First Look: HBO on Broadband off to a strong start

via DVICE by Charlie White on 1/31/08

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Time Warner just launched a test of its new HBO on Broadband service, only available so far to residents of Wisconsin who are subscribers of Time Warner Cable, HBO and Road Runner broadband. It so happens that some of your humble narrators at DVICE are currently living on Wisconsin’s appealing yet frozen tundra, and qualify for the free service. As soon as we heard about it, we jumped at the chance to get our hands and eyes on it. So we took HBO on Broadband for a spin using a desktop PC, a laptop and a home theater PC, giving it quite a workout. Here are our first-hand impressions.

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The special player is a separate application, not browser-based, but for now it’s only supporting Windows XP and Vista. If you’re an HBO subscriber and have Time Warner’s Road Runner broadband cable service, you can download HBO on Broadband’s 48.9MB application which hooks you up to the service’s 600 titles. Included in that list of shows are all HBO’s currently-running series and movies, as well as a few shows from the company’s back catalog.

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Downloads are fast, and you can start watching immediately. Well, almost. When we tried pressing Play right after hitting the download button, it stuttered a bit, but after a few seconds, it’s smooth sailing all the way. That’s helped along by our sprightly 14.6mbps Road Runner connection.

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You can take it with you. You can either watch HBO’s east coast feed live (pictured above) while you’re connected to Road Runner, or download a show on your laptop (up to five PCs allowed per account) and watch it on the road, even when you’re not connected. This is where the service really shines, and is better than Netflix “Watch Now.”

My Library lets you store the shows you’ve downloaded, and the programs don’t take up too much disk space—they’re compressed fairly tightly—around 600MB per hour of playback. You designate how much hard drive space to dedicate to this library, and titles stay on board for various lengths of time until HBO decides they expire. For instance, currently airing episodes of The Wire don’t expire until the end of March, a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode expires two weeks from now, while a Sopranos show expires at the end of the day today.

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Playback looks okay, but it’s not HDTV. The low rez still looks pretty good on standard-def shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Flight of the Conchords, but HD resolution is sorely missed on shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire. They’re shown in letterbox format with image quality that’s not quite as good as a DVD. Making matters worse is the player’s color rendering, taking on a red tinge on some shows (see pic above) that was mildly annoying, and there’s no way to adjust the tint or saturation.

You can play the content full-screen. Or, play it in the app’s small window if you want. We like the player’s added niceties such as the Netflix-like ability to rate each show or movie you’ve seen, as well as see other subscriber’ ratings.

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You can schedule recordings of upcoming HBO shows, akin to TiVo’s Season Pass. Just click Season Pass and you can choose to download all the episodes from that season, or just download new episodes.

Summing up, HBO’s first foray into the streaming video/download game is looking good. While we’d like to see all of the network’s back catalog of stellar series available for download in HD, the opening slate of 600 standard-def choices isn’t too shabby. The player works well, has some welcome conveniences and might just make a plane flight or two go a lot faster with its content-to-go capability. Best of all, it’s free if you’re already paying for HBO at home.

HBO’s Harrasment of PVR Owners

Unhappy Media Center

Ed Bott’s Media Central � Ouch! Bitten by DRM Well last week I wrote about Dave Zatz’s report that HBO wanted to have their content coded as “Copy Never” for PVR users. In response to Dave’s post I tried to clarify to people that HBO’s DRM request to the FCC was not about DVR usage but about VOD usage, what I felt was an important distinction.

Well no sooner than this morning we now have a screen shot up at Ed Bott’s Media Central about a “Restricted Content” error that he is receiving on his Media Center PC for an HBO show that he recorded. The message reads: Restricted Content, Restrictions set by the broadcaster and/or originator of the content prohibit playback of the program on this computer.

What’s worse is that according to Ed, he is receiving this message on the computer that actually recorded the programming, not a second computer that he copied the file too.

Under the best case scenario, this message is yet another example of how DRM inadvertently gets in the way of legitimate and fair use. If content providers want to use DRM it is super important that they make it as seamless for the fair use consumer as possible.

Under the worse case scenario, of course, HBO is actually no longer letting you record their content on your PVR for personal use. While I doubt this is the case, the day that HBO does this I will call them up and cancel my account — no matter how badly I want to watch the upcoming season of the Sopranos.

Either way this looks bad for HBO who is quickly building a reputation as one of the most consumer unfriendly broadcasters out there.

Update: Ed Bott is still trying to troubleshoot why HBO will not allow him to play back recorded content on his Media Center PC. This is a big problem. If Ed Bott, who is one of the top Windows Pros out there, is having trouble figuring this out, just imagine how stuck your average Joe out there is going to be when he runs across the same thing. Ed’s headline today, HBO stops working with Media Center, is kind. If these kinds of bugs continue to threaten fair use get ready for bigger headlines that say things like, Yes, in Fact, Microsoft’s DRM Does Truly Suck.

It may not be fair to generalize based on Ed’s experience here but he is a pro and it is troubling to see this kind of interference for a legitmate fair use of content that he has purchased. He is paying for HBO afterall and he also is paying for his Media Center PC.

I posted a comment on Ed’s blog about how I recently switched my email reader from Microsoft’s Outlook to Mozilla Thunderbird. I actually like Outlook more but even with the actual original Outlook disk that I had purchased myself I could not get Microsoft’s buggy authentication to work. After several hours of screwing around with it I just gave up and installed Thunderbird (which I’d highly recommend by the way). This was not my first problem with Microsoft authentication and if Microsoft hopes for consumers to take a middle ground position with regards to DRM then it will need to work a lot better than it is working for Ed right now.

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TiVo Series3 and JVC receivers throw DRM fit

Copy never: DRM ‘glitch’ keeps TiVo Series3, JVC A/V receivers from playing nice – Alpha Blog – alpha.cnet.com So here’s one more reason not to buy a TiVo Series 3. CNET’s John P. Falcone has an article out about a glitch that prevents you from watching HBO with your TiVo Series 3 when using a JVC receiver.

“But when we moved onto another program–Revenge of the Sith, recorded off of HBO-HD–the screen suddenly went gray, with a TiVo warning emblazoned across the bottom: “Viewing is not permitted using the TiVo Digital Media Recorder. Try another TV input.” Several other programs–Empire of the Sun (HDNet Movies), Simone (HBO-HD), and episodes of Battlestar Galactica (Universal HD) all yielded the same result.”

So who is to blame for this? Well of course HBO in part for the way that they code their shows which allow for snafus like this to happen. TiVo of course would like for us to absolve them of all responsibility associated with this as they are merely enforcing the rules established by HBO.

But the point is that TiVo is the one that has agreed to provide the support for the DRM that creates snafus like this and so I blame them most of all. While it may be unrealistic and certainly not pragmatic for TiVo to pursue an adversarial reltionship with content providers (especially when they are trying to get cozier with them from an advertising perspective), I still think that they should take a stronger pro consumer stance.

TiVo of course is not the only one playing ball with the content owners. Microsoft also is and snafus have happened here in the past too.

What do I think TiVo and Microsoft should do? I think that they should use their collective clout to say no to the content providers about DRM. It’s unacceptable that these snafus take place which only hinder both consumer consumption and adoption of this technology.

TiVo. Ad zapping = good. Fast fowarding commercials = good. Time shifting = good. TiVo2Go (which CNET notes is killed in the Series 3) = good.

DRM = bad. Very bad.

Thanks for the heads up Dave and you can digg CNET’s article on this snafu here.