Posts Tagged ‘Over-the-air 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

Interview with a Cord-Cutter – Pete Putman

My son, Ross Putman, has lived in Los Angeles since 2008. Like many members of the Millennial generation, he’s always looking for a way to cut costs and get a better deal. Also like other Millennials, he’s proficient in using computers and the Internet.

Recently, Ross decided that his monthly charges for broadband and TV service were becoming unbearable, so he decided to “cut the cord” and switch to streaming video, plus free, over-the-air HDTV programs. I pitched in to help by shipping him a Mohu Leaf Plus indoor TV antenna (about $75). This model has scored consistently well in my antenna tests.

Now that the changes have been made and the antenna is in place, how is his cord-cutting experiment going? Ross was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process, and I’ll share them here.

*************************************************************************************

PP.  Who was your cable TV service provider originally?

A. Our service provider was Time Warner Cable, SoCal.  We had the basic package with standard broadband internet, an HD DVR, and no premium channels.  It cost $90/month for the first year, as part of a promotional deal.  When that period ended, the price skyrocketed to $140.

PP. What were your viewing habits? What channels did you watch on a regular basis? About how many hours a week did you watch? How many were ‘premium?’

A. We realized fairly quickly that we only watched AMC (for Mad Men and Breaking Bad), Comedy Central (we would DVR the Colbert Report nightly), FX (literally just to watch Louis C.K.), and IFC to watch Portlandia, as well as the odd movie here and there.  I watch football, which is on network channels anyways, and sometimes we would turn on the TV just to have it in the background.  But on the whole, our habits were fairly limited, especially considering the price we were paying.

PP. What made you decide to drop cable TV channel service?

A.  We decided to drop cable after our bill skyrocketed and we did the math: All the shows we love are available the next day for $1.99/episode on Amazon Streaming.  If there are four episodes a month while the series is on, that’s a little under $8/month for our favorite shows.  So even if we’re watching three shows at a time (which is really the max), that’s $24/month for the programming we want, plus our subscriptions and $40/month for cable internet, which we still get through Time Warner.  Hulu and Netflix are $16/month total, so that means we’re paying a maximum of $80 instead of $140 and still get to watch all the programming we love.  Sometimes, that number is as low as $60.

PP. How do you get channels now? Do you stream to a Blu-ray player, or a dedicated receiver, like Roku or Apple TV?

A. We now use a Roku for streaming and have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus.  Even with all this, it’s still only $80/month at the peak for programming, plus all the additional things we get through Hulu– for example, Comedy Central shows like Colbert, which we watch, are streaming for free the next day.  We have a Blu-Ray player, though we canceled our disc service from Netflix and generally “rent” movies off Amazon Prime (which tend to range between free and $2.99 apiece) when we want to watch them.  Our broadband service still comes from Time Warner Cable.

PP. Do you time-shift at all? Do you stream video over other devices, such as computers, tablets, and/or phones?

A. We no longer time-shift, which isn’t a problem since we don’t watch network television.  All our cable shows are on Amazon or Hulu. As for streaming on other devices, we don’t have the time in our busy schedules to do so, but we own a Kindle Fire and an iPhone.

PP. Which over-the-air channels do you watch on a regular basis?

A. We only watch over the air for football.  NBC, CBS, and Fox.

PP. Which streaming services do you use?

A. We use Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Crackle to stream video.

PP. How often do you watch movies? Do you watch them on DVD or Blu-ray? Do you stream them?

A. We got to the movies more than we watch them at home, though I’m probably an outlier since I work in the industry.  We watch a movie maybe once a week, almost always on some streaming device.  We either watch what’s free on Netflix, or we pay for it on Amazon (generally $2.99). No discs.

PP. How satisfactory is your new selection of channels and the quality and reliability of Internet streaming?

A. While we miss the cable channels a bit, we’ve made sure we have access to all our favorite shows.  Our internet and streaming are both very reliable, and our antenna picks up all channels available perfectly. (Editor’s note: The actual total is 27 major channels and over 130 minor channels.)

PP. What would you say about the overall experience of cord-cutting compared to previous cable TV viewing, and how much money has it saved you?

A. After cutting the cord, we realized how little TV we actually watched.  Many times, we’d just turn on the TV “to have it on,” rather than to watch something specific.  For the most part, we lost nothing by cutting the cord.  We’re still able to watch our favorite shows on a pay-per-view basis, and network TV covers my main category: Sports.  We’re saving somewhere between $20 and $50/month, which really adds up over a whole year.  We don’t really miss it.  Worst case scenario, we go over to a friend’s house to watch things, which is more social and enjoyable anyway.  That’s what we did with the Breaking Bad season finale. Until Apple TV starts offering channels a la carte, this seems like the way to go.

