December 5th, 2013 • 4:56 pm
I’ve resisted the (moderate) lure of the Apple TV device for quite a while. First, I had the excuse that my Internet connection was not good enough. In the imaginary world of unlimited bandwidth in which Apple products appear to have been designed, 1.5 Mbps (local wireless service) did not quite cut it. For the past 18 months, however, I have had DSL peaking at 7 Mbps. Not great, but passable.
To be exact, the service was advertised as “up to 7 Mbps”, but the realities of our local community meant that, far too often for my taste, actual bandwidth would drop down to abysmally low levels, especially in the evenings. I couldn’t imagine trying to use the Apple TV’s streaming services (or any streaming service for that matter) in such a situation.
Because of this lack of bandwidth, I have never even tried to rely on any kind of streaming service. I hate having to wait for buffering, having to deal with streaming glitches, and not having the convenience that a conventional TV system with PVR gives you, i.e. the ability to record in high definition and play back at one’s leisure.
Then late last year, our phone company upgraded its infrastructure and we finally got a service that does offer 7 Mbps downloads at a sustained level throughout the day. (There are still occasional hiccups, of course, but on the whole it’s way better.) So my main excuse for not getting an Apple TV was gone.
Another reason not to get an Apple TV was my increasing frustration with iTunes, which reached such a level earlier this year that I finally gave up on the software and switched to Swinsian as my main tool for managing my large music collection. I still have to use iTunes for a variety of things, of course, but I cannot stand its sluggishness and I avoid it as much as possible.
Since the Apple TV restricts you to accessing the music and video stuff stored in your iTunes library, that’s a bit of a problem.
I also tend to download a number of videos in MP4 format from YouTube and other sources and then use PS 3 Media Server to stream them locally to my PlayStation 3. It’s not an ideal solution, but it works reasonably well, and enables me to avoid iTunes altogether for movie trailers, music video clips, and so on.
But then, a few weeks ago, I got myself a new iPad Air (replacing my first-generation iPad stuck at iOS 5) and finally got the ability to use AirPlay, which is, as far as I am concerned, a bit of a game changer. This is the first time I own a computing device that supports it. (I don’t have a recent MacBook or iMac in the house.)
At the same time, in spite of my on-going reluctance, I started to feel increasing pressure to give streaming services a try. For one thing, I am a big soccer fan and like to watch a lot of English and Spanish games. Because of exclusive rights belonging to various outlets and changing hands on a regular basis, the situation tends to be in constant flux here in Canada. A couple of years ago, many English games were available in high definition on TV via a pay channel then called Setanta Sports and now called Sportsnet World. Many of the games were delayed and broadcast during the evening and night. But I was OK with recording them on my PVR and watching them later. (I just had to be careful about on-line spoilers.)
Now, things have changed again, and even though Sportsnet World still has some exclusive games (and the same exclusive price!), many EPL games are not even broadcast on TV channels anymore. The only way to get them is to stream them on-line at tsn.ca. I find this utterly annoying, not just because I still have to pay the full price for Sportsnet World even though it offers far fewer games than it used to, but also because, with on-line streaming, there is no option to record in order to watch later. And the picture quality is definitely not on par with conventional HD television.
The other problem with streaming games is of course that you have to watch them in a web browser. I have a big HD plasma TV and I want to be able to watch the games on that TV in my living room.
Another streaming service that I might be interested in is the recently launched Canal Plus Canada. Canal Plus is a major TV channel in France and has quite a bit of exclusive French-language content that is hard to obtain (if it is at all possible) here in Canada. Canal Plus Canada is not a TV channel. It is only available as a streaming service on-line (via the Dailymotion platform).
And then there is also the BBC iPlayer that I might be interested in…
Could the Apple TV be a solution for this? I decided that now was the time for me to try and find out, and ordered one a week ago. It arrived yesterday, and it just so happened that yesterday my favorite EPL team (Arsenal) was playing a game that was only available via tsn.ca. So of course I had to install the Apple TV right away and see if I could somehow make it work.
My first observation is that the device came without an HDMI cable. I knew that already, but I still find it rather cheap on Apple’s part. At least there is a battery included in the little remote…
Hooking things up to my A/V system and my network was straightforward and I was soon up and running — once I figured out that the Apple remote was not Bluetooth but infrared and require a clear line of sight to the Apple TV.
