Monday, April 07, 2014

Treadmill Desk Update: 2 Years, 3 Months

Leveled off the last few weeks:

  • Hours: 3311
  • Hours/Day: 5.1
  • Steps: 11,737,136
  • Steps/Day: 18,085
  • Calories: 715,577
  • Calories/Day: 1,103
  • Calories/Hr: 215
  • Miles: 3878
  • Miles/Day: 6.0

A new round of the weight loss contest has begun, and although I’m not being as diligent as I should be, I have lost a couple of pounds so far.

 

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hulu Plus Review

As stated in the previous post, we have dropped our cable service in favor of online services. We’re relying primarily on Hulu Plus for TV shows, and have used it by far the most since cutting the cable, so I’d like to take a look at what we have learned so far.

At the end of the last post, I recommended trying these services out before making the cord-cutting decision. I offer that advice specifically because we did not wind up getting what we thought we would be getting with Hulu Plus. The service costs a mere $7.99/mo, so it is quite inexpensive, and certainly no harm will fall if you try it out for a month or two while maintaining your cable service. Also the first week is free.

Shows

First I will list out the shows that I thought were available through Hulu going into this. There are a handful of shows not listed that we would DVR, mostly from the Science channel, that I knew going in were not available online, and so far are lost to us without cable service. I arrived at the conclusion that those listed below would be on Hulu by virtue of searching on Hulu and seeing the shows turn up in the search results. And they are:

  • Doctor Who
  • Elementary
  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • Ground Floor
  • Hollywood Game Night
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Key & Peele
  • Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
  • Modern Family
  • Saturday Night Live
  • The Colbert Report
  • The Daily Show
  • The Middle

Once we signed up, I quickly found out that I was absolutely mistaken about Elementary, Ground Floor, and How I Met Your Mother. These shows all do indeed appear in Hulu’s search results, but upon finding them you will be given a link to watch them on the website of their respective networks. I’ll talk in the future about our workarounds, but for now it is disappointing that these items are not actually viewable through Hulu. And lastly, Hollywood Game Night is only viewable on Hulu’s web site, so we can’t watch it on our Apple TV. The rest we have been able to watch normally just the same as we would from the DVR.

On the flip side, once we started browsing through the available series, we did find all kinds of things we were interested in watching. The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and ALF are some older examples, plus Farscape and all of the various Star Trek series, but we also stumbled onto some newer things like Community and Top Gear. So while we didn’t get everything we wanted, we did wind up with different offerings instead, and have plenty of stuff to watch for a good long time.

But all of this just brings to light that “available on Hulu” actually has a wide range of meanings. And these are the kinds of the things that you don’t really pick up on until you sit down and put the service through its paces, or at least I didn't. If Hulu actually lists these tiers out themselves, I sure haven’t found it yet, so these are my terms and my descriptions. When viewing the page for a given show, there will be a number showing the available episodes, and then some additional comments regarding the content that is available. Make sure to read all of these details for the shows that you are interested in.

Unlimited - Every episode is available to watch on any device that you want, with no expiration dates. Of the ones we have paid attention to so far, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, 3rd Rock From the Sun, An Evening at the Improv, Doogie Howser, and a variety of others fall into this category (* for now, see next tier). This means you have access to dozens of episodes from each show, and you can take as long as you like to watch them. Newer ones like Community are also, so far, falling into this category allowing us to catch up.

Time Limited - Episodes and even entire series can have expiration dates. For example, The Daily Show episodes are available for 30 days as I type this. Until very recently, ALF was in the unlimited group, but seems to have picked up an expiration date of March 2015. That should be plenty of time overall, but with 94 episodes remaining, if we only watch one per week we aren’t gonna make it.

And this speaks to the larger point that content on Hulu isn’t really permanently available. Just because it doesn’t have an expiration date now doesn’t mean it won’t gain one in the future. And it may not even take that long. While researching Top Gear, I learned that Hulu and BBC only reached a content agreement a few months ago. Yet, in a few days Sherlock is going to disappear, just as we were thinking about starting to watch it.

Episode Limited - This one takes two different forms. The first example is that some episodes are simply missing. Evening at the Improv lists as high as “Season 1, Episode 107”, but only 88 episodes are available. No idea where the missing ones are. Top Gear is available from seasons 2 through 18. No idea what happened to season 1, and the show is currently on season 21 and growing, so no idea if we’ll be getting any new ones. Will they become available at some point? Will we lose ones that we currently have? Who can say?

