October 22, 2018

TiVo, AppleTV, Boxee, and the future of HD television delivery

I don’t watch as much TV as I once did. Yet, I’m still paying Comcast every month, as they’re the only provider who will sell me HD service compatible with my TiVo-HD. Sadly, Comcast is far from ideal. I’m regularly frustrated at their inability to debug their signal quality problems. (My ABC-HD and PBS-HD signals are right on the edge, in terms of signal quality, so any slight degradation makes those channels unwatchable through the MPEG block errors, which seems to happen on an irregular basis.) Comcast customer service wants me to sit around all day waiting for a tech to come out when the problem has nothing whatsoever to do with my house. When I’ve attempted to report the signal strength measurements I’ve taken and how they vary from channel to channel, I’ve found I might as well be speaking to a brick wall.

Yes, I know I could put an old-school antenna on the roof and feed it into my TiVo. That would do pretty good for the local channels, but then why am I paying Comcast at all? Answer: for the handful of shows that we watch from cable channels. More than one person has asked me why I don’t just download these shows online and cut the cable. You can get Comedy Central programming from their web site. You can get all sorts of things from Hulu.com. All free and legal!

To that end, I’ve hacked my AppleTV with the latest patchstick, a remarkably painless process, and now my AppleTV, running Boxee, based on the open-source xbmc project, can play DVD rips from my file server (including DVD menus), just about anything I download from BitTorrent [see sidebar], and can get at content from a variety of streaming providers, including Comedy Central and Hulu.com, theoretically covering enough ground that I could legitimately consider dropping the Comcast subscription altogether.

In practice, the Internet TV experience was a let-down. I’ve got AT&T’s “Elite” DSL package (“up to 6Mb”, which is pretty close to what I see in practice), so I’ve got enough bandwidth for streaming. What I actually see is not utilizing that bandwidth. Comedy Central is not giving anywhere near 30 frames per second. It’s jumpy, unwatchable. Hulu has moments of greatness (i.e., higher resolution and quality relative to the non-HD channels that Comcast feeds me, but nowhere near broadcast HD) but Hulu also freezes up, sometimes for seconds at a time. If Boxee implemented TiVo-like Season Passes, they could download my shows in advance and yield a real winner of an experience. Or TiVo could implement Hulu support, as they already have batch downloads of Internet video content, mostly from Amazon, albeit with low SD quality and unacceptable self-destructing DRM.

Astute readers will note that I have several other options left to pursue. I could sign up for an unlimited Netflix subscription and have access to their streaming library (either to my TiVo or to my Boxee/AppleTV). I could also “subscribe” to the shows that I care about through Apple’s iTunes Store. (That’s how I’ve been watching Entourage, since I can’t otherwise justify the $20/month that I’d have to pay Comcast for HBO. See also the sidebar.)

Netflix doesn’t have the current TV shows that I want, and the iTunes store is pretty pricey. Those Entourage episodes are $2 each for 30 minutes of SD quality video. iTunes HD content, when available, is pretty much broadcast HD quality. Good stuff. iTunes SD content looks fine on an iPhone, but has a variety of problems on a proper HD set, most notably that any dark colors are pulled down to 100% black, presumably to improve compression. Very distracting. Regardless, friends I have with Netflix streaming seem to swear by it, and the iTunes Store clearly provides a good experience, albeit with high prices.

Clearly, Comcast is in deep trouble. Their product is expensive. Their customer service is lacking. Similar issues can be expected for other cable TV vendors, much less the satellite people. The Internet already has sufficient capacity to deliver the non-broadcast shows that I follow, directly to my TV. All the pieces are in place and they’re starting to work well together. The only missing piece is the business model for the future of online TV delivery. Hulu.com, for example, probably thinks they have to require video streaming so they can force you to watch ads. If you could download it, you could skip the ads and there goes their revenue.

I figure the one true hope in all of this is the ever-declining cost of serving up content. At some distant point in the future, the cost of delivering tens of megabits per second of video, for several hours every day, to all of the homes who might want it, will eventually be small enough to not matter any more. Once we get there, the people who make shows can sell them direct to the consumer, insert occasional and targeted ads, and still come out ahead. It could be a long wait.

