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Review: AppleTV AirPlay Steals the Show

After my review of the SezmiRoku and Boxee, it’s time to wrap things up with the shiny new star, the AppleTV. Like the Roku, the AppleTV has a simple and easy to use interface, and is a great way to access Netflix. But the AppleTV also adds the entire iTunes video library to buy or rent movies and TV shows, so there’s tons of additional content. At $99, it’s a bit more expensive than the Roku, and in many ways less flexible.

But, along comes the iPad with AirPlay and it all becomes clear.

Virtually any video you can play on the iPad can now be sent to the AppleTV by clicking on the AirPlay button. In a household with an iPad or two, choose the AppleTV for your OTT, just for its AirPlay integration.

AirPlay lets you buy and store content on the iPad which you might watch there when you are on the road, then if you’re at home, use AirPlay to display it on the AppleTV connected to the big TV. Apps like HBO GO on the iPad can be sent to the big screen, as well as any of your stored content. Visitors bringing their own iPads with content can also use AirPlay to send to your TV. AirPlay makes the tablet the hub for all video content.

One complaint about the AppleTV is that the remote is infrared, not radio frequency, so you can’t hide the AppleTV away. But, if you’ve got an iPhone or iPad, the Remote app lets you control the AppleTV wirelessly. Clearly, they’re steering us toward a household filled with shiny Apple devices.

No matter which over the top solution you select, pair it up with Sonic.net Fusion and  Netflix and you will be off to a very good start. As these platforms continue to improve and as more and more content arrives, you will probably reach a point where you no longer need an expensive cable package!

Review: Western Electric 302 Telephone

One of the advantages of Sonic.net’s Fusion Broadband+Phone service is that it’s “POTS”; plain old telephone service. This means that all of the devices that you may have used for years on your voice telephone line should still work.

To illustrate this, I picked up a very special Western Electric 302 telephone, built in 1941, and connected it to my Fusion service at home. The 302 is associated with I Love Lucy, and if you look closely at the video, you may catch this phone’s particular connection to Lucile Ball.

Fusion delivers the best of both worlds: traditional DC line-powered voice service, with it’s inherent reliability and e911 capabilities, alongside modern features such as unlimited nationwide calling for home users, modern voicemail with “unified inbox” (voicemail in your email, as well as via phone) and modern voicemail notifications like SMS text and Twitter.

Building on this solid voice platform, we add uncapped and unlimited full-speed broadband, a killer combination! Please help us spread the word!

As for the WE 302 – it’s got great sound quality, a bit fuller and deep than modern phones. The heft is astounding. The metal base and hefty guts in this version mean you would not want to drop the set on your foot. The bakelite handset is also heavy. It has a triangular profile, so you cannot rest it on your shoulder, the classic “holding a phone with your head” pose that’s possible with the more modern WE 500. That’s probably for the best, this means you really cannot multi-task, so it’s a perfect “standing in the entryway talking on the phone” device. When the party on the other end is using the WE 302, you know they’re not multitasking and ignoring you!

The ringer is loud, as you can hear in the video, but in this version, it has no ringer on/off switch, so it’s tough luck if you want to take a nap. The 305 model added this mod-con. I’ve also been experiencing inconsistent problems with the pulse dialing, I suspect this 70 year old unit needs a tune-up. Short numbers like 411 I’ve been pretty successful, but it is a real challenge to get a full seven digit number to dial. I’ll keep troubleshooting and see if I can resolve that.

If you’re looking for a classic rotary or touch-tone phone to put on your Fusion line, check eBay’s classic telephones section. YMMV, buyer beware, really old phones may or may not work, etc. I’d suggest something like a Western Electric 500, rotary or touch-tone. They are a great addition to your household as a phone to use when power is out, and unlike a cordless, you will never find yourself rummaging around the couch cushions trying to find your classic corded phone!

Review: Boxee is the power tool

In my reviews of OTT solutions, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the much anticipated Boxee Box.

Boxee has been available as free software for a laptop or home theater PC for quite some time, but I’ve avoided it because I prefer a small box, a turnkey appliance. And while you could load the Boxee software on an old Apple TV or even an XBox, I just don’t have the time to hack on projects like this anymore.

The Boxee “Box” from D-Link is the first hardware solution that brings this popular software into a consumer electronics device that you can easily add to your electronics stack. Well, perhaps not easily — Boxee has gotten creative about the form factor of the device, and have brought us an annoyingly shaped pyramid. Kudos for cute, but it’s would be nice if it were rectangular.

On initial startup, the Boxee was virtually immediately rejected by my spouse due to it’s somewhat complex interface. It is not a device to put in your mom’s x-mas stocking. (Buy her a Roku.) But with that complexity comes power. The Boxee is an Internet video hacker’s tool, with local file sharing and playback of virtually any file format I’ve tried. Boxee is also engaged in a running battle with Hulu and other content sites, currently linking users to Hulu shows via Fancast. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t work, but points for trying.

The application/channel set is still not mature on the Boxee. It includes apps for playback of MLB.TV and NHL, for example, but it’s missing key sources like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon. Boxee says that these are coming “by the end of the year“. The Roku includes all of these today.

The Boxee is the only OTT box that I’ve tested which has a really good remote. It’s RF instead of IR, which is great if your equipment is in a cabinet. With this ugly little fluorescent accented pyramid, I certainly want to hide it away. The remote also include a QWERTY keyboard on the back, which is great when searching for shows or typing in URLs of online content.

If you are a geek and want the most powerful and flexible OTT video option available, the $199 Boxee is your choice. You probably already have five other devices in your home that play Netflix, so you won’t miss that near-term capability on Boxee.

