Cord Cutting 3: The hardware

All the great replacement programming in the world is of no good to the cord cutter without replacement hardware — the subject of this latest in my cord cutting series. In fact, for me, the hardware was as much of the motivation to make the change as anything else. And after thinking for weeks now that I’d invest (heavily) in recent-generation Apple TV units, doing my homework suggested a different approach.

The problem with the Apple TV is that the cheapest version of a fourth generation device (the one with an App Store) is $149 a pop. Want 4k? Cool; get ready to shell-out $179 per television. For many people, that’s probably fine. For this household? Well, not so much.

When we had our DISH Network service, we had three total viewing locations (one Hopper, two Joeys). Part of the objective in replacing DISH Network was to enable a consistent viewing experience across all six televisions in the house, whether large or small. We have no 4k screens just yet, so the cheapest possible Apple TV solution was thus just under $750 worth of new hardware to go along with the existing Apple TV. That’s a far larger investment than I was willing to make, so it was time to do some homework.

That led me to the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Cost for the non-4k version? $40.

Oh, and you could have a 2nd generation Echo Dot with it for free.

So, off to our fresh, new Amazon 4-Star Store, credit card in-hand, to buy one as a trial last Saturday. I figured $40 wasn’t a bad investment to kick the tires; cheap enough even that if we didn’t like it, it might not even bother returning it, given the free Echo Dot. But that wasn’t the outcome…

What I found honestly surprised me. I don’t really associate Amazon with technology leadership, and I certainly don’t associate them with particularly polished user experiences (let’s be honest, the Amazon.com web site often feels like a cobbled together train wreck). Alas, the Fire TV Stick turns out to be a wickedly affordable, easy to install, easy to use device with a really nice user interface. And unlike DISH Network hardware, it was incredibly fast.

The Fire TV Stick is based on a quad-core ARM processor and runs a fork of Android as its operating system. Amazon’s app store has dozens of apps for virtually every channel, network, genre, theme or audience you could think of.

After installing the ones we needed, signing-up for Hulu with Live TV, and giving it all a try last Saturday, we marched back to the Amazon 4-Star Store to get two more of them on Sunday, then ordered two more still from Amazon.com. Yesterday I finished installing and configuring all of them, and after several days with both the hardware and our new programming, I can say this with confidence: I don’t miss DISH Network, and I don’t regret in any way cutting the cord.

And the added benefit? We have exactly the same user experience across all the TVs. Well, almost; there’s still that single fourth-generation Apple TV on the big screen, but to be honest, it may not be long for this world… The Amazon Fire TV Stick has a better user experience in my view than the Apple TV does, and most certainly has a better remote. So perhaps this is yet another example that I’m not the Apple fanboy I might appear to be.

Privacy concerns

One of the first things I did after installing the Fire TV Sticks was to review the various preferences I might want to set to tailor our experience with the devices. And there it was, buried three layers deep as I clicked around the settings: three privacy options that default, of course, to “on.”

Somehow, I think I stumbled upon one reason why Amazon sells these things for $40: just like everyone else, they’re mining, aggregating and selling data about what you watch, and how much time you spend doing it. I turned all three options off.

Needless to say, this only addresses part of the problem. Every service you subscribe to, whether Netflix or Hulu or whatever else, is obviously going to be keeping metrics about what you watch and how much time you spend doing it, and you can opt-out of anything you’re provided with the opportunity to. But that doesn’t mean you’re not being tracked, and it doesn’t mean the data isn’t being monetized.

The alternative? Well, don’t watch television I guess. And don’t use the internet. Or computes. Or smartphones. And yes, I suppose I’m sort of resigned to the fact that there are tradeoffs with these things, and I’ll still do whatever I can to make it less easy for companies to monetize my activities.

The apps

While this post is ostensibly about the hardware, I do want to spend a little time on the software as well — the apps that deliver the programming.

One of the down sides of cord cutting and the shift to streaming in general is that every app, every app developer, has a different way of working. Maybe this is a good thing; an app developer can freely innovate. But the downside, of course, is that you have to learn how to do X, Y or Z within the context of each, individual app, and you’re still beholden to what any app developer wants you to see and what actions they want you to take.

