An “unfortunate incident” happened today that pretty much changed everything I’d “planned to do” into “not getting done”.
My TV died.
It was an old 19 inch Philips / Magnavox from somewhere around 15? years ago. Who knows. I’d bought it for my daughter when she was of some age old enough to operate a TV and not so old as to be into computers and the internet. Standard tube NTSC TV. This year she gets married… Moved it to my bedroom when she moved out after college, that even some years back.
For the last few weeks the vertical deflection was failing. Sporadically it would just show a very bright line across the middle and the lower 1/2 of the screen normal. Jiggling the wires on the back would fix it (that indirectly jiggled the board inside). It slowly got worse, and today was just not giving me a usable image for more than a few seconds. I took the back off, cleaned out the accumulated precipitate of a decade and inspected. Nothing obvious failed. So either inside a chip somewhere or more likely leakage of “something” to “somewhere it shouldn’t be” through the dirty old wires. I wiped things down with damp paper towels to clean it all, and repositioned wires away from contact points that were not on any schematic ;-)
Upon drying and reassembly, it would power on briefly, give a horizontal line, and power off. OK, it was going to get there anyway I just accelerated the process. Most likely by about 2 days… Being a decade overdue for an upgrade anyway, it is now in the recycle pile.
But that meant that at 9 AM I was sans TV in my favored space. I could go to the living room, but… hard to hear that one from the office (next to the bedroom) and I mostly listen to TV news (dashing in to watch if something interesting pops up). Besides, I’d been plotting for about a decade to get HDTV “soon”… So off to do the “compare and contrast” on prices, features, and risks. That last category recently added…
On The Road Again
I shopped Costco, Walmart, and Best Buy.
Not too oddly, the Best Buy parking lot was surprisingly empty… And all their Geek Squad trucks were still parked. Something about the news saying they were spying on their customers for the FBI seems to have dampened business. Inside had about as many staff as customers. When I came out, my car was alone in its row, and the two rows each side of me were empty. I counted 25 cars in that lot (one of two) that included staff. Perhaps companies ought to consider that before bending over for The Feds Spying Operations…
Interesting too, was that in Costco I asked about the Smart vs Dumb TVs. The clerk (who was actually clueful) and I got to talking. Seems a LOT of folks were asking about “dumb TVs” as they didn’t want their TV to spy on them. Note to Samsung et. al.: You will see a large drop in Smart TV sales for a while. Perhaps a long while…
Now I’d planned to do this particular shop and buy in about 6 months (when I had about 6 months left on my AT&T / DirecTV lock-in contract) as I didn’t want to “upgrade” my Sat-TV boxes to HDTV and start another lock-in cycle (don’t know if they do that, but AT&T likes to start new lock-in cycles without telling you and frankly, I just was not interested in sending even one more dime or risking one more dime…) I complained about my being suddenly trust into the clutches of AT&T (when they bought DirecTV) and how a bait-and-switch got me (surprise!) a 2 year lock-in, and my intent to “cord cut” at expiration, in a posting here:
But now I had to do the shopping and decision on an accelerated basis and without the prep work I’d planned.
Now the good news, if you can call it that, is that I’d planned to replace the Big TV in the living room. A big old Sony Tube thing that’s a “2 man lift”. The sound has started to get “buzzy” when there is text on the screen, so some crosstalk between the video driver and the sound. Since there usually isn’t too much text on the screen for what the spouse watches, not a major issue. For the “News and Finance” shows I watch, with lots of text and scrolling tickers, a big issue. A BIG replacement TV would be costly. The 19 inch job in the bedroom, a lot cheaper. Also, in the smaller sizes, you can’t really see the difference between 720p and 1080p. (Really, you can’t. Unless you are way too close to them, the eye can’t resolve that fine.) That’s cheaper still. So my risk in buying the wrong thing is reduced a lot. Having partial deafness also means that the generally poorer sound quality in the little ones just is not detectable by me anyway. So I set out to do the buy.
First I measured both present TVs. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal. I wanted at least the same vertical size so that the non-HDTV Sat-box picture would be essentially unchanged. Diagonal doesn’t tell you that on different aspect ratios. 4:3 vs 16:9 IIRC. I’d need at least a 26 and preferably a 32 to get roughly the same image in the bedroom. A 40 inch would be OK in the living room, but bigger better. Since last I looked, the prices of 720p in under 40 inch sized sets has plunged, especially in “dumb” TVs. The big 1080p (and even worse, the 4k that you can’t see unless you have a whole wall TV…) prices are still rather high. Like $500 to $3000 high, depending on features. For THAT, I need to do very good homework. The 24″ to 32″ 720p jobs were down in the $120 to $280 range. OK, I can live with that.
