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. “ 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.

Tablo screen shot of available movies

Tablo allows me to select movies by channel. Cool!

When I was in Europe this summer, I used my Simple.TV as a home monitor. Once a day or so, I’d tune in to 24/7 local weather and thus verify that (a) my house had electricity, (b) my house had internet access, and (c) something of value remained untouched by fire or burglars. It was a fun reminder of the time and temperature difference between Denver and wherever I sat, but the main reason was to reassure myself that home was as I left it.

That summer fling was the apex of our affair. I had a lot of fun with the Simple.TV, but people and devices change. I’ve found a better over-the-air DVR, a Tablo receiver that I’ve been exercising for a few weeks now.

Simple.TV is still pretty good, and it’s easy to root for. (But it’s annoying to type, so I’ll refer to it as Simple from now on.) Simple effectively launched at the International CES in January 2012 (winning a Best of CES award from CNET), followed by a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that overflowed its goal in June. After some delays, the first-generation product emerged in late 2012. A dual-tuner version began selling early this year.

Late last year, some first-generation, single-tuner Simple receivers showed up at closeout deal sites, possibly in anticipation of the launch of dual-tuner Simples. I bought one of those, and that’s what I’ve been using for testing. The word on the dual-tuner receivers is that they’re faster in changing channels, and of course they can record two shows at once.

I first saw the Tablo at the 2014 CES, and I just wasn’t that impressed. It didn’t seem that different from Simple. Plug in an external hard drive, an OTA antenna, and an ethernet cable, then select a live show to watch or a future show to record. Tablo has more tuners (up to four), and it can use WiFi instead of a network cable, but is that a reason to switch? After I saw the Tablo gang again at CEDIA, they sent me a two-tuner receiver to review, and it turns out that there’s more to the story.

Tablo has some sneaky advantages. Tablo’s web-based scheduler can break out movies by genre, star rating, or broadcast channel. That last one is important; I like keeping Spanish-language stations for their sports, but I’d get frustrated trying to watch a movie there. TV Shows can be listed by genre, premiering, new or by channel. Simple breaks out “popular” TV shows, but is otherwise a clear step below Tablo’s discovery tools. Both could use an improved search that includes keywords and actors, but I digress.

Simple is, well, simpler to recognize on the network. For me, I plugged it in, accessed it once from a local network to register my account, and it just worked. Tablo has an odd requirement for each device to be paired locally on the same home network before that device can access the receiver from another network; in my case, it also required manually opening some router ports. Once those hoops are navigated, all is well.

Simple.TV's scan dialog, with four identical Over-the-Air (Antenna) options

Simple.TV’s scan dialog, with four identical Over-the-Air (Antenna) options

My Simple receiver takes A Long Time, over 20 minutes, to scan available channels during setup or when a new channel becomes available. Every other OTA scanning device I’ve ever used (TVs, PC adapters, the Tablo receiver) needs only about five minutes. I don’t know whether the second-generation Simple addressed this delay. Another problem is that Simple presents me with four identically titled Local Over the Air Broadcast (Antenna) options. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that they’re not the same underneath, and any channel Simple doesn’t recognize requires manual tweaking to get its listings.

Then there’s my Android tablet. Apparently, Google recently broke the method that Simple was using to stream its shows to Android tablets; my version 4.1 tablet works great but my 4.4 Nexus has problems. Recordings on the Nexus display random, crazy lengths of time, making skipping or seeking almost impossible. You could argue, as Simple’s support folk argue, that it’s all Google’s fault. Until somebody fixes that, I’m still seeing it as a Simple problem. Further, the Simple Android app displays old-fashioned 4:3 standard definition recordings as stretched-out widescreen. By default, the Tablo app also stretches 4:3 shows, but in that app’s settings, the user can choose Use External Player; on my tablet, this means launching Chrome to watch video in its proper dimensions.

And then there’s support. Tablo hosts an active community forum where users post feedback and questions. Official Tablo support team members answer a lot of those questions as well as posting announcements and contests. Tablo has an active Twitter feed averaging about a tweet per day and a similarly active Facebook page. On the other hand, the top thread (as I type) in Simple’s support forum General Discussion section threatens a class action suit against Simple, and the second is about erratic connectivity with the second-generation receivers. Another wonders whether Simple has abandoned social media. As of this writing, Simple’s Twitter account has tweeted only once since September 29. My point is that there’s a central forum where Simple users are providing feedback and asking questions, and as far as I can tell, no one from Simple has been moderating those concerns. Little complaints get overblown without calming voices of reassurance.

Weird graphic for Simple.TV's English Premier League matches.

Weird graphic for Simple.TV’s English Premier League matches.

Sometimes Simple’s support feels as garage-based as its invention. For weeks, many of the movies in Simple’s program guide were listed as English Premier League Soccer, with the misshapen graphic I’ve attached on the right. If the movie was Jaws, the listing was English Premier League Soccer with the episode title of Jaws. Soon after I pointed this out to Simple’s support department, those movie listings became No Data Available for a few days, then returned to normal. But for actual EPL soccer matches, that weird graphic is still what Simple displays to indicate what’s coming up. (I presume that the problem was a simple database corruption, which would match the symptoms I saw.) Still unaddressed is the fact that halfway through the college football season, every game is listed as 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl with a different distorted graphic. Tablo’s listings are accurate except for one completely missing channel, which Tablo support assures me will be fixed.