The other example is that only the most recent episodes are available. This applies to things like Agents of SHIELD and The Blacklist, where only the most recent 5 episodes are available. In some cases it might be the entire most-recent season, but nothing earlier. That’s fine if you’re already up to speed and intend to stay that way, as we are for AoS, but really sucks if you would like to catch up from the beginning, as I would with The Blacklist. You’ll have to rely on other means, perhaps renting/purchasing seasons on iTunes or elsewhere, to get caught up.

Device Limited - As previously mentioned, Hollywood Game Night falls into this category, and I think is the only one we’ve found like that so far. Simply put, you can only watch in a web browser on your desktop computer. No mobile, no TV.

Clearly Hulu has different agreements with different content providers, and the terms of these agreements change over time. But if any of this was made clear before I signed up, I certainly overlooked it. So, in addition to determining whether or not the shows you want to watch are actually available via Hulu, you should take the extra step to determine exactly how they are available, and potentially for how long.

Managing Content

Once you’re up and running, your Hulu life revolves around your Favorites and your Queue. Favorites apply to shows, and the Queue really applies to specific episodes, though is displayed on a per-show basis.

Marking a show as a favorite means that new episodes will be automatically added to your queue. One thing that marking a favorite does not do is add older episodes to your queue. So as far as I can tell, there is no real reason to mark an older show as a favorite, since there won’t be new episodes forthcoming anyway. But this also means that if you actually want older episodes added to your queue, you have to go add them manually. This isn’t a huge deal, though it did take us a little while to figure out that we needed to do this, and then how. We’d mark favorites, and then wonder why nothing was showing up in the queue. And Hulu doesn’t make it overly obvious how to go about adding, say, all older episodes to your queue. First of all, if it can be done with their iOS app, I haven’t figured out how. If it can be done via the Apple TV, I haven’t figured out how. I don’t think it can be done. So that means going to their web site. Unfortunately, their web site is “smart” enough to know when you are coming from an iOS device, and if you try they simply redirect you to use their app, so you can’t do it from there either. That means using their web site on your desktop computer. Very convenient.

Once on their web site, go to the page for the show in question. Scroll down to find the section that says “Episodes”, and then click on the word “Episodes” that is actually clickable even though it doesn’t look like it would be. Then when you finally get a list of all of the episodes, across the top there will be a row of numbers listing out each season. Make sure to click on “ALL” so that you are displaying everything. Then over on the right is a small + button that says “Add All to Queue”. Bingo. So if you skipped the “All” step, you would have only added the episodes for whichever season number was displayed.

It’s worth repeating that Favoriting only applies to shows, not episodes. Once you watch something, it disappears from your queue. It will remain in history until it gets bumped, after that you’re on your own to find it again. If there are specific episodes that you would like to watch over and over, you’re on your own to keep track of them and put them back in your queue. There is no way to mark episodes as favorites for handy re-watching later.

For the most part, I went nuts favoriting and queueing all kinds of things. With a DVR, you are limited by disk space, and with HD content and a few movies that fills up quickly. The queue is more or less a small text file on a server somewhere; the sky is the limit. Or so I thought. After I easily had 2000+ items in the queue, I did get a notice that while I could indeed have as many items in the queue that I wanted, new content would not be added while it was so high. Bummer. Realistically, this stuff will takes us years to get through anyway, and it’s not like I need every single Star Trek episode ever made all in my queue right now. So I did some whittling and reduced the queue to the point that we once again get new content updates.

Otherwise, new content appears in much the same way as it would for a DVR. For example, we don’t stay up to watch The Daily Show, the DVR would grab it, and we’d watch it at dinner the next day. Now, we get an (optional) email informing us of our queue updates, The Daily Show is included, and we watch it at dinner the next day. This behavior describes the bulk of our new-show-watching behaviors, so in many ways life is continuing on as if we still had cable service, only cheaper.

Viewing Content

We watch our Hulu content through an Apple TV, so I can’t speak to any other methods of watching. You can watch from iOS devices, though we haven’t had a real need to do so yet, and you can of course watch from their web site, but we haven’t done that either.

The app on the Apple TV is easy enough to use. When you launch it, you are presented with a variety of content that someone feels might be interesting for you. My wife pokes around here more than I do; I only really care about the queue. Like many Apple TV apps, there are different pages/tabs across the top of the screen, each one focusing on something different. The queue page is the 5th one over. I really wish I could make it the default page, or at least be able to reorder them because I especially don’t care about pages 2-4.

