What’s on your TV: cable, satellite or OTA + the Web?

Someone asked today on a local mailing list for suggestion on local television options: Dish, DirecTV or Comcast (our local MSO).

I noted that it used to be that if you wanted to get reasonable TV service throughout your home, cable offered the best option requiring no additional set top boxes for a good variety of programming. That changed last year when Comcast changed their channel map: as you’ll see here, I am no fan of that move nor Comcast’s practices, as they forced customers to install new set top boxes last year.

Although we wanted to cancel Comcast, we kept the service (as noted here) as WRT the alternative, they offered the best value for television and we remain a customer (full dsclosure: as they offer to many concerned customers, they offered us an excellent deal on free set top boxes and discounted HD-DVRs). However, with Hulu’s new subscription model, Netflix on-demand, good digital TV reception in much of Medina (free, over-the-air channels, including our local affiliates), we are considering dropping cable TV once again. YMMV.

I would like to see AT&T or Verizon apply for a TV franchise and offer a competitive package. Dish and Direct now over some interesting packages worth considering.

If you have a high-speed data service and all you want is basic channels, with local affiliates and some premium programming, try starting with an OTA digital antenna (if your TV is digital ready – if not, invest in an inexpensive converter box as referenced here) and a service such as Hulu. There are some very competitive offerings from Qwest for high-speed data that offer incredible speeds for a lot less than Comcast you may want to consider.

What do you think?

Tags: Comcast, television, DVR, FCC, policy.

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Thinking about ditching cable TV? Steps to a more integrated entertainment experience with Windows and Xbox 360

Microsoft Office Clip ArtLast Thanksgiving, I talked with my friend, prolific blogger/ Twitterer Beth Blecherman (aka techmama on Twitter) in Silicon Valley about the move in our house away from cable to a system that would allow us to get our TV entertainment programming using the free digital airwaves and the wide Internet pipe I had coming in the side of our home.

I’ve read that the average monthly cable bill in the States is $58.80, more than $700 per year. Given that we pay more than $100 a month to our cable provider, Comcast, for cable TV and internet, there’s an incentive to consider a move… actually, more of a migration. I noted some of my frustration in post "My life as a customer: this week, it’s about cable television… and more than the 2009 DTV" and since exacerbated by the changes required at home. More frustrating than the cost of the digital service are the new boxes I have to add between my cable coming out of the wall and my HD-ready TVs: new Comcast supplied digital set top boxes (STBs) and inability to no longer get digital and HD directly on my TVs equipped with digital tuners.

So, back to my discussion with Beth. Noting this growing frustration, I talked about our moves in our own household for leveraging the Internet and my existing computers and devices in the home, namely our Media Center PC and Xbox 360. Alas, our ReplayTV would be relegated to recording local stations that were still available for the time being on the remaining analogue feed (Channels 2-30).

For local channels, we get most of what we need over the air and free of charge. Mind you, it was much better when Comcast provided the 1-99 channel map in the clear (meaning, you could view the channels without a converter box): when they discontinued the analog signal and and moved the entire channel map to digital, they no longer provided these channels in the clear. That means that while I could get CNN and CNBC on all my TVs without special equipment before, Comcast customers now need to have a Comcast set-top box on each TV to decrypt the channels above Channel 30.

Sorry, kids: the Replay TV no longer gets the SciFi Channel.

This also means the capabilities in our new digital ready TVs will be redundant and – even worse – marginalized: I’ve found (YMMV) the inexpensive boxes that Comcast intends to provide "for free" don’t provide the clarity or experience customers I used to get from the digital HD provided via a direct cable connection.

As I noted before, we have a Media Center PC at the centre of our system, with Xbox 360’s as Media Center Extenders in other rooms in the house. Until recently, the vast majority of our time-shifted entertainment viewing came from our ReplayTV DVRs for watching programming from the main networks and several premium channels.

With our first Windows XP Media Center, which we replaced with Windows Vista and more recently migrated to Windows 7, we usd the on-board analogue broadcast tuner card to get free over the air television and channels from our cable provider. As the US moved to digital last year (as I initially chronicled here and elsewhere on this blog), you now need to upgrade to a suitable and supported digital tuner card or USB peripheral, or connect a digital converter box in order to get digital TV programming. (Our local network affiliates including PBS broadcast in digital as well as high definition digital: to see which stations you should be able to receive, more information is available at With this tuner card, your Media Center computer can receive what’s called local "over-the-air" (aka OTA) television broadcasts with a with a suitable room-based or attic-mounted digital antenna, or cable signals broadcast "in the clear" for digital and HD ready equipment capable of receiving clearQAM channels. (Most current TVs already are digital ready, capable of receiving local channels via OTA ATSC.)