[Sidebar: BitTorrent is a brilliant system, from a technical perspective, but it was never designed to provide any anonymity to its users. If you join the torrent for, say, an HBO show, HBO can trivially observe that you (or, at least, your IP address) is there, giving them grounds to go after you in one form or another. From that perspective, you’d have to be insane to download a mainstream movie or TV show from BitTorrent, or you’d have to do something terribly anti-social, like tunnel your entire BitTorrent session through Tor, which Tor was never designed to handle, although there are several designs to improve Tor or anonymize BitTorrent. So then, what shows do I feel safe to download via BitTorrent? So far, only the latest episodes of the BBC’s Top Gear. They air in the U.K. six months to a year ahead of their appearance on BBC America and availability on the U.S. iTunes Store. If there were a way to get these shows in the U.S. simultaneous with their British release, I’d happily pay for the privilege, even the $2 rate at the iTunes Store, but I’m not given that option at any price.]

Comments

  1. Boxee makes me smile whenever I see it, because of Boxxy.

  2. What I actually see is not utilizing that bandwidth. Comedy Central is not giving anywhere near 30 frames per second. It’s jumpy, unwatchable. Hulu has moments of greatness (i.e., higher resolution and quality relative to the non-HD channels that Comcast feeds me, but nowhere near broadcast HD) but Hulu also freezes up, sometimes for seconds at a time.

    Are you sure this is a bandwidth issue? What CC shows are you watching?

    I watch Colbert and Stewart regularly using CC’s web site. I use Hulu on a semi-regular basis, including watching my favorite “old show” Star Trek episodes, Dr. Horrible (the Joss Whedon project), and most recently to catch up on “The Last Episodes” of Battlestar Galactica (didn’t realize there _were_ any, until some had already aired).

    I’ve done this using broadband connections in two different locations (Seattle and Tucson) and not once have I ever had any on-going streaming issues. I’ve found both services to be very reliable, and the quality on Hulu is quite frankly stunning, considering it has to fit in my 3Mbps-down broadband link.

    Maybe it’s your AppleTV that is at fault here?

    My wife and I have been giving serious thought to just getting rid of subscription TV services completely. I watch very little TV anyway, and most of what she watches is on network TV, available over-the-air. I haven’t had a chance to look into a la carte options for the cable shows we watch — MythBusters, Dirty Jobs, and maybe one or two others — but I suspect that if we’re willing to wait until the end-of-season, we can move to a DVD-based solution. If that involves buying the actual DVDs, so much the better, as it means we trivially get a permanent copy of the show, rather than having to figure out bypassing DRM on a digital service to burn our own copies.

  3. You feel justified using bittorrent to make unlicensed copies of a brit TV show simply because you don’t want to wait six months to buy the licensed version from a legitimate distribution channel, but you won’t download an episode of House because you’re afraid you’ll get sued?

    *does not compute*

    Are the commercials stripped out of the Top Gear eps you’re downloading?

    The way the law stands today, anyone who downloads any digital content without a license is infringing copyright. But this clearly isn’t stopping lots of people from doing it anyhow. The movie and TV biz had better find a way to make legal P-2-P available to their fans, or else the fans are going to do the job for them. Pirate Bay isn’t going away.

  4. I’ve come to the similar conclusions that bittorent is simply far superior, you can get what you want, when you want, in the quality you want and don’t have it expire on you because the DRM server shuts down.

    I do agree with the previous poster that its a bit of a double standard to get Top Gear but nothing else although I suppose international lawsuits from the BBCs standpoint isn’t worth the effort. (or so I assume)

    I don’t own a TV for the sole reason that its a waste of time too watch things I’m not interested in, especially as I live in Sweden and virtually everything I watch is made in either Canada, UK or America and gets here anywhere from weeks to years late. Even if they were available on iTunes or similar there’s still all of these “you don’t live in the US” restrictions, even when they are free like in recent memory; Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

    You don’t have to use Tor though, you can rent a server in another country and tunnel through that. People who own seed boxes on private trackers do that and have been for years, it’s probably a fair amount cheaper than the obviously broken services you have tried.

  5. Also let’s not forget about game-changing devices like Popcorn Hour’s Products such as the A-110, with built-in BitTorrent support…. you can download torrents directly from your couch.

    As other posters said, the genie IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE. You cannot lock down digital media. Better the big media companies a) cut their costs (sorry Madonna, no more $50M recording contracts) and b) figure out a new way to sell & distribute their products.

    Even at $2 / show, that seems steep. I’d pay $9.95 for a season of “Weeds” or “Dexter”, but not $30. Decrease the price, increase the volume, profit.

  6. I’m doing the great “AppleTV Experiment” myself as well, but I cut the cord (well, threw away the Dish). To date, my findings mirror yours with some minor exceptions:

    That I know of, I can’t stream NetFlix to my Boxee’d AppleTV.

    The HD content on iTunes is anything between crappy and excellent. “Dirty Jobs,” perhaps the only show I was watching via satellite–and hence not worth $15 per episode–has had crappy quality, SD at best. That’s been disappointing so far.

