hand holding electrical plug for TV set

© Depositphotos.com / Naypong

Just got back from the International CES in Las Vegas, where Dish Network unveiled Sling TV, an online-only set of pay-TV channels for $20/month. (I’ll write more about Sling TV later, meanwhile you can read more here.) I just knew something like this was coming, and I wondered what it would mean for my old friend NimbleTV, which sells online-only sets of pay-TV channels that it somehow receives from Dish. Yesterday, the other shoe dropped.

My NimbleTV “concierge” sent me a subscriber-only email announcing that beginning Monday, January 12, I will “not be able to access (my) account or recordings.” The email never mentions Dish or Sling, but claims that “we’ve decided to pause the NimbleTV service as it stands today so we can concentrate on developing something even better and more amazing than before.”

It’s been over a year since Dish blocked NimbleTV’s access for a few weeks before NimbleTV restored its service with new parameters. Since then, a Dish representative once characterized NimbleTV as “illegal,” but it has managed to continue operating without further interruption. Yesterday’s email signals the end of all that, unless and until NimbleTV relaunches its “new and improved service later this year.”

My uninformed guess about their relationship had been that Dish wasn’t excited about NimbleTV’s existence, but was willing to accept full-price monthly fees from its subscribers. (A full-blown fight or any serious complaining would have only led to the Streisand Effect of publicizing such a rogue.) That benign neglect ended the minute that Sling TV began offering a similar service. Sling TV is still in invitation-only beta, so the cutoff doesn’t have to be as abrupt as last time, but that reluctant partnership has to end, at least according to my unsubstantiated theory.

I don’t expect NimbleTV to return as anything like it was unless, as reported, the FCC reclassifies “multichannel video programming distributor” to include internet-only services. Absent that intervention, I don’t think that any streaming service will ever be able to do anything that content creators don’t want it to do, at least not for long. NimbleTV bent over backwards to ensure that creators were paid for what they provided, but it’s still drifting toward the failed experiment graveyard with ivi.tv, Aereo, and FilmOn’s US over-the-air channels. It was great while it lasted, but for now, it’s over.

If you’re looking for a really, really inexpensive DVR, and you don’t have a Windows 7 PC laying around, you could get a HomeWorX converter box/DVR. In fact, if your viewing life revolves around an old analog NTSC TV set, the HomeWorX might be a good fit. (Although it won’t explain how you’ve been watching TV for the last couple of years.) Otherwise, you could do a lot better. Let me explain.

I stumbled on the HomeWorX when somebody online had it on sale for an even cheaper price than its usual sub-$50. Hey, it says it includes a “PVR”, which got me wondering right there. Over a decade ago, TiVo asserted that “PVR”, or personal video recorder, was one of its trademarks; since then most companies talk about DVRs or digital video recorders. So I bought one of these to review it, because someone has to review the (taking a breath) “Mediasonic HW-150PVR HomeWorx ATSC Digital TV Converter Box with Media Player and Recording PVR Function/HDMI Out.”

As its official title says, this beastie’s main job is to be a digital converter box, allowing you to watch today’s ATSC signals on your old analog TV. It includes a DVR, which works as Samuel Johnson once put it, “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Like most over-the-air DVRs I’ve discussed in previous posts, the HomeWorX requires an external USB hard drive to record anything. Unlike most other DVRs, the HomeWorX never uses the internet; it pulls its program titles and descriptions directly from the broadcasters’ digital feeds. This is great because it means that there are never any subscription fees, but it’s bad because it puts the viewer at the mercy of the quality and length of each broadcaster’s over-the-air information.

I’m a little ashamed to pick on the manual. I’m grateful to have any paper manual these days, but the HomeWorX’s defaults to the old developer-centric method of just detailing what each menu option does rather than explaining answers to what will be frequent “How do I?” questions. As is often the case, those multilingual-English option descriptions don’t help much. One begins: “PVR: Depends on user’s choose, there are some functions like remove/edit/delete and so on.” Take me through some common tasks, please.

I found two more flaws that knock it out of contention for me. First, after brilliantly grabbing show titles from the airwaves and showing them to the user to assist in scheduling recordings, the HomeWorX discards that information when it makes that recording. When the user digs into the menus to find that file, the file name is “(Station name) (date / time)” instead of “(Show name) (date / time)”. For example, three movies recorded the same day on the local This affiliate would be distinguishable only by the time of day they were recorded even though the receiver knew their titles.