(For more on this switch, see the site DTV Answers: What you need to know about the February 17, 2009 switch to DTV.  This site provides info on the switch from the old analogue TV signals to digital television, or DTV.  For more information, visit the US FCC website on the digital TV transition at We purchased an amplified indoor antenna for one TV not near an antenna drop to get the signal.)

So that covers ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and a few other channels available OTA.

But what about on-demand/ time shifted and premium programming?

As noted in the Popular Mechanics article, How to Ditch Your Cable Provider Without Giving Up on TV, you can also get premium content on the web…

"Okay, that takes care of local channels, but cable offers hundreds. What about ESPN? CNN? HBO? What about video on demand? Can you replace those once the coaxial cable is cut? The honest answer is that, if you love surfing through an endless series of channels, then nothing will truly replace cable. But according to a 2007 Nielsen study, the average American household received 104 channels—and watched only 15 of them regularly. So if statistics are any measure, a broad selection of content is important to viewers, but sheer quantity is not.

"A surprising amount of TV and movie content is now available over the Internet for free or for a nominal price. The richest and most impressive source of Internet video, aside from outright torrent theft, is Netflix’s “Watch Instantly.” This streaming video service is a freebie extra for anyone who subscribes to the company’s DVD-by-mail service (any plan over $8.99 per month offers unlimited streaming of content). Watch Instantly lets users browse through a library of 12,000 movies and television shows, much as they would surf channels on a cable box. It nicely combines the joy of serendipitous movie discovery that comes from watching HBO or Showtime with the impulse entertainment of video on demand."

At home, we use the PlayOn software ($30) with our Windows 7 Media Center (recently migrated from Windows Vista SP1) to watch Internet content on our TVs equipped with one of the most versitile set-top boxes I’ve ever owned: the Xbox 360. We can watch regular TV programming via the Media Center remotely on the Xbox, but also access content from Hulu, YouTube, Amazon VOD, and other sites.

For Netflix, we use the Xbox 360 as a Netflix Ready Device (included with Netflix and Xbox LIVE Gold): the player accessed via the Xbox Live service (although it’s also available with PlayOn if you have a Media Center PC serving your network). Xbox LIVE Gold members can download the Netflix application straight to your console and begin watching movies and TV shows instantly.

Another service list I like is the one offered via DVR. Through this page (which you can link to Facebook no less) you can "subscribe" to various favorite shows and watch full episodes via content distributor web sites when available. Essentially it’s a connector to various sites with pay and free content (via provides such as Amazon and Hulu, respectively).

The "My DVR" provides personalization features for’s popular Online Video Guide, launched in 2007, which indexes more than 700,000 TV episodes, music videos, movies and Web-only video content.  The feature also notifies users if there are new episodes of their favorite shows to watch.

We’re only a couple of years away from seeing how the predictions panned out in IBM’s report on "The end of TV as we know it." It provides their view on what the landscape in 2012 looks like across the industry for television programming, distribution and consumption. The authors interviewed a number of extensive interviews with analysts, pundits and execs from across a worldwide and industry-wide spectrum.

"Our analysis indicates that market evolution hinges on two key market drivers: openness of access channels and levels of consumer involvement with media. For the next 5-7 years, there will be change on both fronts – but not uniformly. The industry instead will be stamped by consumer bimodality, a coexistence of two types of users with disparate channel requirements. While one consumer segment remains passive in the living room, the other will force radical change in business models in a search for anytime, anywhere content through multiple channels."

This line has blurred with the Media Center now available on our TVs in the house. We’re still keeping Comcast for the time being as it provides the most seamless experience (with a single box) to access the channels we watch today (simple = high spousal adoption factor ;). But I fully expect that the integration of OTA and Internet available content within Windows will get easier, and will be simpler to access on all devices in the home via Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) devices as I noted here

I’m also happy to note the Digital Living Network Alliance Support (DLNA) in Windows 7. DLNA is consumer electronics industry consortium that promotes improved interoperability of digital content across networks, for sharing music, photos, and videos over multiple devices in, around and outside the home. Windows 7 implements several of the DLNA device roles and it also implements the DLNA protocols required for communications and media exchange. With Windows 7, your PC will be able to interoperate with a broad variety of DLNA certified devices like TVs, stereo systems, cell phones, DVRs, game consoles, etc.

Heck, with relatively inexpensive, multipurpose STBs like the Xbox 360 (no longer just a game device but truly an entertainment portal) and inexpensive yet powerful DLNA ready PCs with HDMI outputs, large hard drives (for digital video recording and network content cache) and consistent UI, it will only get better.


