach, introducing new products that provide smaller parts of its flagship’s functionality.

On one hand, there’s the new Tablo DROID Android-Based Software DVR for the Nvideo Shield streaming receiver. From what I could see, the Shield looks blazing fast, and the new striped guide interface was a step up from Tablo’s solid guide for other devices. With a two-tuner USB dongle attached to the Shield, while the user watches one show, the DVR can record a second to the Shield’s storage or to an external USB hard drive. Tablo subscription fees apply, though the press release quoted $4/month rather than the $5/$50/$150 Tablo charges for monthly, yearly, or lifetime subscriptions to its standard receiver.

On the other hand, some folks just want an inexpensive way to distribute OTA TV around the house. The new Tablo Live tuner converts the signal to the local WiFi network and includes the standard Tablo interface with an on-screen 24 hour grid guide, all without subscription fees. Tablo also said it was developing a cloud-based DVR that could be used with the Tablo Live, but it’s still “in the proof-of-concept stage.”

With so many other companies jumping in with IP-connected OTA devices, it’s nice to see Tablo diversify. I wonder which products will catch on by this time next year.