 

This article also appears on the Display Central Web site.

Useful Gadgets: Channel Master CM-7400 TV

For those readers who are either (a) tired of ever-increasing bills for cable TV, or (b) looking for a different TV experience, I’ve got a product for you: Channel Master TV.

 

This new product from the folks who were formerly best-known for TV antennas, amplifiers, and related products, is an ATSC receiver with dual DVRs (320 GB total capacity) and tuners, plus built-in WiFi connectivity for Vudu’s streaming HD movie service and Vudu apps. If you live in an area with plots of digital TV stations and are content to give up premium news, sports, and lifestyle channels (replacing some of them with Internet-delivered content), then you should check out this product.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

 

The CM7400 is a stylish, small (10” W x 7” D x 1.75” H) black box with three ‘rubber duck’ WiFi antennas attached to its rear panel. The front panel has a black gloss finish and shows only the power indicator, current time, and indicator LEDs for menu navigation. There’s also a small USB 2.0 port above the clock.

 

The rear panel is loaded with jacks, including an RF loop-through (two ‘F’ connectors), component and composite analog video outputs, an HDMI output, a Toslink connector for digital audio, a second USB 2.0 port, a 100BaseT Ethernet port, and an eSATA connection, presumably for an external hard drive. Power for the CM-7400 comes from a small wall transformer – there’s no internal supply.

The supplied remote resembles those shipped by TiVo. It provides the usual secondary control of set-top boxes and other connected gadgets in your system, plus volume, channel, mousedisk, and numeric keypad functions.  It’s actually pretty hefty, compared to the box it’s controlling!

 

To hook up the CM-7400, your best bet is to use the HDMI port, but if you have an older TV, the analog RCA jacks will suffice. Keep in mind you can only get 720p and 1080i resolutions through component jacks – if you want 1080p playback (24-frame or 30-frame), you’ll need to use the HDMI connector. Digital audio is accessible through the Toslink connector, or embedded in the HDMI hook-up.

Does this remote remind of you anything in particular?

 

MENUS AND SETTINGS

 

The first thing you’ll want to do is configure your channels. Go into the Settings menu and select Channels, and the CM-7400 will prompt you for your location. Scroll to the Local Broadcast option and select it (make sure your TV antenna is connected first!). The box will take a few minutes to scan for all local channels and will also start building program guide information from each station’s PSIP data.

 

You’ll notice that the box can receive digital cable channels that are not scrambled (conditional access) and if you enter your zip code, will ask you for your cable provider. The problem is; most cable systems are moving to scramble all channels in the future, even over-the-air retransmissions. It appears the FCC will give in on this request (they already have with RCN), so plan on sticking to free over-the-air channels.

 

The next step is to configure your wireless network. (Or, you can simply plug in a wired Ethernet cable, but wireless gives you more options.) The CM-7400 supports 802.11 b/g/n protocols and will connect quickly to your network – if there is a password, you’ll be prompted to enter it on the remarkably easy-to-read menu GUI, which uses mostly white text on a black background.

 

Channel Master provides a nice Quick Start Guide to get you through these steps, so you should be up and running pretty quickly. Now, it’s time to watch TV.

Here's the top level menu bar.

And here's the program guide interface.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the CM-7400 uses each station’s Program and System Information Protocol data to build an electronic program guide. That’s how the DVR knows what programs are coming up in the schedule and when to record them. As you tune through each major and minor channel, you’ll see a program synopsis appear in a black bar at the top of the screen. This bar will list the major and minor channel numbers, the program name, its duration, the rating, and a brief description.

 

You can also press the GUIDE button and a complete program schedule for all receivable stations will appear, showing 30-minute increments. Scroll to a program listing and press OK, and the scheduler will appear, asking you if you want to (a) record the episode, (b) record the series (repeated scheduled recordings), (c) find other times that the program is scheduled, or (d) manually record the program.

 

The manual feature is handy if your local station isn’t listing program guide information correctly, or it is simply missing, a problem I had with local station WCAU-10 (NBC) a couple of months ago. Scheduling a manual recording without the correct program guide info is not an easy task, as you have to carefully enter a start and stop time and how often you want to record this time block (One Time Only, etc). For all recordings, http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/ you can select the record quality, how long to keep it, and if you want the program to start early or end late in one-minute increments.

 

IN ACTUAL USE

 

The more I used this product, the more similarities I saw to the TiVo interface, which IMHO is the best GUI around for a DVR. About the only things missing from Channel Master TV are “thumbs up and down” controls, an audible “beep” or “boop” each time you execute a keystroke or command, and the program preference and search functions that make TiVo so powerful. Well, you can’t win them all…

 

As for the Vudu streaming and apps section, you will see a lot of familiar Internet TV services, including Pandora, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, and some newbies like NBC Nightly News, New York Times, Associated Press, CNN Daily, and quite a few premium channels like Dexter, Californication, Big Love, and TrueBlood. Just select and click away to start watching.