Tags: microsoft, dvr, akimbo, iptv, digital music, iTunes.

Clubhouse Tags: clubhouse, Challenge-Windows 7, media, Windows 7, video, HomeGroup, Play To

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Suggestions for weekend reading, Bill Gates explains why vaccines matter, and more of what I’ve read this week

United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID cph.3c05139This week John C. Maxwell offered this famous QOTD:

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. – Thomas Edison

To end the work week, Dominic Carr offers his own suggestions for weekend reading on the Microsoft Blog

It’s Friday afternoon again, and time to wrap up some of the interesting things that happened this week that you might not have seen.  It is Super Bowl weekend here in the US and so it only seems fair to start with something sports related.

Jordan Brand taps Microsoft technologies:  The Jordan Brand turns 25 this year, and Microsoft technologies are helping with the celebration in partnership with Wirestone.  First up is a social mosaic called Mosaic 23/25.The Mosaic uses Silverlight 3 and Deep Zoom to create a huge mosaic of the man himself, all built from hundreds of individual pictures uploaded by fans.  And Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud operating system helped to make it possible.  There is more to come with Microsoft Surface and Windows 7.   If you are interested in more details on how the technology works, then read the Silverlight team blog and the Windows Azure blog.

Internet Explorer 8 is very popular:  This week NetApplications released their browser market share report and it showed that Internet Explorer 8 is the most popular browser, just less than a year after launch.  Brandon LeBlanc has more details on the benefits of IE8, and on reasons to upgrade from older browsers in his post over on the Windows Blog.

Using technology to help the planet:  BBC Radio covered the European Environment Agency’s Eye on Earth project, a partnership with Microsoft and based on Microsoft technology such as Bing maps, Windows Azure and SQL Azure.  The project aims to combine inputs from citizens with scientific data to provide a better understanding of air and water quality in a given location.  You can listen to the the BBC Radio story with the Eye on Earth project starting at 6:45mins.  

SharePoint Gets Social:  This week seven startups from around the world (all participants in Microsoft’s BizSpark program)  came together at  Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus for SharePoint 2010 SocialFest.  The goal; see how each team could take advantage of some of the new features in SharePoint 2010 to extend their social networking applications.  Each team worked closely with the SharePoint team over 4 days and showed off their work to a panel of judges.  The Brits won, and you can read more, and watch the videos in this Microsoft News Center article or in Techcrunch.

Microsoft Tag:  You may not yet have heard of Microsoft Tag, but the band We the Kings certainly has and is putting it to good use.  Microsoft Tag lets you snap a picture of a “Tag” and get access to more information online about the particular person, product or service.  You don’t need to rememeber a URL or text a short code.  Just take a picture.  We the Kings has teamed up with Microsoft Tag to give away free concert tickets.

Well Done Bill:  Microsoft Research Principal Researcher Bill Buxton has been recognized by Business Week as one of the world’s most influential designers.  Congrats, Bill.  You can read more about Bill and his work on things like Natural User Interface and Microsoft Surface in the News Center article, or this video.

And finally just when we thought we could go home the Bing team announced enhanced cooperation with Facebook on search.  This will give users a more complete search experience with access to some great Bing features, and expands the Bing-Facebook search integration beyond the US so that the more than 400 million people who use Facebook around the world will see the fruits of the partnership

And here are a few of my favourites found on Twitter during the week:

isdixon: Controlling Windows Media Center with an iPhone:

nytimesbits: In an effort to compete with Google and Apple, Nokia makes its mobile phone software free of charge.

PCMag – How to Buy the Right Netbook [If you’re not thinking about getting a powerful, cheap netbook, you should be.]

Pogue – My email column today: Why home videos matter. It’s a good one!

andreaplattdyal – Measuring Microsoft’s Work by Its Broad Impact:

MSFT_IT – White paper on the benefits of Office 2010 + SharePoint 2010 (something to look forward to!)

Microsoft – Nat’l Sci Foundation & Microsoft team on cloud. Huge info cache requires both desktop computers & cloud

techxav – Amazon Said to Buy Touch Start-Up

billcox – Some good stats showing why IE8 is doing well at Thanks brandonleblanc!