Once (finally) on the queue page, you click down once or twice to get to your listing of shows. Shows will be listed alphabetically, with badge numbers showing how many episodes are available for each one. This list is smart enough to hide any shows for which there are no unwatched episodes. For older shows, that’s not really an issue since the show will be there until you finish anyway. But for newer stuff, you watch the latest episode, and then the show disappears from the display until the next new episode is available.

I will point out that although Hulu does offer some movies, for the most part I don’t add them to the queue because I don’t like the way they are displayed. For example, when I added Top Gear, there were nearly 150 episodes available. But this appeared as only a single item in the queue browser, with a little red 143 badge. However if I add 10 movies to the queue, then there will be 10 more items in the queue browser. This isn’t the end of the world, but all of these extra items increase the effort to scroll around to find what you want to watch. There really is no reason to browse around and find 30 movies that you’d like to eventually watch, because then that will be 30 items littering your browser that you have to scroll around until you finally watch them. I’d much rather have a single “Movies” item, under which each movie is grouped. That change alone would get me to watch more movies on Hulu.

Once you select the show you want to watch, you will be given a list of available episodes, along with a handy quick-pick for whichever episode is next. It is smart enough to know how far in the series you have watched. For instance, we have started watching Community from the beginning, a show that is still actively cranking out new episodes. The quick-pick will be for the next episode that we need to watch, not the newest episode. This makes it nice and easy to work our way through older episodes while still acquiring the newer ones.

Unplayed episodes will have a blue dot next to them. Partially-watched episodes will have a partially-filled blue dot next to them. Selecting those will offer to resume playback. A feature that I consider to be nice is that it will replay approximately the previous 15 seconds from where you left off, allowing you to remember what was going on. A feature that I don’t consider to be nice is that Hulu (or the Apple TV app, I’m honestly not sure which) has a loose definition of when an episode is finished. I have stopped watching shows with maybe 10 minutes remaining, that I intend to finish later. When I come back, the episode no longer appears with the partially-filled blue dot, and the quick-pick will now be for the next episode. So after a certain point, they must just decide that you’ve come close enough to finishing that they will just count it as finished. I suppose this could be viewed as nice if you want to skip the credits, but I’ve done this several times where there were many minutes of actual content remaining. When this happens, I have to go find the episode in history, and from there it will indeed let me resume from where I left off. I’d rather have a smaller window in which it will automatically consider something to be completed.

Hulu does have commercials. And you can’t fast forward through them. But I feel that they struck a good balance between needing ad revenue and minimizing the user interruption. When they do show commercials, there is an indicator in the upper left of a screen that shows how many commercials you are going to see, plus a countdown graphic so you can see how much time is left. In most circumstances, when you sit down to watch something you can count on one commercial right off the bat, but it is usually pretty quick. After that, the number of commercial breaks you get will be roughly the same as you would get while watching live. There is a timeline at the bottom of the screen that you see when you play/pause, and this timeline will have a few black dots along the way. Those dots are the commercial breaks. The vast majority of those commercial breaks will involve 2 commercials, so roughly 60 seconds. The worst we have seen so far is with Saturday Night Live, and those sometimes have 3 commercials. I’m ok with 2, but 3 seems to push my annoyance limit. Not much to be done about it though. Compared to our normal DVR practice, I’d usually skip ahead in 30-second jumps to miss the commercials, but would often miscount or the break wasn’t exactly in 30 second increments, and there would be some fiddling to resume the show. So yes, technically I would see less commercials with the DVR, but with more intervention on my part. Now I just let it play and don’t feel the need to go diving for the remote every time a commercial starts (not that I could do anything about it anyway), and the length of the commercial break isn’t that bad. I’m far more bothered by the repetition of some of the commercials than I am by the amount of time involved.

You can fast-forward past commercials in some circumstances, but you can’t avoid them entirely. Say you wish to fast-forward to the end of a long show, blowing right past 5 or 6 of the commercial break black dots. You can do that. What will happen when you reach your destination is that it will play commercials from the last break, and then leave you where you wanted to be. So you still have to watch some commercials in this case, but you don’t have to watch ALL of them.

One trick I learned is that fast-forwarding likes to “snap” on the black dots. Where this is useful is the beginning of some shows that have a long introduction. Maybe there is an opening skit or scene, and then a potentially long montage and theme song, followed by a commercial break. ALF and SNL are like this. So I watch the opening scene, but once that is finished hit the fast-forward button twice for the medium advance speed. As the play head zips along the time line, I wait for it to get just past the next black dot, then hit the play button again. This drops me into the commercial break and then proceeds with the show. I think this is easier than what the DVR routine would have been.

