Android TV screen showing ATSC 3.0 app listing

They told me that Sony has written an Android TV app for viewing ATSC 3.0 over-the-air, but there aren’t any ATSC 3.0 dongles yet to make it work

Television’s future was on display as the NAB Show exhibit hall opened today. Or I should say television’s futures, because different vendors had different visions of what broadcast TV will look like once everyone uses ATSC 3.0.

Most there had at least adopted the user-friendly phrase “next-gen TV” to describe the coming IP-based system of transmitting more types of information more efficiently than the current ATSC 1 system. What will those new features look like? No one knows for sure, which is why so many are trying to get out in front now throwing their favorite ideas at the wall to see whether it will stick.

It seems likely that some kind of civil defense-style warning system will be included; tornado warnings and the like are arguably the most important duty for local broadcast stations. I worry that mission creep will eventually be like the Amber alerts on my phone, keeping me on the lookout for a given green Dodge pickup in case I should see it in my living room.

A scarier outcome comes from the analytics info that broadcasters could be harvesting over the internet, showing which TVs and devices were watching which shows for how long. In theory, this could mean that a station could require user registration before a device could view its programming. Or someone could compile a list of Rosanne viewers or Democracy Now viewers. A guy from one of the labs gently suggested that all these new capabilities would merely be used for broadcasters’ traditional free public service, though he agreed that he didn’t know exactly how it would all shake out.

Interior of the autonomous vehicle at NAB, with the ATSC 3.0 receiver

Autonomous vehicles are also going to be part of the future, and the NAB Show had a joint demonstration of a driverless van displaying an ATSC 3.0 feed being broadcast as a local test. The van’s attendant worked for the self-driving vehicle folks, and I guess he was hoping to impress the TV news critters because he ignored the TV receiver while chatting endlessly about the van’s features as it navigated its short, simple, pre-programmed loop between exhibit halls. As I watched, the ATSC 3.0 video froze or broke up at least a half dozen times in less than two minutes. I still don’t understand the fascination with getting broadcast TV working for moving vehicles, but with all the attention it gets, someone’s going to get it all worked out one day. Maybe.

Product image of the Tablo Dual LiteOne of the problems with taking a vacation is missing out on good news. Tablo announced last week that it was coming out with a new version of its over-the-air DVR, better but less expensive than its original. The Tablo Dual Lite features two tuners, WiFi 802.11 a/c (although I’d still recommend hard-wired Ethernet), and cloud recording.

That last feature is the most revolutionary part. The Dual Lite will still accept a USB hard drive, up to 8 TB, and it also provides the option of saving to a free* 40 GB cloud drive. That asterisk is because the cloud recording system is still in beta and might cost something later on. My guess is that it’ll eventually be tied to Tablo’s guide data service plans, currently priced at $5 a month, $50 a year, or $150 for a lifetime pass.

Less revolutionary but still important is the Dual Lite’s price: $140 on the shelf at Best Buy as I type. It used to be hard to get started on Tablo for much less than $200, and now that barrier’s long gone. As the OTA DVR arms race heats up, it’s good to see another manufacturer continue to improve their product.

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.

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.