JohnFontanaMSFT-funded CodePlex Foundation gets first FT employee, executive director Paula Hunter

Microsoft_GovMicrosoft Education (@TeachTec) launched a K-12 ebook – Digital Storytelling in the Classroom –

neilblecherman – Students invent/distribute soccer ball that generates electricity, bringing clean power to developing countries

edbott – My latest at ZDNet: Will your new Windows 7 PC support XP Mode? It’s still too hard to find out:

MSFT_IT – See how Microsoft does IT, in this great post by BuckWoody

PCMag – The ever-divisive John C. Dvorak calls the Apple iPad "good for nothing."

slashdotARM Exec Says 90% of PC Market Could Be Netbooks

thurrott – What’s New in Windows Mobile 6.5.3:

Cisco_Mobile – A Peek at Apple’s Plan to Re-invent Textbooks

Cisco_Mobile How the #enterprise is going #social – thanks, susiewee for this Very interesting read.

stevecla – Microserfs at Microsoft UK

MSWindows – Set up an energy-efficient home with these tips from @MicrosoftCanada

comcastcares – New Personal Blog Post "The Customer, not the Company Defines How Products are Used"

MSWindows – Here’s a list of devices that work w/ Remote Media Streaming in Windows Media Center for you –

teedubya – Watching TV Without Cable: Series Part 1 – Netflix Solution

MSWindows – Stream your Windows Media Library to devices around the house w/ Remote Media Streaming –

WSJ – Medical journal retracts study linking vaccines to autism: More autism research:

LanceUlanoff – Why Chrome Will be Your Next Browser #Google‘s browser is about to make the leap from upstart to leader of the pack.

njeaton – NYTimes reports that Google is planning a business-app store to boost Google Apps.

Carnage4Life is impressed at how Google has made enemies. Apple and Firefox are the biggest surprises. See &

volkerwWindows XP to Windows 7 Migration workflow for the IT Pro on TechNet

warrenellis – Still can’t buy Tor books by writers like @cmpriest or @doctorow on Amazon? @Scalzi brings science:

toddbishop – New push for data-center tax breaks in Washington state, with support from Microsoft and others:

ForbesTech – The Growing Malware Problem [Article by Charlotte Dunlap]

thurrott – Apple Entry into Market Means Higher eBook Prices

mike_elgan retweeted this from ScotFinnie: Why Apple chose the iPad’s screen format Resident smart guy LanceUlanoff says he’s right.

JVascellaro – Google to Launch Store for Online Business Software.

MSWindows 4 steps to keeping your computer protected –

EverythingMS – Syncing Windows Home Server, Zune and Windows Media Center!

dancosta – 42 Reasons Why Netbooks Are Better Than the Apple iPad [Dan suggests that perhaps "Different" would be a better word.]

exectweets – Manage your company’s software with Windows 7 AppLocker (from our sponsor Microsoft):

edbott – My latest at ZDNet: Can Microsoft close the ‘app gap’ with Apple’s iPad?

Microsoft: Windows Azure & SQL Azure now available in 21 countries [Microsoft Blog]

valleywag – Googlers Fire Back at Steve Jobs ‘Bullshit’ Jab #nerdfight #stevejobs

joewilcox – Dalrymple’s beard speaks about "iPad and crazy people":

joewilcox – Apple US retail unit share is 90% for PCs selling above $1,000; doubled YoY in $500-$1,000 segment:

maryjofoley – Microsoft to target SMB users with new ‘BPOS Lite’ cloud service:

And this from BillGates – A quick post to Gates Notes – "why vaccines matter" –

Have a good weekend!


Tags: Friday Link, humour, Santa Claus, Christmas , Windows, Microsoft

Clubhouse Tags: Clubhouse, how-to, Windows 7, Windows Vista.

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Dell’s new Inspiron Zino HD: ZDNet says it’s “Dell’s answer to Apple’s Mac mini.”

dell_zino Of interest is the new Dell Inspiron Zino HD which ZDNet calls "Dell’s answer to Apple’s Mac mini."

"The Zino HD is an interesting machine because Dell has managed to cram a lot of power into the Mac mini-esque 7.8 inch by 7.8 inch footprint of the system. Buyers can choose from a selection of single and dual core AMD energy-efficient CPUs, as opposed to the Intel dual-core parts used in the Mac mini by Apple."

I’m impressed that Dell has put so much into a space 8" square (thanks to an external power supply). With an HDMI output and Blu-ray drive, coupled with up to 8GB memory (looks like 3GB is standard) this would make a nice Windows 7 home media centre.

For getting video into the box, looks like you’ll need a USB TV tuner, or access your Media Center via the network.


Tags:  what I read, twitter, Microsoft, Windows 7, Dell.

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My life as a customer: this week, it’s about cable television… and more than the 2009 DTV move

Customer satisfaction clip art from Microsoft Office OnlineMy life as a customer. This week, it’s cable television and the proposed digital television transition… not be confused with that other digital TV transition… as Tweeted today.