I won’t go through all the details of my initial experience here, but I will make the following observation: I simply cannot believe the number of times I had to enter my Apple ID password during this initial set-up phase. You’d think that once would be enough, but no… I had to enter it for registering with iCloud, for activating Home Sharing, for pairing with my iPad, and so on.
Of course, I have a password that is fairly complex in order to provide a decent level of security, and it was definitely not chosen for how easy it was to type it in, quite the contrary. In fact, I chose such a complex password that I never intended to actually have to type it. I use 1Password on my Mac and on my iPad and, when it comes to entering passwords, Copy/Paste is my game.
But with the number of times that Apple’s services (iTunes Store, Mac App Store, iCloud, etc.) require you to enter your password, you end up having to learn how to type it whether you like it or not. And so I have finally memorized it and learned the routine to type it out either on my Mac or on my iPad.
Fortunately, once the iPad is paired with the Apple TV, you can actually use the iPad as a remote and type things out with the virtual keyboard instead of having to use the on-screen facility to entering characters on the Apple TV. But of course in order to pair the iPad with the Apple TV, you have to enter your password first…
Anyway, I finally got everything set up and the time for the EPL game was fast approaching. I knew that, at worst, I would be able to watch the game in a browser window on my computer, but I definitely wanted to see if I could get it to stream on my iPad and then use AirPlay to watch it on my TV via the Apple TV.
The tsn.ca web site is clearly not the most user-friendly site. It took me a while just to figure out where I was supposed to go to watch streaming EPL games. First I saw a link to an iPad app, so I downloaded and installed it, but as far as I can tell, it’s mainly an app for sports results and news, and it does not include streaming games.
Then as the time approached, I finally noticed a little blurb in the top-left corner of the home page inviting users to “click here” to watch the streaming EPL games. It looks like the “streaming” section of the site is an ephemeral thing and not a dedicated section that stays in the same place in the site structure at all times. So basically you are just supposed to load and reload the home page before the games until this blurb appears and then follow the link. Good grief…
Then the link took me to a dedicated page for streaming and I selected the game I wanted to watch. And then… nothing. No matter how many times I clicked on the game I wanted, no streaming happened. Eventually, I got to watch an ad (!) for something, but then, again, nothing. Good grief again.
Since the game had already started, I went upstairs to my office and tried the same thing in a web browser on my Mac. And sure enough the game started streaming right away… But of course, as luck would have it, my team had already scored an early goal. Thanks, TSN!
Then I went back downstairs to turn things off and realized that the game had started streaming there too while I was gone! And somehow the tsn.ca web site had automatically detected that I had an Apple TV and the iPad was playing the game through the Apple TV on my TV, even though I had not selected AirPlay at any point for this particular site or game. (I had selected AirPlay for other things earlier on, but as far as I could tell it was no longer on when I started using the tsn.ca web site in Safari on the iPad.)
Initially, the picture quality was pretty bad and with the wrong aspect ratio, but after a few minutes it somehow righted itself and gave me the right aspect ratio and a better picture quality (although nowhere near the HD signal I am used to via my satellite TV system).
I was then able to watch the rest of the game on my TV. There were a couple of glitches, included a period of 1 or 2 minutes where the screen went dark but the audio continued to play. Then everything stopped and the streaming resumed normally after a few seconds, through no intervention on my part. There were a few other hiccups in the stream, but nothing major, and I didn’t miss the rest of the action.
And then, at the end of the game, it all stopped as mysteriously as it had started, with no warning that the streaming was about to end or anything like that.
Clearly it would be much better if TSN could incorporate the streaming functionality into their iPad app instead of requiring people to go through the general web site in Safari, and also provide a better user experience before and after broadcasts. But I guess all this is still a “work in progress” for all parties involved. My impression is that, if you are interested in streaming stuff, you might as well be prepared for this kind of thing, because the whole situation is still very much in flux.
In addition, somehow during the TSN streaming something broke between the iPad and the Apple TV and when I went back to the Remote app to try and control other things on the Apple TV, the Apple TV was no longer listed in the things that the Remote app was able to control! I tried turning the Apple TV off and back on. I tried quitting and relaunching the Remote app. I tried fiddling with some settings. Nothing helped.
