‘Digital TV’ Category

 

Why you should worry about WRC-15

Over on The Register I’ve written about why WRC-15 matters. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s a conference where decisions are made about the frequencies that countries can use for broadcasting and other purposes.

And one of the agenda items for WRC-15, which takes place in November next year, could spell the end for Freeview in the UK, giving up the frequencies to mobile phone companies.

If you, or people you know, rely on Freeview, then you should read the article, and respond to the Ofcom consultation, to let them know that you think it’s important we still have a viable free to air digital TV service.

Without Freeview, many of the less well off in the UK would have no option other than to replace their equipment with satellite for Freesat, or to pay either a broadband or subscription TV company for access to services that, for now, they can enjoy without an additional monthly fee.

Read the article here

 
 
 

Netflix on Roku – is it hanging for you?

Since I’ve had it, my Roku 2XS has generally been very stable; I can use it for hours a day watching Netflix, in high definition, without any problems. For the last ten days, however, it’s been nothing but trouble, Netflix support has been useless, and I’ve had to resort to spending the evening watching old Laserdiscs – until with the help of other Roku users on Twitter, we worked out a solution, which seems so far to have eluded Netflix themselves.

The problem

The problem has manifested in a straightforward way – when I select the Netflix channel on the Roku box, it hangs at the splash screen. Other channels on the box work fine. On one occassion, I got in, watched a show, and at the end was dumped to the Roku menu, and unable to get back in again.

Tweeting about it brought absolutely no response from Netflix for over a week, though their various accounts seemed quite happy to gush to people who were asking questions about what shows were coming – leaving me pretty frustrated.

It stopped working on a Saturday; Sunday and Monday didn’t work either, despite rebooting the box, uninstalling the channel, reinstalling it, updating firmware. And then it sprang back into life; at this stage, my box had firmware 5.5 build 320, and Netflix 3.1 on it. Since I only noticed versions after the updates, I can’t say at which point things broke, unfortunately.

All was looking good – until the following weekend, when it broke again. Again, to a deafening silence from the Netflix twitter accounts. By now, various other users had contacted me on Twitter to say they were having exactly the same problem. One of them had even been told by Netflix Customer Service that it was a known issue on Roku that was being looked into. A shame they didn’t see fit to share that with other customers; I’d have been considerably less disappointed if they’d simply tweeted “we know about this; we’re working on it” instead of ignoring every comment.

Matters weren’t helped by calling the customer service line, prompted by an eventual response to one of my tweets, which suggested I did so. The rep I spoke to agreed I’d done all the right things, and called up my account details, and told me she’d have to put me on hold for a minute while she spoke to the engineers about it. A minute turned into more than three quarters of an hour, after which I hung up because there’s only so much plinky plonky guitar hold music a man can stand.

Tracking it down

Fortunately, the other users of twitter were much more helpful when it comes to solving this, and Julie Brandon (@geekycow) wondered if it was a DNS problem. Even better, she did A/B testing, and discovered that Netflix would reliably hang if her network was configured to use the Google DNS servers, rather than her ISPs.

She then set up a DNS proxy to capture the traffic and see what was doing on, and you can see the results here. In short, when using Google DNS, the box never gets as far as the content delivery network; exactly why is unclear, but in the working trace, redirects-eu.nccp.netflix.com and api-eu.netflix.com are never looked up, so perhaps there’s something odd going on there – and certainly it’s only EU customers who have mentioned this problem to me. I checked the settings on the router that my Roku’s connected to and discovered that I had two DNS servers configured in it, one on my ISP, and one Google one that I’d put in for backup. I removed the Google server, restarted the router and the Roku, and everything’s back to normal.

What to do

If you’re suffering from the Netflix app hanging when it starts, first make sure that you have up to date firmware on your Roku (and see update 2 below, too); earlier versions ignored what your router told them about DNS, as this exchange explains:

Then, check your router for the DNS settings it uses; it may pick them up from your ISP, which is probably going to be fine, but if there is an entry that says either 8.8.8.8 or 8.8.4.4, then you’re using a Google DNS server. (Update: soe have also reported this problem using OpenDNS servers, which are 208.67.220.220 and 208.67.222.222). Remove any entries that match the ones I’ve listed, and either leave it blank (and hope the router gets info from your ISP) or change it to the address of your ISPs own servers. Restart the router, and power off the Roku too. When it starts up, it should get the new DNS severs, and hopefully you’ll be back to normal; in my case, I noticed that the app starts much faster too, fetching the catalogue a lot sooner than it had been doing recently.

