Sunday, 23 November 2014

Too many Set Top Boxes.

There’s a lot of choice in online TV right now. Amazon Fire TV is the newest, but is it the best? (Spoiler: yes.)

I’ve run out of HDMI sockets! But on the bright side, I’ve a new TV toy, Amazon Fire TV. I’ve had it for a month now, and it’s really impressive. The unique selling point of voice search works really well – within some limitations, the range of content is very good – with some reservations, and the picture and sound quality is the best of the lot.

Voice search is simple to use – hold the button on the remote down whilst you say the name of what you’re looking for, let got and let Fire TV think, then select from options presented. It’s supposed to learn your voice, but in practice it can understand any of the family, and other visitors that have tried it out.

Its limitation is that it only searches within the Amazon catalogue. Results are from each of the three tiers: free, free with Prime, and paid. But results don’t include for example, iPlayer, so search results aren’t necessarily the cheapest. Searching for episode 1 of this season’s Doctor Who will take you to an option to buy for £3.49, rather than to watch for free on iPlayer.

Freeview HD
Apple TV
Now TV
Amazon Fire TV

The incumbent
The hobby
The heavyweight
The outsider
The newcomer
Exclusive Shows
Live broadcast
What we’ve bought from iTunes
First catch-up of Sky shows;
Live broadcast of Sky 1, Sky Arts 1, Sky Atlantic
Premiership football from BT Sport;
Anything we’ve bought on Google Play
Old Doctor Who;
The Vikings
Can we watch Agents of SHIELD?
Yes – on C4 at broadcast, or catch-up on 4OD app, or from PVR recording
Yes – catch-up on 4OD app, or box set on Now TV app
Yes – catch-up on 4OD app, or box set on Now TV
Yes – catch-up on 4OD app, or box set on Now TV app
Yes – box set from Amazon
Can we watch Doctor Who?
Yes – on BBC at broadcast, or catch-up on iPlayer app, or from PVR recording
Yes – catch-up on iPlayer app
Yes – catch-up on iPlayer app
Yes – catch-up on iPlayer app
Yes – catch-up on iPlayer app – and we can watch old Doctor Who box sets on Amazon
Can we watch Game of Thrones?
No – it’s on Sky
Yes – live broadcast, first catch-up, and box set on Now TV app
Yes – live broadcast on Sky Atlantic, first catch-up and box set on Now TV
Yes – live broadcast, first catch-up, and box set on Now TV app
No – it’s on Sky
iTunes Store Now TV
Demand 5
ITV Player
Now TV
TED Talks
BT Sport
Google Play
Now TV
Red Bull TV

Amazon Fire TV
Other features
New services are downloadable (though few are available)
Many iOS apps can stream to ATV;
Mac OSX can stream to ATV;
New services are downloadable;
Can be jailbroken with e.g. Plex
Live streaming of major Sky channels included;
New services are downloadable;
Can be jailbroken with e.g. Plex
Rich search via iPhone;
Any site can be “cast” via iPhone
Games use dedicated controller;
4k content coming
Picture quality
576i, 720p and 1080i
Excellent for Freeview HD, acceptable for iPlayer HD, poor for broadcast SD and other apps
Excellent for iTunes store content, poor for others
Excellent for on demand, poor for live streaming
Very variable up to 1080p depending on bandwidth.
Some acceptable, some poor
Sound quality
Dolby Digital on some BBC iPlayer, others Dolby Pro Logic II or stereo
Dolby Digital on iTunes content, all others stereo
Dolby Digital on Sky content, all others stereo
Stereo except some rare YouTube content
Dolby Digital plus on Amazon content, all others stereo

So it turns out that we can watch most of the things we want to watch if we use the right combination of app + set top box. So the deciding factor becomes: which platform has the shortest path to starting to watch?

When we know what we want to watch, we choose between Now TV or Amazon Fire TV. Even though our phones are barely out of reach, it’s still easier to use the STB by itself. Now TV’s menu options are easy to understand, but scrolling does take a while. Amazon Fire TV’s voice search makes getting to the chosen show a doddle, so if it’s a choice between the two, Amazon Fire TV wins on ease of search.

When we don’t know what to watch, choosing is much more difficult. Amazon has the familiar “people like you” recommended titles, which are generally worthwhile pursuing. Now TV has curated content presented like playlists. iPlayer curates individual titles, and is moving towards greater effective personalisation.

Smartphone apps make it much quicker to sift through content catalogues. More information can be presented and assessed quickly. Show images and notes can link to IMDB entries or rotten tomatoes reviews. The only trouble is, each platform has its own app, so you have to launch each in turn.

What we don’t generally do, is to launch the each of the apps in turn to surf for something to watch. It’s too slow and not at all impulsive to launch-close-launch each app.  The UI design for many of these apps are also shockingly poor; they are studies in how to turn away eyeballs. ITV player is the worst: unenticing synopses, organised by channel rather than anything meaningful to a potential viewer, paucity of choice, makes for a painful experience.

The most favoured idle surfing technique is the oldest; it’s still to flick through the EPG, pressing “info” now and again, to see how long it takes before the quality threshold lowers enough to make selecting movies4men a good idea. None of the new methods have yet to beat this “spreadsheet” view in ease to finding something.

Actually, for me, the deciding factor is: which combination gives the best picture and sound quality? It’s a different computation depending on what I want to watch. Because I’ve recorded the latest series of Agents of SHIELD onto the PVR from C4HD, the picture and sound is better than catch-up from 4OD – 1080i and Dolby Digital. However, in a general case, Amazon Fire TV is very impressive indeed. Picture quality is 1080p and sound is Dolby Digital plus, both from Amazon content and some content from apps like iPlayer.

So in summary: Amazon Fire is now the family go-to set top box for watching TV, because we can go from knowing what we want to watch to actually watching it, with the least amount of cognitive friction. However, none of our boxes help us to conjure something from nothing to watch on the TV.

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