Tag: OTT

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.

Full Circle

Imagine if: The wrong path

With the World Cup in progress, I’ve seen more discussion about ESPN’s “360” subscription model, (now called “ESPN3“) and we’ve seen one or two requests from customers that Sonic.net subscribe to ESPN3 for all of its customers.

However, I have real concerns about what ESPN is attempting to do. I do not believe that we should accept a model that attempts to duplicate Pay TV on the Internet.

Doing so would be a U-Turn away from the open Internet.

With Pay TV, when you subscribe to a package of cable channels, the carrier pays a few cents to a few dollars for each channel or group of channels, and from that builds a set of channel line-ups.

À la carte television has been talked about for years, but the linear/bundling model has been an unbreakable one in television due to the hold that content creators have over how their content is delivered. For example, if carriers want one channel, they may be forced to take others along with it (this is why you have all those shopping channels.) And, channels often come with restrictions – they must be grouped together, they must be in the lower X number of channels, etc. These restrictions end up dictating what can and what must be in each tier of Pay TV service. (Read: Wired, Where’s My à la Carte TV?)

The Internet should not accept this model. If it were carried to its logical conclusion this model would have every site charging the ISP, who would pass on the costs to all customers, whether they want the content or not. You would end up with a fragmented Internet experience, and paying for content you do not want.

Today the Internet is “à la carte”, and it should remain that way, with neutrality protection for both content providers and connection providers. End-users should be empowered to subscribe to the pay services that they themselves choose, rather than being forced to pay for services they may not want. Successful examples of this include Netflix and Pandora, with Hulu headed this way as well.

As we move to an OTT video world, lets not drag the old Pay TV model with us.

For more on moving to OTT, see the great guide from PBS: Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV and for ongoing advocacy for a la carte, follow on Twitter: TV A La Carte.

(A note regarding the attached image: this illustration imagines a future where Internet sites are bundled into tiers of sorts – the ESPN3 model is even worse than this – all users pay, across the entire ISP.)


Boxee what's new screen

A coworker recently hassled me for my use of acronyms without explanation. It’s something that I try not to do, but the various acronyms of our industry boil down large concepts into just a few letters, so sometimes it’s unavoidable.

This posting is intended to address the big topic behind the small acronym “OTT”.

OTT is video content delivered “over the top” of Internet access, without association with the Internet access provider themselves.

Examples of OTT video include online services like Netflix On Demand, Hulu, MLB.TV.  The OTT video label can be extended to any video content, so I suppose YouTube might count, but generally OTT refers to episode or feature length content, positioned as an alternative to conventional television.

OTT video is the anathema of those who offer subscription television, and it’s one of the core items that drives the debate around network neutrality and usage and speed caps.

Most service providers have created “triple play” bundles of Internet, telephone and television, and each of these three revenue streams make up an important part of the total revenue stream for these operators. For the video portion, the national average household spending for television is nearly $75 (source: Centris, 2009 data.)  OTT video threatens this, which is particularly painful for system operators because the video component is generally the most expensive of the three components of the triple play.

If your broadband provider is also selling you TV, their concern is that if they provide you with “too much” broadband, that OTT video will flourish and you will stop buying expensive TV in favor of a less expensive broadband only service.

There is an inherent conflict of interest here, and it is clear that industry wide, OTT video influences the choices by providers to limit speed and cap consumption. This is particularly obvious for cable providers, who have the most video customer and revenue to lose.

The debate about network neutrality is quite clear in the dialog about OTT: why would a provider who sells you TV want to give you enough bandwidth to replace that TV service?  This is particularly interesting in light of recent decisions by the Supreme Court, which found that the FCC does not have the authority to censure a major cable provider for tampering with their customers Internet traffic, in this case Bittorrent, which is presumed to be mostly television and movie downloads.

So, all of that aside, is OTT ready for prime time?

The biggest issue in OTT video seems to be delivery to the sofa rather than the desktop. It is getting much easier today, with multiple solutions to address this problem.  A few of of the key enablers:

Faster Wi-Fi. 802.11N appears to finally deliver enough bandwidth for HD content streaming to the living room without cables.

Netflix on demand can now be viewed on a growing list of devices, some of which you might already have connected to your own TV. Samsung Bluray players, the XBox 360, Playstation II, and even the Wii will stream Netflix today.

Dedicated hardware solutions like the Apple TV, Roku, Popcorn Hour, and the new Boxee from Dlink all promise more powerful and easier access to OTT content. Most TVs today also offer a VGA connection for easy hook-up to a laptop, so buying a couple cables (video and audio) to connect your laptop to your television can be a low cost way to get started.

Finally, TVs are becoming far more connected themselves, which in the long run may eliminate the need for an external box. Samsung, LG and Sony all have connected television products today in various states of usefulness.

What about content? Can I watch my shows?


Today there are more and more OTT video offerings, and more mainstream content. For movies and many television shows, there is good availability from Netflix and iTunes (Apple TV). Sports are becoming available, for example the subscription offerings from MLB.tv.

Hulu is worth some discussion because it provides some great current television content, but it’s tough to view on your television.  In my household there are five different devices that will stream Netflix (no kidding!), but only the laptop will play Hulu.  This is because Hulu content is licensed for PC playback only, so they are restrictive. This means that one OTT hardware solution won’t let you view all content – you may need to seek out different solutions for different types of content.

Boxee may solve some of these problems – it behaves just like a web browser, and Hulu today can be viewed on Boxee, but that seems to be a constant game of cat and mouse, with Hulu shutting out Boxee playback and Boxee making changes to allow playback again. End-users are the pawns in this game, and it can be frustrating.

As a result of all of this confusion, I think that most users first experience with OTT will probably be Netflix, but once viewers get a taste for content on demand without a $75 cable bill, I suspect that more and more of us will jump through the hoops required for a relatively complete OTT video viewing experience.

Finally, OTT video isn’t always free. There are free services like Hulu, though they announced today that the most recent five episodes of shows will be free, but full access to all archived shows will cost $9.95 monthly.  MLB.tv is $19.95 a month. Apple’s iTunes store for Apple TV offers shows ala carte for $2 to $3. You can also buy tv and movies from Amazon as downloadable content.

There is also lots of free content, and solutions like the Roku and Boxee make it easier to find it. You can also play most content that you download to your PC, plus videos you make yourself, because these hardware boxes will play back a multitude of video file types.

Some interfaces to OTT video are also bringing a social component, allowing you to connect with friends, recommend and rate shows and share comments. This may turn television viewing into a much more engaged activity. (Today the theme seems to be watching live TV while fondling a smartphone and reading and writing tweets with others watching the same show live. Tweets fly during live shows; “Can you believe that outfit! #oscars”.  OTT with a social component may make this more useful and interesting.)

So in summary – what’s the “do it all” viewing solution? Today there is not one standalone set top box that will view all content. The upcoming Boxee hardware from D-Link may come close, but meanwhile you’d need at least two or three devices in order to access all the OTT content that is available. A laptop with a video and audio cable is a great start though if you aren’t sure what solution will be a fit for you.

I’ll predict that in five to ten years, subscription television as it is today will be suffering, and content providers will move wholeheartedly to OTT.  The Internet has disrupted industries from retail to travel, and the only barrier to it doing the same to television has been bandwidth.