(One other tweak, suggested to my colleague Bob Dormon at The Register, is to disable network ping; I’ve not had to do this, but you can turn it off on the Roku via the service menu; to reach that press Home five times, followed by FF, Play, RW, Play, FF, *. That menu also allows you to reboot from the comfort of your armchair, incidentally.

So far, so good. It’s only a while since I did the tweak, and last week the service was up and down anyway – but hopefully this will turn out to resolve the problem for other Netflix & Roku users, in which case many thanks to Julie for tracking it down, a task that she did far, far better than Netflix Customer Service, whose sole contribution appears to have been to keep me on the phone for 50 minutes, and deduct a paltry £1.50 from my next bill.

Update: some ISP DNS servers may have problems too, it seems. Here’s info about finding alternatives:

Update 2: there’s now a new update to the Netflix app on Roku which apparently fixes this issue too. Thanks to Roku forum user craigski for pointing me to this, and no thanks, as ever, to Netflix Customer Support, who still haven’t got back to me.

The new version of Netflix, confusingly, still identifies itself as Version 3.1 12th July in the screens you normally see on the Roku, but it should if you go into the software update option, it should update itself and, hopefully, get you back up and running, whatever your DNS settings. I won’t speculate on whether it’s laziness or a desire to pretend this never happened that has it calling itself a 12th July update, when it was released almost a week later.

You can find out exactly which version you have via the Roku’s secret list of installed software. Press Home three times, Up twice, then Left, Right, Left, Right, Left. The first ‘July 12th’ Netflix update is build 6036, while the new working one is build 6037.

 
 
 

Social vs Communal – or why TV makers are wasting time with Twitter

This morning, fellow journo Steve May tweeted about the new range of Sony TV sets; one of the things he asked about was Sony’s new transparent Twitter bar:

 

I honestly can’t say that I’m a great fan either, and as I said, I think Twitter is very much something people want on a second screen, like a tablet or their mobile phone, rather than on the main screen. The TV companies seem to think because Twitter is popular, and people use it a lot when watching TV, then since their sets have internet connectivity, they should build it in. And honestly, I think they’re really missing the point. What they’re trying to do is to turn a social experience into a communal one. Very often those are different things.

So, I thought I’d try and set down my thoughts on why. This isn’t specifically aimed at Sony; other TV makers have tried to do Twitter too, with some bizarre results – Panasonic’s 2011 Twitter implementation was full screen, so you couldn’t watch a program at the same time!

At least in that respect, the new Sony overlay is an improvement. But what if you’re watching a programme that has subtitles, or a ticker at the bottom of the screen? Perhaps you can move it, I don’t know; but it’s certainly going to be irksome. And unless Sony has figured out a way of composing a tweet easily, that problem too remains to be solved.

I don’t know, either, if you are forced to have your whole timeline scrolling past, or if you can select a specific hash tag to follow – without that, a lot of people will find this pretty annoying. Not just because you won’t be able to focus on the tweets specific to the programme you’re watching, but because you might end up with something spoiled too; what if you’re recording something on another channel, and you don’t want to see twitter spoilers? You might be out of luck.

But for me, I think the biggest problem is this confusion of social and communal. Yes, of course there are a lot of single person households, and they won’t face this issue as much, but a lot of people do still watch TV in groups. Even single people have been known to have parties for the Eurovision Song Contest.

And will everyone watching at the same time want the distraction of an on-screen twitter feed?

In my experience (perhaps I’m just weird), I very probably won’t want someone watching while I laboriously compose a message using the TV remote. I’d far rather my witty repartee appears, fully formed, so that everyone can smile in wry amusement at the same time. Using the TV to do that is a bit like having to stand at a blackboard and write your joke out laboriously, hoping that some smart-alec at the back isn’t going to shout out the punchline before you finish.

I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only person who may have more than one twitter account, used for different things. In my case, one of them is definitely smuttier than the other, but I might well be using both at the same time. The lewder comments about hotties in the song contest will go to one account, the more innocent to another. And just because I’m in the same room as someone doesn’t necessarily mean that I want them to see everything that I view on twitter.

Putting the feed on the screen like this is like putting it up on a noticeboard; everyone can read it. They can see whom you follow, or interact with. And yes, unless you have a private account, they could go on the web and do the same – but they’d have to make a conscious effort, and they probably won’t actually bother, because they have better things to do.

On the TV, though? The fact you’ve just interacted with a porn star is floating past, right in front of their eyes. It may be a perfectly innocent comment about the Bulgarian entry, but even so… Some things might not be secrets, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re things you choose to share with everyone in your living room.

