Posts Tagged ‘free broadcast TV’

Useful Gadgets: TiVo BOLT OTA

I’ve been a long-time fan of TiVo, going back to my first Model 1 in 1999 – almost 20 years ago. That product, manufactured by Philips, used a dial-up connection to get program guide data and recorded about 14 hours maximum of analog composite video.

How times have changed! I replaced the first model with the TiVo HD in 2006, installing (and constantly fidgeting with) a pair of CableCards so I could get everything to work with my Comcast service. Various other solutions were out into place to record over-the-air (OTA) programs over the past decade, and along the way, the TiVo HD gave way to an xFinity DVR (manufactured by Samsung), adding a satellite (slave) receiver for the master bedroom.

This is likely the only house in my neighborhood which has both cable TV service and a bevy of roof-top and attic antennas, a combination that didn’t make sense to my neighbors until Hurricane Sandy blew ashore in 2012 and the high winds it generated took down a 75’-tall oak tree nearby, cutting off not only electric power, but also landline telephone and broadband access.

No problem for me – I hauled out a truck battery and an inverter and put my TV back online, watching weather and news updates from my local off-air broadcast stations. Since then, I’ve experimented with a variety of OTA DVRs and antennas, most recently Channel Master’s DVR+ product. The DVR+ combines OTA television with selected streaming channels, so it’s attractive to cord-cutters.

But no one to date has come up with a program guide and DVR combo like TiVo had. The xFinity platform borrows a lot from TiVo (and in fact, Comcast had been sued over patent infringement by TiVo, which is why the voice control feature on xFinity boxes was disabled for a while earlier this year).

The distinctive remote, the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons, and a mix of “clicks,” “beeps,” and tympani “thuds” all added up to a product that became a verb. “Should we TiVo this show?” and “Boop it to skip those commercials!” became everyday expressions.

Way back at CES 2018, I met with TiVo executives and proposed a test of the new Bolt OTA, which was in the development stages. I also asked for the remote Mini box that would operate as a slave to the Bolt OTA and connect to the TV in my master bedroom, using Multimedia Over Coax (MoCA) connections.

Well, here it is, 9 months after that conversation, and TiVo has just announced the Bolt OTA is shipping. So, it’s as good a time as any to post my review!

The BOLT OTA continues TiVo’s off-kilter chassis design with minimalist indicators.

 

OUT OF THE BOX

In contrast to 2006 when I set up the TiVo HD, the Bolt OTA is a much simpler proposition. It comes in that funny slightly-bent chassis with a black gloss finish and only a pair of indicator lights on the front – one green to show that it’s operating and one red to indicate that either a program is being recorded or program guide information is being downloaded.

To get up and running, you need to make a few connections. The first is obvious – some sort of antenna for receiving TV broadcast signals. You can get away with an indoor antenna if you are 10-12 miles max from the TV towers and I recommend an outdoor antenna (or amplified indoor antenna) for reception over longer paths.

I use two antennas in my roof – a Channel Master 7-element highband VHF yagi and an older Channel Master 4308 UHF yagi, both feeding a CM 7777 UHF/VHF mast-mounted preamplifier. With this system, I can rotate the antennas and pull in signals from New York City (64 miles away) as well as Philadelphia, Allentown, and even Scranton, PA.

There isn’t much to connect on the rear panel – HDMI, power, Ethernet (unless you use a wireless connection), and an RF connection to your antenna.

 

You’ll also need an Internet connection. Bolt OTA supports WiFi (802.11ac channel bonding modems are highly recommended for faster streaming speeds) and wired Ethernet, which is what I use to connect to my modem. The third connection will be HDMI to your television, and I should mention that Bolt OTA supports 4K video – you’re not likely to find any 4K OTA broadcasts, but you will find 4K video online from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

If you want to connect the audio output to an older AV receiver, there’s an optical (SPDIF) socket for plastic optical fiber cables. Newer receivers will automatically extract audio from the HDMI connection. There’s also an analog stereo audio output for REALLY old systems.

For the Bolt Mini VOX slave receiver, you must have a coaxial cable or wired Ethernet connection to operate the Bolt OTA remotely, schedule and play recordings, and stream content. Unless your house has wired Ethernet ports in all rooms (and few do), a standard coaxial connection will do the trick.

WHAT YOU GET

For starters, the well-known TiVo program guide (plus most of those beeps and boops). The Bolt OTA also comes with either a 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive or recording, along with four separate tuners. Figuring about 6.5 GB/hour as a rule-of-thumb for recording HD programs, you can get about 75 hours of recordings with the 500 GB version.