Finally, I tried turning Home Sharing off and on again. Of course, it asked for my Apple ID password again, and I couldn’t use the iPad to enter it, so I had to do it with the small Apple Remote. Grrr. And then the iPad told me something really helpful, like “Home Sharing cannot be enabled at this point. Please try again later.” WTF?
Eventually, I power-cycled the iPad and the Apple TV and was able to reenable Home Sharing and get things to work again, but really… I didn’t sign up for all this glitchiness within a few hours of setting things up! (I realize that part of the glitchiness was due to the tsn.ca itself, but that’s part of the reality when you try to deal with streaming: crappy web sites and crappy streaming services that your iPad and your Apple TV try to help you control and manage.)
I suppose that this broken pairing between the iPad Remote app and the Apple TV might have fixed itself eventually without my intervention, but here’s the thing: I have no patience for this crap. Either it works, or it doesn’t. I can’t live with “it worked half an hour ago, but right now it doesn’t, and maybe it’ll work again tomorrow if you don’t do anything”. I am something of a professional troubleshooter. Either things work, or they don’t. If they don’t, I want to be able to try and fix them. I don’t want mysterious failures that remain unexplained. If I sit down at 8:30 pm at night to watch a movie or a show via streaming, I won’t put up with, “Oh, maybe it’ll actually work tonight.”
I am not saying that my current satellite TV with PVR setup is perfect. It too has glitches, and software flaws, and occasional bugs. But at least it works most of the time. If my early experience with streaming is any indication, the frequency of glitches is much, much higher. I already find technology frustrating enough as it is. Do I really want even more frustration?
Next on my list was trying out the new Canal Plus Canada service. I did that this morning, using the Dailymotion app. The service is available as a free preview for one month (as long as you are willing to give your credit card info). After that, it’ll be $7.99 a month.
I have registered for the free preview on the web using Safari. When I am logged in in Safari, it appears to be working. In Chrome or Firefox, however, it does not seem to be working. Once I log in, Dailymotion correctly lists the Canal Plus subscription in my “purchases”, but when I try to stream something, it only gives me a preview of the first 3 minutes of the show.
The situation is the same with the Dailymotion app on the iPad. However, the official press release (in French, through the French consulate in Montreal) does state that the service is not available for tablets yet. So I guess that is why it is not working properly. That said, I do get the free 3-minute previews on the iPad and I am able to use AirPlay to display them on my TV.
The picture quality is fairly good once it gets going, but I have seen phases where the app throttled back to a really poor quality stream, presumably because of some temporary bandwidth issue. (The picture quality is set to “Auto” in the app’s settings.) I will have to test it more extensively to see if it’s a viable solution for me. It also remains to be seen whether the programming offered will actually be worth the $7.99/month. (There are also French films available on demand for $3.99 or $4.99, but that’s on top of the monthly fee.)
Still, it does look like the basic technological infrastructure is there and that it works with the iPad and the Apple TV.
Built-in features on the Apple TV more or less work as expected as well. But there are still problems. Even though I switched the default picture quality from 1080p to 720p in the Apple TV settings, it looks like my available bandwidth is still not good enough for Apple’s Theatrical Trailers app on the Apple TV. Buffering takes way too long, which leads me to think that the Theatrical Trailers app is still trying to download and play the 1080p version of each trailer. In typical Apple fashion, there is no obvious way to adjust this for the Theatrical Trailers app. The 720p setting that I changed applies to the iTunes Store (at least according to the interface).
Fortunately, things work better in the YouTube app. I’ve found a channel called “MOVIECLIPS Trailers” that has HD-quality trailers and they play just fine on the Apple TV, with no buffering delay whatsoever. They definitely look like 720p quality to me, which I think confirms that something is wrong with the Theatrical Trailers app on the Apple TV. Once again, it looks like Apple assumes the availability of unlimited bandwidth at all times and provides no obvious alternative for those who do not have so much bandwidth. (There is a knowledge base article about this, but it says nothing about what to do for the Theatrical Trailers app.)
It’ll take me a while to further experiment with the device and see how well things work in the real world. With my 7 Mbps connection, I will probably not be able to “cut the cord” just yet — especially since some of the stuff I want to watch is still only available via conventional TV channels. But my hope is that at least I will able to reduce my satellite TV bill substantially by getting rid of a bunch of channel packages. We shall see.