Unless folks want to see my comparison spreadsheet of “store, model, price” I’m not going to post it. I doubt it is much use anywhere but here for anyone not buying a dinky TV. The “bottom line” is that I decided NOT to get a “smart TV” since there seems to be at least 3 main technological “lock-ins” and a lot of “no idea what you are buying” involved. I also like the idea of a Raspberry Pi or Odroid running my TV under my control and with the ability to filter what it sends, receives, and does.
One common “lock in” model has Roku built in. It tended to cost about $25 more than the same model without it. Another lock-in had “Chrome-cast” built in. Asking the Clueful Clerk at Costco, seems you MUST have a Chrome Device to ‘cast’ from for it to work. While I have devices that run Chrome, I don’t particularly want my TV to stop working if the tablet is with me at Starbucks, nor do I want the spouse to call me asking how to boot and configure the Pi Stack. Some others seemed to have “something else” but nobody could tell me what, but they were “Smart”! The box said so…
I decided to “go modular”.
Now, being partly deaf, and having a spouse who sometimes likes to not hear my TV, I like to plug in a headset or sometimes route sound through a stack of equipment. That, it seems, is now an unusual challenge… Samsung, in particular, seems to only have this strange square thing for “Digital Sound Out”. All the others seem to have that too. Now all my stuff has nice round RCA plugs, not a square glowing thing… Very few sets now seem to have either RCA sound out or headphone jacks. Maybe you get them in the $5000 sets… That pretty much eliminated the names I’d heard of before and anything “smart” too (as they were mostly Samsung at Costco and Samsung seems to hate sound out jacks). Walmart had several things I’d never heard of ( “Hisense” and “Element” )in boxes with essentially none of the essential information on the outside of the box. They were cheap though. $90 to $120 or so. For $240 range you got names you had heard of, but still no idea what was inside.
The key missing bits were: Anything technical. What goes-intas and goes-outas are on the back? Composite video? RCA Jack audio? Antenna? What? What tuners are built in? What does “Smart” mean? (Vendor lock, added costs when you try to use it, WiFi? Or is WiFi a goes-inta / goes-outa? etc. etc.) Heck, Walmart even had one that didn’t list the resolution at all. 720p or what? Best Buy had one with audio jack. “Insignia” brand. I’d not seen it before, so asked flat out “What brand is that? I’ve never heard of it.” The semi-clueful clerk (the 3rd one they brought over…) said it was their house brand, but couldn’t say the words “house brand” mumbling around the edges with things like “Oh, that’s a brand only we carry”… until cornered and pressed.
OK, I had my matrix with model numbers on it for the ones I thought had promise. Off to Starbucks to get the real info. Reviews. Specs. Etc. etc.
In the end, I bought a mid-ranked TV from a maker I knew despite one guy panning it and saying the color was bad. It looked fine to me in the store. I got a Toshiba 32 inch from Best Buy for something like $130. Dumb 720p. It had a headphone jack (conveniently hidden in an inaccessible recess on the back…) and both NTSC and whatever the new one is ATSC? and QAM? The cable one. So I can get HDTV over the air (when I make / hook up an antenna) and it can understand the old school signal put out by things like my VCRs and DirecTV box. (One gets the R-W-Y RCA Composite jacks, the other daisy chains or comes in on NTSC… some plumbing required to get it all hooked up again).
A bit on impulse, and because I was spending about $150 less than I’d expected, I bought a ROKU Stick. $49. Why? Well, it’s a quad-core-in-a-stick and folks have rooted it:
So someday when I’m not interested in it AS a Roku anymore, I can play around with hacking it. But mostly it was just to have SOME HDTV input “out the gate” without a lot of work. I had no idea if I would like it, if the cost of buying stations would be a pain, or what, but as some stations are free, figured “what the heck – at least it isn’t Google”.
Also, the overall impression I’d gotten was that “smart” TVs has essentially done a minimal “glue on” of Chromecast, or Roku (or maybe Amazon TV?) and basically it was the same thing but NOT built in. That makes it mobile so I can take it with me to hotels and friends houses. It also means I can unplug it and unplug power from it and be SURE it isn’t talking to anything when I’m not using it. I really really like being able to kill power and put an airgap in the connection to the TV.
Brought it all home, and proceeded to spend a couple of hours taking apart the old stack, cleaning dust bunnies from the table top, carting things to the recycle pile, unboxing, attaching feet ( 4 screws ) and then hooking up cables again.