TiVo’s Home screen has changed quite a bit in the past decade.

TiVo’s APP screen is loaded with streaming services.

 

While the primary focus of this product is over-the-air reception, the Bolt ITA also supports streaming video from a variety of services. If you subscribe to Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, and also enjoy watching YouTube, those four services are available in the Apps section. You’ll also find EPIX, Vudu, MLB.TV, HSN, Yahoo!, Tubi, iHeart Radio, and Pandora (now part of Sirius) in this menu. (What you won’t find is Google Play or iTunes.)

For a dedicated cord-cutter, that’s not a bad lineup. Add those to the multiple digital channels carried by broadcasters – our local CBS and NBC affiliates each broadcast 2 different programs on their channels, while the ABC affiliate offers three – and you’ll have quite a selection of TV programs to choose from, although not any of the popular cable and satellite channels like USA, AMC, Fox News, MSNBC, Discovery, and ESPN. (You may be able to stream those on mobile devices, though.)

UNDER TEST

When you connect Bolt OTA to your television via an HDMI cable, the receiver uses your TV’s Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) to determine and automatically set the correct output resolution. For most late-model TVs, that will be 1920x1080p/60, although TiVo claims Bolt OTA will drive a TV at 4K (3840x2160p) resolution with 24Hz or 60hz frame rates.

Once you complete the TiVo boot-up process and authenticate your account, the next step is to perform a channel scan. In my area, I found 69 such channels, performing a scan while writing this review. Many of those are in HD, such as the first minor channels for KYW (CBS), WPVI (ABC), WCAU (NBC), WHYY (PBS), and WTXF (Fox).

The FCC recently auctioned off all TV channels above UHF 36, causing some local broadcasters to shut down their stand-alone transmitter operations (like WFMZ in Allentown, previously on channel 46 but now channel-sharing on VHF-9) and combine program streams in a single, lower channel – something that was against FCC rules as recently as 2009, but is now permitted and in fact encouraged. Don’t be surprised if all of your channels have been found halfway through the scan!

In the Los Angeles market, you could find well over 120 channels of programming, albeit with many of those channels in foreign languages. Even in a smaller market, you could still wind up with over 30 different channels of programming – and that would include local weather and news, which is handy in case of natural disasters or other emergencies.

Scanning for channels takes very little time. Once my antenna was connected, it took less than a minute to find all of the available local channels, which will show up in a channel list. This list matches what’s scanned with channels that TiVo’s program guide thinks you should be able to receive, showing up as a blue checked box. You may find additional channels on the list that aren’t checked because the TiVo receiver couldn’t lock up cleanly on them: Try checking those boxes and watch the channel to see if reception is consistent.

Still one of the most ergonomic remote controls available today

 

To watch TV channels, push the “Live TV” button on the remote control and go to a saved channel one of three ways: (1) Using the channel up/down button, (2) selecting the Guide button and scrolling to and selecting a channel, or (3) entering channel numbers directly using the numeric keypad. Streaming is just as easy. Click on the appropriate app and enter your login and password just once – TiVo will save them automatically – and you’re ready to stream programs.

The wizardry of TiVo comes into play with the remote. You have one-touch recording from the remote or guide, and you can fast-forward or rewind during any program you happen to be watching, up to a maximum of 30 minutes without recording. A large “Skip” button lets you instantly skip through commercial breaks during your recordings, no matter how long they are. You’ll see a notification on-screen that you can use this feature at the start of a commercial break.

For Netflix users, you’ve got a dedicated button that will take you right to the app. Just north of the Guide button is a blue button with a microphone icon for 100% voice operation of Bolt OTA. Just push and hold the button and say what you want to do, like “Watch CBS3” or “Record Sunday Night Football,” and it will happen! (What’s more, the Bolt OTA now works with Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system for complete hands-off operation.)

The voice control button works most of the time, although it did get confused when I asked to watch specific channel numbers.

 

This function works well most of the time. I had more luck asking TiVo to change to “CBS3” and “6ABC” than when I requested to “watch channel 3” or “switch to channel 10.” I could also activate the program guide and other functions, but the best use of this button is to locate programs – you don’t need to know the channel if the program listing appears in TiVo’s program guide.

The famous “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons have been retained so you can build up a list of favorite programs and channels based on viewing habits. Looking for a particular program, but don’t know if it is available from a broadcast channel or a streaming channel? TiVo’s OneSearch function will find it for you, and OnePass finds all available episodes of a program. (This works really well with voice control.)