The second flaw is easier to explain: The HomeWorX digital tuner just wasn’t as sensitive as most. I know that OTA reception varies over time, but using the same input antenna, my Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-955Q USB TV Tuner handled my weak channels much better, and any of my digital TVs easily outperformed the HomeWorX. So I’ve boxed it up and put it on the shelf.

To sum it up, if you’ve got an old portable analog TV, the HomeWorX will put something on its screen again with a pokey little DVR bonus. But if you’re getting ready to cut the cord, you’ll want a better OTA DVR.

1.2-meter dish with C-band LNB

My 1.2-meter dish with its C-/Ku-band LNB

I’ve been having a great time lately with my 1.2-meter dish. Smaller, normal-sized Ku-band dishes are easier to precisely aim, but that larger surface area prevents rain fade and enables some C-band fun. Let me explain.

Long ago, I bought this fine, huge dish, then had to spend a couple of weeks wrestling with motor mounts till I got it set up to scan the skies. Then I tried to attach a combination C- and Ku-band LNB, which required a lot of tweaking and eventually conical scalar rings, which helped quite a bit. You see, C-band dishes tend to be prime focus dishes, where the LNB is in line with the direction it’s pointing. Ku-band dishes tend to be offset, where the LNB is mounted to catch the signal’s reflection. Those rings help collect that reflection for a stronger, better-quality signal.

Anyway, I experimented a bit with C-band to see which channels I could pick up. Based on Global Communication’s fine FTA C-band list, I was getting about 30% of the channels a regular, full-sized C-band dish could receive. After awhile, I swapped my sensitive Ku-only LNB into place and put away my thoughts of C-band.

A few weeks ago, a kind soul pointed out that a couple of Ku-band news channels had appeared at 99W. After I’d pointed the dish and verified those, I remembered that 99W was the best place to find viewable C-band channels. So I took off the sensitive Ku-band LNB, reached for my C/Ku combo on the porch and, yick! The year or so of exposure to the elements had not been kind. The label was off. A little bit of plastic that had kept me from looking all the way inside the LNB was gone. It was dusty and a little cobwebby. I figured I was going to have to order a new one, but what the heck, I might as well try this one first. I cleaned out the LNB, used its same old mounting bracket, whipped out my SatHero signal meter, plugged it into the right C/Ku connector on the second try (you’d think that the C would be the one in back), and Beep, Beep, Beep. Galaxy 16 was coming in clear as a bell, and I soon verified that the dish was already in position for peak signal quality.

Here’s what’s available for me just from that position:

  • KRBK (Fox Osage Beach MO) and MeTV
  • KCWY (NBC Casper WY)
  • NBC, Fox, and This TV affiliates from the Virgin Islands
  • KNLC (independent St. Louis)
  • A cluster of channels, including Cozi, from LeSEA
  • Living Faith TV
  • GEB America and God’s Learning Channel (bleeding over from 101W)
  • Heroes & Icons, Movies!, and TouchVision (101)
  • AMG TV, and The Walk/Dr TV (97)

Those bleeding-over channels aren’t always available (more on that later), but I could still make a case that this little bunch of English-language, general-audience channels are more valuable to me than all current FTA Ku-band channels combined. (Especially if you don’t count the PBSs of 125W, where that dish in the background of my photo is always pointed.) I watched an out-of-market NFL game Sunday (even though I already subscribe to Dish Network’s NFL Red Zone) just like the good old days of Equity Broadcasting and Galaxy 10R.

I kept looking around, and it just got better. Over at 87W, I’m able to pick up the 30+ Luken Communications affiliates and channels, including Retro TV, Tuff TV, My Family TV, PBJ, Heartland, and Rev’n. At 91W, I see BYU TV, KLUZ (Univision, Albuquerque) and TV Montana. There are a few feed sources and other oddball channels, but this is nifty!

It’s all great stuff, but it’s erratic. Sometimes channels won’t come in for me, especially those bleed-over channels I mentioned, no matter where I point the dish. Other users tell me that similar setups pick up more or fewer C-band channels depending on latitude, satellite footprint, and who knows what. These are the reasons why I can’t easily add them to FTAList.com for folks who use a certain dish size. Maybe there’s a way to map who gets what where, but I can’t wrap my head around it yet. For now, I just wanted to share this with you. Maybe it will inspire your own mini-C-band experiments.