Here are the apps we’ve installed so far, and thoughts on each and what it delivers:

  • Netflix
    The Netflix app on Fire TV Stick is not dissimilar from the Netflix apps on any other platform. The fact that you can set-up multiple profiles is hugely helpful for a multi-person household, but finding what you’re looking for and navigating primarily via endless vertical and side-scrolling is tiresome. There surely must be a better way to surface all those millions of hours of programming, but so far, Netflix hasn’t found one.
  • Hulu
    As the centerpiece of our cord cutting (a replacement for DISH Network programming), Hulu is fine. Like Netflix, they have an almost bottomless pit of programming, blending a mixed bag of television shows (like Netflix), a mixed bag of mostly non-top-drawer movies (like Netflix), original shows (like Netflix), and Live TV (unlike Netflix). I like Hulu’s interface better than Netflix; there’s still a lot of scrolling, but Hulu at least makes some attempt to offer multiple avenues to navigate and consume all the content. I particularly like Hulu’s “My Stuff” feature; with multiple user profiles (like Netflix), we can find and save things and easily get back to it later. And the complete lack of distinction between catalog content and recorded live content (“DVR”) puts the emphasis on the “what” rather than the “how” which is likely how it should be. Much of the Hulu programming carries what the service calls “light advertising,” and indeed, it is light. Many commercial breaks have… Well, no commercials at all, while others have very short ads you can’t fast-forward past, and go right back to programming. I can deal with that.
  • Prime Video
    As Amazon Prime members, we of course avail ourselves of this value-add offering, and some in the family have actually found a lot of good content on the service. Like Netflix and Hulu, Amazon’s been creating some original content, and even winning awards for it. The library or back-catalog content is, like Netflix and Hulu, of spotty interest, and points-out how fragmented television has become as we shift more and more toward on-demand streaming. The user interface is fine, but the main flaw of Prime Video is that it doesn’t have user profiles in the same way as Netflix or Hulu. As a result, it doesn’t matter who’s watching, we see the detritus and suggestions based on the family aggregate, not one person, tainting the value, and sort of getting in the way. It’s a good thing that by “family” I mean two people, but still, the recommendations are all but meaningless to me, as the one who doesn’t watch all that much TV to begin with.
  • Food Network, HGTV and The CW
    Like a lot of networks, these offer dedicated apps. We can authenticate into the FN and HGTV apps and use them fully by activating them using the Hulu login credentials, much the same way a cable or satellite customer can with theirs. All seem to have every episode of every show the family has sought-out. Want to go back to the very first airing of Chopped? No problem. While that’s pretty cool, you’ll need to suffer through ads you can’t fast-forward through or skip. I get it; they need to make money too, so what do you expect for “free” anyway?
  • DirecTV Now
    The only reason this app is on our Fire TV Sticks is that we get “free” HBO service via DirecTV Now by virtue of having AT&T mobile service. I don’t expect to ever actually watch it. The Netflix age, and the DVR age, long ago conditioned me and my family (and most people I know, honestly) away from live TV. I cannot honestly recall the very last time I actually watched television without time-shifting it; it might have been clear back during 9/11, and I suspect it would be some sort of national or local emergency that would push me back to it. But until or unless DirecTV Now offers DVR capabilities of some sort, I can’t imagine I would ever have a reason to adjust and align my schedule to what’s on HBO (or any other television source). The content just isn’t that good. There’s not much to say about the app, either, when all you can do is browse the program guide of the various HBO channels, and pick one to live stream.
  • Plex
    A Plex Media Server came along for the ride with my recent adoption of a DiskStation NAS. Home movies, music, and yes, the occasional rip of a DVD we own (it’s too much trouble to bother with doing much of that sort of thing unless you’re going to watch the material a lot), are all in the Plex media library. That was, actually, a side motive of moving to this ecosystem — the ability to install the Plex app and tap into that content too. The Plex app is beautiful. I mean, truly beautiful. They’ve done an amazing job of presenting your library material, and it’s fast and easy to use. The multiple profile support you get with a Plex Pass subscription ($40 per year) lets you manage who gets to tap into what, which is nice for when people are in the guest room and tinkering with the Fire TV Stick. I’ll talk more in a future post, but I intend to purchase an OTA tuner and leverage Plex’s DVR capabilities for content available here — mostly the old-line networks (CBS, ABC, etc.) and some of the multicast networks that seem occasionally interesting (like Buzzr).
  • Pluto TV
    I didn’t know Pluto TV even existed until I saw a promo on the home screen of one of the Fire TV Sticks, promoting a movie that was playing. Pluto TV is a treasure trove of free television (I use the word “treasure” lightly), and as you might expect, most of it’s worth about what you’re paying (i.e., nothing). But there are dozens of channels to choose from for live viewing, and a smattering of various and sundry second-tier (or worse) on-demand content too. I installed it primarily to watch Buzzr live from time-to-time until the OTA DVR solution is in-place (see above), but Buzzr seems to be offline with Pluto TV, and apparently nobody at Pluto has noticed over the course of the last few days. It sort of feels like Pluto TV is run by a couple of stoners from their basement apartment, so maybe they’ll notice they need to reset something when they emerge from their ganja haze. Some of the classic television did take me back a few years. Or decades. Can’t see us using it much, or at all, but the interface is actually quite nice.

In the next post, I’ll talk a bit about where this all goes from here.