iTunes HD or Blu-ray?

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In case you missed it, Apple just recently started selling movies via iTunes in HD. I’m not sure why it took so long for this to happen, but I would bet money that it had more to do with Hollywood than Apple. When you look at the severely limited number of HD titles for sale, we can only look to Hollywood and their relentless need to control everything to blame for this. Nonetheless, HD movies are now available not only for Rental (which Apple has been doing for over a year), but also for purchase. Like most things on iTunes, the number of titles will ramp up quickly. So this now leads me to my question:

iTunes HD or Blu-ray?

Let me remind you that I no longer just buy movies just because. One day I noticed I had a few movies in my collection that were still in the shrinkwrap. It hit me that I just rarely have the time or desire to watch movies that I’ve already seen. So whereas before I was buying just about every movie that I liked, today I would have to really really really really really like a movie to actually buy it. I have to weigh the cost of the movie vs. the number of times I’m likely to watch it again. Even if I want to watch a movie again, I have to ask: is it cheaper just to rent it again than to buy it?

Any recent movies I’ve purchased (and it’s only been a few) have been in Blu-ray format. I figure that if it’s good enough to buy, then I want it in the best possible format. Owning a movie in Blu-ray though does present a couple of challenges. For one, it can only be played in a Blu-ray player. So that limits me to watching the movie at home and not on the road on my laptop. That also limits the number of friends I could loan the movie too. A few of the movies I’ve purchased came with Digital Copies. So that at least takes care of the “take it on the road” problem, but due to copy protection/DRM I still can’t loan the movie out to friends.

I had a chance over the weekend to buy my first HD movie via iTunes and the process was as simple as buying any other item on iTunes. I was pleasantly surprised/reminded that when you buy HD content on iTunes, they automatically include a smaller standard def version for your portable devices (iPhones/iPods) and to take on the road with you. While this does make the download bigger (you’re downloading two movies instead of one) and take up more hard drive space, I welcome this. I purchased Transporter 3 (not because it’s all that great of a movie, it was just that the number of available titles in HD for purchase right now is severly limited). The iTunes HD version is $19.99. The Blu-ray price is $25.99 and does include a Digital Copy.

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The iTunes HD version weighs in at 3GBs of drive space plus 1.1GBs for the standard def version that’s included.

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Which is better?

That’s the real question isn’t it? That’s also probably why you’re reading this. Unfortunately “better” depends on what you want. So let me give you the pros and cons and you decide for yourself:

Blu-ray

Pros:

Full HD quality 1080p, extra content (outakes, bloopers, commentary, etc.), BD Live – access to online content from within the movie including games, online communities, extra scenes, etc. Can share with friends/family who have Blu-ray players.

Cons:

Costs more per movie, requires a Blu-ray player, most laptops don’t have Blu-ray drives for watching on the go and not all titles include a Digital Copy. Takes up physical shelf space to store the discs. You have to either go out and purchase or order online and wait for the disc to arrive. Discs can become scratched and unplayable.

iTunes HD Movies

Pros:

Costs less than movies on Blu-ray, can purchase and download right in your own home, comes with a copy for your other devices (iPod or iPhone).

Cons:

Not the highest quality HD (only 720p), takes up hard drive space to store the movies (3GB for the HD version, 1.xGB for the standard def version), not sharable with others outside of your home due to DRM copy protection (when will Hollywood learn the same lessons that the music industy learned and do away with DRM?). Not burnable to optical media a video DVD/Blu-ray disc (again because of DRM protection).

The Bottom Line

Things just keep getting better as iTunes, TiVo, Netflix, Cable/Satellite companies continue to compete for our business. Having the ability to buy and download an HD movie right from my TV with Apple TV or from my computer is pretty sweet. Although iTunes HD movies are not full 1080p, I love the fact that they don’t take up any physical shelf space in my home. This also means that they are instantly available to all of my TV’s (via Apple TV streaming) because they are stored on a central media server (an iMac). Also keep in mind that 720p is still better than standard DVD quaility. So on those rare occassions when I think a movie good enough to actually own, I’ll probably look first to buying it via iTunes in HD format before going to Blu-ray now. If it’s a movie with the ultimate in visual effects and would really pop in all of its 1080p glory then I might consider owning it on Blu-ray. For right now my plan is to continue with Netflix and renting on Blu-ray for most of the movies I watch and renting on iTunes for those spontaneous moments when I just want to watch a movie that’s not physically sitting in my house/library. If iTunes ever offered a subscription rental service for movies my love for Netflix would be in serious jeopardy. I’ve recently cut my plan back to have less movies at home because they sometimes just sit here for weeks at a time when I’m too busy to watch them. This is one good thing about the pay as you go iTunes Rental model. You only pay for a rental when you’re ready to watch it!

I’m just glad to be living in a time where we have so many options for in home entertainment. I can see the day coming in the not too distant future that my DVD racks become a fond memory. I’ll either have all of my favorite movies streaming from my media server or available for instant renting/viewing over the internet. Hard drive space is cheap! I’m almost there today,  building my home media center with Netflix/TiVo HD and Apple TV. Life is good!

