Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dumping Dish (How I Cut the Cord)

A while back my Dish Box died so I called Dish to upgrade. They were advertising the Hopper whole house DVR with free installation and free equipment, and free HD for life. However, when I called I was told that offer was available to "new customers" only. Since I had been a loyal Dish customer for over 15 years I figured they'd be willing to throw me a lil' sumptin-sumptin to keep me happy. So I haggled with them over the phone and after a while we worked out a deal where I would pay full price for everything, including installation of the HD satellite. Yep, they even agreed to let me pay an extra $10 a month for the privilige of receiving programming in HD (which only amounted to about a third of the total channels I got).  They were even nice enough to arrange it so I could pay an additional $8 a month to use the DVR function of the dish box they sold to me (at full retail price). My Dish bill went from $50 a month to over $120 a month.

Then I got an Amazon FireTV box. I installed every free channel App I could find and with Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime costing around $10 each, my total streaming bill is only $30 a month for a whole lot of on demand programming.  So why was I paying Dish $120 a month? I started keeping track of the shows I actually watched on Dish and realized I wasn't watching very much "live" TV. In fact, 99% of it was DVR'd, and even those shows were on major network channels.  However, I wasn't ready to cut the cord just yet. My first experiment was to buy a 1byOne over-the-air (OTA) antenna ($35). I plugged the antenna in the TV and let it rip. I was amazed to find that it picked almost 30 channels, including all of the major networks. I got Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS in high definition! In addition to that, each network has at least two "sub channels" in standard definition that show movies, game shows, etc. I also got a whole host of independent channels.

The biggest drawbacks to going OTA only, IMHO, are the lack of a program guide (remember the old days of looking up TV listings in the paper?) and being able to record shows without dragging out the ancient VCR. Fortunately I had bought a stand alone DVR several years ago, but without a program guide it was really no better than a VCR. About a week later, while rearranging some of my equipment, I realized the DVR also had a TV tuner built into it. That meant it could record programs other than what was on Channel 3. In other words, it could change channels on it's own and record Judge Judy at 4:30 on one channel and then Saturday Night Live at 10:30 on another channel. It was like living in modern times again.

But I still wasn't confident in pulling the proverbial plug with Dish just yet. The set up I had worked but it wasn't ideal. The DVR only recorded one channel at a time and did not handle HD, although it does have a DVD player built in, and the program graphics were something akin to Microsoft DOS. I wanted something similar to my Dish box where I could click thru a menu and select programs to add to a recording schedule or simply watch now. I also wanted one box, one remote.  What I didn't know at the time is that something like that has existed for years. It's called a "Media Center". In fact, if you have a computer running Windows 7, 8.1, or Vista you already have it. It's called Windows Media Center and apparently it was the most popular, solid media center around. I said "was" because Microsoft has decided that it doesn't want you to use it anymore and they've done just about everything in their power to disable it. No more program guide, no more Netflix integration, etc.  However, that did lead me on the search for something similar.  After trying in vain to find a "live TV" app (that actually worked all of the time), or even just a local program guide for FireTV I gave up and decided to go the route of the Media Center. I still have, and still use my FireTV box though (more on that later).

I realized that if I got a dedicated computer I could load all of my music, home movies, and pictures on it. Plus, computers come with DVD drives so I can watch movies, and when connected to the internet I can stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others. All I needed to do was add a TV Tuner card and I can watch TV as well. Simply connect the computer to the TV via an HDMI cable and BAM! a media center is born. Now all I needed to do was to find the right software to run it all - and that's the hard part. I started reading forums and blogs to see what everyone was talking about.

MythTV caught my eye because it was well adapted to Ubuntu and I liked the idea of sticking it to Microsoft by not using their OS. But having used Linux for years I was well aware of the short-comings of trying to get things like Netflix to work reliably, and without a lot of hacking. However, I couldn't get past the fact that the "news" blurb so prominently displayed on the home page was over a year old, as were several other "announcements" on the site. Next, I checked out Kodi (XBMC) which ironically is based on Microsoft's defunct Media Center (XBMC is/was Xbox Media Center) and it seems to have a very active user-base, which means people are discussing it, programming hacks for it, etc. However when I tried to visit their website Google had it flagged as "harmful" for some reason.  Since then that flag has been removed, but it's still a crap-shoot if the site will even load when I try to visit it. After finally visiting the site it seems you still need a 3rd Party "backend" to view and record TV so I chose to move on.

I read some good things about NextPVR and downloaded a copy of it. I didn't spend a whole lot of time playing with it though and it relied heavily on a built in web browser for TV Guide and other functions (which may not necessarily be a bad thing, just wasn't what I was looking for at the time.) From there I went on to MediaPortal and it was a hefty program. I installed the most recent version (MediaPortal 2) and it was slick and they have a well documented installation guide. (I might have to revisit this one!)