Your phone or tablet can manage all this much better; you can easily switch between accounts, follow hash tags, mute particular topics, and tailor the experience in ways that a TV simply isn’t going to offer, unless the interface becomes even more complex. There’s certainly a place for social media in TV – but it’s really about people interacting about or with the shows. Not about using the TV screen to replace your phone or tablet, when it’s already busy with showing you the programme.

Social media isn’t, generally, a private experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a wholly public one, either. It seems to me that by putting it on the TV screen, and making it communal, TV makers are just showing they don’t really understand the difference.

 
 
 

First generation Freeview kit is on the way out

It’s not really that long since Digital Switchover completed in the UK, but on the 16th of January 2014 we saw the beginning of the end for the first generation of the Freeview platform.

What’s happened? Al Jazeera Arabic. In itself, that might seem fairly unremarkable; it’s not the first non-english service, as there are already channels on the platform that cater to Welsh and Gaelic speakers. But this is the first standard definition broadcast channel that won’t be available to people who have original Freeview kit. And I’m willing to bet that it won’t be the last, either.

When Freeview originally launched, it used the DVB-T transmission standard, and the MPEG2 picture encoding. Both were the obvious choice at the time, and it’s still very easy to buy a TV – even one claiming to be ‘HD Ready’ – that is capable of receiving nothing else. There is a lot of this kit in UK homes, some of it bought specifically because switchover was coming.

Meanwhile, technology marched on, and Freeview HD launched, using the more modern and efficient DVB-T2 for transmission and MPEG4/H.264 for encoding. By and large, unless you wanted HD pictures, you didn’t need to worry about that – and the HD that’s available is a simulcast of existing SD services. By not having equipment that copes with the newer standards, you’re not missing out on any actual programmes, just better picture quality. Or at least, you weren’t, until this month.

The new channel is running on one of the new ‘temporary’ multiplexes that were set up last year. These have so far been used to provide extra HD services, like BBC Four HD, and Al Jazeera’s main news service in HD. I wrote in February last year that these were a stalking horse for, effectively, a second digital switchover.

Ofcom is keen (like the government in general) to sell anything it can. And that includes the spectrum presently used for TV broadcasting. The extra HD channels aren’t just because they’re feeling kind and fluffy. They’re because they want us all to have equipment that is capable of receiving DVB-T2/H.264, because ultimately, when they take away some of the spectrum that’s used for TV now, and sell it to spivs running mobile networks, the only way Freeview can maintain the level of service that it has – let alone add anything more – is by a wholesale switch to those newer standards, including for standard definition channels.

The only people who will be able to watch Al Jazeera Arabic on Freeview are those who have HD capable receivers, with DVB-T2 and H.264, even though it’s an SD only channel. Given the minority interest, most people probably won’t bat an eyelid at this. But make no mistake, this is the beginning of the end for your first generation Freeview kit.

That kit may not be as old as you think, either: a quick look at some online retailers today shows a fair bit of kit, especially at the smaller screen sizes, that still lacks a Freeview HD tuner, which means that it won’t pick up Al Jazeera Arabic, or any later channels using the same technology. More than ever, if you’re buying new kit, if you want to continue to receive terrestrial broadcasts in the UK, it’s essential it’s able to receive Freeview HD, because you’ll increasingly need the same technology for SD channels too.

 
 
 

Farewell TopUpTV

I must admit I’m a little late to the party on this, but I don’t recall seeing much fanfare at the time. In fact, I suspect a lot of people probably won’t even be really aware of what it was, let alone that it closed down at the end of October.

Back when it started, Freeview was relatively new, and not all the slots had been taken up. TopUpTV saw an opening and bought capacity – some of which belonged to Channel 5 – to provide a pay TV service for those who wanted a little extra compared to the standard Freeview offering. Channels included part time versions of UK Gold, and it was aimed at those people who had a set top box with a card slot. Specifically, those who had an old OnDigital box, since there weren’t many others around at the time with a slot. That was one of the considerations in my own choice of a Topfield PVR when they launched, as the CAM slot enabled me to get the extra channels.

With only a limited amount of space, and some channels broadcasting at slightly odd hours, TopUpTV wasn’t a roaring success, and things became progressively more difficult for it over the years. Perhaps, at first, many people understimated the success that Freeview would become, after the collapse of the subscription service that preceded it, but eventually those slots that TopUpTV used because quite appealing to other broadcasters, including Channel 5, and they slowly lost out on space, forcing them into a fairly radical course of action.

Push VOD

TopUpTV reinvented themselves as a ‘Push Video On Demand’ service at the start of 2007. With a specially designed box from Thomson, the main thrust of the service was overnight downloads; while capacity during peak viewing hours was expensive, it was easier to use space in the middle of the night, when channels were shut down. The new box allowed users to select channels, and new content from those channels was broadcast overnight, and automatically added to a library, ready to be watched later.

Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a weird idea, but remember that at the start of 2007, higher speed broadband services were only just being rolled out. An 8Mbps service from BT was £27 per month and the ‘Colossus’ backbone operated by BT still tied most people to 2Mbps. Even the BBC iPlayer wasn’t to officially come out of beta until the end of the year.

So, back then, this really did seem a novel, and interesting way to provide some extra content, but the capacity was still limited, so you’d only get selected shows from the channels you’d chosen, and if you didn’t like what was on offer, that was tough luck.

Freeview itself was busy working on innovations, and in the same year launched Freeview Playback, later to become Freeview+, and it took a while before functions like series link – seen by many as very important – made it to the TopUpTV box.

IPTV killed Push VOD

In 2010, Freeview HD launched; TopUpTV had no HD content, but they did fight back with the launch of Sky Sports, using their conditional access functionality to bring it to Freeview alongside EPSN. But that capacity problem, again – with limited space, dedicated sports fans would still need to find another way to be sure they could watch everything they needed to.

And waiting in the wings, there was even more competition. By now broadband was starting to offer much faster speeds. iPlayer was becoming well known, and LoveFilm was offering streaming to some of the first smart TV sets and games consoles.

With Netflix arriving in the UK at the start of 2012, more smart TVs, and services such as YouView plugging directly into iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Demand 5, it’s not hard to see why the TopUpTV proposition started to look a little ragged around the edges.

Sky doesn’t need a gatekeeper to provide access to their sports channels on Freeview any more; they can deliver them directly over the internet to equipment a NowTV box, which can also provide access to far more of the content from subscription channels than Push VOD ever could. If it was just a little extra that you wanted, then rather than taking what you happened to get from the selection available on a TopUpTV box, a subscription to Netflix would give you a huge catalogue of material to choose from, often in HD and with surround sound too – something that the SD Push VOD service would never be able to offer.

So, given the march of technology, it’s hardly a surprise, I suppose, to see TopUpTV stop broadcasting; and I’m not honestly sure it could have played out any differently – as Freeview itself took off, the only solution would have been to acquire more spectrum to broadcast more material, at considerable cost. Moving to MPEG4 might have fitted more in, but would have required investment in consumer equipment, and spending more on content, for a service that would only ever have been a poor relation to satellite or cable, yet would have needed a decent subscription income to remain viable. OnDigital never managed to square that circle, and I don’t think anyone else will.

It was an interesting experiment, which I suspect worked for different people at different times – the original linear service was good for me, back in 2004, but the PVR and Push VOD didn’t offer what I wanted, nor did the later sports offerings. But other people will feel differently. That the company reinvented itself to cope with the changing landscape is laudable. Ultimately, though, perhaps it was always doomed to be swept away by the technological tide.

TUTV Obituary at a516digital

 
 
 

Sky Store – or Acetrax revisited?

Around about a year ago, I wrote a piece over on The Register looking at the state of play with ‘Over the top’ video services – that’s those that provide an IP service; in the UK these are found on a variety of platforms, including smart TVs, YouView and the Roku box.

Back then, Sky’s NowTV was relatively new, and had briefly offered pay per view, a situation which, according to their PR, would resume in time. Meanwhile, it had a load of films available for your monthly subscription, as well as access to Sky Sports.

If you wanted to just watch a single film without being tied to a monthly fee, your main choices were Blinkbox (owned by Tesco) and Acetrax, which was present on rather more sets and, despite the “independent” label on the corportate website, actually owned by Sky.

That situation didn’t last terribly long, as in May of 2013, the closure of Acetrax was announced. Since the summer, Blinkbox has had things pretty much to itself in the OTT pay per view stakes. Sky, of course, is not a company to miss an opportunity, and so it’s no surprise that this month has seen the launch of Sky Store on various platforms. Available through the company’s HD set top boxes, it’s also available on the web, the NowTV box (itself a rebadged Roku model with custom software), YouView and Roku, which is what I’ve been using.

You need to sign up on the website at store.sky.com to use the service, unless you have an existing Sky or NowTV ID, which you can use instead. Roku users can then install it like another ‘channel’ on their box, and sign in via the remote; you can install it without signing up if you just want to watch trailers – sadly not available for all films – or browse through the collection.

What’s on?

Sky claims 1200 films available at start; I’ve not counted, but it looks pretty reasonable. There are clear categories (somewhat easier to access than Netflix on Roku, where the categories shown seem to change and wander up and down the list), though of course some films appear in more than one – “Man of Steel” is both ‘Action’ and ‘Sci Fi’ for example; the latter category shows 150 films, and prices per rental range from 99p to £3.49.