Terry White Recommends…

I have fun reviewing technology and gadgets. Now that I’ve been running my blog for a few years, it occurs to me that new readers may not have seen some of my earlier posts. I also get asked by friends and relatives all the time to recommend my top choice in any given category. I do this formally once a year in my Holiday Gadget Gift Guide, but that doesn’t really help you much when you want recommendations throughout the rest of the year. So I’ve put together my own Terry White Recommends aStore. I will constantly update this site with any new recommendations that I have. These are products that I either have first hand knowledge of or use on a very regular basis. I have no paid sponsors, so these are products that I simply feel are great!

My streaming problem has been solved by YOU!

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Last week I put my blog readers to the task of giving me a way to stream content from my DVR to another TV wirelessly. It didn’t take long for the responses to start streaming in. I’m happy to report that not only did you solve my problem, but you blew past my expectations with the stuff you guys came up with. It was actually the second response by “Ivan” that really turned the tables. Ivan suggested something that I hadn’t even considered. He suggested replacing my Apple TV with a Mac mini.

“I’d suggest replacing the AppleTV with a MacMini :).

Has WiFi and could technically stream whatever you want, at least I think. Add Boxee to the mix, and you’ve got ABC, Hulu, Joost, local movies, local tv shows and so on on your TV.” – Ivan

I was so stuck on adding another box to the mix to do the one thing that I was missing, that I never considered replacing the existing box I was using with one that was more capable! At first glance at Ivan’s comment, I dismissed it. I thought that Ivan was missing the point. He talked about streaming shows from the internet. Well that wasn’t the problem. The TV already has a CableCARD in it and I get live TV all day long. However, when I gave it a second thought the lightbulb came on! I already have a Slingbox Pro connected to one of my DVRs (the Comcast box in my office). I use the SlingPlayer on my MacBook Pro when I’m on the road to watch stuff recorded to my DVR. It was at that moment that I realized that if I used a Mac mini instead of an Apple TV, I’d be able to install the SlingPlayer app on it and stream content from my DVR to the other TV out in my pool/workout area. That was it! That was the missing piece of the puzzle. It was so simple and the beauty of it was that it wasn’t going to cost me a dime! That’s right, I already had a Mac mini just sitting in my home theater going to waste. 

 

Mac mini vs. Apple TV – Smackdown!

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Apple TV! I like the concept of a box that allows me to wireless stream my content (photos, movies, music, podcasts, etc.) from my Mac to my TV with a very slick interface and simple remote. Also now that it has movie rentals, it’s even more useful. However, the downside of Apple TV is that that’s all it does. If you want other content, you’re pretty much out of luck. Now I can take shows recorded on my TiVo HD, transfer them to my Mac (thanks to Toast) and convert them into an Apple TV/iPod format and watch them on my Apple TV. The problem is that the process takes 4-6 weeks to complete. OK, I’m exaggerating. However, it does take a long time depending on the length of the show and whether or not it’s in HD or not. This means that you really have to plan ahead. If I recorded 30 Rock on my TiVo HD and plan to watch it later/the next day out in the other room, I’d have to remember to start the transfer before I go to bed that night. Then when I wake up, I’d have to start the conversion process. For a 30 minute HD show, this could easily take a couple of hours in total. Once it’s converted, then I’d still have to transfer it to iTunes so that it would be available to watch on the Apple TV. It’s certainly doable, but that’s a lot of planning ahead. 

Since the Mac mini is a computer, that eliminates a lot of these steps. For one, I could just install the Toast/TiVo Transfer apps right on the Mac mini and after the show is transfered I could just watch it! No conversions necessary. However, that’s still going to take time as the TiVo transfers take longer than real-time to happen. So a 30 minute show could easily take an hour or longer to transfer. That’s where Slingbox and the SlingPlayer come in. With the Slingbox connected to my office DVR (the one that’s used the least), I can record all my favorite shows and then run the SlingPlayer app on the Mac mini to stream those recordings wirelessly and full screen.

 

My original Mac mini

I bought the first Mac mini, which came out in 2005 (wow time flies!). I originally bought it for much of what we’re talking about today. I bought it put in my home theater so that I could watch my iTunes content (there was no Apple TV back then). I also wanted the ability to run Delicious Library (my DVD cataloging app) on the big screen. This Mac mini is a 1.25 GHz G4 (a dinosaur by today’s standards). It was the base model and I upgraded it to 1GB of RAM. Once the Apple TV came out in 2007, the Mac mini just sat there for the most part. Most times I would forget it was even there until happened to look over and see. In my home theater, the Apple TV does everything I need. I already have all the other boxes I need in that room doing everything else. So the Apple TV was a perfect fit. 

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So when Ivan proposed using a Mac mini, I thought – “well gee, I already have one of those. Let’s give it a shot!” My initial concern was that it was going to be too slow to stream. I was concerned that it only had 802.11g wireless AND after I hooked it up I realized that this model didn’t have support for the Apple Remote. This meant that Front Row (Apple’s original Apple TV like interface that is built-in to the Mac OS) was going to be a problem. I then remembered that Apple included Front Row in Leopard. The first thing I did once I hooked it up was install Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (with all the current updates). I remembered that even if you don’t have an Apple Remote you can still get into Front Row by hitting Command-ESC. It worked, but now that meant that I’d need a keyboard handy. I do have the newest Apple Wireless keyboard which is nice and small. I also still had my Bluetooth Trackball. While this was all fine, I really wanted ONE controller. A keyboard with an integrated pointing device.