Instead, I stumbled across JRiver Media Center and after kicking the tires I decided I liked the look and feel of it best. Unlike all of the other programs I mentioned above (which are free) only JRiver is a paid program. It cost $50 to purchase, but I felt like a paid program that was generating income for someone would receive more attention in the way of updates, bug fixes, etc., than a free, open-source program maintained by enthusiasts. Of course that's in complete contrast to my love of Linux, so go figure.

JRiver has an active user forum and is constantly releasing updates, patches and improvements. The downside is that much of the online documentation is either out-dated, tries to cover too many versions, or is just really sparse. One of their Wiki Pages simply re-listed the menu items under a set-up screen with absolutely no explanation as to what the settings meant or did. And, who want to search thru pages and pages of user forums to figure out how to do something? But, I am willing to give them a 30 day free trial and see how it goes.

After narrowing down my choice to one program I was ready to purchase some hardware. I got a "small" Dell Inspiron ($500) with 8gb of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 3.40ghz processor which easily fits into my stereo cabinet and is practically silent. It comes with a DVD/CD player, an HDMI port, as well as USB 2.0 & 3.0 ports and bluetooth. Windows 10 was preloaded and all I had to do was uninstall various bits of "bloat-ware" and OEM programs that I will never use (remember, this is going to be a dedicated Media Center) and then copy all of my music files from various sources into "My Music". I did the same things with My Videos and My Pictures. I figured it would be best to use the default locations for these items and that the software's library would have an easier time finding and indexing them this way. Once that was done, I plugged in the USB TV Tuner (Hauppauge Dual Tuner $75) and installed the drivers from the manufacturer. (A dual tuner lets you record one TV show while watching another, or record two shows while doing something else.) Then I added a USB Remote Control sensor (Ortek MCE Remote $20) and installed the JRiver Media Center software (version 21). After firing up the software it auto-scanned my music and other media folders into it's library. Next I had it scan for TV Channels. It found 5 additional channels that my TV didn't find, btw.

I found it more convenient to add a wireless mouse & keyboard while I'm still in the tweaking phase so I can change settings and such from across the room, however, while running in Theater mode all I need is the remote. I can flip from program guide to live TV to music to DVD to home movies to a web browser all from one screen with one remote (although not all of the buttons work as you'd expect). The remote even has a "mouse pad" that comes in handy when using the web browser. It seems that at this time there are no apps for things like Netlix avaible for JRiver. So you have a couple of choices, use the broswer to open Netflix/Amazon/Hulu (each of which is easily mapped to it's own button on the screen) or attempt to program a button that will launch the Windows 10 App for each of these. Supposedly ther is a way to do it for Netflix and 3rd party program that emulate a remote control while using the app. However, I haven't seen anything similar for Amazon or Hulu so to me it's useless if it doesn't work for all of the "big 3" streaming services. Which leads me back to FireTV... while I managed to eliminate several boxes and a handful of remotes from my entertainment center, I've had to add FireTV box back into the mix. But, I'm okay with that, for now.

So... I googled "cancel Dish account" and found the 800 number to call (yes, you have to call and speak to someone) and was pleasantly surprised to get ahold of an understanding, more importantly, articulate, person who only made one attempt to "retain" me as a customer by offering me 24 months at half price with no contract. I politely declined. A week later they shipped me a box and a return UPS label so I could send my receiver back to them. They also wanted the switch and the thingy from the middle of the dish, but there was no way I was going to climb on the roof and start taking stuff apart. I sent them the receiver only, so far it seems to have made them happy.

Below are some of screenshots of what I see on my TV (including customized menu buttons):

Anyway, here is one person's experience in cutting the cord and I would love to hear from you if you have any comments/questions/experiences to share!

Updates: 1.) The Dell's built in DVD drive was way too noisy to use for movie playing (sounded like a plane taking off in the living room), but luckily I had a USB DVD drive by LG that is very quiet. 2.) I kept having various glitches & freezes and after a little bit of research, I unistalled Dell SupportAssist (and Dell SupportAssist Agent) and that solved a lot, if not all, of my problems. 3.) After a couple of weeks of tweaking I felt confident enough to click the "purchase" product button and registration was smooth and automatic.  In all, it's well worth the $49.95 price tag.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Addictive World of Periscope

I've only been using Periscope for a couple of weeks now, two weeks actually, so I really don't have any standing to go spouting on about etiquette and rules and such. However, sometimes the freshest views are the most unbiased, and in the same vein that lack of experience has never stopped me from being opinionated before, I offer the following:

First. What is Periscope? It's a platform via iPhone App that lets you broadcast live video from your cell phone (think YouTube, except "live") to your followers and/or random people who have Twitter accounts. It's like having a "live TV truck" in your pocket, you know, the kind you see driving down the street with the big dish on top. Currently it's available via iPhone App and their blog says that an Android App is due soon, although a search of the Google Play Store turns up lots of 3rd party apps already on the market.

