CES 2013 Recap: Cord Cutters Edition

2013-CES-logoLet’s face it: trying to keep up with all of the news that comes out of the annual CES show in Las Vegas is exhausting.  Companies use the platform to show off the latest and greatest innovations in the hope of winning the hearts (and wallets) of consumers.  For every year that passes, the CES show seems to focus on more smart TV’s, set-top boxes and services that are aimed at cord-cutters and cord-shavers.  This year was no different and there was even some good news for those who still have cable and satellite.  So sit back, relax and enjoy our digest of the good, the bad and the ugly from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

Streaming Rules – Aereo, Netflix and the New Redbox Instant

For a traditionally hardware-heavy show, CES did have some big news from some of the largest streaming services out there.  One of the most potentially disruptive services to appear in the past few years, Aereo, announced they will be expanding to 22 additional cities later this year.  The company is backed by some big and powerful venture capital dollars and has the potential to turn the traditional broadcast TV industry on its head.  For those who don’t already know, Aereo operates a warehouse filled with thousands of mini TV antennas that are about the size of a dime.  For about $8/month, a user “rents” one of those antennas which allows them to stream or record broadcast TV on a number of devices at their leisure.  Sure, the big TV networks are trying to sue the Aereo into oblivion but that hasn’t slowed the company down one bit.  This will certainly be one to watch in 2013.

netflix-super-hd2

Netflix isn’t a company that is standing still either and continues to innovate to maintain their dominance of the streaming movie market.  The company announced two new streaming options: “Super HD” and “3D”, which, while exciting, carry a few caveats.  First and probably most importantly, your ISP has to participate in Netflix’s relatively new Open Connect CDN, which essentially gives your ISP a direct connection to Netflix.  At this point, Cablevision and Google Fiber are the only U.S. ISP’s to participate, but that will most likely change in the coming months.  Reading between the lines, Netflix is really starting to play hard ball with ISP’s by offering a service like this in addition to publishing monthly ISP performance reports.  You can see if Super HD is available from your provider by visiting Netflix’s Super HD page.  Secondly, only certain devices (notably those that can handle full 1080p playback) are compatible with the service.  These include the PS3, Wii U, Apple TV and some Roku models, in addition to select smart TV’s and Blu-ray players.

The newest streaming media service on the block, Redbox Instant by Verizon, had an announcement of their own to make at CES.  The product, which is currently in limited beta, hopes to be launching publicly in March.  While the caliber of the catalog of movies available on the service can be compared to those on Netflix or Amazon, the real kicker is that you can also rent physical DVD’s at a Redbox kiosk as a part of your subscription.  Time will tell if Redbox and Verizon can compete with the big boys but another hat in the ring is an overall plus for consumers.  Another interesting story to watch in 2013.

Two other big names in the cord cutting space had a few other noteworthy announcements at CES.  Plex is a fan-favorite for those looking to stream local media around their house and beyond.  They announced that Plex users can now upload media (movies, TV shows, pictures and music) to Dropbox and access them from any Plex client.  Dubbed “Cloudsync”, the service, for the first time, will allow user-owned media to be streamed from a non-local device.  While Dropbox isn’t the cheapest cloud storage around, it’s still an interesting partnership.  Also, Hulu announced that viewers (regular Hulu and Hulu+) are starting to see fewer ads and will see even less in the coming months.

Roku – More channels, more partners (including Time Warner Cable!)

Everyone’s favorite little streaming box, Roku, had a few big announcements of their own at CES.  The week started out with a big press release from Roku stating that they now have over 700 channels available on the platform and have partnered with 14 manufacturers (notably none of the big guys) for their Roku Streaming Stick.  But the biggest news by far was that Time Warner Cable now has an app for Roku that live streams over 300 channels to the device for current subscribers.

time-warner-cable-logoLet me say that again for emphasis: the 300 live TV channels are only for current Time Warner Subscribers.  While this is hardly a surprise, it certainly isn’t necessarily welcome news for cord cutters.  This essentially makes the Roku a smart cable box that can run things like Netflix and Pandora in addition to a boatload of cable channels (sans the additional monthly cable box fee).  The channel offerings should mirror what’s available on Time Warner’s mobile app which is already available for subscribers on iOS and Android.  It will be interesting to see how nicely the channel will play with Roku’s stale UI and sometimes flaky performance.  The channel is expected to be available sometime in the first quarter of 2013 and will only be available on the Roku HD, LT, Streaming Stick and 2 series.

One more interesting bit of Roku news that appeared at CES: Voxx (formerly Audiovox) announced a digital antenna that pairs with a Roku streaming stick to offer broadcast TV stations paired with Roku’s ever-growing channel lineup.  While the idea is a novel one, we won’t see it until late 2013.

Google TV – New Devices, Bigger Changes On the Horizon

Asus Qube with Google TV

Google TV continues to feel like it isn’t quite reaching its full potential and the handful of Google TV announcements at CES seemed to confirm that.  Outside of what is being bundled with smart TV’s, two different set-top box style devices were unveiled.  The Asus Qube offers an interesting take with a custom “Qube” UI which is a “rotating on-screen cube shape” that is controlled by a remote with a built-in accelerometer.  Also, Netgear announced a new NeoTV themed Google TV box which includes dedicated app shortcuts on the remote.  The Asus Qube’s price and launch date are unknown at this point but the Netgear NeoTV Prime will be available in February for $130.