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That’s when I remembered “Matt’s” comment about an iPhone/iPod touch app called Air Mouse Pro. PERFECT! This app was even better than I had hoped. It’s a trackpad and keyboard all in one and it even has a Front Row friendly mode with one button access to Front Row. This eliminates the need for the Apple Remote, separate keyboard and mouse. Air Mouse Pro totally rocks! It will definitely be my iPhone App of the Week! 🙂

 

What about TV resolution?

This is one advantage the Apple TV has over using a Mac mini. Out of the box the Apple TV already has all the right ports on the back. It has HDMI, Component, Optical and RCA audio jacks. Not only does it have the right connections, but it’s also geared to be connected to a TV at the various TV resolutions including 720p, 1080i and 1080p. Luckily I already had the right cables. I have a DVI to HDMI cable. I also had the necessary 3.5mm to stereo RCA cable for audio. When I connected the Mac mini to the TV and booted it, it detected the resolution and came right up. The problem was that the menu bar and dock were cut off. This is due to “overscan”! The Apple TV doesn’t suffer this problem because Apple was very careful to design the menus and interface so that they don’t go to the edge of the screen. On the Mac minis that came out later (like all the intel models), Apple added an Overscan option in the display preferences. This will slightly shrink the screen so that you can see the edges, but it will also potentially introduce black bars all the way around. No real way around this.

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CSI Miami streaming from my DVR in the SlingPlayer running full screen at 720p

 

Since I don’t have the new Mac mini, I used a shareware app called SwitchResX. This app allows you to have custom resolutions and more importantly for me it also offers the overscan correction I needed. Once I turned that option on, I could see everything.

 

I shall call him Mini mount

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The good folks over at H-squared wanted to help out so they sent me their Mini mount which allows you to mount your Mac mini on the wall. This was perfect for my set up as my TV is suspended from the ceiling and there is no where for the Mac mini to sit. In case you were wondering what became of my Apple TV? I moved it to my office and used H-squared’s tvTray to mount it on the wall as well. I love the LED glow (now standard on the tvTray and optional for the Mini mount).

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I even used the very cool MultiLevel iPhone app to make sure the mounts were level on the wall 🙂 Not only was H-squared very very helpful to my cause, they even want to offer all of you a discount on their products. You have from now to the end of February to save 15% off their stuff. Just use the code, wait for it………… “TERRYROCKS” at checkout.

 

My Gear

One of the comments I got requested that I post the actual components of my final solution. So here they are:

  • Toshiba 27″ LCD HDTV with built-in DVD player and CableCARD slot – this TV was discontinued ages ago. I bought mine on eBay because it was only model I could find at the time that had both a CableCARD slot and built-in DVD player.
  • Mac mini – I have the original model which is 4  years old. The new ones are faster and have an Apple Remote.
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard – it’s small and bluetooth wireless.
  • Bluetooth Trackball – I’m not crazy about this as it takes several click to get it to reconnect after a reboot
  • Air Mouse Pro – Freakin’ AWESOME iPhone app to control it all!
  • Slingbox Pro – connected to the crappy Comcast DVR in my office (see my review here). Wait? Why is my Slingbox connected to your Comcast DVR (which sucks) instead of my TiVo HD? Good question! I connected it to least used DVR in the house because when you’re watching your DVR via the Slingbox, you’re actually controlling that DVR, changing channels, etc. I didn’t want to interrupt any other family member’s viewing. So the Comcast Motorola DVR is the one that gets the least use 🙂
  • SlingPlayer  for Mac – a free download
  • Mini mount – Mounts the Mac mini neatly on the wall (get 15% off with the code “TERRYROCKS”)
  • SwitchResX – because I have the original Mac mini I need this to correct for overscan issues on the TV’s resolution
  • DVI to HDMI Cable – The Mac mini has a built-in DVI port. Most newer TV’s have HDMI. So you’ll need a cable or adapter
  • Audio Cable – Although I used a Monster cable, any old Radio Shack cable will work just fine and will be much cheaper.

 

The Bottom Line

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SlingPlayer running on the Mac mini with an onscreen remote that looks just like the physical Comcast remote for my DVR.

 

The Mac mini was a perfect fit for my needs in this situation! Granted it costs twice as much as an Apple TV, but it has more than twice the capabilities. If Apple were to ever build-in a Blu-ray player, it would be the ultimate set top box/computer. Now I’m only scratching the surface here because I really only needed it to do the one thing and that is allow me to stream my DVR content over to another TV. However, because the Mac mini is a computer, it can do so much more. At a minimum you could also surf the net as needed. You can also stream TV content from sites like hulu.com and although I haven’t yet played with Boxee, it looks very promising. It doesn’t stop there! Remember Netflix streaming is now on the Mac. So you could stream anyone of up to 12,000 movies. You could also turn it into a DVR as well with products like EyeTV. Although it doesn’t have a built-in Blu-ray player, it does have a DVD drive in it. This means that it can playback all your standard DVDs and Netflix rentals too. So the Mac mini can just about do it all.

Once again, THANK YOU to all my blog readers and especially those that offered up the very cool solutions that made this a reality!

Can you get by without Cable/Satellite TV?

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Well of course the answer is YES! I grew up with a father who thought paying for TV was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard of. So needless to say, if it wasn’t on the major networks and on at a time I could watch it, I didn’t see it. Maybe that explains my addiction to cable now. Although it seems that I still (for the most part) only watch the shows that are on the major networks, I couldn’t dream of giving up my cable TV (ie “the pipe”). I don’t even think about it anymore. My TiVo HD is all set with Season Passes to my favorite shows and I watch them when I have time to without missing a beat. But what about the costs?