Second. Why? If you've ever seen a YouTube video and thought "that's kind of cool, I'd like to do one of those" but was turned off by all of the logistics involved then you might enjoy Periscope. It's like YouTube for amateurs, or lazy people in general, because it doesn't require any effort other than typing a subject line and pressing a button. Of course this means that while there is some entertaining stuff on Periscope there is also a lot of crap. Not that much different that YouTube actually. However, unlike YouTube, Periscope is instant, including real time comments from viewers. No recording, uploading, publishing or waiting.

Screen shot from "Moving a Mattress with a RAV4"

Who uses Periscope? Everyone. Besides random people doing random things (talking, shopping, feeding bunnies) it seems to be really popular with people in the broadcast industry. Lots of TV show personnel use it show "behind the scenes" type of things and while they are at it, let you know that the Ellen show is about to air at 3pm. How convenient. Mostly it's just average people all over the world sharing a couple of minutes of their daily lives. For example, last night I watched a family attempting to set up a tent in the dark while 25 other viewers offered useless advice and smart-assed comments. Reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws. Just before that, I was tuned into Rene from A&E's "Storage Wars" as he stood by the side of the road answering questions about the show. He talked about who he likes, who he doesn't, behind the scenes drama, etc. I also learned that he is German and that accounted for his "accent", which I honestly thought was a speech impediment. Who knew?

Other things I have witnessed on Periscope are: a dad reading Dr. Suess to a sleepy toddler; two women grocery shopping in Mexico City; an African band playing in a night club in Tokyo; someone walking through the square in Venice; and more kittens, puppies, bunnies and turtles than you can imagine. Mostly the audiences are small, around 25 simultaneous viewers. Sometimes it can balloon up into the hundreds, but then any kind of meaningful dialogue (via comments and replies) is lost in the din.

"Was just watching "should my son eat a ladybug" on #Periscope and just as it starts to get real: connection lost.  Now I'll never know.." @mx4789

The best way to discover Periscope is to try it for yourself, and should you have the urge to broadcast your own little slice of life here are some things to consider:

Give your broadcast a meaningful subject line. "Big Ass Spider!" will get my attention, whereas "Heeyyy" won't. Unless of course heeyyy comes from sexxyAmber19, but we both know Amber is neither sexy nor 19. Likewise, I won't tune into any broadcast that is labeled "I'm back" or "hey peeps" or just a bunch of random icons/smiley faces. I will tune into see what "brunch in Milan" is all about though.

Numbers (of viewers) aren't everything, but they do mean something. Yesterday I clicked on the broadcast "cooking chicken fingers" simply because the guy had 100+ viewers and it turned out he was none other than Jason Nash, whom I've never heard of, but seems he is marginally "famous" on social media. Whereas I've also conversed with the Storage Wars guy and one of the actors on the TV show ER and they both had around 10 viewers online.

Engage your viewers. The most mundane things can be the most entertaining if you respond to comments - some of which are quite funny. Viewers will drop like flies if you broadcast a turtle eating lettuce without having a conversation with them, and it doesn't necessarily have to be about turtles. In fact, I can guarantee that within minutes, if not seconds, the conversation will be off topic, and that's what makes it spontaneous and entertaining.

I recently tuned into a broadcast by a young lady called "sandwiches" and the comments went something like this:

host: what is your favorite sandwich?
viewer1: where are the sandwiches?
host: well I don't actually have a sandwich at the moment
viewer2: we were promised sandwiches
viewer3: how tall are you?
host: um, five seven I guess?
viewer1: how tall is that in sandwiches?

You get the idea..

Tell me what you think of Periscope below. Have you tried it yet? If so, what was your first Periscope experience? (Mine was a guy in Central Park yelling out whatever obscenity you typed. I got him to yell "assclown" and "fucktard". He was getting some strange looks from passersby.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

On Queuing at the Chemist

   The other day I submitted a prescription for refill. The next day I got an automated message from Walgreens letting me know it was ready for pick up. I drove past the store and the parking lot was full. From the road I could also see that the drive-thru lanes were quite busy as well, so I just kept on driving. I ignored Walgreens for a while, but it finally reached a point where I was going to have to retrieve the prescription.  This time the parking lot was a little less crowed so I went inside. There were three people standing in line at the pharmacy counter so I got in line too. And I waited. And waited. And waited. It was taking them an average of 7 minutes per customer to process the people in front of me. I know because I timed them. 
   So as I stood there (waiting) I couldn't help but wonder: what if life had some kind of "fast pass"?  I thought if works at the airport and it works at Disney why couldn't it work in daily life. Think about it. You could take some kind of aptitude test, a physical exam and post some kind of bond and they give you a bracelet to wear that lets you bypass, well, everything. I could have walked behind the pharmacy counter, found the bin that starts with "B", flipped thru the packages until I found the one with my name on it, waived it under the scanner, swiped my credit card and have been done.
   Since that probably won't happen anytime soon, I came up with this flow chart that Walgreens can post in the pharmacy department that should help expedite the check out process.