Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Digital Video Distribution Revisited, or Sometimes the Oldest Solutions Work Best

When I posted my Apple TV review, I began an experiment to use digital distribution, primarily from iTunes, for video related content instead of the traditional satellite, broadcast, or cable TV providers. Ironically, given the recent NBC and iTunes breakup, the show I choose to season pass on iTunes was Eureka, Season 2 from Universal Television, which also owns NBC. In addition to buying a season pass to Eureka, I cancelled DirecTV in July and reconnected my huge television roof antenna to get free broadcast TV again. My conclusion: I am for the first time in possibly a decade back to using cable TV. Here's what I found out.

iTunes Still Doesn't Do What I Want/Need
In my Apple TV review, I made it pretty clear that iTunes 7.1 needed a bunch of upgrades to make it easier to use with my usage pattern, which I think is applicable to a lot of people with kids. iTunes 7.3.2 is the current version (at least until Sept 5. and the sync interface for Apple TV has hardly seen any love. The only change is a band-aid "sync photos first" option, thanks for nothing ;-). So I have done a lot of manual juggling of my iTunes library as I filled it with Eureka, various ripped movies and TV Shows that I own on DVD, and full runs of some shows, like Babylon 5, Season 1. Video takes up a lot of space, even at iTunes sub-DVD quality levels. The hard drive in my iMac G5 is only 80 GB, my iTunes library with all content is bigger than that, so I have fragmented the content onto multiple external drives. I have manually scrubbed that 80 GB drive because iTunes can only download to the drive the library is on, and I didn't sink the time into moving it all to a larger external drive manually. And then I have to backup all this stuff because I own it, I can't just through it away after I buy it, which would be the equivalent of watching something on old TV, I can keep this file forever. Again, iTunes hasn't made the syncing or multiple sources on the Apple TV issue any easier. But I took the experiment further...

Bye Bye DirecTV, hello again broadcast
I have had some form of non-broadcast TV for oh, 23 years. I think my parents got cable TV when I was around 8 years old because I remember watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a zillion times on HBO. So I continued with my plan to drop DirecTV and use broadcast TV for live sports events and to receive HD local channels (ABC, CBS, etc.), or buy everything else from iTunes. That lasted about a month. Given my proximity to NYC (about 30 miles), I couldn't receive everything in HD, and the channels I could receive, only CBS was reliable, ABC was scattershot, and NBC HD never came in. At first it was liberating to know I wasn't paying for a subscription to stuff I wasn't going to watch again, that I was using the airwaves for free. But with the NFL Season and the TV Season about to start, my wife requested that we end this experiment and return to either satellite or cable TV. Using broadcast wasn't really a solution, the quality was much worse than I expected or could deal with, and it was unreliable. When my wife ran the shredder, it would interfere with reception, no I am not kidding.

This is DirecTV calling, for the low price of $684 a month, you can use our service DirecTV's HD offering are a mess. No two ways about it. To lease an HD DVR, upfront they want $150, a 2 year contract, and you give them the box back if you cancel their service. Not only that, but you don't get all local channels in HD. Crazy. My local cable company, Patriot Media (soon to be Comcast), rents their HD DVR for $6.95 a month, doesn't require any contract, offers all local in HD at no additional charge, and offers a decent selection of Pay-Per-View and OnDemand movies, some in HD (more on this in a minute). Plus, I can always get an actual Tivo HD for the cable service and use cablecards, though I give up the PPV and OnDemand features, so I might just stick out using the cable company DVR, even though it isn't as easy to use as Tivo. And cable turned out to be cheaper than the packages DirecTV was offering after I called the cable company a couple times and landed with a rep that offered a cheap $45 a month price for the first year (regularly $75). By the time my year is up, maybe Verizon FiOS is in my neighborhood, but I am not under any contract.

This is the cable company with modern and ancient technology
HD local channels using the cable companies HD DVR look beautiful. They are clear, no compression artifacts at all, it is startling. Startling in comparison to how bad the regular cable channels are. They are worse easily than DirecTV, with more compression artifacts or weird display problems than DirecTV, and even worse looking on my HDTV than shows bought on iTunes (when viewing the same show). It's such a weird juxtaposition. But HD movies OnDemand, that is very surprising

HD Movies Rentals, Cable body slams Xbox Live Marketplace, iTunes MIA
WIth the cable companies OnDemand Movies service, I was able to watch Zodiac in HD in about 15 seconds. It looked great, and it never stuttered or slowed down. But the selection is limited, so I tried to rent 300 in HD from the Xbox Live Marketplace. 7% of the movie download, the 360 tells me the movie is ready to place. I play it, 49% of the way through, the download rate can't keep up with real-time viewing. I have a fast cable connection, should be plenty fast with a 15 minute lead to watch in realtime, no dice. I give up, then delete 300 because it expired from the 360 before I had time to watch it the following night. I decided to try The Fountain in HD from Xbox Live Marketplace, and I watch it in 10 minute chunks, pausing and waiting for the 360 to build up some buffer, before I get to around the 20% after 2 hours and it's bedtime. Pathetic. I ran a speed test while The Fountain was downloading, and I was pulling 7 Mbps with the film supposedly downloading full steam. I called today and got Microsoft to refund me the points for 300 and The Fountain because I won't be able to watch The Fountain before it expired tonight. This wouldn't be such a big problem with the 360 if it weren't for the fact that the OS is way to aggressive about allowing you to start watching the movie, and thus starting the countdown timer, than it should be. It allowed me to start watching The Fountain with only 2% downloaded, and I trusted it since you can't see the download rate, just a percentage, I won't make that mistake again. The other solution is to eliminate the 24 hour expiration. It is totally unreasonable, hell with physical DVD rental I can keep it 2-3 days no problem, there are zero valid reasons why I can't, even with a rental scheme, keep a download file more than 24 hours. Or how about don't start the 24 hour countdown until you have started watching it AND all the bits are downloaded. Is this really so hard to accommodate? Those suggestions won't solve the other huge problem, Xbox Live Marketplace rentals for HD are overpriced compared to my cable company. The cable company is only $3.95 for a rental, Xbox Live is $6.08 (I have conveniently converted the points total).

Sometimes if it isn't broke...For now, it seems like my local cable company will get my HD movie rental dollars and will be getting the vast majority of my TV Show dollars. It is still a wasteland of crap that I am never going to watch, but it is also the easiest, most complete, and best deal for watching video content that you want to watch, as long as you have a reasonably competent DVR. I still might end up getting a Tivo, but then again, with PPV and OnDemand, it's more likely I wont.