Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

American Gods: Will it ever be released on UHD Blu-Ray or 4K UHD iTunes?

As much as I loved the first season of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods on Amazon Prime Video UK, I’m reluctant to buy it on Blu-Ray or it’s current version on iTunes for one particular reason: while it was shot in Ultra-High Definition (aka 4K), and I can watch it as often as I like on Amazon in UHD, I can’t buy it in any form in UHD – especially UHD Blu-Ray.

It’s a bit ironic that American Gods has a character called Technical Boy who “invites” people into his limousine via virtual reality.  In reality, however, I cannot easily buy a TV series in UHD.

The biggest problem with the TV industry at the moment is that only a subset of it (generally the two largest online streaming services – Netflix & Amazon Prime Video) is producing content in UHD.  It is also still costly to mass produce UHD content on physical media.  In the film industry, for example, not all films are given releases in UHD. Only the really big blockbuster movies are getting the UHD Blu-Ray treatment at the moment, and those cost between £20-£25 each, about £10-15 more than regular Blu-Ray.

Making UHD content available to buy via download or streaming is a different matter.  Though that too introduces some hurdles.   Do you really get to keep the content?  As I found out recently with the BBC Store – if that goes away, so does any content you’ve bought.  But thankfully the BBC refunded me entirely and even gave me a bit of a bonus to use with Amazon – for streaming content (whether to rent or buy – I used it to rent).

Apple is said to be announcing a 4K/UHD capable Apple TV next week.  This is all well and good, but unless Apple has 4K content to go with it, the upgrade won’t be worth it.  The 4th generation Apple TV has been okay for the most part, and practically all my HD content I’ve purchased (or rented) has been excellent (with the exception of Breaking Bad – we need iTunes Extra for TV shows, Apple!).  But the biggest problem with the Apple TV has been the lack of support from UK broadcasters.  I’m still waiting for ITV Hub, Channel 4, Channel 5 and other UK broadcasters to pull their fingers out of their bottoms and develop their catch-up apps for it.

But I still concede that iTunes/Apple TV is still the best method of buying and keeping content.  If Apple can get 4K/UHD on there, it’ll be a start.

I believe it’s about time that at least one broadcasting company steps up to bat and starts to invest in UHD outside of just making content and streaming it as part of a subscription service.  It has taken a very, very long time to get to UHD/4K televisions, and yet support for it outside the streaming ecosystem is still very poor.

Starz – please let me buy American Gods in UHD.  Either in UHD Blu-Ray or via iTunes (in 4K/UHD) when the hardware is available.  Or even both!

Better Call Better (Social) Media

I love Better Call Saul.  Great show.  But if there is one thing that infuriates me about AMC TV’s strategy is the complete disregard for international viewers on social media and on the web.  They will regularly advertise things like this on their official Better Call Saul Twitter:

You visit the AMC TV web site. You click on Watch Video. “Sorry, this video is not available in your location” (or some similar wording).

Let’s make something clear: the internet was designed to be an open platform. Yet old media deems that it can enforce regionalisation. I have heard all the excuses: licensing, marketing, rights, whatever. But as a viewer ( Better Call Saul is available in the UK via Netflix), I find it frustrating that the show’s owner (AMC TV) is not able to make available this content outside the US. There’s only one Better Call Saul Twitter account. It has an international following. There are, to my knowledge, no local/regional Twitter accounts relating to Better Call Saul. So you can’t tell me to simply follow the UK Better Call Saul Twitter feed – because there is no official UK Better Call Saul Twitter feed.

Another AMC TV show, The Walking Dead, *does* have local/regional Twitter feeds. But the UK one hasn’t been verified. D’OH! This makes is difficult to ascertain whether information coming from it is official or not.

I’m sick and tired of geoblocking promotional stuff for TV shows that we can get over here in the UK. And I’m stuck and tired of the excuses.

(On a separate note: having bought the first two seasons of HBO’s Silicon Valley on Blu-Ray, HBO appear to have chosen not to release the third season on the same format – only DVD. I have no idea what that’s about, but if HBO doesn’t pull its finger out in being consistent with it releases, I won’t be buying anything of their stuff again)

BBC’s digital store to close in November

My biggest fear with buying digital only copies of films and television shows is if the provider goes away – whether it’s due to bankruptcy, change of direction – whatever.  As I’ve been sticking with the iTunes ecosystem for the majority of the time, I trust Apple to do the right thing and ensure I am able to download and watch my movies regardless of whatever happens to the movie or TV studio that supplied them with the content.  So far so good.