Power-up was uneventful and it politely auto-guides you through the basic setup. The “manual” is online, but I didn’t bother getting a copy yet. It worked FINE right out of the box and I didn’t have anything about it I didn’t like. (Remember where I was upgrading from, though…) The remote feels a bit light and cheesy, but works and the buttons are reasonably placed (if not as ideal as on a Sony). The picture is Very Nice. The DirecTV feed was much better than on the old set, even if not as good as HDTV. Also the “stretch your picture” choices of format on the TV let you take the squinched up things and stretch them out (like DW news and Big Bang Theory on one channel) getting a full HDTV aspect ratio out of the “16:9 squashed into 4:3” ugly thing. It also lets you take the “16:9” with bars above and below as they “letterboxed” it into 4:3, then vertical barred on the ends on the HDTV as it is a 4:3 image in a 16:9 native: then stretch it both ways to proper aspect ratio and full screen (like Fox Business). Turns out just being able to undo those distortions in the DirecTV feed was “worth it” to me ;-)
If all it did at that point was give me a better quality image and proper aspect of my exiting DirecTV 4:3 feed, that would be more than enough for $130. Oh, and the stereo sound was much better too ;-)
A Roku We Will Go
Then I plugged in the Roku. You just stick it in one of the HDTV holes and attach USB power (included). Put the TV on that HDTV for input and away you go. Everything is done through the Roku Remote (yup, another remote…)
It too has a nice auto-set up process. Entering the WiFi network is just a ‘click one’ but typing my fairly long complicated password via the “move cursor over box of letters then click” was a bit of a pain. But it all did “just work” and it all was self explanatory. One glitch: At the early ‘set up an account’ stage, it puts up a captcha challenge that did NOT show up on my Android Tablet at all. I had to go to the Debian with Browser to get it to go. That was the first I saw of the captch and only then knew why the “continue” button was ignoring me on the Tablet.
Some bits I was quasi-expecting, but had not prepared for quite enough. I think I did “OK”, but with some warning could have done better. No, not the technical bits, the “keeping them out of my information” bits…
First off, they insist on knowing your name, address and phone number. Having a pre-built alternative identity would have been better. I had already put in my real name (lucky for me it is effectively anonymous). For the address I used my pseudo-me PO Box. For the phone number, I’d let my burner phone expire. Here I could have been more prepared… Lucky for me, they didn’t object to AreaCode 555-1212 (BUT demand exactly and ONLY 10 digits – no space or dash; and don’t say why it fails). It also wants an email address, and my bogus-but-live-one had expired, so I had to use my ‘2nd tier’ real one. Then it DEMANDS a form of payment. Since I planned to only use “free stuff” I didn’t want to give it one. Not an option. OK, for that I was prepared. I used my Walmart Prepaid Debit Card that has the PO Box address and zip code. Now the bad thing is this connects that semi-pseudo me to my IP address. Oh Well. I mostly played with it all to see if it could be done, not to have a “real pseudo-me” (or I’d not have used my real name and real address on the box set-up stuff and gotten real-me mail there…) Bottom line is they have a debit card with between $5 and zero on it to play with. I’m good with that. IFF I ever want to buy something I’ll have to go put cash in it. I’m good with that, too.
They also have you set up an “account” with password and (optional) PIN for purchases.
Then you are up and running. ( I think. I may have forgotten some minor bits…)
It is a bit strange how you get “channels”. There are categories and you scroll them. Pick one and you get a block of station logos with dinky descriptions. Click one you get a bigger description and an “add me” choice. Some are free (rather a lot). Some have “commercials if you don’t pay”. Some gave up and just give you commercials. Some are “enter your cable or provider info” for access (presuming you have cable or Satellite and are on the road with your stick, I guess). And some are just flat out “pay up to get it”.
I’ve not bothered putting in my “provider information” as I’m interested in “cord cutting”, so want to see how happy I am without it. Sling-TV being my target replacement provider, I’m going to give them a trial in a few months to confirm I’m “good to go”. Until then I’m just using the Sat-Box at low res for those channels. IFF I get the big one in the front room set up, I’ll add the provider info so the spouse gets the HDTV version of the Satellite channels.