 

How much do you spend each month on Cable/Satellite TV?

My Comcast Cable bill is nothing to sneeze at! I have the digital/HD package with HBO and I would swear that I could probably have another small car for what I pay them each month. It’s worse! I also have DirecTV in my kid’s rooms. I can certainly consolidate and give up DirecTV, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. That’s another, albeit smaller bill.

 

What about the internet?

With almost everything being streamed over the internet these days, do we really need to “pay” for TV? If you live in a relatively large metro area, chances are you can pick up your HD signals through the air. So the only thing you’d be paying for are the premium channels. Isn’t a lot of that content being streamed these days anyway? For example, check out Hulu.com. It also seems like the major networks are also broadcasting their shows for free via their websites. If all else fails, you might be better off just buying a season of your favorite show on iTunes. Two of my favorite shows are 24 and LOST. To buy both seasons in HD on iTunes would cost $118.00 (keep in mind that these shows are streamed for free on their respective websites with commercials). That’s cheaper than one month’s cable bill for me.

This ABC news report shows how a family completely cut their cable bill ($100/month) and went to just broadcast and internet only TV. There are also several computer gadgets out there that will let you record shows and watch them later just like your physical DVR. I’ve experimented with EyeTV and it works as advertised. I plugged in a basic cable line (it can work with an antenna too) and after it was setup, I had it record a show that came on later that day. Once the show was there, I was even able to do basic editing like removing the commercials and from there I was able to either watch it on my computer or move it over to my iPod or Apple TV to watch on the big screen. Sure there is extra work involved when you don’t want to watch it on your computer or when you don’t have a computer connected to your TV, but it’s a lot cheaper to do it this way.

 

Let’s not forget Netflix

I had never seen an episode of the Sopranos while it was on TV. However, I did watch the first 5 seasons on DVD. I loved the show, just never got into when it was airing. With Netflix I was able to watch all of them as quickly as I wanted with no commercials of course. Since Netflix charges a flat rate, all you can eat subscription price, you can watch as many TV shows on DVD as you have time for. The cost will be the same. Same goes for Farscape. I had never watched a single episode of this show when it was on the air. A friend loaned me the complete series on DVD. So even if you like a show that’s on TV, that doesn’t mean you have to watch it on broadcast TV. There are several advantages to renting your favorite shows on DVD once the season is over on TV. The biggest advantages are you don’t have to worry about commercials and you don’t have to wait week to week to see what happens next?

 

This is all good, but I need the big screen

While this cost cutting stuff is all good, let’s face it, we want it all on the big screen in HD! Sitting in front of my computer watching a TV show is not my idea of a good time. I do it when on the road, but that’s about it. I have a sizable investment in large screens around here and I want to see my favorite content in all of its HD glory. So what’s the answer? Apple has the right idea for the most part with Apple TV. However, it’s just not enough! I couldn’t get by with just Apple TV alone. There is no streaming from the websites and it’s a pay per view model (when will you go to a subscription option Apple? When?). So a better option is to have it all is to probably hook up a computer directly to your large screen TV. There are several caveats to this, not the least being the size of the computer, connections, etc. I’ll be covering my switch to the Mac mini soon.

 

The Bottom Line

I’m not quite ready to cut my cable line just yet, but if you’re constantly being frustrated by the ever increasing cable and satellite TV costs, this may be a way out. I could at a minimum give up HBO. There’s just nothing left on that network that I watch. Well there is “Big Love”, but I could live without that 🙂

Explore your options! There are plenty of them in this competitive world we live in.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Although I consider myself pretty tech and gadget savvy, I can’t know about every gadget out there. Many of the readers of this blog have helped me over the years by suggesting products that were in some cases better than the ones I’ve reviewed or complimentary to them. So I decided to really put your knowledge (geekiness) to the test. I’m looking for a solution to a problem and need your help!

 

Wireless broadcasting from my DVR to another HDTV

OK, here’s what I’m looking for: I have a 27″ Toshiba HDTV out in my recreation area that is suspended from the ceiling. It has a built in DVD player and CableCARD so that I can pick up all my digital Comcast channels including HD content. I went out of my way to find this particular set because it was the most self contained HDTV I could find. My goal was to have as few cables/boxes connected to it as possible. Having a built-in DVD player on the side, meant not having to connect an external one. Having a built-in CableCARD slot meant that I could pick up all my Comcast channels without the need for a box from Comcast.  The only box I have connected to it is an Apple TV ,which is great for seeing my movies (ripped DVD collection), music videos, renting movies and iTunes purchased content. I’m just missing ONE thing! There are times that I’ve recorded shows on my TiVo HD that I would LOVE to watch out there. However, I don’t want to connect a big box (DVR). I love the fact that this set is basically boxless. I allowed the Apple TV because it mounts neatly on the wall (thanks to the tvTray). So what I would love is a wireless solution that would stream video from my TiVo HD to this set. 

I’ve looked at the new Slingcatcher, which would be ideal here except that it doesn’t stream HD (which I could live without) AND requires and Ethernet connection or yet another box to be wireless. I’ve also looked at the Belkin Flywire, but I’m not willing to give up my first born to pay for it (they must be totally kidding with that price right? C’mon, seriously?). So what am I missing out there?