Review: Roku is the perfect streamer

Continuing my reviews of “over the top” (OTT) solutions, the Roku deserves a special place in the list of options.

Roku started out with music streaming devices, then moved on to video a couple years ago. Their equipment and software is mature and feature rich, showing the polish of consistent updates. It’s interface is smooth and simple, making it easy to use for any member of the household.

Unlike the Sezmi, the Roku is OTT content only, and unlike the Boxee, it’s isn’t for playing local media like your photos or videos you download to your PC.

What the Roku does best is stream high quality content like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, NHL and many more. Some are free, but Roku’s strength is that it has the best array of commercial streams of any player that I have tried.

Roku also offers the most mature interface for Netflix. If you are a Netflix subscriber, Roku offers the best playback experience, and includes capabilities like search, queue management and browsing. Fast forward & rewind are also much better on the Roku than other Netflix playback devices.

These are important points — Netflix is currently the dominant OTT content provider, so a great Netflix interface is a big win. Many households have more than one device today that play Netflix today, but because the Roku does it so well, this has made it a favorite in our home.

For fans of sports like baseball, hockey and UFC, the Roku may also be a fit because of it’s available subscription sports services. They are not inexpensive (MLB.TV is $100 for the season), but they can provide more sports content (every baseball game, every hockey game) than pay TV options today. Notably, NFL is missing – NFL doesn’t do OTT, instead NFL is the domain of DirecTV, which we’ll happily sell you if you do decide that you want a traditional pay TV option.

The other great selling point of the Roku is price: it’s $60 (HD 720p), $80 (HD 1080p for full HD resolution) or $100 (w/dual band 802.11n and a few other less used features. Just buy the $80 version.)

If you subscribe to Netflix today and don’t already have one of the many Netflix playback devices, or if you want more capabilities like Hulu Plus, MLB, etc, give the Roku a look. It’s a low cost way to get started with a simple and high quality OTT experience.

Review: Sezmi delivers OTA plus OTT

Customers are doing more than ever with their fast Sonic.net Fusion service, with video being a primary application.

I’ve written previously about OTT, or “over the top”, which is the delivery of video entertainment via, or over the top of, an Internet connection.  More and more consumers and adding over the top solutions to their living room, or simply replacing pay TV with a box that delivers content OTT.

I’ve been testing a number of OTT solutions, and this review of the Sezmi OTA+OTT solution is the first of a couple articles to come on this topic. (Disclaimer: I mentioned Sezmi in passing on Twitter a couple months ago, and won a free unit. I purchased a Roku and Boxee, and will be posting reviews of each here shortly.)

The part many of us miss after “cutting the cord” on pay TV is local real time TV channels. On demand content is great, but there is a ton of content on the local channels, plus news and sports that you can’t easily duplicate “over the top”.

Sezmi brings these back, using an old technology: OTA, or “off the air” – meaning an antenna. This arcane antenna thing is like magic – it plucks television signals out of the air! It’s an amazing technology that my entire generation has simply forgotten ever existed.

That box you see looming in the background in this image is the Sezmi phased array digital TV antenna. Sezmi elegantly merges off the air local digital TV signals with a well equipped digital video recorder, and stirs in a mix of OTT on-demand content too.

This is the best of both worlds in many ways, and it’s a tidy solution. You could cobble together something similar: a good quality HD antenna, plus a TiVo, plus perhaps a Samsung or Sony TV that connects to YouTube. But building that configuration wouldn’t be easy, and the TiVo costs $19.99/mo, and requires a two year commitment (or, $299 for a larger unit, $19.99/mo for a minimum of one year.)  Either way, it’s not a complete solution (no included antenna, and no OTT), and it’s expensive.

Sezmi includes a huge 1TB video recorder and a nice looking bookshelf OTA antenna, designed to look like a speaker, wrapped in black cloth.  It delivers on-demand OTT content (much of it free), YouTube, movie rentals and more.  To make it easy to use, Sezmi includes an interface that gives each member of the household a button on the remote that leads to their own view of their entertainment. It learns what each person likes to watch, then Sezmi records content based upon your tastes.

Sezmi is cheaper than a TiVo, now $149 for the hardware, and the service which draws it all together is $4.99/mo. (Customers in LA can opt to add a small stack of cable channels, delivered over the Internet, for $15 additional.)

Sezmi isn’t perfect – it had some trouble during setup recognizing the IP it had obtained from my DHCP server.  (I spent ten minutes troubleshooting before I worked out that a reboot fixed; duh.) Sezmi also doesn’t play Netflix or Hulu Plus at this time.  It would be nice to see these integrated into their all-in-one interface. If cable channels like ESPN, TBS, TNT, CNN and Discovery are critical for you, an all OTT/OTA solution probably won’t have all of the content you want. (If you want all this, you aren’t a candidate for “cutting the cord”, you need pay TV. If that’s you, we’ll be happy to help you get set up with Sonic.net DirecTV.)

For Sezmi to work, you need to be in a location where you can receive an off the air signal with enough channels that it is worthwhile.  Here in Santa Rosa, Sezmi only picks up one channel, KRCB/PBS, and as a result, it isn’t much use.  But for customers in the Bay Area, it’s far better. All the major networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are all broadcast from Sutro Tower in San Francisco, and can be received in a broad area. Sezmi’s website will help you determine which channels you can receive at your address.

If you live in the Bay Area, and if broadcast network content is as important as OTT, the Sezmi is an elegant and cost effective solution that could help keep your entertainment costs in check. Pair it up with Sonic.net Fusion for a great broadband+phone+TV solution.