Archive for October 24th, 2008

Dropped Satellite – Two Weeks Later

Posted on October 24, 2008. Filed under: Apple, Lifehacking, Media |

How Have We Fared?

It’s been two and a half weeks since we pulled the trigger on dropping satellite television, and about three weeks since we started the grand experiment of moving all our “passive video” intake to the web.

How have we fared through this transition? The riots were quelled without too much bloodshed. The voices in our heads rushed forward to fill the silence of the room, but were beaten back before they got overtly destructive. The kids are even talking to us again.

Really, though, it’s been more of a non-event than we had dared imagine. We’ve learned a thing or two, though, that somewhat surprised me.

What’s Broken?

Starting off with the bad: what’s broken?

Frame Rates

Hardware-wise, I’ve concluded that the old PowerBook laptop isn’t all that great of a media center. Watching Hulu, the video sometimes stutters rather significantly, pausing every minute or so for a half second or so at a time (it’d be nice if Hulu offered something which stated the actual throughput or frame rate we are achieving!). I think it’s primarily a bandwidth (either at the network or CPU levels) issue, although the couple of times we’ve seen it happening with mostly-static shots has me wondering. We’ve tested our network throughput and get pretty good numbers for that through the site Hulu recommends (SpeedTest.net), and Hulu states they should run smoothly on 1Mbps, so I don’t think we are hitting a WAN network issue. The PowerBook has 802.11g networking on it, and is getting good interference-free throughput to the modem, so I don’t think the LAN is an issue either. The problem I have is that Hulu won’t give any CPU minimum requirements, so the G4 not being able to keep up with Flash video is definitely a possibility. In fact, it’s my main suspect right now (Flash is notoriously under-tuned on OS X and PPC processors especially, and the 1.67GHz G4 was last made about three years ago and was under-performing in general for non-optimized software even then).

This is quite separate from the general 15-fps problem with Hulu and some videos. “Chuck”, for instance, comes across at about 15fps on Hulu, even on a fast Intel computer and the 30Mbps connection at work (tested after-hours as an experiment only, honest!) The same is true of Heroes. This makes the video seem to stutter and jerk, especially when there is a lot of action on-screen. I suspect this is an artifact of the process: simply doing a pull-down or even line-doubling from interlaced broadcast SD (30 fields per second, 2 fields per frame) to progressive digital sub-SD (15 frames per second). However, the better digital feeds for these programs exist (the SD download of Heroes on AppleTV, for instance, is completely free of these artifacts). At first blush, the choice between Hulu and AppleTV appears to be ad-supported versus bought; in reality, though, Hulu also throws in resolution and frame rate issues which AppleTV avoids. This pushes “anything with action” significantly towards the AppleTV front, in turn pushing everything else back towards Hulu or the like.

HD Downloads

On the AppleTV front, I’ve found that downloading HD shows is a mixed bag.

Begin camera geekery for a moment:

This is my first time watching HD video, and I was surprised at how much more obvious focus issues are in HD. Obviously, I knew that the “circle of confusion” would tighten with more resolution. I just didn’t realize how tight the DOF is being held in, for instance, Heroes. Watching a Heroes broadcast last week, I was distracted time and again by character’s faces going in and out of focus as they naturally shifted closer and further away from the camera. There was an entire scene where the main character’s face filled the screen, and their hairline was perfectly in focus, but their eyes out of focus! The previous week’s episode had me enthralled from beginning to end, counting the makeup imperfections and pock marks on previously blemish-free actors’ faces, and I didn’t notice the focal plane issues at all. I suspect it’s a director’s mindset at play here: if the episode’s director is used to the SD resolution and is tightening DOF for style as much as possible for that resolution, the HD DOF will be too tight.

Okay, camera geekery done. Safe for everyone to come out again.

Back to the AppleTV in general: HD episodes take a really long time to download. The AppleTV is also rather finicky about how it downloads them: if you purchase multiple episodes at once, it doesn’t download in the order you bought them, but instead starting with the most recently aired. Tip to Apple: if I’m downloading multiple episodes in a series, I probably want to watch them in order! The least-recent should be given priority, not the most-recent! I’m seeing times of about 2 hours before the episode is “watchable”, and in one case starting it right then we ended up about five minutes from the end having to pause so it could get the last bit downloaded before we watched it.

Overall, I think the remainder of our purchases will be in SD. It’ll save us $1 each, and will be a much more seamless operation.

Finicky Sites

“NickJr” is a frustrating experience. When it works, it works passably well. When it doesn’t, it fails in the most unpredictable ways. For instance, the other day it would not load at all on the kids’ iMac upstairs. Looking into Safari’s activity window, it would get hung up trying to download stuff from “overture” (which is a rather questionable bit to be tied into a kids’ website to begin with, but that’s another topic). Going downstairs, though, it loaded (albeit slowly as always) just fine on the G4 PowerBook. Other sites were slow, but not inoperative. Turns out we’d restarted the WiFi access point and it had shifted from Channel 11 (which the iMac receives very well) to Channel 1 (which, inexplicably, doesn’t work well at all on the iMac); changing the 802.11 channel to “11” from “Automatic” fixed the issue.

Luckily NBC.com is largely redundant with the existence of Hulu. However, the sites odd definition of “fullscreen” which seems to mean “about 2/3 of the screen with a thick border and distracting edge ad” is annoying. CBS.com also suffers from this dictionary deficiency.

Show Availability

Show availabilty is also frustrating.