 

Requirements:

The ability to stream video from either my TiVo HD or Comcast DVR wirelessly to another HDTV.

Willing to have ONE SMALL box attached if need be.

Can’t cost more than the HDTV, Apple TV and all the furniture in the room (are you listening Belkin?).

Icing on the cake (actually this is almost a must) would be that I would be able to use a remote to control the TiVo HD from the other room.

 

So let’s see how good you really are?! What say you tech community? This post will self destruct in 5..4..3..2……..

Netflix comes to TiVo

It’s here! A day I’ve been waiting for. You might remember my review of the LG Blu-ray player that offered Netflix Streaming. I actually only had the player for a few days before seeing the announcement that Netflix was bringing this technology to the boxes that I already had and love. TiVo HD! I boxed up the LG player and returned it to Bestbuy and patiently waited for Netflix/TiVo to roll out this new service. It actually got rolled out last week while I was traveling on business, so I didn’t get a chance to test it until this past weekend. I’m very impressed with the TiVo implementation.

 

Setup was a breeze

Since I had already gone through it once on the LG player, I kinda knew what to look for on TiVo. Basically you have to activate your TiVo box on your Netflix account. You do this by starting the process on the TiVo, which will display a code. You log into your Netflix account on your computer and enter that code. My activations took less than a minute and my Instant Play Movie queue was on my TiVo’s menu. You are allowed up to 4 Netflix streaming devices per account. Although I had properly deactivated the LG box before returning it, that slot was still taken up as Netflix doesn’t clear it right away. It could take several weeks. I assume that this is by design. This way it stops you from illegally sharing your Netflix account with all of your friends. “Hey Bob, can I watch a movie tonight? Sure, just give me your code and I’ll key it in. Once the movie is over, I’ll delete it.” Luckily for me I only needed the three remaining slots for my 3 TiVo HD’s. Movies are placed in your queue from your computer. Currently there is no way to manage your queue from the TiVo itself (except for removing a movie that you’ve just watched).

 

Over 12,000 movies is a good start, but…

Netflix offers over 12,000 movies on demand at no additional cost to your Netflix unlimited account, nor are there any added TiVo service charges. While 12,000 movies sounds like a lot, most of these titles are older movies. I haven’t seen very many (if any) new releases available for streaming. Since it doesn’t cost anything more, I’m not really complaining. However, I would love to see a lot more and newer titles in their catalog.

 

Playback quality

I only watched one movie so far, the original version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and it’s a black and white movie. However, the TiVo did fill my widescreen TV and the quality was better than I expected. I didn’t have any of the issues I had with the LG player which randomly played some widescreen movies in 4:3 format. Streaming started almost right away and played continuously with no hiccups. I haven’t seen anything around HD content yet. However, since Netflix offers HD streaming to XBox 360, there is no reason not to have it on TiVo HD.

 

How does this compare to Apple TV?

Apple always win for a slick interface and good user experience. However, TiVo and Netflix hit a homerun on this one. Other than wanting newer titles and HD streaming, I have no complaints. Apple TV is still great for that pay-as-you-watch experience when it comes to movies. You only pay when you want to watch something that you don’t already own. With that being said, I think there is room for BOTH models. Netflix’s subscription model is very attractive to me. It’s a monthly charge and I don’t have to think about or worry about how much content I consume. Apple TV would be more popular if Apple offered a choice of a subscription model AND a pay-as-you-watch model. As Netflix continues to bring on the heat, I’m sure Apple is having to re-think their strategies.

 

The Bottom Line

If you have a TiVo HD and a Netflix account, this is a no brainer. Just do it! If you’re in the market for a better DVR experience than the one that came from your cable company, there is no better choice than TiVo HD. Until Apple offers a subscription model, Netflix will continue to be my primary source for movie rentals. The race is on for streaming full HD. Let’s see who offers the most compelling solution in the coming months! Get a TiVo HD today. Amazon has them for $264.67 (or less). So many choices in home entertainment and so little time to enjoy them 🙂

Schedule TiVo recordings from your mobile phone

As an iPhone user, one of things I have had on my wishlist since the iPhone 2.0 software update was a “native” TiVo scheduler. While there still isn’t a native iPhone app for scheduling recordings remotely, TiVo has created a mobile friendly version of their website (finally).

That’s right, you can go to http://m.tivo.com from any mobile browser (or any browser period) and get a very streamlined mobile friendly version of their site. This mobile version is geared specifically for scheduling recordings on your TiVo Series 2 or TiVo Series 3/HD. 

 

Good start, but needs a little work

Let’s start with the fact that I think the main TiVo site needs some work. So I’m not surprised that the mobile version is less than perfect. On the main TiVo site you have the ability to log in and actually see a full blown “Guide” of all the channels you receive and what’s coming on several days in advance. From the guide you can either schedule one-time recordings or setup a Season Pass to always record your favorite shows.

Of course if you know the name of the show you want to record, you can just do a search for it. The Guide is a good thing to have, but it’s very cumbersome to navigate, and even worse on a mobile device. The biggest problem that I have with it is that you don’t get to narrow the selection down to just your favorite channels (although this is allowed on the actual TiVo hardware). So I end up have to scroll hundreds of channels that I will never watch/use. 