Video wall at CES 2011

Prepare to be dazzled by video walls like this one from CES 2011. Part of a photo by Tech Cocktail.

The International CES, what we used to call the Consumer Electronics Show, opens in three weeks. I’ve already got my hotel and plane reservations, but as is tradition, I check prices every week leading up to the show. During the Great Recession, those prices would actually go down as the deadline approached. Last couple of years, they’ve gone up as the weeks went by. This year, in the runup to CES 2015, the numbers are crazy, climbing faster and reaching higher than I’ve ever seen. CES 2014 set an attendance record. CES 2015 should attract even more.

If you happen to be one of those new attendees, welcome! A couple of years ago, Chris Potter wrote 10 Steps for Success at NAB, a slightly smaller show at the same convention center. That’s a good primer for the personal connections aspect, and overall the second-best convention guide I’ve read. First place goes immodestly to my own guide, refined through years of experience of attending CES and the NAB Show. Here’s what you need to survive CES:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes. I can’t emphasize this enough. Attending CES involves a whole lot of walking, and worse, a whole lot of standing. Standing during presentations. Standing in the taxi line. Standing in the lunch line. Not only will you walk farther that usual, you’ll stand a lot more than usual. Find those comfy shoes now and break them in before you arrive. Another way to save your feet…
  2. When you get a chance to sit, take it. This can mean keeping an eye out for empty chairs and couches. Also, time your booth visits to take advantage of seated presentations. If you pass by a booth with a mob standing around watching a presentation that you’d like to see, or in a long line for a presentation theater about to start, make a note of when the next showing will be, then keep moving. If you pass by a booth with a presentation that’s going to start in 10 minutes, have a seat if you think it’ll be of interest to you. Use this 10-minute break to check your schedule, check your email, and get friendly with the folks at the booth. You’ll get the benefit of an unobstructed view of a full presentation and your feet will get the benefit of a full half-hour break.
  3. Drink plenty of water. Las Vegas is a desert city, and the lack of moisture in the air can be deceptive. Dehydration quietly saps muscle strength, making your legs feel more tired. Drink even when you don’t notice that you’re thirsty. A really good tactic is to get a small water bottle to sip while waiting for something, then to refill from a water fountain. And to carry that bottle, you’ll want to …
  4. Get a good bag. (Or bring an especially good one from home.) Don’t just grab the first one you see. Make sure your bag is substantial enough to carry the boxed Fitbit you hope to win. Select a fabric bag with a tasteful, colorful logo and a short, strong handle. When you see one of those, grab it fast; those are the bags that run out before the show’s over. Pick a name that you won’t mind displaying at your side for all the time you’re walking around. And here’s another good use for that bag…
  5. Bring food. A PowerBar or Clif Bar or maybe even a Snickers will do. If you prefer something warm and mediocre, you can take a half hour to wait in line, pay too much, then struggle to find a place to eat lunch. Or you can unwrap a protein bar from your pocket or bag and munch on it as you sit and watch an exhibitor’s presentation. Save your time to visit more booths, and save your money for a real meal after the exhibit hall closes for the night.
  6. Get a lightweight map. If there’s an application with a map that you can load on your smartphone, that’s the lightest map you can get. Otherwise, get the map that weighs the least. When you remember that you wanted to visit TooCool’s booth, you’ll want to know where to find it. When you want to find the nearest rest room, you’ll definitely be thankful for the map.
  7. Beware of heavy freebies. There are so many great things for free at a big show. Free magazines. Free catalogs. Free paperweights. You can probably haul around all the pens that you’ll get, but anything that feels a little heavy at 11 is going to be a burden by 4. If you really need that inch-thick catalog, plan to pick it up as you leave for the night.
  8. Have a plan, but don’t expect to stick to it. Make note of the high points that you absolutely have to see. Add some topics that sound interesting, but which don’t have the same high priority. Make a list of exhibitors you want to meet. Then walk onto the floor with the expectation that your schedule may change. There will be a lot of interesting stuff out there, including something you never thought of. Don’t be afraid to set aside what looked good yesterday when you want to learn more about something that’s amazingly cool today.
  9. Allot enough time if you want to meet someone famous. There will be celebrities of various statures who appear at booths for signings or photos. If you want to be sure to meet one, know where to be and when the celebrity will arrive. The length of the line waiting to see the celeb will be proportional to the celeb’s popularity. If Paul McCartney will be at the Apple Records booth at 11, you’d better be in line by 10:30 or earlier. If it’s me signing my feature story in the Tele-Satellite International magazine booth, you can drop by whenever.
  10. Get a room. Some folks like to roll into Las Vegas at the last minute and expect to find decent rooms near the convention center at a good price. That strategy might have worked in 2009, but it won’t today. If that sounds like you, my best suggestions would be the decent hotels downtown, such as the Fremont, or Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway. Downtown has direct (if meandering) city bus service to the convention center; Boulder Highway doesn’t.
  11. Get coffee. Almost all Las Vegas hotels, no matter how swank, lack two amenities that I could find at a Super 8 in the middle of Kansas: an in-room coffee maker and a pot of free coffee in the lobby. If you visit the Starbucks or equivalent inside your Las Vegas hotel, it will be a mob. If you wait until you get to the convention center to go to Starbucks, it will be a mob. The alternatives are joints that serve regular morning coffee with other stuff. My pick would be the ampm gas station/convenience store across Paradise Road from the Westgate (formerly LVH, formerly Las Vegas Hilton). Any McDonalds or 7-Eleven would also work.
  12. Ride the CES bus. If the CES shuttle bus goes to your hotel, take it going and coming. It’ll be slow and crowded, and it’ll still be the best option for getting to the convention center and back. I love the monorail, but it’s a terrible, slow crush during CES unless you’re staying at the SLS (where the Sahara used to be). Taxi lines get insanely long. Private parking is expensive, distant, and still subjects you to the same traffic the bus oozes through. Better yet is a hotel within walking distance.