Then I spent somewhere over an hour adding channels to my “home” list…
Now realize that these “channels” are more like “networks”. Many of them have a series of things you can chose between (like Netflix with rows of topics and shows in the rows). Some are just one channel / show. Some are sporadic service, so just give a banner if the “event” isn’t on. I didn’t add ANY of the pay channels. I’ve still got more channels than I can possibly watch…
Now I’ve already got Netflix for watching on the road on the tablet. That, alone, covers a lot of turf. Then IF you are an Amazon Prime member (that I’m not) you get that too. There’s maybe a dozen local channels from all over the country, and several news channels. NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox are all there. PBS has a lot of stuff up on the PBS channel. Didn’t get to look exactly how much as I was busy “adding channels”. Then there are the foreign language channels. I have some from Brazil, plus one “learn Portuguese” channel. Several Spanish (there must be near a dozen) including from Columbia and Dominica and several other places. A load of India and Iranian that I did not add, and more. Sadly, while I found an Italian TV channel,
I did not find a French language channel. Nor German. Also I did not find RT or Al Jazeera. (Then again, I’m not sure I’ve searched all of it…) There is a YouTube channel and a Firefox channel, but searching for things by hunt and peck on the checker board with a remote is going to be a pain.
UPDATE to correct an error
UPDATE: There are A LOT more channels than I had thought, including RT and Al Jazeera (English and Arabic). What I had thought was the full list of channels to select from, with a soft of subsets below (as most places do things) was in fact exactly backwards. The list above the line was a selected subset of most popular, while the list by genre below the line was in fact the full list. There were over 400 general and move channels alone, plus a whole section of News that included RT and AJ along with a dozen other that interested me (The Blaze and Info Wars at one extreme, The Economist, WSJ, Reuters and more at the other end. DW and France24 in the middle. Even TED talks! The “Religion” category was huge with over 1200 channels, including the Catholic one that the spouse wanted.
There is a whole section of non-English programming with everything from Africa to Vietnamese, including some French and German stations. Brazil was well represented, Latin America over represented, and Eastern Europe not so much (but a little).
At this point, I had selected to 474 channels and spent much of the evening whittling them down to 400. (Deciding I really didn’t need the Community Service channel from Canton, Ohio for example… and that the Loony Toons channel was not so interesting when they demanded money – remember I’m running ONLY the free channels (with commercials for some) at this point.) I think that sometime tomorrow I can likely get it down closer to 300, especially as I start sorting through the “old movie channels” and keeping the nicer ones, dumping the “me too” with the same out of copyright movies, or the ones that have annoying hoops or too many commercials before you get to the movie…
Basically, at this point, I’m swamped in channels. It will likely take me a month just to sort out what I really want to keep (which of the 4 retro-themed “radio” channels, for instance, or am I REALLY ever going to watch a Coptic Church service?…) Sometime long after that will come “what do I wish I had that isn’t here?” At this point it is largely just a couple of series on CBS that I can get with an antenna… and maybe a more full FOX TV feed. Often the “News Channels” don’t include all the shows, just snippets from some of them. This is mostly (only?) for networks that are heavy on Cable / Satellite and get pressure not to give it away… But it will take a long time to look though all this and figure out if I’m in need of anything specific / more. With that, back to the original posting.
End of the UPDATE.
Some things let you put apps on your phone or tablet to control them. Some even take added hardware to do things like send your own video to "your channel" and more. A couple let you turn your PC into your own DVR for broadcast stuff (some hardware buy required).
Then there are the weird ones. Some "Government to the People" channel from an odd Latin American country. Community channels from places in who knows where. Channels set up by a few folks like a Country Western channel that looks like maybe a half dozen folks decided they wanted it, so did it. Many channels for "gamers", but I didn't see a "game shows" channel (but maybe was moving too fast to sort them out…)
I picked a whole bunch of stuff and, over the next weeks, will watch them for a little while each, deleting the uninteresting ones. In the process driving their marketing and pigeon holing software a little bit daft… What do you do with a guy who watches snatches of everything in several languages?
Eventually, when I feel like it, I'll set up one of the Pi / Odroid things to drive the other HDMI input and see if I like it better with a keyboard and mouse ;-) Then I'll have my whole Internet TV batch from up top available on big screen in high-def. That, then, will be the moment when I decide if the Roku is a “keeper anyway” as it has lots of stuff I want, or was just a fun experiment and interim solution and becomes a target of “recreational hacking” ;-) Or it might just go “out front” to the spouse who is unlikely to appreciate using a keyboard and mouse to drive the TV via Linux 8-0
At the end of the evening, having sampled several HDTV things over the internet and liked the results A Lot, and having watched my 4:3 Satellite feed and liked it A Lot (being larger, clearer, and with ability to fix the aspect ratio munging on some channels), and having loaded up a 100 ish “channels” to wander through in coming weeks (and ignoring more…) I’m thinking this was one of the best “under $200” I’ve spent in a long time. Even if it was an “unexpected expense”. And even if it did keep me AFK (Away From Keyboard) for the whole day.