If you read my post about my email and Tweet exchanges with Comcast, you’ll recall that I wrote to register my complaint of having to add another set top box to my "already-ready-for-digital-TV" TVs: I have televisions that include a digital tuner, and capable of receiving the free to air digital channels, which Comcast rebroadcasts on their channel map.

Given the time to explain the situation and the less-than-basic response I received from the first tier email support folks (I appreciate the effort!), I sent an email last week to Steve Kipp.  He’s the regional VP for Communications at Comcast in the Seattle region.    

I sent Mr. Kipp a copy of my brief email exchange with Comcast’s customer service representative, with my request for more information about the status and availability of digital channels available in the clear (clearQAM).  In part, here’s what I received from Comcast:

In order to keep up with the demand for more HD channels, more programming options, and faster internet speeds, we must move out the analog signals. For every one analog channel, you can fit up to 10 standard digital definition channels or up to 3 HD channels. I apologize that you don’t think our efforts to assist customers through the digital migration is not enough.

Yep, I get that.  But they didn’t seem to understand my frustration or answer my question.

For our home, I’m happy to have Comcast phase out the analog and move the entire 1-99 channel map to digital, provided these channels that are currently provided in the clear are not encrypted (meaning, that Comcast customers need a set top box to decrypt the channels).

We have TVs at home with digital tuners that work just fine pulling in the few digital HD channels I get today from Comcast, and the remainder of the channels from 2 (local news) to 99 (which happens to be the CBC, thank you very much). Most of the channels we seem to enjoy most seem to be above Channel 29 including CNN, CNBC and various kid-friendly programming. Which means the capabilities in our new digital ready TVs will be redundant and – even worse – marginalize: it’s expected that the inexpensive boxes that Comcast intends to provide "for free" won’t provide the clarity or experience customers get today from digital HD provided via the cable connection today.

Back to my email to Mr. Kipp.

In my mail, I asked him just which channels will be available with a television equipped with a QAM tuner once Comcast pulls the switch to move more of the local channel map from analogue to digital. I explained that I hadn’t heard from anyone following my last email, I sent my email directly to him to register my dissatisfaction with the planned digital change on Comcast’s network…

I understand that Comcast intends to offer two STBs per HH for free which will no doubt be a cost to your company. In order to avoid some of this capex cost, it stands that you could offer the current analog channel map broadcast in the clear to your customers with digital and HD ready equipment capable of receiving clearQAM channels. It seems that this approach would allow Comcast to eventually migrate to an all-digital format, encouraged as more and more customers purchase new TVs and home AV equipment capable of viewing clearQAM. This would also highlight the benefits of an advanced STB, offering VOD, HD and DVR beyond the basic digital TV’s tuner. In fact, I would be inclined to add a new advanced STB on our main HD TV while allowing digital clearQAM channels on other TVs in our HH.

My objection is that contrary to Comcast’s advertising at the end of last calendar year, it seems that I will have to change our set up on our televisions at home and add simple STBs in order to view channels above channel 30. Surely, you can understand a customer’s frustration over this need to add a STB to nearly every TV in the home, and why instead I’m looking at ways to eliminate the need for such a STB and move (regress?) to an attic-mounted antenna distributing OTA ATSC to the digital-ready TVs in our home.

That was sent on January 26.

Yesterday, I received a letter dated the same day (Jan.26), noting that…

The Executive Customer Care Department for Comcast in the Seattle Market has received your blog regarding the analog migration. I have left messages to attempt to answer your questions. Due to no response received from you, Comcast will consider this matter resolved.

Hmmm. I received one phone message – which I really did appreciate – and attempted to call them back the following day (I left a message, as it seems they’re busy). But I find it interesting that in response to my original email, I received a letter and one phone message (again, truly appreciated)… but no email response.  And it appears that they waited less than a day before considering the matter resolved. Email much?

You might ask, why would I bother to escalate this?

In the Windows group at Microsoft, I often receive emails directly from customers or partners with questions or issues that haven’t been resolved.  Sometimes the emails or letters come to me via other managers and execs at the company, asking to route to the appropriate group for a response. You’d be surprised at the number and breadth of mail we receive from people, and we do our best to respond to these mails across the board. 

Building on that concept, I decided to escalate when it appeared that my emails to the general customer service inbox at Comcast had stalled.  I sent my emails as a customer of a service provider, unhappy with the proposed migration headache this move will likely cause in our home. 

I’ll let you know how this turns out.  I expect that unless a customer advocacy organization or some oversight committee steps in, we’ll be adding new, cheap set top boxes to all the TVs in our home once Comcast encrypts the channels we view today without a set top box.

Tags: Comcast, television, DVR, FCC, policy.

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