  • “The Biggest Loser” is available on Hulu, but, unlike everything else, is a week and a day behind broadcast instead of just a day behind. We watched last week’s episode on AppleTV, but I don’t think we’re willing to spend $2 per week on this show, so we’ll just be a week and some behind instead (or skip it altogether).
  • “Project Runway” and “The Amazing Race” are not available anywhere aside from YouTube. YouTube’s interface is really crappy and the quality is substandard and everything is chopped up into 10-minute pieces requiring a whole lot of mousework to watch an episode from start to finish. Hitting it on the AppleTV might help, except that typing anything into the search interface there is a horrible experience as well. I strongly question CBS and Bravo pushing their users to get these shows ad-free and low-quality instead of providing them through their already-established avenues.
  • “Primeval” was available on BBC-America’s website, I swear. We watched two episodes of it there even! But, no longer. Now they just offer useless “clips”. Another show which might die on the vine because it doesn’t necessarily make the $2 cut. Note to execs: it’s a lot easier for us to emotionally invest in a show and pay the $2 per episode to get it in high quality with the knowledge that if we need to cut back we can watch the remainder of the season for ‘free’ ad-supported. Before Primeval was cut from online availability it was on the cusp of AppleTV watching. Now that it’s no longer available ad-supported, it’s fallen off that cusp, and into ‘not watched’.

What Works?

So, what works?

  • To get the laptop working really well with our TV, we used DisplayConfigX. Highly recommended to get rid of the overscan and deal with the flaky VGA output of PowerBook G4s (which tend to inexplicably start shifting output to the left and up, losing the entire Apple Menu and half the menu bar; apparently this is termed “losing the back porches” and if you google for “horizontal back porch” you’ll find more information on this than you could ever want).
  • A Wireless Mighty Mouse helps a lot in controlling a laptop across the room, but for search fields one needs a keyboard. You can either get up and key it all in at the laptop, or bring up the “Keyboard Viewer” (go into International settings and enable it as an input method) to bring up a mouse keyboard on the screen.
  • Even better than a wireless mouse and screen keyboard, if we have another laptop open in our laps: Leopard’s built-in Screen Sharing works really well for controlling the laptop from afar.
  • On the AppleTV front, my wife’s iPod Touch has a really nice “Remote” application (free download from Apple in the iTunes Store). This gives a keyboard for keying in search fields, which is only about 100,000 times better than using the remote and the onscreen keyboard to type anything more than three characters.
  • We’ve been watching quite a few shows online. My sister-in-law has even traded hours of Judge Judy watching for hours of Barney Miller watching on Hulu.
  • HD quality is really nice as a novelty, but not something I feel I need for every single show. As I said above, I have found it distracting as often as I’ve found it beautiful.
  • Boxee is an absolutely wonderful addition to our Apple TV.

A Few Words About Boxee

Boxee is an open-source streaming media application, available for OS X, Linux, and Apple TV. It’s based on the “XBMC” project which provides some (but certainly not all) of the same functionality for Windows boxes. Most importantly, it supports seamless streaming of YouTube, CBS, CNN, Comedy Central, Hulu, and the major podcast networks (Revision 3, Next New Networks, etc) in a consistent and big-screen-ready interface.

Boxee is in “invite-only alpha” right now. Anyone with an account on Boxee can invite anyone else to join up, or you can put your email address in to the site’s front page and hope they invite you next Monday. Hint: I have an account, and comments are open on this post.

I just put it on yesterday (coincidentally, the day that Hulu broke on it!), so haven’t been able to give it a really solid run-through yet, but it looks like most of our watching on the main screen from here on out will be via it and Apple TV instead of the G4 sitting next to the screen. Hulu changed something about how it delivered ads in the last two days, which broke Boxee, but Boxee had an update out this morning which appears to have fixed it.

It offers a significantly-improved interface for YouTube (full screen without the playhead bar at the bottom!) as well as Comedy Central and CNN (Comedy Central, however, is significantly more “skippy” than Hulu, so we’ll stick to getting The Daily Show from Hulu). YouTube searches are remembered, effectively giving us a “channel” for The Amazing Race and Project Runway (major caveat: YouTube video quality is still two steps below VHS in a strong magnetic field, and Boxee can’t do a thing about that).

The installation was rather straightforward, although it required creating a “patch stick” USB drive and restarting the Apple TV twice. The only hitch was that we needed to “Update” Boxee twice after the install because the first Update didn’t get the absolute latest alpha. Final bit about Boxee is that it is open source alpha software. It’s worked quite well for us so far, but I won’t be overly surprised if it crashes and burns some night. We’ll keep the G4 next to the TV just in case.

Overall, I’m very hopeful that Boxee will make our setup even nicer than we need it to be, saving us energy (no need to have another laptop going while watching Hulu) and annoyance (trying to operate the wireless mouse across the room is annoying). The verdict is still out, but it’s looking good both from a general quality standpoint and a responsiveness-to-crisis standpoint.

What’s Missing?

Surprisingly, not much!

  • I really wish that Boxee’s functionality (streaming of ad-supported content) was built into Apple TV instead of a “hack” on top of it.
  • The unavailable shows (Project Runway, Amazing Race) which drive us to revenue-free sources (YouTube) instead of letting us watch ads or pay $2 an episode are examples of network short-sightedness. Hopefully over the next several months these last non-streaming holdouts shift course.
  • I really wish AppleTV supported a wireless keyboard and mouse in addition to the remote control and iPod Touch Remote app. The latter is a good replacement for a keyboard if you happen to have a Touch or iPhone sitting next to you on the couch, but I think a well designed “touchpad” type of stationary mouse and mini keyboard would be an awesome addition to the AppleTV experience!

That’s it!

Overall, this “experiment” is going quite well. Here in the middle of the fall television season, we’re purchasing about 2 shows per week on the AppleTV ($5/week, $20/month or so), which is a significant savings over DirecTV (on the order of $60/month). Everyone seems happy with the setup so far, and we haven’t felt the need to watch anything “live”, yet.

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