It’s good to see recent films like that, alongside”Star Trek: Into Darkness”, “Pacific Rim”, “World War Z” and others; you don’t get such up to date fare on Netflix in the UK. However, there’s plenty of back catalogue too, and that’s where you may need to pay careful attention, as it could be all to easy to click and watch something that’s actually available on Netflix – like “Thor” or “Captain America” – and instead pay £1.99 to watch, a problem that may be exacerbated by the differing artwork that you’ll sometimes see for the same film on the two platforms. Clearly, there’s an opening somewhere for a web site that will help users work this out, much as Oric.com does for TV episodes; in the meantime, I’d advise those who do have Netflix to search for a film on that first, before checking Sky Store.

Watching

Viewing a film is pretty straightforward; select it from the browser, click the button to watch – which displays the price clearly – and then enter the PIN set on the website, to confirm the purchase.

One a purchase has been made, a film will appear in a library section of the site, so you can stack up a load of rentals in one go, and find them easily later. You have up to thirty days to start watching, on any device that’s linked to the account. However, once you start playback, the film is locked to the device on which you began to play – so you can’t start watching on the living room Roku, for example, and finish off with the laptop in bed. From the moment you start watching, a 48 hour countdown starts; watch as often as you like in that period – on the same device – and then you’re done. For occasional viewers, that’s probably fine, but some will doubtless find the restrictions a bit much – especially the inability to stop on one device and pick up again on another.

Quirks

While the overall picture quality is pretty good on my broadband – the web page says you need at least 2.5Mbps – it’s not exactly HD. The web site is pretty vague on this too, and says simply “Our movies are the same quality as a DVD” which isn’t a lot of help. That said, the ones I’ve tried so far are perfectly watchable. What’s more annoying, however, is that there’s no surround sound, even on a new release like Man of Steel; doubly annoying, since the Roku hardware is certainly capable of it, so you may find yourself reaching for the ‘Pro Logic’ button or one of the ‘Cinema’ modes on your surround sound amp.

For the hard of hearing, another blow is the lack of subtitles; this is strictly a no-frills experience. That even extends to some of the most basic functionality, fast forward and rewind. Don’t panic – you can do both. But, at least on the Roku implementation, you’ll be doing them with the only indication that something is happening being the elapsed time counter at the bottom right of the screen. Yes, that’s right – fast forward and rewind on Sky Store has less functionality than a VHS recorder; you’ll be effectively blind, and when the picture returns you’ll quite likely need to guess from your knowledge and memory of the film whether you’ve gone too far, or not far enough.

Overall

It’s no surprise that, after the closure of Acetrax, Sky has decided to get back into the pay per view OTT area, and there’s probably a better range of films for the UK than Acetrax ever managed. There’s a certain logic, too, in separating this out from the content that’s available on NowTV, in that users who have both will always be pretty clear what’s going to be included in their subscription, and what’s going to cost them, though I can’t say I’m 100% convinced by that.

But, while the film browser is certainly less clunky than the current Netflix experience on Roku, in my opinion it’s let down somewhat by the lack of HD, surround sound and subtitles, and the shocking inability to see the picture when using fast forward and rewind.

Some films are priced pretty reasonably, though at £3.49 for a recent release, I really would have expected surround sound; I’d put up with just ‘DVD quality’ for that. I’d be less happy if I ended up paying £1.99 to watch something that I could have seen included in my Netflix sub, where it would likely be in HD with surround sound and subtitles.

Overall? A useful addition for those who want a bit extra, especially recent movies without a monthly subscription, but for now, Sky Store definitely needs polishing.

 
 
 

Buying a TV in the UK? No need to give your address any more

Some of you may already know this, but it’s worth remarking on the passing of one of the quirks of the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1967). This was the Act of Parliament that required anyone renting or selling TV receivers to collect name and address details, and pass them on to the TV licensing authorities.

As part of the current government’s desire to streamline things for business, this requirement has been abolished, with effect from the 25th of June this year. So, if you’re buying a TV, video recorder, set top box, or any of the bits of kit that used to prompt a demand for your address in the past, it’s no longer necessary.

I’d be interested to hear if stores are up to speed on this; I’m sure some are. And I’m equally sure that if some could get away with it, they would try and use this requirement to harvest your data for their own reasons too.

The Impact Assessment for this decision is worth a read; one curious thing – to me at least – is that in the cost implications, because the BBC isn’t a business or a ‘civil society organisation’, whatever that is, then costs it incurs don’t count, whereas savings to retailers do. A brief announcement of the change is on the TV Licensing web site.