CONCLUSION

So, what will all of this cost you? The Bolt OTA carries a retail price of $250 and the monthly program guide service is tagged at $7 per month or $70 per year. You also have the option of paying a one-time fee of $250 for a lifetime subscription to program guide information. (I opted for the lifetime subs for both of my previous TiVo systems.)

Is that too high? Just right? In my area, a loaded cable TV subscription with fast broadband, digital voice (telephone), and just about every channel you can imagine will set you back well north of $250 a month, including rental of the DVR. That’s your BOLT OTA purchase price.

Even if you opted only for fast broadband service, you’ll be spending between $80 and $100 a month anyway to access your streaming video channels. So, going all-in and dropping $500 once might be the smarter approach, especially if your monthly cable bills are going up 4 to 5% a year, as mine have. TiVo’s web site claims savings of over $800 over three years, based on a survey of different cable service packages. From that perspective, the Bolt OTA would pay for itself in a little less than two years.

As for competitive products like Channel Master’s Stream+ that I reviewed back in July, the Bolt OTA is a big step up in both price and performance. In particular, the voice control function works more reliably and smoothly on Bolt OTA, and the “skip commercials” feature is something you will get attached to very quickly. For those users who think 1 TB isn’t enough storage, TiVo has also provided an e-SATA port for an external hard drive. (Really? 150 hours of recorded shows isn’t enough?)

TiVo Bolt OTA Receiver/DVR

MSRP: $249.99

Available from TiVo, Amazon, Best Buy, and other retailers

More info:

https://www.tivo.com/products/ota-detail

Useful Gadgets: Antennas Direct ClearStream 2MAX and 4MAX Indoor/Outdoor TV Antennas

If you watch enough late-night television or independent local TV stations, you’ll eventually see an ad where George Forman, former heavyweight boxing champion, smiles at the camera and says, “People are always asking me: George, how do I patent my invention?”

Now, I’m pretty sure NO ONE has ever asked George Forman how to patent an invention, just as NO ONE has ever asked me for advice on how to become a championship boxer. On the other hand, I frequently get asked two questions – “What model of TV should I buy?” and “I want to drop cable TV. Can you recommend a good antenna?”

Lately, my answer to the first question is usually “Buy any TV you like. They’re so cheap now that you can just recycle it at the end of the year if you aren’t happy with it.” (I’m not being facetious: I just got a press release from RCA announcing a 50-inch Full HDTV with built-in Roku software for $499 and I’ve seen basic Ultra HDTV 50-inch sets from Hisense for less than that.)

My answer to the second question is a bit more measured. I need to know details before I can give out any practical advice. Do you want an indoor or outdoor antenna? How far do you live from the transmitter site(s)? What obstructions (hills, buildings, towers, etc) are near your home?

My most recent review of TV antennas focused on indoor models, which generally disappoint (with the exception of Mohu and Winegard). In most cases, my trusty $4.99 Radio Shack bow-tie antenna is more than adequate for that job, and if the signals are a bit weak, a low-noise, medium-gain amplifier fixes the problem. Granted; not a very sexy-looking antenna, but function always trumps form when it comes to pulling in TV stations.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details how Millennials seem astonished that “yes, Virginia; it is possible to watch television for free!” And all you need to do is (a) pick up some sort of TV antenna – yes, they still make those relics of the mid-20th century, (b) connect it to that threaded F-connector on the back of your TV set or pick up a USB tuner stick for your laptop, and (c) do a channel scan.

A few minutes later, you’re able to enjoy HDTV content from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW, My TV, PBS, and other outlets. On secondary channels like Antenna, Comet, and Me TV, you can enjoy those great old black-and-white and color shows your parents and grandparents watched back in the day, like The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Three’s Company, M.A.S.H. and The A-Team. And of course, your local news and weather (and emergency alerts) is always available, as are NFL games, the World Series, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA Finals, Olympics, NASCAR and Indy Car racing  (I could go on and on….).

With an increasing number of people ditching expensive pay TV channel packages for fast broadband and video streaming (a/k/a “cutting the cord”); installing an antenna to pick up channels for free seems like a no-brainer. And you can happily ignore the occasional spat between your local cable TV provider and a major TV network over retransmission fees that usually results in a broadcast network channel being blacked out.

Plus, in case of severe weather, you have a Plan B if you lose landline telephone, cable TV, and broadband service. (It happens!) At which point the cellular phone networks get swamped and are often unusable. But you’re a cord-cutting smartie – pick up a battery-powered portable TV and you can stay in touch with weather updates. If you have a generator in your home (like I do), simply switch your TV to the antenna setting and you can continue watching while the utility crews struggle to remove fallen trees and re-string wires.