    I would love to see Boxee implement a TiVO-like subscription feature, but I’d take store-and-watch-later anytime if they could implement it for any of the “channels.” Hulu is pretty crummy as it seems that the streaming plus decoding requires too much processor power. Same for just about everything else.

    So far, I’m happy enough to rip DVDs to a Mac in the house which shares video with the AppleTV. That gives me quite a library of choices. Nothing recent, of course, and only a little more convenient than sticking the DVD into the player. But I do like my NetFlix subscription…

  7. John Millington says:

    The websites are intended for streaming (user interactively goes to a page and wants to watch right now), so they have upper limits to the bandwidth, and therefore, reduced quality.

    If you’re used to the Tivo experience, then you’re time-shifting, so you don’t need streaming. If it takes 4 hours in the middle of the night to download 40 minutes of video that you’ll watch the next day, that’s fine.

    Thus, I hope websites like hulu are either a temporary phenomenon, or a supplemental one. Ideally, video providers should release relatively high-def video by scheduling multicasts (or maybe torrent seeds or something like that) at pre-announced times, resulting in a distribution model similar to the old ways, in that this show will be “on” at this time (that’s when it’s most efficient (i.e. cheapest) to grab it).

    • John said: “Ideally, video providers should release relatively high-def video by scheduling multicasts (or maybe torrent seeds or something like that) at pre-announced times…”

      as I was commenting last night, I was thinking that one new model of vid distribution might be a subscribe-to-seed system, where the file is DRM-free and stripped of advertising but only clients that have paid the content distributor can participate in the swarm. So, $5/month buys access to all-you-can-watch, HD, high-quality torrent seeds.

      The problem with this plan is the same problem that often arises- how to stop free riders? The first paying subscriber who has a complete copy can turn around and re-seed that copy on a public bittorrent site, and then we’re right back where we started. the pay-to-play system would have a jump of at most a few hours on the free system, and the free system would have far more swarm members, possibly leading to even faster downloads than the paid system.

      The solution has to be social or moral, not technological- the content owners have lost the technology battle and there is no going back. The sooner they figure that out and move in a new direction, the happier everyone will be.

      • The solution has to be social or moral, not technological- the content owners have lost the technology battle and there is no going back. The sooner they figure that out and move in a new direction, the happier everyone will be.

        I agree that there’s not going to be an effective technological solution. “Technological solution” always means “DRM” and anyone reading this blog should know DRM never works.

        But, I’m not sure we have to rely on “social or moral” solutions, or even can. I doubt those would work. It’s human nature, and as appealing as Roddenberry’s (and others’) vision of the future for humanity can be, people are people and they will violate copyright laws when it suits them.

        I see two possible routes (again, neither of which should be surprising to readers of this blog…I don’t recall the specific citations, but I know I’ve seen these ideas here before):
        Change the business model so that rather than paying for the media content, which is easily copied, consumers pay for something that’s under better control of the content owners. The content becomes the marketing side of whatever other services are offered.Change the copyright laws so that copying media content isn’t illegal. In this model, content providers would have to be provided some other incentive for producing content; what this incentive is varies from specific idea to specific idea.

        Neither of these approaches are black-and-white concepts. In either case, we’ll probably see some combination of accepting some degree of piracy, as long as sales are acceptable. And in particular, in the first case, it’s not literally the case that the content will be only marketing, but rather that increasing value will be found in the associated aspects rather than the content itself, prompting enough people to pay for whatever is being sold.

        • John Millington says:

          “Technological solution” always means “DRM”

          Well, when lots of people use DRM, then lack of DRM can be seen as a technological solution. 😉

          When content providers compete with “pirates” and use DRM, they lose that competition by default, because the “pirates” offer a superior (more reliable, more interoperative) product. By adopting the technological advantage of DRM-less content, providers can become more competitive.

  8. I know Verizon can be just as bad (if not worse than) Comcast with many other products, but I’m a new FiOS TV customer (switched from Comcast) and I’m impressed. There are some technical hitches with TiVo (read about FiOS and attenuation on tivocommunity if you’re curious), but FiOS TV is impressive enough (over 100 HD channels – and while most people don’t appreciate the Pacific repeats of premium channels, for the TiVo-crazy household they can be handy for recording more movies and shows when your two tuners are already taken at a certain time) that I was willing to work through them. I think it comes down to Verizon being the new kid on the block in the cable world. I’m sure they’ll go downhill eventually, but hopefully not before they’ve pushed Comcast uphill to establish a better floor…

  9. Maybe it’s your AppleTV that is at fault here?

    I’m reasonably confident that my AppleTV / Boxee hack works just fine. For some shows, I get 30fps and reasonable quality. For others I don’t. My point was that I’ve got plenty of bandwidth on my end, so I suspect that Comedy Central simply isn’t serving up a high-quality stream.

