Amazon Fire TV and the state of streaming video players

Amazon announced and released the Amazon Fire TV set top box yesterday. Its technical specs looks impressive, and it’s priced right, but there’s not enough of difference to make me want to switch from our Roku 3 yet. It’s definitely worth a look if you don’t have a streaming box, though.

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In which we consider the oft-rumored Apple HDTV

The fundamental question Apple always wants an answer for before entering a new market is “Why would someone buy this instead of what’s already out there?” I don’t think there’s a good answer for that if an Apple-branded HDTV is just a big screen with built-in Apple TV functionality.

John Gruber

For years, there have been rumors of the imminent release of an Apple-made HDTV. The topic came up again last week when AppleInsder published a report speculating on the launch of this device in the next year:

Such a product could be paired with a subscription service to iTunes, allowing users to access content and services at a flat subscription rate that would negate the need for a cable box and digital video recorder. However, [Brian] White’s note gave no indication of potential features of such a product. Apple also has a great deal of experience with high-definition displays on its iMac desktop, including its big-screen 27-inch iMac, first released in 2009.

In the ensuing discussion over the weekend, the case for Apple making a big screen TV by Harry McCracken, and to a lesser degree, Chris Dixon, came down to the following argument:

  1. There are rumors of an Apple HDTV
  2. When there were rumors of X before Apple announced X, some analysts said Apple would never make X (where X = the iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch)
  3. Apple made X
  4. Therefore, Apple will make an HDTV

I have no doubt that Apple could make a beautifully designed television if they set out to do it and that a nontrival number of people would buy it. Still, there isn’t a good reason for them to make one.

Yes, that big piece of glass is important, in that it’s what we stare at once we’re on the couch – much like the LCD monitor sitting on your desk. Because that’s what an HDTV is – a big computer monitor for your living room. But once it’s plugged in and turned on, it disappears and the video on screen is all that matters.

And that video has to come from somewhere. For most people, that place is a cable box or a satellite receiver, so they’re viewing experience is determined by that box they rent every month. A TV made by Apple isn’t going to change that. Adam Lisagor:

The TV is not the screen with seven different inputs for your players and boxes and game machines. The TV is the content and the buttons we touch to get to that content. That is, the TV has historically been the cable box, and Apple has merely hinted at changing this.

The only way to improve that awful experience is to avoid it by routing around the cable/satellite providers. And in case you missed it, Apple already has a way to do this through the $99 Apple TV. Plug that in, and you’ve got an Apple experience and content available through iTunes and Netflix. Marco Arment puts it well:

A bigger problem is that Apple prefers to offer fully integrated products, but a modern TV is just one component in a mess of electronics and service providers, most of which suck. Apple doesn’t want their beautiful, it-just-works TV to need to interact with Onkyo’s 7.1 HDMI-switching receiver, Sony’s 3D Blu-ray player, Microsoft’s game system, Comcast’s awful Scientific Atlanta HD DVR, Canon’s newest camcorder, the photos on your point-and-shoot’s SDHC card, and your Logitech universal remote. (The need for TVs to have a more complex remote than the Apple TV might be fatal alone.)

The Apple TV, as a single-featured set-top box with one take-it-or-leave-it output, avoids all of those complexities and delivers one Apple integrated experience — iTunes — to your TV. That’s it. Single-purpose, done well.

So what could an Apple flatscreen offer over the combination of your current television with an Apple TV plugged into it? One less box, I suppose, but then your eight year old will eventually be stuck running software almost a decade old. No, if Apple continues to pursue this hobby, it’ll be on the content side, so that you’ll eventually no longer have a need for the other boxes plugged into your TV.

Cutting the Cable Part 2: Hello Roku.

Our family dropped our cable subscription last year, and I’d consider the change a success on most accounts. With just one or two reliable over-the-air channels available, our living room TV stayed quiet for months except for kids’ movies and PBS programs. Casey all but stopped watching TV except for the occasional disc from Netflix, and I continued watching the majority of my television on the 2-inch screen of my iPod Nano.

In March, our living room entertainment options expanded a bit when we began beta testing the Netflix streaming disc for our Nintendo Wii. The on-screen interface was minimal, requiring that almost everything be done from the browser on a Mac/PC, but it did allow us to watch shows and movies on-demand on a screen bigger than our 20-inch iMac. Picture quality wasn’t all that great, and we had a lot of buffering issues, but it was better than nothing.

When we moved into our new house a couple of months ago, Casey mentioned that she’d like to be able to watch something while nursing our infant, and for the inevitably long winter nights that we have here in North Dakota. After looking at a few different options, we decided to try the new Roku XDS. The Roku is a streaming-only device, gettings its content from various sources online instead of storing it locally on a drive.

Roku XDS

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Cutting The Cable

aaaaand the cable has been cut - uploaded on April 12, 2008 by theogeo
When we got home from our Labor Day weekend at Casey’s parents on Monday, not only was our TV showing static instead of cable television, our TiVo service was inactive – effectively turning the machine into an electronic doorstop. No, this wasn’t some sort of horrible mix-up. This was our family’s final step in breaking-up with cable TV.

For nearly six years, we subscribed to our cable company’s Basic plan, which offered about 70 different channels. Then, over time, we started noticing more and more channels slipping away into their Preferred package. “Upgrading” to this plan would have not only required a digital cable box, but cost 50% more than what we were paying per month.

So after talking it over and realizing how few of the channels we actually watched, Casey and I decided to downgrade to the cable company’s unadvertised Limited plan, which offered a dozen channels of actual programming (subtracting local channels and the TV Guide channel) for less than $20/month. Sure, we missed the Discovery Channel, TLC, and the Food Network at first, but the others went unnoticed.

Since making that switch, we slowly noticed that PBS kids programs were taking a larger and larger share of the TiVo’s storage. And after moving from Thompson to Grand Forks in July, the boys usually watch a show or two right away in the morning, and not much else after that. Casey and I rarely have the TV on in the evening after the boys are in bed – we’re much more likely to be talking, listening to MPR, reading a book, or reading or writing on our laptops.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some amazing TV shows on right now that I really enjoy. It’s just that the internet has become our primary delivery method for video content. Between Hulu, Netflix’s “Watch Instantly”, YouTube, and BitTorrent, there are enough shows and movies available online to last several lifetimes. And whatever we currently can’t get online takes just a day to two to receive via postal mail from Netflix. There’s simply no reason to pay for cable anymore.

According to a Nielson report from earlier this year, Americans on average now watch five hours of television per day.  That’s over 75 days per year of forgettable B-grade movies and sitcoms you’ve already seen a half dozen times before, endless pundits spewing partisan venom on 24 hour news networks, and watching attention-starved people live out their simulated lives on “reality TV”.

So instead of wasting my time on the garbage, when I am looking for something to watch, I have a backlog of great TV series I can pull from whenever and wherever I want. Life’s just too short for bad TV.