Ah, what better fun than to sit on your deck on a beautiful summer day and play with TV antennas!

THE CONTENDERS

Antennas Direct recently sent me review samples of their new ClearStream 2MAX (MSRP $79.99) and 4MAX (MSRP $149.99) indoor/outdoor TV antennas. (AD brands them as “HDTV antennas,” but that’s misleading marketing – HDTV is a picture format, not an RF transmission format. And some broadcast stations transmit standard definition TV on their sub-channels. (Hey, that UHF bow tie pulls in HD broadcasts, too!)

I’ve tested numerous ClearStream antennas in the past, and just for fun, I pulled a couple out of storage to use in this test for comparisons; the 1V and 2V (no longer offered). I also dug up one of Channel Master’Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna 50 models (MSRP $29.00) and added it to the pile, and to top things off, I included my home-brew ‘ugly duckling” 3-element UHF yagi antenna.

The ClearStream 2MAX antenna under test atop a 10-foot mast.

 

The ClearStream 4MAX struts its stuff.

 

Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna joins the fun…

 

…as did my 3-element “ugly duckling” compact UHF yagi antenna.

The 2MAX and 4MAX antennas are basically loop designs. They should exhibit broadband frequency response across the UHF TV band, although they’re too small to have much gain at low-band VHF (channels 2-6) and high-band VHF (channels 7-13) frequencies. That’s where the single dipole element comes in – it works better for channels 7-13, but is still a bit small for reception of 2 through 6.

Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna is more of a directional design as it is a six-element yagi for high-band VHF and UHF. CM claims 9 dB gain on UHF and 6 dB gain on VHF, compared to the published gain specifications of 2.6 dB on VHF and 8.7 dB on UHF for the 2MAX and 2.5 dB on VHF and 11 dB on UHF for the 4MAX. The low VHF gain figures for the 2MAX and 4MAX are precisely because a single dipole element is being used for VHF – and it has a figure-8 reception pattern front and back.

I’ve never calculated the gain of my ‘ugly duckling’ 3-element UHF antenna, but it would be at least 6 dB since it is directional, but has a wide (75-degree) antenna pattern. Still, it is a useful benchmark for basic TV reception and works surprisingly well, with a full-wave loop driven element resonant around 600 MHz and an aluminum-screen reflector.

Each antenna was placed atop this 10-foot mast and aimed in two directions for the test.

 

Each antenna was tested with and without the ClearStream Juice mast-mounted preamplifier. (Well, the mast was only 15 feet away from the test equipment…)

 

Hauppauge’s WinTV Aero-M USB stick receiver, TS Reader software, and a spectrum analyzer performed the critical measurements.

THE TEST

The weather on test day was spectacular – it had dropped into the high 50s the night before and a tropospheric weather duct was present, bringing in strong UHF TV signals from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre PA; over 70 miles to the north. The signals from WVIA-41, WOLF-45, and WNEP-50 were so strong I could pick them up with the 3-element UHF yagi with no amplification! As the morning wore on and the air heated up, the duct quickly disappeared.

I set up everything on my rear deck with two 5-foot Radio Shack mast sections siting in a tripod mount holding up each test antenna. I aimed it north-northwest to pull in stations from Allentown/Bethlehem PA (about 25 miles away) and south-southwest to pull in Philadelphia stations (over 20 miles away with some obstructions). Each antenna was tested with and without a preamplifier (ClearStream Juice, $79.99) to try and pull in a pair of low-band VHF channels (KJWP-2 and WPVI-6), two high-band VHF channels (WBPH-9 and WHYY-12), and a host of UHF stations.

I captured the spectral views for each antenna/amplifier combination and used TS Reader software to decode the MPEG transport stream and verify reception through a Hauppauge Aero-M USB tuner stick. If the station locked up quickly with a low or zero bit error rate (BER), then I checked it off as received. If I saw tiling on the image or a high BER, then reception was considered unsuccessful. I also tuned in selected signals to watch the content and verify reception.

While UHF reception for smaller antennas is generally easy, there are some lower-power stations in Philly that don’t always show up in a channel scan, so I gave bonus points for pulling in two of these stations (WTVE-25 and WGTW-27). I was also very interested to see how each antenna performed with low-band VHF channels – a part of the spectrum that’s particularly susceptible to atmospheric and man –made noise, especially with indoor antennas.

Here’s what the Philadelphia UHF TV spectrum looked like using the ‘ugly duckling’ 3-element UHF yagi with amplification.