The mobile version doesn’t have a Guide at all. So the only way to schedule a recording is to do a search, pick from the Daily Picks or the Most Popular. This works well, but it brings up another issue (actually the same issue). Let’s say I do a search for “The Unit”.

It comes right up (very fast performance so far), however, since I can’t limit my search/account to just my favorite stations, it comes up with “The Unit” on channel 14. Channel 14 in my area is the old analog/basic standard def cable channel for CBS.

The channel I would rather record this show on would be channel 233, which is CBS HD in my area. I can choose to “view upcoming episodes” and it will then list the one I want on 233. This isn’t bad as an extra step.

However, I ran into a problem trying to do a Season Pass this way. I did my search and then chose to create a Season Pass. I saw that it was using the standard def station, so I then chose to View Upcoming Episodes, selected the same show on the HD channel and then completed my Season Pass. However, when I checked my TiVo HD, it had in fact created the Season Pass using the standard def channel. So for now I will not be using the mobile version of this site to do Season Passes. I also expect this problem to go away one way or the other by February 2009 when all stations are required to broadcast in digital. I expect those old basic cable channels to go away and this this won’t be an issue. The ultimate though would be for TiVo.com to just allow me to limit searches to my favorite channels. 

On a good note, I’m very happy that this mobile version seems to do a good job of keeping logged in. It’s a pain having always key in a user name and password. The desktop version of the site can’t even keep me logged in, so I’m pleasantly surprised that the mobile version can. I’m also happy that the mobile version allows me to choose which one of my TiVo HD’s to record to.

 

m.tivo.com added to the Home Screen

 

The Bottom Line

In all fairness, this mobile version of TiVo.com is listed as a “Beta”, so perhaps they will take my feedback and make improvements. If you have a TiVo Series 2 or Series 3/HD and a mobile phone (doesn’t require an iPhone), then you can’t go wrong with giving it a try. Although I can pull up the full version of the tivo.com site on my iPhone, this mobile version is sooooooooo much easier and faster. As good as the Safari browser is on the iPhone, I wish that ALL companies would offer mobile friendly versions of their websites. It’s just makes it easier and faster to get to the info we need. Less is more.

Netflix Streaming Coming to a TiVo HD Near You!

My TiVo HD seems to be the gadget that just keeps on giving. The newness hasn’t even worn off my New LG BD300 Blu-ray player that streams Netflix, and bam TiVo announces a partnership with Netflix to bring streaming to the boxes I already own. Am I mad? No. I simply returned the LG to Bestbuy and bought another Sony instead. The LG does cost about $100 more than the Sony BDP-S350 (which has dropped down to $253.99) that I like so much, so It was a no-brainer to return it and just wait for the TiVo software update.

I’m very happy to see Netflix expand their service to more players. They also announced that they will be streaming HD movies to the Xbox 360. While I’m not in the market for an Xbox, I’m hoping that that HD streaming also makes its way to the TiVo HD as well! 

As soon as the TiVo gets updated with Netflix streaming I’ll report back on how it works. If you have a TiVo Series 3, TiVo HD or TiVo HD XL there is nothing you have to do. You’ll get this new feature via a software update that will automatically download to your TiVo. Also there will be no additional cost to your TiVo or Netflix service. Stay tuned for more…

 

In the meantime…

Netflix has finally made it’s movie streaming service compatible with Macs. Check it out here.

LG BD300 Blu-ray Player with Netflix Streaming

 

 

It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed the new Sony BD-S350 Blu-ray player and I’m still quite happy with it. However, I was intrigued by the NEW LG offering. The New LG BD300 Blu-ray Player can also stream Netflix movies. As a Netlfix subscriber, the only thing that I don’t like about the service is having to wait for the discs in the mail. Otherwise, I’m in love with Netflix. So when Netflix started offering movie streaming at no additional cost, it got my attention. When the service first rolled out, it only worked on Windows PC’s. While I can certainly boot into Windows on my Mac, I just wasn’t inclined to. It actually had nothing to do with running Windows. It was more about the selection of available streaming titles. While Netflix has over 100,000 titles on DVD (many on Blu-ray), there were only a handful at the start, available for streaming. As a matter of fact I normally have anywhere from 70-90 DVD titles in my queue at any given time. I was shocked to only see 4 out of the 90 titles in my queue available for streaming! Those 4 were older titles that I want to see at some point, but not anything new or urgent. 

Today, things are a little better. First off, there are more titles. Netflix is boasting over 12,000 Movies and TV shows for streaming.

 

Still only a small percentage of my queue is available for streaming

Still only a small percentage of my queue is available for streaming

 

 

Out of my 100+ DVDs/Blu-rays, these are available for streaming

Out of my 100+ DVDs/Blu-rays, these are the only ones available for streaming

 

 

 

Secondly Netflix has authorized hardware manufacturers to build the Netflix streaming technology in. The first box that I saw was the Roku. This $100 box has one purpose. It connects to your TV and your internet connection and streams movies from the Netflix service. That’s it! Again, I thought this was cool, but I wasn’t ready to spend $100 to only watch a handful of titles. So I waited. I then saw the New LG Blu-ray player. This “Network”  Blu-ray player sports all the latest and greatest advancements in Blu-ray technology including BD-Live support. However, it offers one more thing and that is Netflix streaming.

