DirecTV, and some backstory
Last week we had a thunderstorm. Not even an especially notable one, really, except the lightning was close enough that we unplugged the laptops before we went to bed, just as a precaution.
When we went to watch TV the following evening, we discovered that our DirecTV receiver (also a DVR) was not responding or sending any signals to the TV. The ring of blue lights on the front, which sort of tells you what the box is doing, was completely dark, although the power button’s light was still on.
After going through the usual troubleshooting steps, we called DirecTV and arranged for a service tech to come out. This was not our first rodeo, you see: it was, if my memory is accurate, our fourth DirecTV receiver. Of those, only one — the first one — was honorably retired in favor of newer technology. The others have all died.
On Saturday, the guy arrived. After fiddling with the box for a while he came to the same conclusion I had: it was dead and would have to be replaced, having blown out a tuner during the storm despite our surge protector. (Next time I’ll remember to unplug it along with the computers, but DAMN.) This he did without comment or fuss, leaving us with a shiny new DVR/receiver that, according to rumor, is more reliable than the model it replaced.
However, we’d had a ton of shows on the old box that we hadn’t yet watched. In addition, we’d missed everything that aired Friday night: the premiere of Dollhouse, the first new episode of Terminator in a few months, and the new Battlestar Galactica, all of which I was greatly looking forward to.
On the bright side, I’d checked on Friday, knowing that I was going to miss the shows, and all three would be available on Hulu starting Saturday. I’ve used Hulu before, but I hate watching TV on my computer. I spend too much time sitting at my desk already. On the couch, I can stretch out, or fold laundry, or do half a dozen other things while I watch — like use the laptop for other things. (See above, pressed for time.)
We’d been thinking about a media center of some sort. Back in the day we probably would have hacked together a PC or an Apple Mini or something, but these days we’re both seriously short on free time. We wandered into Best Buy and came out with an Apple TV.
By itself, the Apple box is of limited use. You can
stream sync (thanks for the correction) video or audio stored on any Macs in the house, although you can’t store it on the box and get it off your computer’s hard drive. You can rent movies from iTunes. That’s about it, really. It works like a big iPod attached to your TV.
However, you can install Boxee on an Apple TV. Now we’re talking…
If you aren’t familiar with Boxee, here’s a quick video intro. It allows you to watch streaming internet video as well as other formats not natively supported on the Apple box.
Streaming was the feature I was most interested in. Boxee offers Hulu as well as most channels that stream their shows in full via their websites: CBS, Comedy Central (Jon Stewart!), ABC, Fox, etc.
It’s incredibly easy to install, especially compared to what I went through hacking my first TiVo several years ago. You download a file to a USB drive, stick it in the back of the Apple TV, press two buttons, wait for the shell script to finish running, remove the stick, and reboot.
Hulu, via Boxee, on the Apple TV
Watching Hulu on the Apple TV is far from an ideal experience. You’re essentially trying to navigate a standard Flash-based video player using the six buttons available on the Apple remote. Pausing works well, but backing up to catch something you missed is just not on. I ended up watching the first half of Dollhouse twice because I’d missed something in the middle and got stuck trying to back it up.
The video quality is all right, but you can tell that you’re watching something meant for a computer monitor that’s been blown up a little to fit your TV.
My Apple remote has a hinky left button, which makes getting out of Boxee and back to the main menu a tricky proposition, but it can be done.
All this is infinitely preferable to buying shows through iTunes at $2 a pop when I just want to watch them once and don’t want them cluttering up my hard drive. This is especially true for shows I plan to buy on DVD when they come out. I don’t care to pay for them twice over, thanks very much, just because DirecTV (who’s also getting a sliver of my paycheck every month) can’t make a DVR that works for more than six months at a stretch.
Today I learned that Hulu will disappear from Boxee later this week. Hulu’s announcement makes it clear that they don’t want to do this, but their content providers (read: the networks) have asked them to, and they’re bound to comply.
Naturally I think this is short-sighted on the content providers’ part, not to mention insulting to their viewers. Explain to me, please, why watching Hulu from my TV is so different from watching it on my computer — especially given that I do watch the shows on the DVR when they’re there, and used Hulu only for the shows I lost or missed when the DVR died.
Marc Hedlund of O’Reilly’s Radar blog has some cogent remarks on how this came about, which I think are likely accurate (at least in how the lawyers got involved; he’s perhaps fuzzy on the history of DivX).
Most of the current shows I watch will still be available on Boxee’s other channels; I’ll just have to deal with a slightly different interface for each one, since each channel has its own goofy player. But Hulu also has a number of older shows and movies that I’ll no longer be able to get, and of course I’ll miss their nifty live streaming events. (I watched the inauguration on Hulu at my desk, for example.)
Can I still watch Hulu on my TV? Sure — if I care to tether my laptop to my TV in order to do it.
To sum up
Apple TV: by itself, meh; with Boxee, made of awesome
“content providers”: FAIL
me: hmm, where were those torrents…?
ETA: there is now a Twitter stream to help you keep track of whether Hulu is working on Boxee.