Here's what the Vudu Apps screen looks like.

 

To test out Vudu, I opened an account and purchased two movies – Bridesmaids (or as I like to call it, The Hangover on Estrogen), and The Help. Yeah, they are both chick flicks, but quite entertaining (in fact, Bridesmaids was flat-out hilariously gross!). Vudu gives you the choice of renting using HDX (1080p/24) quality, HD (720p) quality, and SD (480p) quality. The price difference is small, but you need to check first to see how fast your Internet speeds are.

 

Channel Master TV will do that for you automatically through the Vudu interface and recommend a quality level. But be warned – Internet speeds vary widely  and typically slow down in the evening during peak viewing hours. My suggestion is to go to the CNET Internet Speed Checker Web site (http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/) and see what your typical download speeds are during the day and at night. You may find that SD mode works most consistently.

 

My rule of thumb is – up to 2-3 megabits per second (Mb/s) is good for SD video delivery. Figure on 5-6 Mb/s to get 720p HD content reliably, and 8 Mb/s or better for 1080p video. Otherwise, you may find your movie stops abruptly and the Vudu screen will tell you it is “buffering” – something that can take a few minutes if download speeds drop.

 

Bridesmaids took four tries to start correctly, then played perfectly in HDX resolution until the past 10 minutes when it stopped and started “buffering” again. I dropped down to SD resolution to finish the movie and it didn’t look all that bad on my Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma. The Help ran smoothly except for one hiccup near the middle, but this time, I selected SD playback for the entire film. The reason? My average nighttime Internet speeds were dropping into the 2 – 4 Mb/s range.

 

As for over-the-air channels, the CM-7400 has a very sensitive receiver and evidently uses sophisticated adaptive equalization. What that means in English is reliable reception of weak stations or stations off to the side of the antenna, as well as good reception during periods of signal fading, such as during a thunderstorm. I was able to lock in and watch 38 different minor channels in the Philadelphia market, which is basically a small hotel cable TV system. And they’re all free.

 

Sports fans should also keep in mind that there is a growing cry to move all cable sports channels to premium tiers as cable bills continue to climb. You won’t need to pay to watch NFL games (available on CBS, NBC, and FOX through 2022), the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, selected major league baseball games and the World Series, SEC and Big Ten football, and the Olympics – not to mention the Masters golf tournament, selected tennis matches, and the Indianapolis 500. All free with an antenna!

 

I should mention that the test unit seemed to run a bit warm to me, even when it was switched off. One product review on the Channel Mater Web site recommended using a laptop cooler (external heat sink) to help with heat dissipation. Also, Channel Master released an updated version of the OS on January 18, which you should install and upgrade.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Channel Master’s CM-7400 TV DVR is a clever product that nicely combines dual DVRs with Vudu streaming. It has a nicely-designed and executed user interface, sets up quickly, and supports 1080p playback through its HDMI connector. You can also loop your antenna connection through the CM-7400 and continue to watch on your regular TV, giving you the ability to watch three programs at once while recording two of them. Clever, eh?

 

SPECIFICATIONS

 

Channel Master CM-7400 TV DVR

SRP: $400

Available at: http://tinyurl.com/7m6qbgk

And other online outlets including Amazon.com

 

Video

  • 480i/480p
  • 720p
  • 1080p/1080i

Audio

  • Dolby® Digital and Dolby® Digital Plus

Tuners

  • Dual ATSC/Clear QAM¹
  • No monthly subscription fee
  • Includes a one year manufacturer’s limited warranty

Recording Capacity

  • 320GB Hard Disk Drive²
  • Up to 35 hours of HD recording³
  • Up to 150 hours of SD recording³

Wireless

  • Built-in 802.11b/g/n

Dimensions

  • 10(w) x 7(d) x 1.75(h) inches

Rear Panel Features

  • RJ-45 Ethernet
  • USB 2.0
  • HDMI®
  • eSATA
  • Digital Audio (Optical)
  • RF output
  • RF antenna/cable input
  • RCA component and composite video
  • Stereo audio

Front Panel Features

  • Illuminated power standby button
  • Indicators for network status, HD and recording status
  • USB 2.0
  • IR receiver
  • Capacitive touchpad
  • Clock display

Contents Included

  • Channel Master TV Unit
  • User Guide
  • Quick Start Guide
  • IR Universal Remote Control
  • AA Batteries
  • Composite and Stero Audio Cable
  • RF Coaxial Cable
  • HDMI Cable
  • AC Adapter