Since I was in the market for one more Blu-ray player at some point for my living room, I decided to move the Sony BD S350 to the living room and put the new LG in my theater. 

 

Netflix streaming

The New LG player is very easy to setup for Netflix streaming. Once you have it connected to your network, you choose the Netflix menu option, you’re given a 5 digit activation code.

You go to your computer and log in to your Netflix account and key it in. By the time I made it back to the theater room (not sure why I didn’t just take my laptop in there with me), there was a message waiting that my account was ready to go.

 

Streaming a movie was as simple as selecting it and hitting the OK/Play button. The movie starts playing in about 15-30 seconds (this will depend on the speed of your internet connection. I’m on a fast cable connection).

You can pause, fast forward or rewind any movie that’s playing. You can stop it and it will remember where you left off the next time you go to play it.

 

Streaming Picture quality and sound

Although the sound was really good, it was only stereo and not surround sound. As for the picture quality, it’s on par with standard def DVDs. I’ve now streaming movies from iTunes, Amazon Unbox and Netflix and I would say of the three iTunes is best, Netflix is a close second and Amazon is last in terms of image quality. Also no glitches in streaming. The movie streamed back smoothly.

 

16:9, Widescreen, HD

The Netflix movies that you stream are NOT in high def. Although I knew this going in, I expected them to all be at least widescreen (with the exception of titles that were never widescreen). I was shocked that the first couple of titles I tried were NOT playing in widescreen. As a matter of fact they even looked a little squished. It was like they were widescreen titles that were being forced into a 4:3 format.

 

"Right at your Door" playing back at 4:3 aspect ratio

“Right at your Door” playing back at 4:3 aspect ratio

 

 

I was really disappointed thinking that they they just didn’t stream in widescreen. A quick Google search lead me to see that they do in fact stream in widescreen. So I called Netflix tech support. The tech did confirm that “some” titles stream in widescreen. So I asked him to give me the name of a title that he knows to stream in widescreen. He told me to try “The Mummy.” I went back to my computer and added that movie to my queue (there is no search on the player itself). It was there waiting to be played by the time I walked back to the theater room. I played it and it was not playing widescreen either. The tech put me on hold and while he was checking on this, I tried a couple more titles. The next one I tried was “Glory” and low and behold it did fill the screen in widescreen format.

 

"Glory" streaming in widescreen

“Glory” streaming in widescreen

 

 

When the tech came back to the line, I informed him that it was working with certain titles. We still couldn’t figure out whey The Mummy was working for him, but not for me. Again, I’m not ecstatic that only some titles play 16:9 and some don’t. Even some of the newest titles were playing back in 4:3 format! I can live with it for now, but I want this to improve! The Netlfix tech informed me that they have no control over it. They only get one format from the movie houses and that’s the format they stream. I’m hoping that this situation will improve as they bring more titles online. In my quick tests only a couple of the ones in my queue played back widescreen.

 

It’s a Blu-ray player and more

Remember that the main purpose of this box is to play Blu-ray discs. It does a fine job at that with no complaints. I popped in Iron Man and the disc loaded very quickly.

 

"Iron Man" playing back from Blu-ray
"Iron Man" playing back from Blu-ray on the LG BD300

 

It also upconverts standard def DVDs to HD. The minute I connected the player up, there was a firmware update waiting.

This player connects to your network via Ethernet. So you will need either an ethernet drop near your TV or an Ethernet to Wi-Fi bridge (which I have not tested). It would be great if these Blu-ray players either came with Wi-Fi built-in or at least offered a low cost external option like the one available for TiVo HD.

There is also a USB 2 port on the back of the player. This allows you to hook up USB hard drives or thumb drives to handle content such as pictures or music. Since I use an Apple TV for pictures and music, I don’t really have a need for this on the LG, but it’s there if you need it.

 

The Bottom Line

If you need a Blu-ray player AND you have a Netflix account, this is your player! It’s about $100 more than the Sony BD S350 (it’s much cheaper now at $266), which you could argue is the same price as the Roku box. However, having the Netflix streaming combined with a Blu-ray player means only having to worry about connecting and controlling one device. Also since there are never enough HDMI or Optical Audio ports to go around, less is more! Another thing to ponder is that since there is no additional charge to use the Netflix streaming service if you already have a Netflix account, it’s like Netflix is maintaing a growing on-demand video library that is accessible to you whenever you want without you physically having to store the media.

No one service has it all (yet). Each one has the pluses & minuses. Overall, the combination of iTunes and Apple TV seems to be leading the pack (HD Movie Rentals and TV shows, iPod, iPhone, computer and TV compatibility, Streaming and Downloading options, no subscription fees). If Netflix could wrangle more titles loose from Hollywood in a streaming format, add HD and 5.1 surround options, they would be best. Amazon’s Unbox with TiVo HD is a nice option too. Nothing beats the quality of a Blu-ray disc though. So media will be around a little while longer, which is what keeps me going back to Netflix. Nope, none of these services is strong enough to stand on its own yet and that’s why I have Netflix, iTunes/Apple TV, TiVo HD and HBO HD via Comcast. As soon as one gets it right, I’d be glad to give up all the rest.

Best Buy has the LG BD300 for $349. Netflix plans start at $4.99/month (note that the $4.99/month plan only allows for 2 hours of streaming. All other plans allow unlimited streaming).