But, alas, the poor old BBC has announced that it’ll be shutting down its all digital BBC Store from 1st November 2017.  I’ve used BBC Store a number of times over the past 18 months, amassing a few titles here and there.  It was relatively cheap, and they often had many titles on sale.  My biggest complaint with the BBC Store, however, is actually watching the titles on my TV.  What a pain in the arse that was.  The BBC iPlayer baked into my LG TV, Apple TV, plus the games consoles I used to have, never supported BBC Store titles.  And there was no native BBC Store app for them either.  Thus I had to buy a Google Chromecast to be able to cast the content from my mobile phone to it.  No problem watching the content on my phone or tablet, but it’s not ideal – and this is why I think the BBC has failed – it felt as if it didn’t put enough resources into developing the BBC iPlayer integration or BBC Store apps across multiple platforms.

(Ironically, as the mega corporate AT&T is set to buy Time Warner, Inc. and take over HBO – AT&T’s boss has been semi-joking that he wants to provide 20 minute mobile friendly episodes of Game of Thrones – this sort of thing horrifies me – I’m all about choice, but the important thing is that television is television and should be viewed as (and on) such)

Another problem with BBC Store is that many of BBC’s titles are available on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.  The BBC has said that it wasn’t able to compete with these services, but I still say they just did not put enough effort or resources into making the content available across platforms as easily as Netflix or Amazon Prime (which, BTW, should be coming to Apple TV next month if rumours are true).

Ultimately it’s a slap in the face for digital TV and movie consumption.  But I also ask: is TV and film going the same way as music?  Do people actually prefer to pay a monthly subscription fee to consume as much content as possible, rather than simply buy a title outright?   While the BBC is refunding those of us for the content we’ve paid for (plus, very ironically, a £20 Amazon voucher for similar digital content), it doesn’t make it easy for us to be able to repurchase the content elsewhere.  With content providers bemoaning that piracy is ruining the entertainment industry – it forgets very easily that if more effort was made to make the content available quickly and cheaply, and across as many platforms as possible, their rhetoric might be a bit more believable!

More HDMI inputs then there are in heaven..

My latest project is replacing my gaming set-up with a home cinema set-up.  I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

So home cinema is what I’m aiming at.  So far I’ve replaced the Xbox One S and Sony RX100M4 with an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-Ray player.  It’s certainly not cheap, but it’s currently the best player on the market.  Will hopefully last a good few years.  The firmware is regularly updated, plus the bonus is that their UK HQ is based in Norwich – specifically in an area I used to go through each day on my way to work.  The Oppo is a good choice for superb picture quality and sound, and Deadpool UHD/4K looked particularly good during testing.

The second component is the Pioneer VSX-S520D AV receiver.  I originally opted for the Denon AVR-X2300W, until I realised that the unit wouldn’t fit in my shelf space underneath the TV.  This is what happens when you order without measuring stuff first.  The Pioneer is much slimmer and is even smaller (in height) than the Blu-Ray player.  I’ve still had to re-arrange stuff  – moving the Virgin Media Tivo V6 box to just behind the TV (I can still see the status light).  The AV shelf now consists of the Oppo UDP-230, the 4th generation Apple TV and the Pioneer AV receiver.  The Tivo, Oppo, Apple TV and an HD Google Chromecast are all plugged into the receiver’s HDMI inputs.

Is is strange to buy an AV receiver without speakers?  Yes.  Yes it is.  The main reason was to buy it initially for HDMI switching, but giving me the option to add speakers at a later date.  I usually listen to the TV through wireless headphones to drown out the neighbours.  The Pioneer allows me to plug the headphone transmitter into the front of the unit and I’m able to listen to all devices through the receiver without any issues.  The best thing?  No lip sync issues at all.  But at some point I will buy speakers to give me full 5.1 surround sound (neighbours be damned).

Picture quality from the Pioneer is good.  It supports 4K passthrough and upscaling, and everything I’ve thrown at it has been fine.  The Tivo V6 has actually seen a substantial improvement!  I couldn’t use the 2160 Passthrough option directly through the LG TV for some reason – the signal would just drop – but through the Pioneer it’s working really well and has got rid of a lot of the jerky 4K playback I reported after initially getting the Tivo V6 set-up last month.

The Pioneer also supports DAB and FM radio, though I still have to get the aerial to work properly – so far I’m just getting static.  It also supports music streaming services such as TuneIn, Spotify, Pandora (not in the UK), TIDAL and all sorts of things.  It also has built in ChromeCast and AirPlay services – albeit for audio only.  At some point I’ll hook up the turntable and will likely add a CD player to the unit – there’s space to hook those up thanks to the myriad of connections at the back of the Pioneer.

From Breaking Bad’s prequel series, Better Call Saul – I dread to think what we’ll get in the next season..

In short – very happy with the current set-up.  It’s my first steps to proper home cinema.  It’s a shame my TV supports 4K, but not HDR.  This is the result of the film studios and electronic manufacturers failing to agree on things in a timely manner.  4K has had a troublesome birth, and continues to do so, but it’s getting better.  I doubt we’ll see 8K for quite some time given that 4K is still so new.

Meanwhile, did you know that movies used to ship on vinyl discs?  Watch this for a fascinating look into a video format of old…