Overall

For the most part, the viewing experience is roughly the same on Hulu as it was with our DVR. Find what you want, watch it, move on to the next episode. And with Hulu I don’t have to worry about deleting episodes or otherwise running out of disk space. Or, as happened to us once, having the DVR box die and losing everything that was stored. I can queue up as much as I want, within reason, and take as long as I want to watch it, with exceptions as noted above. I find it to be a far more flexible experience, not to mention cheaper, and having to sit through 2 commercials at a time is a reasonable tradeoff.

Naturally we have lost the ability to record stuff live, as we no longer have the ability to watch live in the first place. But with the exception of movies that would show up on various channels occasionally, and sporting events, we didn’t really record anything that we aren’t able to watch online in some other way. And those movies are often available somewhere, too.

I do feel a little misled about the content that can be found on Hulu. Maybe I should have paid more attention to details, but it seems to me that if they don’t offer a show, then that show should not appear in search results. I can’t honestly say if the missing ones would have been enough to dissuade me from cutting the cord, but I probably would have thought longer and harder about it first. That said, as mentioned previously, once we signed up we did find a bunch of shows to watch that we didn’t seek out originally, older stuff in particular, and have more than enough content available to last us a good long time.

Now that I know what Hulu has, I sort of wish we had explored it sooner, even while maintaining cable service. It is much cheaper than a single movie channel package via cable, and you have much more control over what you watch. We would occasionally take advantage of discounts on Starz or Showtime, and sure having the movies is nice, but you don’t have any control whatsoever over which movies are shown in a given month. In hindsight, the money would have been better spent watching older TV shows, and I could control exactly what I wanted to watch and when.

Hulu is far from perfect. It would be nice if every show that I wanted to watch was available. It would be nice if there were no expiration dates or episode limits. There are a number of improvements I’d like to see to their web site, their iOS app, and their Apple TV app. And these are things I would pay money for. If it was a truly unlimited service for even double the price, I’d still be on board. As is, I consider the price, offerings, and tradeoffs to all be reasonable. Not great, but reasonable. I recommend it to anyone with or without cable service, and we will almost certainly keep it if we do resume cable service at some point in the future.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cutting The Cable

The contract period recently ran out on our Verizon FiOS Triple Play (phone/internet/TV) service. As a result, our new monthly bill would be roughly $160, an increase of ~$10-30 depending on which features we were using at any given time. I don’t really have any complaints with the FiOS service, and the internet speeds are great, but this finally reached the mark of feeling too expensive for what I was getting. We didn’t have any movie channels, we only had the 2nd-lowest tier of internet speed, and we only used a single cable box (albeit with DVR). And rarely use the phone.

This prompted a rethink of our television needs. We rely heavily on the DVR, and really only watch live TV for sporting events or mostly for background noise. That’s not to say we don’t ever watch live TV, but we don’t watch it so much that we feel we must have it. Then it was a matter of determining what our online options were for watching our favorite shows. So I went right down the list of series in the DVR, and searched around for online availability. For probably 80%+ of what we watch, online options that were either free or cheap were readily available. The remaining shows went on the list of “Here is what we lose if we do this."

So here is where we wound up, and then I’ll circle back around to why we did what did:

  • Reduced FiOS service to phone + internet (faster, actually), dropping the TV portion
  • Purchased an Apple TV
  • Signed up with hulu.com for TV shows (they also have some movies)
  • Started utilizing our Amazon Prime membership for movies (they also have some TV shows)

We had Amazon Prime already to save on shipping, so for our TV watching purposes it is free. If you don’t already have it, then obviously it will cost you money, but at $79/year [Edit: just a couple days after posting, Amazon announced that the rate will increase to $99/year in 2015] it is cheaper than Netflix. We’ve had Netflix in the past, and found that we didn’t watch DVDs often enough to justify the price. Their online-only catalog isn’t super compelling compared to average TV channels, so we didn’t strongly consider it. Without Amazon Prime, we absolutely would have used it, and some of their exclusive content is becoming interesting, so it may wind up back on the table here soon.

I was totally willing to drop the home phone service as well, but when actually looking at the available packages, Verizon offered no discount for dropping it, meaning it was effectively free, so I kept it. But considering that the vast majority of calls coming in are telemarketers, I’m about done with having a house line.