If you want still more advice, the official short video for first-time CES attendees reminds you to register online before you arrive to avoid long registration lines, and to make your dinner reservations early. If you don’t know how to qualify to attend CES, it’s easy; just follow Step 1 in How to get a free pass to CES, which I wrote a while back. So make your plans, come join me at the show, and be ready to be amazed.

Antennas Direct's  C2-V antenna

Antennas Direct’s ClearStream 2 antenna

You know that I love free TV, so I especially love terrestrial, over-the-air TV broadcasters. As a corollary, I also care about OTA TV antennas much more than the average, non-obsessed TV viewer. This week, the broadcasters and an antenna manufacturer are getting together for a public education and assistance outreach program that I would applaud if I weren’t so confused.

First, a bit of background. TVFreedom is … well, it’s easier to quote from their site. “TVfreedom.org is a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network television affiliate associations, multicast networks, manufacturers and other independent broadcaster-related organizations. We believe that cable and satellite TV providers should be held accountable for stifling innovation and repeatedly using their own customers as bargaining chips while increasing their record profits. In a fair and free market, programming is accessible and valued.” To summarize, it’s a group of mostly broadcasters arguing in favor of higher retransmission consent fees.

So TVFreedom, in collaboration with Antennas Direct and LG Electronics, is promoting the first stop in its Broadcast TV Liberation Tour by giving away 1000 very nice OTA antennas (and one 42-inch TV) this Sunday at a mall in Washington DC. Its flier (PDF) opens with “Hey D.C.! Want Your TV for Free?”

Feeling any cognitive dissonance yet? TVFreedom wants cable and satellite TV companies to pay higher retransmission fees, which get passed (sometimes as a line item) directly to subscribing viewers. But TVFreedom is also promoting the accurate counterpoint that viewers don’t need to pay any retransmission fees if they just use a simple OTA antenna.

Personally, this is more than an abstract question. Way back in 2004 when Dish Network had an impasse with Viacom, I made one of my best investments – a good rooftop antenna. That way, I could still watch CBS (then owned by Viacom) while waiting for Dish to capitulate. Today that cycle has returned, and CBS has threatened to pull its owned and operated stations from Dish. With my rooftop antenna, I’d hardly notice any difference.

The free OTA option should be a drag on retrans fee escalation. As the percentage of cord-cutters grows, broadcasters will receive retrans money from fewer viewers. To maximize total retrans revenue, broadcasters ought to be promoting pay-TV services instead of showing ways to bypass them. Or maybe this all relates back to that public service requirement that comes with the free use of large chunks of our airwaves. But then, why hold your programming hostage for more money? It all just makes my head hurt.