    On the double standard issue

    I decided to disclose the one, particular show that I download via BitTorrent to make a point. Top Gear is a funny thing because it’s both entertainment and news. Their review of the Tesla Roadster, for example, was quite controversial and newsworthy. It was widely discussed in the automotive blogosphere. The only 100% legal way I could watch it, so far as I can tell, would be to get on a plane and fly to London. That seems a bit much.

    I contrast this with Entourage. Because it’s less timely (to me, anyway), I’m just fine with watching it six months behind real-time, and thus paying the $1.99/episode at the iTunes Store rate than the $20/month expense of subscribing to HBO. Still, they give me options and I chose the one that works best for me. I don’t go the BitTorrent route for Entourage, even though it’s technically feasible.

    Life is full of these sorts of double standards. Do you occasionally drive above the speed limit? Fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign? Do you have any home-made mix CDs or have you made mix CDs for friends? Have you used commercial recordings as background music in a home video of your kids?

    Are the commercials stripped out of the Top Gear eps you’re downloading?

    Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the British Broadcasting Company.

    • perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the BBC touche 😀

      I would hesitate to accept your analogy between traffic laws and copyright, but your questions about mix CDs are apropos. I would love to have the opportunity to argue that if we combine Sony and Diamond Multimedia, Americans have a right to use any method they please to obtain and watch a copy of any television program that has ever been broadcast over the air. Sony holds that time-shifting is explicitly legal for personal use. Diamond holds that format-shifting is explicitly legal for personal use. So as long as I’m making mix CDs for personal use, using music that has been publicly broadcast over the public airwaves, I don’t see how any court could find that use was unlawful. Same goes for making clip-show DVDs for personal use, or using BitTorrent to compile a library of, say, the first season of Heroes.

      This is NOT a double standard- driving over the speed limit is always unlawful. I think there is a defensible argument that downloading broadcast TV programs for personal, non-commercial use is legal. I realize the proposed argument, even if valid, doesn’t hold water when applied to subscription-only cable shows.

      • “I would hesitate to accept your analogy between traffic laws and copyright”

        Me too. Traffic laws actually have a legitimate purpose: public safety. Copyright, on the other hand, is nothing more than a monopolistic land-grab by rich, greedy corporations. Torrenting your BBC show doesn’t even rise (sink?) to the badness-level of running a stop sign then.

    • I’m not sure exactly what the performance of ATV is with Boxee, but I have heard that it can be a bit chunky due to the relatively low-end hardware. My wife and I have a 2.0 ghz C2Duo Mac Mini running Boxee (w/ an attached Drobo for storage), and our experience has been pretty great. Comedy Central DOES sometimes serve up lower-quality streams, but not very often, and generally rather than missing frames we see what is probably lower-res video (prob 480×320 or thereabouts, which looks terrible on a 52″ TV @ 1080i FWIW)

      As a double suggestion, watch what shows are available on Hulu through it (Daily Show and Colbert Report come to mind). Hulu’s streaming seems to be generally better in my experience. Also, if you set up a Hulu Account, you can log into it from within Boxee, and you will have access to things like bookmarked shows and your queue of new shows.

  10. On a related note, I stream Netflix and Hulu through PlayOn on my PS3 and it works well.

    I’ve been waiting years to watch HBO on Demand through Tru2way, but now I think canceling cable altogether is probably a better option.

  11. BBC content – eg Top Gear is provided “free” without commercials in the UK BUT over here we pay a compulsory license fee (Currently equivalent to about $200 per year – per household – free if you are over 75. )

    The BBC now provides free downloads in the UK via IPlayer – although there is some “timelimiting” DRM (which I believe was cracked very early). I guess you are receiving redistributions of these downloads. Since the BBC is a non-profit organisation I suppose that technically (as a license fee payer) I am one of the people that you are “stealing” off. Personally I think it would be sensible for the BBC to make Iplayer available worldwide in return for a paying the license fee (perhaps somewhat discounted). – but I guess they (we?) make more money from selling the hit shows to other broadcasters.

    Glad to here you like “Top Gear” btw….

  12. I figure the one true hope in all of this is the ever-declining cost of serving up content. At some distant point in the future, the cost of delivering tens of megabits per second of video, for several hours every day, to all of the homes who might want it, will eventually be small enough to not matter any more.

