Monday, February 9, 2015

CC203 : Going Over The Top

Since Over The Top (OTT) can and should be done in parallel with broadcast options, either cable or OTA let's look at that without regard to these other options. We've already mentioned some of the key services for subscription and Video On Demand content delivered OTT and will not belabour that here but will re-examine some of the options when we examine trends. Here we'll examine some of the hardware options with the only service-related concern being that the hardware you choose supports the services you want.

In support of a phased approach and keeping in mind the money motivations underlying Cord Cutting let's look at low-cost options first. You are sitting in front of a computer now and probably not at the library. That is your first option for OTT which is recommended to get your feet wet but does not provide the multi-viewer 10 ft experience of the TV in the den. For this you will need a TV attached device.

Like laptops there is an immediate fork in the road. Are you an Apple/Mac household? If so you might want to get an Apple TV box. It is well designed, easy to install and use and as part of the Apple ecosystem it supports iTunes and AirPlay. It supports most of the OTT services but being Apple those services provided by vendors Apple considers a competitor may not be available.

If you don't mind having some non-Apple devices in your home (even if you are a Mac aficionado) there are quite a few options. Lowest cost is the Blu-ray player with built-in apps--a highly rated Sony Blu-ray with WiFi and wired network connections can be had for under $80. You'll get all the major apps and if you're in the market for a DVD/BD player anyway you might have difficulty finding a player without apps.

If you're looking for a dedicated streaming player there is a wide selection. Amazon and Google both have boxes that support Voice search usually across multiple services with results showing all your options. This is a nice feature that helps sort free or subscription options from pay per view when you subscribe to multiple services. They have been accused of skewing results to favour their services rather than your observed behaviour. The price point for these devices seems to be around $100 without any options (like game controllers).

Google also have a stick, Chromecast, that is inexpensive (somewhere around $35) works reasonably well even though it is WiFi only. It requires the use of a smartphone or PC/Mac to provide the user interface for searching and selecting programs to watch and the applications (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) must support Chromecast. Most do. If you prefer using a smartphone over a remote control this could be your answer. Since the service subscription is tied to the handheld device there is no registration of the Chromecast with the service and anyone (even visitors) with a service registered to a smartphone can use that device.

Roku is unique in that they build a box but do not provide other services or content and consequently are service agnostic. About the only service that isn't easily available on Roku is iTunes. There are clunky workarounds but they are just that. Clunky. If iTunes is a non-issue you will not find a better experience than that of the Roku 3. Search, though no voice search works well. The overall UI and the remote are well crafted. The remote is wireless, not IR so no line of sight is required and the box can be located nearly anywhere including attached to the back of the TV with velcro. A commonly asked question is "how do I turn my Roku player off." It is just that efficient. Because they maintain Swiss-like neutrality with regards to content there are no competitive reasons not to stand up your service on Roku (except Apple of course). Roku provides extensive support for app development and it shows. It must be easy--there are over half a dozen pet-sitting apps catering to your favorite creature.

Then there are smart TV sets either with a proprietary app ecosystem (e.g., Samsung) or increasingly incorporating one of the dominant player systems. Sony will incorporate Google's AndroidTV in all their 4K/UHD TVs and several manufacturers are lining up behind Roku. It is not worth the money to buy a new set just for the streaming services, but if you're buying a new set anyway you may not have an option. If you do have an option you may find that a "smart" version of a standard set costs more than the dumb TV with a Roku 3. Just watch the pricing.

There is one other item you need to look at: your data network. Wired is best but not always an option  and WiFi has improved. At a cost. A good WiFi Router/Access Point will not be cheap--plan on north of $150. This class of device will not only support the necessary data rates it will also support a greater number of simultaneous WiFi devices than previous generations of devices. Then there is access network bandwidth. You can get by with 3Mbps DSL but you are not going to lookup a moving on IMDB while you'r watching it. You won't get HD either. You should provision about 5Mbps per set that you want to use at the same time. For three sets that also puts you in range of Netflix's recommendation for 4K/UHD content.

We'll end with a bit of bad news: you're probably going to need High Speed Data over cable to get the bandwidth you might want. Unless you can get Google Fiber which we are not slated to see in daVille  (more on that later) then you're stuck Uverse-class service or cable. And some cable providers, notably the one serving most of Dunwoody, are now enforcing bandwidth caps.