Internet TV? No Thanks.

01_Cord_Cut

Thus ended the ill-fated Roku 4 experiment in exactly 4 days.

It was also the 4th Internet TV gizmo I tried that did not live up to the hype and expectations. It just made it clear as a cloudless day that cord-cutting is still wishful thinking for folks like me. But, that’s not what the tech media would like us to believe. So, what did I do wrong? Turns out, not much.

Technically, my first foray into the Internet TV world began with a Mac Mini when I decided to live with just Netflix and Youtube, but let’s let the desperate student life slide, shall we? After we moved to The City, I started with a cable subscription and it quickly became apparent that we were just throwing monies on Messrs. Time & Warner. So, we cut cable for the first time and went with a Mac Mini and Samsung Smart TV combo. We did persist with this combo for quite some time, but that’s when we were discovering the phenomenon of binge-watching.

My first Internet TV device was the Boxee Box, which promised much and looked like a thousand bucks. It had a great user interface, but it became apparent very soon that this was hardly the Promised Land. There wasn’t much one could do with it after exploring the now-ubiquitous Netflix and a few other apps. To make matters worse, the company behind Boxee folded soon after I bought the device and I was left with a dud that costed $150.

It was time to move back to India and we promptly set up Tata Sky dish TV, as trying Internet TV in India would be like trying to fertilize an acre of arid land by peeing on it. Still, the gizmaniac in me led to trying out a Chromecast – device #2. Chromecast did not have any major issues in itself, except for some painful network connectivity glitches. But, it was never meant to be a cord-cutting option. It was always just an enabler of additional content, meant to augment or fill in the gaps of traditional cable.

Coming back to the US, we went back to traditional cable again, monopolized by Cablevision at Stamford. This time around, I was adamant that I wanted to give cord-cutting a proper try. The challenge now was that we actually wanted some cable channels. Back in 2011, we were happy with just Netflix since The City offered so many things to do that we didn’t see a need for serious television. But now, with the little devil, cartoon channels suddenly became a thing. We also noticed that sometimes we just wanted something on the TV with a button click that didn’t require Netflix-level thinking and searching. All put together, I realized that I wanted à La Carte TV and not just Netflix. I have since then come to believe that this is the true meaning of cord-cutting for many people out there.

So, à La Carte TV: the most reasonable choice was Sling TV, combined with the regular internet fare of Netflix, Amazon Video, Youtube, HBO Now etc., as needed. What’s the best way to set this up? What would be the cost? What would I save?

I spoke with Cablevision reps and figured out that just having high-speed internet is much more expensive than the cost of the same internet as part of a triple-play setup. It was still better than nothing. It looked like I could save a little bit.

Then I went to Dreamforce ’15, where the good folks of Domo gave away a free 3rd gen Apple TV for attending a 20-minute demo. I thought this was a sign from the almighty himself. He was asking me to cut that darned cable; literally goading me to give that beautiful piece of hardware a chance. A chance, I did give. Then I sat there blinking. That’s it? That’s all I can do with an Apple TV? A few apps that are par for the course, and iTunes? There must be something wrong. I frantically searched for Sling TV. No luck. Apparently, they might (or might not) come in 4th gen Apple TV or something like that. 3rd time was definitely not the charm.

Finally, I gave in, and decided to go with the mass-market choice – the one device that was not part of a walled garden like Apple or Amazon; the one device which was supposed to have gotten it right; the one device that supported Sling TV out of the box and even had a hardware button for it on the remote: Roku 4.

I should say I was excited to receive the device. It was cheap-looking compared to the polish of Apple TV, but still it had a lot of functional chops – a strong processor, an army of ‘channels’ to choose from, a remote which had a brilliant feature – headphone jack! I unhooked the cable box, setup Roku eagerly, signed up for a Sling TV trial and settled down to give it a whirl.

Things seemed fine at the beginning but really I was just trying to ignore the issues that cropped up. Switching between the channels seemed very jumpy. Some channels simply refused to load at times. I could not get some channels to show up in the channel list though I was supposed to have access to it. The subtitles seemed to have a life of their own, apart from the video. I decided to be patient and give it a couple more days.

Then came the proverbial nail in the coffin. We have a 75 Mbps connection which is fairly stable for the most part. Even with that, the video playback quality was inconsistent and choppy. Many times, the video would just start jittering with jarring colored bands, making the whole screen unwatchable. Simply put, it wasn’t working for me.

Tech media is full of optimistic (and opportunistic) journalism which does not give the full picture on any of these forward-looking technologies. Early adopters like me often pay the price (literally) to validate these claims. I think that is par for the course. But, what’s surprising is that even after 4-5 years of gestation, the Internet TV business hasn’t gone anywhere forward to present a meaningful alternative. Still, nobody is talking about it while we just end up getting device refreshes every single year.

At this point, Internet TV has lost. The cable companies are winning. Unless something major happens, this status quo is destined to remain. And I don’t see any compelling device (including the new gen 4 Apple TV) that is set out to change that anytime soon. It’s a shame, really.

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