    I really hope this comes true, but I doubt it. Name me one single online music service or store that has ever offered CD quality (lossless) music. The only one I’m aware of was allofmp3.com, which didn’t pay royalties and was in and out of legal trouble for some time.

    Netflix HD streaming is good (5Mb/s). Still not as good as a bluray (54Mb/s) or broadcast HD (20Mb/s). This is understandable, since few people have 20-50+Mb/s downstream service in their home (unless they live in Japan). Hulu is atrocious, the 480p ‘high’ quality streams are 1Mb/s, and the standard streams are 480kb/s.

    It will be a few years before enough bandwidth is available to push high quality HD content into the home at speeds of 20-50Mb/s, but you are right: it will happen. We will likely gain more convenience for video content from the net, but I fear that quality will be artificially capped at 5Mb/s even long after we have 100+Mb/s service to our homes. In the music world, this happened because studio execs were fearful of selling ‘high quality’ downloadable content, combined with customers who don’t care enough to demand higher quality music.

    Unfortunately, I imagine in 30 years, CDs, DVDs, and Bluray will not exist, the highest quality music available will be 256kb/s, and the highest quality video content we will be able to get will be 5Mb/s. We do have some hope for convenience, I’m just not convinced that it’s worth it.

    • Unfortunately, I imagine in 30 years, CDs, DVDs, and Bluray will not exist, the highest quality music available will be 256kb/s, and the highest quality video content we will be able to get will be 5Mb/s.

      In 30 years, if storage density growth slows to doubling every three years, we’ll be able to store 2 petabytes in the space of a 3.5″ drive, and 100 terabytes in a compact flash sized device. You can fit all of the commercially available music in the US in about 15 TB, in CD quality (or about half that with lossless compression). What’s the point of compression if you can get all the music ever made by passing around a $50 piece of electronics? Bit rates will inevitably go up.

  13. Brett Glass says:

    Television is a remarkably bandwidth-efficient medium because it is a broadcast medium. Streaming TV, on the other hand, is incredibly wasteful, since it must consume bandwidth for every stream. Currently, in our area, backbone bandwidth costs $100 per Mbps per month at *wholesale*. Would you be willing to pay that price to be able to leave the TV on all day? Thought not.

    • Interestingly, AT&T’s U-Verse system, which competes with cable and satellite TV, operates by bumping your DSL bandwidth up to about 30Mb/sec. The consumer’s price is competitive with cable and satellite.

      U-Verse clearly demonstrates the technical feasibility of IP television. I have no idea what AT&T’s back-end support looks like to make U-Verse work, but it almost certainly involves some kind of content delivery network (CDN) to get the bits closer to the endpoints.

  14. Today Hulu announced you won’t be able to access their videos using Boxee starting later this week. Apparently content providers didn’t like the idea of people doing what Dan was suggesting. I’m guessing networks/studios can get a lot more money from cable/satellite providers and through their own ads than they can get from Hulu. So, they don’t want Hulu turning into an alternative for cable/satellite/OTA television. Without a nice 10 foot interface people are basically stuck watching Hulu directly on their desktop or laptop, which means most people probably wouldn’t use it as their main source for TV shows.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Miro (getmiro.com) uses http and BitTorrent and RSS to provide a TV-like experience whose back end is more like the Web, not locking down the providers or subscribers (into a “Hulu account”) or into any kind of content distribution network. You can subscribe to any RSS feed that includes video; the standards are well published (and e.g. the Internet Archive’s various video collections all offer RSS feeds you can use to browse newly uploaded material). The Miro nonprofit provides a “Channel Guide” which is an aggregator/browser for these RSS feeds, which can come from anybody anywyere. Everything arrives fully downloaded and without DRM. Some videos contain ads.

    Tiny providers can put up RSS that points to BitTorrent, seed it, and if it becomes popular, the clients will feed each other. Big players can put up RSS that points to http, and buy bandwidth (Brett, shop around; 1GB backbone transit for $3000 is expensive nowadays). Miro doesn’t EVER stream; it downloads and then you play videos from your cache on your hard drive. It throws them away at a user-settable time after you watch them, and you can always manually save or delete any video. The RSS channels that you “subscribe to” (pick) are polled periodically and you can set it to automatically download new videos as they appear, or merely download their descriptions and let you later pick which ones to download. It keeps track of the already-downloaded stuff, which you watch.

    There’s lots of real HD quality stuff, since it’s not limited by streaming bandwidth. Try watching the Obama channel in HD (http://www.whitehouse.gov/rss/speeches.xml). And don’t forget http://feeds.theonion.com/OnionNewsNetwork !