Nothing’s perfect. If one of my devices hasn’t touched base with the Tablo for a few days, then when I’d try to access my Tablo receiver, the device won’t allow me to do anything until after it syncs its guide information and program images with that Tablo. I’d expect that I couldn’t search or schedule future events, but not this. No option to skip till later. No live TV. No playing recordings. On a 3G network, my iPhone waited eight minutes. On the home network, my Android tablet waited almost 10 minutes. At a minimum, this should be an option. In the best case, my device should grab the live TV data and info from any existing recordings, then load up on two weeks’ worth of images in the background. Simple never had this problem.

Considering that the data subscription fees are about the same, I’d have to recommend Tablo over Simple. The TiVo Roamio OTA DVR, which I haven’t reviewed, probably has some advantages over both but requires a separate unit for streaming and carries a much higher monthly programming fee. I’m also keeping watch for Tablet TV, which has apparently beta launched in San Francisco, won an award for best TV technology, and has an active Facebook page. I saw the Tablet TV receiver in action at the NAB Show in April (here’s a photo), but I’m more impressed by the announced business model – free guide data. Local broadcasters will send a few pay-per-view movies in the background to users’ hard drives, and those rentals are designed to pay for the service. Personally, I figure that local broadcasters should get behind OTA DVRs because they mean that more viewers will be watching more local TV. Until Tablet TV expands and proves itself a worthy competitor, for streaming, your best bet is Tablo.

Diginova TV antenna

Diginova OTA TV antenna displayed at the Televes booth at CEDIA Expo.

Do you remember the CEDIA Expo, that showcase for folks who install high-end electronics equipment for high-end customers? I visited the latest version earler this month and found surprising encouragement for the future of free TV.

Mind you, I’m not talking about free-to-air satellite TV, the hundreds of quirky channels that got this blog started. This is plain old terrestrial over-the-air TV, and I’m happy to say that even the folks who can afford anything they want are still seeing the value in it.

Last year, if you’ll recall, I found exactly one booth that promoted anything to do with OTA TV. This year, there were at least four. Last year, TiVo announced a new line of Roamio DVRs, and they were the company’s first that didn’t include OTA inputs. This year, TiVo announced a new OTA-only receiver for cord-cutters, although technically that announcement was a couple of weeks before the CEDIA Expo and the Roamio OTA didn’t make it to the show.

I also found OTA two antenna manufacturers (Winegard and Televes) at CEDIA, and way in the back was Tablo, an OTA DVR designed with tablets in mind. Yet another OTA specialist, Antennas Direct, had a trailer set up across the street from the convention center. Consider that the Expo was chock full of super-high-end speakers, room-sized golf simulators, and Blu-ray movie management consoles, then it’s refreshing to learn that the customers who buy such high-end frills still care about OTA TV. Maybe they can help us work to support free TV for everybody.


Man scratching the head and choosing remote control

© Depositphotos / Nomadsoul1

For years, a la carte, the notion that pay-TV viewers could subscribe to individual channels instead of big bundles, has been a thought experiment as likely to become real as soup on a stick. Now there’s something similar brewing in the US Senate Commerce Committee, and it has already prompted interesting revelations from broadcasters and pay-TV operators.

Quick Background: To allow Dish Network and DirecTV to retransmit local stations to their markets, Congress had to pass a law; the most recent version of that law is named STELA, for Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act. That law expires every few years, forcing Congress to pass a new version or renew the old one, as it did in 2010. That extension expires on Dec. 31, 2014.

In July, the House Judiciary Committee quietly passed an essentially unchanged version. In August, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and its ranking minority member tacked on “Local Choice,” a bipartisan, cunningly simple plan to overhaul the retransmission consent system. Under this plan, each local station would offer its signal to pay-TV subscribers for a given price. Each subscriber could choose whether to purchase each local channel. This way, stations would get market-based value but viewers would avoid pay-TV blackouts from retransmission contract renewal disputes. The senators also released a dull slideshow explaining this relief from “one of the fastest growing items on cable and satellite bills.”

Local Choice’s status is still uncertain, partly because it’ll be difficult to get such game-changing legislation passed by the end of the year. What I find most interesting are the unusual, revealing comments that it has sparked from both sides.

First off, Local Choice is strongly supported by the pay-TV industry, as you might have guessed. That stance refutes a common pay-TV argument against full a la carte – cable and satellite companies have no problem handling the billing and logistics of individual subscribers choosing individual channels. Keep that in mind when you hear the industry claim that separate charges for MTV and Comedy Central would be too difficult to manage.

On the other side, broadcasters hate Local Choice. Robert C. Kenny, in his blog for TV Freedom, a broadcaster-backed group, wrote that “the Washington pay-TV lobby is manufacturing a crisis regarding broadcast TV blackouts when, in reality, hundreds of deals are quietly reached each year through free-market retransmission consent negotiations.” Broadcasters often claim that their deals with pay-TV companies are “free-market,” but they’ve actually got them over a barrel; how many subscribers will stay with a service that doesn’t include the local CBS channel? Local Choice provides an unusually frictionless example of free market economics, and that scares the heck out of broadcasters.

Just yesterday as I watched football, I switched from my Dish Network feed to the sharper OTA signal sent from my local broadcaster to my rooftop antenna. If I had the option to save a dollar or two, I’d drop some of my satellite-delivered locals and use OTA instead, but that’s because I’m hip to the fun of free TV. In the unlikely event that Local Choice passes, it could launch a renaissance as more people discover the power of the antenna.