TiVo HD XL is here

I’m a TiVo junkie! There’s just no other way to say it. I’ve had TiVo service for years and years now. Originally I had DirecTV TiVo units (and I still have a few), sadly though DirecTV and TiVo parted ways (they are coming out with a new box in late 2009 though). So I never got the benefits of TiVo Series II. Luckily TiVo came out with TiVo HD for Cable Customers and I was all in! Technically TiVo HD is TiVo Series III (outrageously expensive and I refused to buy it!), which has all the benefits of TiVo Series II including TiVo-2-go which allows you to transfer your TiVo recordings to your computer, take them with you, burn them to DVD or transfer them to your iPod/iPhone. With TiVo HD you also get the benefit of transferring your shows between TiVo boxes.

I was all set with two TiVo HD boxes. I had one in my Theater room and one in my bedroom. There was one more place that I wanted to put a TiVo box and that was in the living room. I had a Comcast (Motorola) DVR there along with the original DirecTV (non-HD) TiVo box there. Redundant I know, but I couldn’t wean my family off the TiVo interface. They would rather watch their recordings in standard def, than use the Comcast box, which supports HD. I always intended to replace both of those boxes with a TiVo HD, but just never got to it until now. I saw the announcement for TiVo HD XL. This is basically a TiVo HD with 3 additional features: you get a 1 Terabyte hard drive (as opposed to 250GB), THX certified sound and a fancier backlit remote control. Since I use Harmony One remotes, I could care less about the better remote that’s just going to sit in my drawer anyway. I was more interested in the better sound and the larger storage capacity. I don’t really keep a lot of shows on my DVR, but I have been burned a couple of times wanting to watch a show again that had already been deleted to make room for new recordings. So having a larger drive means that the shows I record will stay on the drive longer before being deleted to make room for new content. Of course you can always mark a recording not to delete until you say so, but that means that you have to think about it ahead of time.

I bought the TiVo HD XL to actually replace the one in the Theater. I moved the Theater TiVo to the living room. Since they are all on the same network, this means that if there is a recording on one that I want to watch in another room, I can simply transfer it from one TiVo to the other.

Looking at the New TiVo HD XL from the outside you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The case is identical with the same connections as before. However, the startup sequence is new as you can see from the picture at the beginning of the post you get a nice THX startup surround sound sequence just like in the movies. Also the longer startup movie of the TiVo character jumping from TV show to TV show has been replaced by a shorter one with the TiVo icon just taking a couple of bows before you’re presented with your main menu.

 

Why TiVo?

One of my buddies asked me, "why did I like TiVo so much?" After all, your cable or satellite provider will in most cases throw in a FREE DVR just to get your business. Why would I pay hundreds of dollars for a TiVo box (let alone 3 of them) plus the fees for the TiVo service? It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain in writing. It’s all about the User Experience! I still have one Comcast box left in my office. I don’t watch TV in that location that often, so I’ll probably just keep it. However, there is NO COMPARISON when it comes to the user interface between TiVo and generic DVRs. It’s like asking a Mac user, "why do you like the Mac? Isn’t it just a computer?" Or like asking an iPhone user, "isn’t it just a phone?" Until you’ve used one, you wouldn’t understand. Could I get by with the generic DVR provided by Comcast? Sure. I just wouldn’t want to! With the Comcast box, I can’t transfer shows (easily) to my computer, I can’t transfer shows from one box to another. I can’t schedule a recording via the web (which surprises me!). I can do all of this with TiVo HD and more. Here’s a more detailed comparison.

TiVo has also partnered with Amazon. So you can not only record shows from your cable provider, but you can also download movie rentals and TV shows directly to your TiVo’s hard drive. You can also subscribe to Podcasts directly on your TiVo as well as stream music. I do all of this via Apple TV for a better experience, but it’s nice to know that it can be done all from the TiVo HD.

 

The Bottom Line

Should you upgrade to TiVo HD XL? If you already have a TiVo HD, there would be very little reason to replace it with the XL model. You’re not going to gain enough to make it worth while. You can already attach an external hard drive to the TiVo HD to increase the capacity (or even install a larger drive inside if you’re willing to void the warranty) and if you wanted a backlit remote, there are better options out there. However, if you’re looking to add a TiVo to your setup, then the TiVo HD XL is worth considering. If you do decide to go TiVo HD or the HD XL, it will require that your Cable company come out and install a CableCARD in your TiVo HD box. This will decode your digital/HD and premium channels. This is actually the main reason I hesitated getting a 3rd one. My first two CableCARD installs by Comcast required multiple visits and was quite frustrating. Luckily this time the multi-stream CableCARD worked the first time! The Cable Installer and I were both floored!

TiVo HD gives you 20 hours of HD recording (or 180 hours of standard def) and goes for $299.99

TiVo HD XL gives you up to 150 hours of HD recording and goes for $599.99

Currently there is no support for Cable Video on Demand.

Now bring on LOST, 24, and Battlestar Galactica! I’m ready!

 

My favorite TiVo hack – Enable a 30 second skip button

We all hate watching commercials on our recorded shows. Although TiVo doesn’t currently allow you to automatically skip them during recording, there is a way to enable your skip button to skip 30 seconds (the average length of a commercial) at a time.

  1. Play any recording
  2. Press Select – Play – Select – 3 – 0 – Select
  3. You’ll hear 3 dings

Now your Skip button on your remote will skip 30 seconds ahead each time you press it.