The biggest Google TV news that came out of CES wasn’t a device or an updated OS but rather a potential change in direction for the platform.  GigaOm’s Janko Roettgers unearthed the possible change in a conversation with Vizio CTO, Matt McRae.  Traditionally, Google TV has always been a “pass-through” device meaning that it’s designed to work in conjunction with a full-powered cable, satellite, or antenna setup.  This is why the current hardware all has two HDMI ports: one input for the “live feed” and another which is the output to your TV.  In between Google can put a slick overlay over the content while helping you find other things to watch (on TV or online) in addition to running virtually any app in the Google Play Store.  These are some of the best things that Google TV does and where it seems the future of the platform lies.  Check out Janko’s full interview with Matt McRae on GigaOm.

Smart TV’s – Getting Smarter

Smart TV’s continue to have a huge presence at CES.  There is still much differentiation as each manufacturer still uses their own platform for apps (except when it comes to Google TV).  Of the newly announced TV’s that run Google TV, LG’s models will have a “Magic Remote”.  The remote pairs to the TV using Bluetooth and can use Google’s powerful voice search in addition to acting as a pointer on the screen (think Wii-mote).

Both Panasonic and Toshiba showed strong support for Miracast in the devices that they announced.  For those unfamiliar with the technology, Miracast is the non-Apple version of Airplay, which essentially allows your phone or tablet screen to be duplicated wirelessly to your television display.  While the standard has been slow to gain traction, more and more devices are supporting it, which will eventually make it standard on most higher-end smartphones and tablets.

In one last bit of smart TV news: Boxee is looking to bring its TV and DVR platform to smart TV’s by a partnership with Sigma, a system-on-a-chip producer.  Boxee hasn’t been a favorite of the cord cutting community after it decided to all but abandon the original Boxee Box.  It doesn’t help that the relatively new Boxee TV has been getting less than stellar reviews from both critics and users.  On the flip side, maybe Boxee can find their niche by partnering with smart TV manufacturers instead: stay tuned.

Other Devices – Something New from HP, Sling, and Tivo

hp-pocket-playlistTraditionally, hardware has always been the highlight at CES.  Heck, even decades old technologies such as the VCR and CD made their debut as CES.  While this year’s show had plenty of hardware to show-off, it doesn’t seem that any of it is game-changing.  HP announced a “Pocket Playlist” which is essentially a hard drive with built-in wi-fi that can stream media to 5 different devices simultaneously.  HP has partnered with PlayOn’s PlayLater service, offering a month free, to help users get content off the web and onto the device.  The execution sounds good in theory but there are probably limited use cases that make the Pocket Player a must-have device.  Nevertheless, it will be available starting February 15th for $129.

Two companies that make devices that are popular with both cord-cutters and cable-lovers are Tivo and Sling.  The former announced that those who use the most recent generation of their products will have the ability to sync photos and videos through a USB drive connected to the Slingbox.  The Slingbox Companion app was also announced, which is a second-screen app that focuses around content discovery.  Not to be outdone, Tivo unearthed more details on their Tivo Mini: a DVR-extender for their popular Premier series of DVR’s.  It sure does sound like a much-needed product that prevents you from having to run multiple Tivo DVR’s throughout your home.  However, the suspicion of another monthly service fee to use the device isn’t going to sit well with consumers who already paying $15/month for the regular Tivo service.

archos-tv-connectFinally, there are a few devices that certainly weren’t the darlings of the annual expo and probably won’t be bestsellers either.  The first is a Xbox Kinect-looking device from Archos that sits on the top of your TV and essentially turns it into an Android tablet.  The hardware includes a massive remote that has a full keyboard, two thumbsticks and a traditional (SNES-like) gamepad.  Not to be outdone, RCA announced an Android-powered TV tablet that is powered by the Dyle TV service.  You unfortunately can’t receive regular DTV broadcasts with the antenna and The Verge pointed out that the tablet seemed under-powered and sluggish.  Last but not least, LG unveiled a sound bar that has “smart apps” like Netflix and Vudu built right in.  Sure this means that you don’t need to have a separate smart TV or set-top box but it seems like those who would actually be in the market to have a sound bar would already have one of those anyway.

Not for Cord Cutters – New Hardware for Dish and Verizon FIOS Customers

Not quite ready to cut the cord?  Well there was some decent news out of CES for those who still subscribe to traditional cable or satellite TV.  Despite getting the shaft on the being eligible for the Best of CES awards, Dish Network was one of the more compelling stories at the show.  Dish’s Hopper DVR has been revamped and now includes Sling functionality to allow built-in for viewing outside of your home.  In addition, you will now be able to seamlessly transfer movies and shows to an iPad for later viewing.

Not to be outdone, Verizon FIOS announced a new Motorola Media Server that can record six shows at once.  The box has an internal storage capability of 1 terabyte which equates to 100 hours of HD programming.  Launch date and exact pricing is still unknown.  Last (and maybe least), AT&T U-Verse announced a “U-Verse Screen Pack” which appears to be a direct answer to people jumping ship from cable to services like Netflix.  AT&T’s service will offer a library of 1,500 movies that can be viewed on your TV, PC or tablet for $5/month.

What Do You Think?

What CES news are you most excited?  Any device that you can’t wait to get your hands on? Anything we missed?  Let us know in the comments!

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