The FiOS service is now $84.99, with a realistic bill of $90-95 (should be closer to $90). Hulu Plus is $7.99/mo. Combined that should be under $100/mo. If you want to be picky and consider the Amazon Prime cost as well, it is still under $110/mo. This represents a savings of at least $50/mo, meaning we absorb the cost of the Apple TV within 2 months. After that we save money. And if we decide to add Netflix at some point, we’re still coming out ahead.

I was able to figure out all of these numbers before pulling the trigger, so then the mantra became “Is this worth 50 bucks?” for everything that we thought we might lose. Yes, we’ll miss some football and basketball games. Is that worth 50 bucks a month? No. Yes, we’ll miss some other live TV shows. Is that worth 50 bucks a month? No. How about all of these things combined, is that worth 50 bucks a month? That’s a harder question, but we finally decided that no, it’s not. So we cut the cord.

We are now 2 months in as I write this, and so far it is going well. We have over 1000 items in our Hulu queue, so we will have plenty to watch for the foreseeable future. For the most part, instead of watching stuff off the DVR the next day, we watch the same stuff off of Hulu the next day. In fact, considering that our DVR service was something like $16/mo, Hulu really has turned out to be quite the bargain, and we will almost certainly keep it if at some point in the future we decide to resume television service. Yes, we have missed out on some televised events, but so far we’re enjoying the lower bill.

That’s not to say that everything is great. There are hoops to jump through. Right off the bat, Amazon Prime is not available on the Apple TV. We have a Sony Blu-Ray player that is capable of connecting to Amazon Prime and streaming the video content. But honestly that experience is sub-par. It is very slow, and has a really awkward user interface. It is usually a better experience to use the Instant Video app on an iOS device and throw it onto the Apple TV from there via AirPlay.  And despite the numerous “channels” that the Apple TV has, most of them require a login through your TV provider, and since we no longer have TV service we don’t count, so most of the channels are unavailable to us. Hulu has some issues that I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post, mostly dealing with content availability.

In general, sitting down at the TV used to be a pretty brainless experience. Turn it on, pick a channel, watch. Now watching stuff requires more planning. Ok, I’m sitting down to watch a movie, flip on the Apple TV, oh crap, that’s actually on Amazon Prime, so I need the Blu-Ray player instead, turn that on, etc.  Even within the Apple TV, the show you want to watch could be in any of a couple dozen apps/channels, and then within each app could be anywhere within that UI to find what you want. Specific to the Hulu app, after selecting it, I will have to click to the right 4 times to get to the queue page, and then click down a couple of times to find our favorite shows.  95%+ of the time when I go to the Hulu app, I want the queue page. But there is no way (that I know of) to make that the default page.

There is a lot of industry expectation that Apple is going to do something to shake up the TV industry. Honestly, all I would want them to do is to make a standard launch screen with “TV Shows” and “Movies” as selections, and then it automatically pools together everything that has been favorited in any/all apps on the device. They’d have to get all of these providers to agree upon some kind of scheme for defining watch lists, but that hardly seems like an insurmountable problem. I don’t imagine it would be too hard to place an icon next to each show so that these providers get their branding, too. I don’t care if Apple ever makes an actual TV - probably wouldn’t buy it anyway since I don’t need it - but there is still a ton of opportunity available to significantly improve and simplify the experience on the device they already have.

I will talk more about the specific services in future posts, but for now, if you are considering dropping cable, then my advice would be to test these things out before making the decision.  Hulu is cheap, and within a single month you should be able to figure out whether or not it meets your needs. If it doesn’t, cancel it. At minimum, you may find it to be a viable/cheaper alternative to your DVR, even if you ultimately decide to keep your TV service. I don’t regret it, but the actual service has fallen short of what I expected in some ways, based on my preliminary research. If you’re going the Apple TV route, poke around the apps and pay attention to how many of them require a TV provider credential. Those are off-limits once you cut the cord, so you can’t really count on them, even though the Apple TV seemingly offers a lot of content. Depending on your needs, AirPlay alone can make an AppleTV a worthwhile purchase, even if you don’t cut the cord. And if you truly hate the Apple TV, you can sell it. I’m pretty solidly in the Apple ecosystem, but there are alternatives such as the Chromecast or Roku that can be used instead of or in addition to everything that has been mentioned so far. Bottom line is that it doesn’t cost very much money to find out if you can get by with these services alone, so I’d encourage you to try before making the decision to cut the cord.