 

The same spectral view as seen with the Channel Master STEALTHtenna and amplifier…

 

…the ClearStream 2MAX antenna with amplification…

 

…and the ClearStream 4MAX antenna with amplification.

 

Just for fun, here’s the UHF spectral view captured with the discontinued ClearStream 1V through an amplifier. If you’re not seeing a big difference in performance across the commercial antennas, welcome to the club.

In general, the easiest signals to capture came from WPVI-6, WBPH-9, WPHL-17, KYW-26, WCAU-34, WYBE-35, WLVT-39, and WFMZ-46 (that last one runs over 5 million watts ERP). KJWP-2, WUVP-29, and WTXF-42 can all be problematic, as are the two lower-power stations mentioned earlier. In addition, WTXF has a repeater in channel 38 in the Lehigh Valley, so I checked for that one as well.

Why’d I test with the Juice preamplifier? The 8VSB transmission system used for digital television in the U.S. has a theoretical minimum carrier-to-noise ratio of 15 dB – but that’s in a perfect environment. In the real world, signal reflections and distortion make it harder for the adaptive equalizers in an 8VSB receiver to pull in a DTV broadcast.

Amplifying the signal at the antenna (not at the TV) boosts the overall C/N ratio and makes it easier for the equalizers to do their jobs. Plus, it provides access to more distant signals: With a 5-element high-band VHF yagi and Channel Master mast-mounted low-noise preamp, I can watch New York City DTV stations that are over 60 miles away – through two ranges of hills.

THE RESULTS

Table 1 shows the final results for each antenna running ‘barefoot’ – no amplifier. Each antenna gave a good accounting of itself with the 4MAX taking top honors, pulling in 13 stations. Oddly enough, the discontinued 2V grabbed WTVE-25 for a bonus, but still was good for only 11 stations. The ‘ugly duckling’ did about as well as expected since it has zero gain at VHF frequencies, pulling in 7 UHF stations while Channel Master’s STEALTHtenna grabbed just one more.

Table 1. Comparative performance of all antennas without amplification.

 

A real head-scratcher? The ClearStream 1V (discontinued) came up just one channel short to the 4MAX and out-performed the 2MAX (9 channels) and 2V (11 channels). Go figure! Of course, the 1V and 2V have mesh screen reflectors, giving the antennas some degree of directivity over the 2MAX and 4MAX.

Table 2 shows what happened when a Juice preamplifier was inserted inline, leveling the playing field.  The ‘ugly duckling’ UHF yagi captured 1 VHF and 11 UHF signals – not bad. That tied it with the 1V loop antenna, edging out the larger 2V dual-loop by one station although both of the older ‘loopers’ found the bonus stations. The amplified 2MAX managed to sniff out 14 stations plus two bonus stations for a grand total of 16, tying the amplified 4MAX (it couldn’t pull in WTVE-25).

Table 2. Comparative performance of all antennas using the Juice preamplifier.

 

But the overall winner in this category was the $29 STEALTHtenna, receiving every possible station in the table including the two bonus channels for a grand total of 17 stations. It tied the 4MAX on the 15 ‘core’ VHF and UHF channels, too. Just goes to show you that a good antenna design doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg – you could buy 5 STEALTHtennas for the cost of one 4MAX. (Actually, you could buy two STEALTHtennas; mount them on a mast a half-wavelength apart, and run them into a combiner and mast-mounted preamp to add gain to your system.)

KJWP-2 and WPVI-6 as received by the Channel Master STEALTHtenna using amplification. This setup worked very well in the noisy low-band VHF spectrum.

 

The same channels as seen by the 2MAX antenna with amplification…

 

…and the 4MAX antenna with amplification.

 

The discontinued ClearStream 2V might have been a strong performer on UHF channels, but it’s overwhelmed with noise on low-band VHF channels.

 

To be fair, a difference of one station either way doesn’t really define a “winner” and a “loser” in this test. I might easily have had different results if I moved antennas to either side or changed their elevation. (That’s why each antenna was tested in the exact same location.) I will say that based on my results, I’m not sure you’d need to upgrade to the 4MAX for an additional $70 over the 2MAX – there was a 4-channel difference when both antennas were unamplified, but they tied with the Juice in line.

That’s a lot of extra dough for not much difference in performance, and if you live more than 20 miles from your local TV transmitters the money would be better spent on a mast-mounted preamplifier – especially if you plan to distribute signals to more than one TV through splitters (a two-way splitter will drop signal levels by about 3.5 dB at each port.).