First Impression: Amazon Fire TV Stick

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My wife and I decided to pre-order an Amazon Fire TV Stick for her parents, which we gave to them for Christmas. While visiting with them I had the opportunity to setup the device and use it for an extended period. Overall, I’m impressed. The cost is relatively low, performance and stability seemed good (at least during the time I was using it) and the interface was easy to use.

We were both impressed enough that we decided to order one for ourselves, though they’re currently on back-order so it may not be until the end of January before ours ships to us. I was able to pre-order the Stick for my in-laws for $19, but it regularly retails for only $39.

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Toshiba Blu-ray Player (BDK33)

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Last weekend I made a couple of purchases for the living room, which I’ve been planning for a while. One of these purchases was a Toshiba Blu-ray Player (BDK33). We’ve been able to watch Blu-ray movies on the PS3, but it’s in a different room and I’ve been wanting to be able to also watch Blu-rays in the living room (the other room has a larger television but it’s currently lacking comfortable furniture).

I looked at several different models in Best Buy and Target. I didn’t bother with checking Wal-Mart this time. I was surprised to find a real deal in Best Buy. It’s rare that they have anything, aside from movies, that I would purchase there.

It only costs $59.

I considered it a good deal because it has wifi capability built-in (unlike many that are “wifi ready”, meaning you’ll need some kind of adapter to use them on wifi). It also supports Netflix, Hulu, and some other services.

I was actually just looking for a plain Blu-ray player without those bells and whistles. After all, I already have an Apple TV in the living room. The price convinced me to go ahead and get it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a regular Blu-ray player even for $59.

So far I’ve been happy with the purchase, though I haven’t used it much. We’ve only watched a single Blu-ray movie and though I do have it on the wifi network I haven’t tested Netflix or Hulu. It’s connected to my older 32″ TV via the HDMI switch. The movie played without any problems and it looked great on my older HDTV.

Netflix Takes a Dive

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This is one of my more rare opinion posts. I usually try to provide useful information, but I can’t resist publishing some comments about the recent changes to Netflix. I think the change in their business model is unfortunate. Netflix was positioned to remain a leader in streaming and rentals, but I’m very doubtful that will continue to be the case.

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Reducing Streaming Video Quality (Netflix and Hulu)

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A few weeks ago I adjusted our Netflix Instant Watch streaming quality to the medium setting. My ISP doesn’t have a data cap, at least not yet, but I figured it might not hurt to conserve bandwidth.

Today I logged in and changed it to the lowest quality setting. It’s possible that the Apple TV is ignoring the setting, but as far as I can tell the quality is actually still good. I’m going to try leaving this setting in place and wait to see how it works out. Going from the medium setting estimated to use about .7 GB/hour down to the low setting of .3 GB/hour may help keep our video streaming under our ISP’s radar, which is a greater concern now that we use video streaming in place of cable/satellite TV.

Last week I reduced the quality of video from Hulu, though it had less to do with conserving bandwidth and more to do with the fact that our Tivo seems to have trouble maintaining the Hulu stream from time-to-time.

Updated 10/09/2011: I’ve been using these settings for several months and have hardly even noticed a difference.

ASUS EeeBox PC (EB1006), Boxee and Netflix Experience (Unacceptable)

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I have three projects for the ASUS EeeBox PC that I have yet to spend much time on: speech recognition, text-to-speech, and serving media files as an HTPC. Tonight I finally spent a few minutes with Boxee. This was the first night that I attempted to play any kind of video using Boxee and in this case I only used the Netflix app. I have yet to try ripped DVDs or other video content in Boxee, iTunes, or XBMC.

The Netflix Boxee app didn’t perform well on my system. The audio didn’t sound great, though I had set Boxee to play audio through the HDMI connection but for some reason it only used the speakers. The video streaming was very bad. It was choppy and stuttered a lot.

It’s difficult to know whether the problem is the Boxee Netflix app, using Boxee itself, or simply the fact that the ASUS EeeBox PC just may not have enough horsepower. After all, the ASUS isn’t a high-end system and running additional software on it probably doesn’t help.

I’ll continue this experiment and post updates as I learn more. However, I may jump ahead to working with XBMC and go back to Boxee if I don’t like the results.

Updated 08/24/2011: I briefly tested Netflix Instant Watch from Internet Explorer on the ASUS EeeBox PC and it seemed to run fine. The streaming problem I experienced appears to be limited to Boxee or the Netflix plugin for Boxee. There may be other factors involved, but it’s unlikely I’ll spend any time in the immediate future to identify the specific problem.

IR Repeater and Mixing and Matching HDMI Sources for Multiple TVs

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I summarized all of my issues with sending HDMI signals to two different TVs from multiple sources and getting the DirecTV remote working. The page includes my latest solution, which also provides the ability to control all connected devices from either room.

Read: Sending (and Controlling) Multiple HDMI Sources to Two TVs in Different Locations

Preparing to Eliminate Satellite TV

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I’ve tired of the cost of our satellite TV. Initially, it was already expensive with rebates but now that the rebates have expired the cost is just too high to accept. Sure, I could reduce the cost with a lower plan and drop HBO, Showtime, and Starz but then I wouldn’t have much reason to keep satellite. Most of the channels I don’t want are included in all of the plans and each plan drop eliminates channels I do want.

Granted, this move will eliminate the availability of shows we do like but the cost will be more reasonable and we’ll still have a good selection of variety.

Near the end of the month I’ll cancel service. We’ll pay an early termination fee since our 24 month contract isn’t up until September but it should be around $120 or less. That’s a lot of money but it’s about five times less than what we’ll pay over the next few months.

The plan is to have the following in place (all of which are here or have been ordered):

Tivo (~$80 for hardware, $20/month)
Netflix (~$11/month)
Hulu (~$8/month)
Terk HDTVO Amplified HDTV Antenna (~$75)

Overall our bill for services will be under $40/month, which leaves plenty of room for VOD rentals from iTunes, Amazon Prime, and whatever else our various devices support.

The HDMI switch I bought recently is still working great. Part of the two room entertainment plan involves an IR repeater that I also purchased. In the near future I’ll have all of our TV/video systems located in the living room but watchable from there or the bedroom.

Updated 11/12/2011: It’s been about six months since we got rid of satellite TV. Though we’ve considered signing up with Dish Network we’ve decided to keep doing what we’re doing, at least for now. The only reason we’ve considered going back to pay TV is to have access to new episodes of select HBO, Showtime and Stars series. But that’s also a good reason to not go back – this is probably the main reason those networks don’t allow digital distribution of such shows in a timely manner (for example, some are waiting a year before allowing iTunes to carry newer episodes). It’s a deliberate attempt to try to encourage people to not do exactly what we’ve done. But I think we’ll stick with things as they are.

I never had any billing issues with DirecTV since cancelling. However, they continue to send me junk mail and make cold calls from time-to-time, which is very annoying and certainly won’t encourage us to ever go back to them.

We can wait for the good shows to be distributed via other means. As it is, we do have plenty of great shows and movies to watch via local over-the-air channels, Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes.

The moment of joy – packaging the DirecTV receiver for return.
I took several pictures for proof of the condition of the items, which I didn’t need to use.