CNN

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Google Chromecast with HDMI extender cable, microUSB to USB cable, USB power supply.

We didn’t need the Chromecast device since we already have several Rokus to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, YouTube, Crackle, Plex, etc. (Chromecast can handle all these except Amazon; Google doesn’t like to accommodate their competition.)

We still don’t really need it, except for one purpose (so far).

After cutting the cable TV cord, I was still able to watch msnbc’s “Morning Joe” program on the Roku’s Plex channel. (The video podcast, found on a special Plex msnbc “subchannel”, typically became available in the afternoon, or the next day.)

But ten days after cutting the cord, up popped a message from NBC that the video podcast would be discontinued ten days hence. What a kick in the head.

There was and still is an audio podcast of the show, and it can be listened to on Roku’s “iTunes Podcasts” channel. But it’s not quite the same.

I then discovered a European website that streams msnbc International 24/7 in an embedded Flash player. It has the same content as the cable channel, which is very good. But it has no commercials, which is very bad. Say what?! Yes, commercials are preferable to the repetitive, horn-tooting show promos which appear instead of commercial breaks.

Still, the entire “Joe” show can be watched in real time on a web page.

I considered buying a Mohu Channels device as a way to get the page onto a bigger screen, but was put off by the cost, and the need for a special remote to move the cursor around. I didn’t need its other features, having settled on the TiVo Roamio OTA for my wife in the den. and Windows Media Center/Raspberry Pi/Roku for me/us in the theater room. I was also unsure it would work well enough for this purpose.

For awhile, I watched the show in a browser window on the side of my laptop’s screen. Not ideal, but better than an audio podcast.

Next, after my wife moved up to an iPhone and iPad, I inherited her Android phone and tablet. Both devices did a good enough job going full screen on the Flash player, and the tablet’s case doubled as a stand. So I could now watch the show on a separate device. But the promos still drove me crazy, since muting is inconvenient with a small device.

It finally dawned on me that the Google Chromecast might be the simplest and cheapest way to get a web page up to the big screen. Since we had gone with Roku quite awhile back, I had forgotten that the Chromecast is capable of casting a tab from the Chrome browser to the TV. I checked, and Chromecast could handle Flash.

The mailman soon brought one.

The little dongle plugs directly into an HDMI slot on your TV (or if you have as many devices as I do, into an HDMI switch.)

The Chromecast is powered by AC adapter, or by USB if you have a USB port handy on your TV or other device (I plugged into the powered USB hub I use with the Raspberry Pi, which is both powered by the hub and connected to other devices by it.)

Download the free Google Chrome browser on your PC. Once you have it, install the free “Google Cast” extension (see Chrome’s Settings/Extensions/Get More Extensions).

Then go to the page you want to cast, and click the little “cast” icon on the upper right to send the page up on the big screen.

To view an embedded video (Flash player, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) on the page, click the fullscreen icon on the video. You will now see the video fullscreen on your TV.

On my first try, the video was very choppy. I suspected this was due to the fact that it had to be transmitted from the laptop to the wifi router, then again by wifi from the router to the Chromecast device. (We have an old 802.11g router.)

So I tried casting from the office computer, which is Ethernet-attached to the router. With only one wireless hop to the Chromecast, it worked much better. The video only occasionally was not perfectly smooth, though I have seen a freeze or two.

The video quality is about that of the Cox analog channels, which only this month disappeared for good. Very decent quality for a talking-heads news show.

Sometimes, the audio is not in perfect sync, though acceptable to me. This happens on the PC even when not casting. Further Googling leads me to believe that Flash player sync has been a problem for years, and mainly has to do with settings on the server side. So, nothing more I can do about it.

I figured that if the Chromecast were connected to the router by Ethernet (or by Powerline as we have it set up), the occasional stutter might be cured. There is a $15 Ethernet adapter for Chromecast, so I ordered one. Just got it today. So far, no stuttering.

One final hurdle: who wants to get out of the Laz-E-Boy and go into the office to change channels? (CNN and CNBC are available online, too, though not as is Fox News.)

My solution: Download and activate the free TightVNC server software on the office computer. (I already had given the PC a fixed IP address, which is needed to run the software.) On phone and tablet, I downloaded the free Remote Ripple app, which is TightVNC’s client software.

Smartphone screenshot: office PC remote-controlled from smartphone. Hmm, stock market tanked. Time to buy!

After I set it all up, I took over the office PC’s desktop with the smartphone. Using Remote Ripple’s virtual mouse, I brought up the PC’s Chrome browser and clicked my bookmark to the webpage. Then I clicked the tiny little cast button on the browser to get it onto the TV.

Finally, I clicked the fullscreen icon on the Flash player. Voila! The show is on the big TV.

So I now need a smartphone in the theater room to control the office PC, but I typically have one close by, anyway.

My other remote (Logitech Harmony 890) makes it easy to mute Joe’s many mind-numbing, promo-laden breaks.

There are more conventional ways to use Chromecast, to be detailed in a future post.

(PS, another way to use the new setup is get Alan Lambert’s new radio show, “Big Band American Songbook”, onto the big sound system. Listen Saturdays at 8 pm on The Grid, TCC Student Radio online.)

(PPS, yet another use: after I finish a workout accompanied by a smartphone plugged into a boombox, I can go to the theater room and cast whatever music program I was listening to onto the big sound system, from exactly where I left off.)

My den coffee table

My den coffee table

Here is my small coffee table in the den. (I bought a couple of these probably twenty years ago from a furniture warehouse that used to be a bowling alley, Harvard Lanes.)

Harvard Lanes souvenir

Harvard Lanes souvenir

I can do quite a lot with those two devices.

First, the X10 Universal 5-in-1 Learning Remote ($15):

It has 5 main buttons: TV, VCR, CBL, SAT, and X10. If you push TV, then the rest of the buttons will control your TV. If you push VCR, you have the VCR controls, etc.

I wouldn’t inflict the following system on my wife or anyone else, but here is how I set it up for myself:

5-in-1 X10 learning remote

TV button: Selects controls for our 36″ flat tube TV. But there were enough buttons left over to teach them the Roku box’ controls as well:

REW/FF/PAUSE/PLAY do what you would expect.
A/B/C/D became Up/Right/Left/Down buttons for the Roku screen (tricky, since the built-in directional buttons are for the TV).
ENT became the Roku Select button.
REC was repurposed as the Roku Home button.

VCR and SAT buttons: Allows control of the VCR/DVD combo player (rarely used now). The VCR and DVD functions are effectively two separate devices, so the VCR button selects the VCR controls, and the SAT button selects the DVD controls.

Again, repurposing two unused buttons under SAT, I added control of a remote A|B switch for the indoor and outdoor antennas. (During bad weather, the indoor one sometimes performs better).

The CBL button now selects the controls for the TiVo Roamio OTA. The TiVo’s own remote is mostly used by my wife, and is RF (radio frequency) based. But the TiVo can also recognize IR (infrared), so that’s how the 5-in-1 is able to control it.

The X10 button lets you control X10 home automation modules around the house. The 5-in-1 remote uses radio frequency (RF) for X10. The other four main buttons of the 5-in-1 are infrared (IR) only. None of the X10 buttons can be taught different functions, probably due to being tied to the RF mode.

Since I squeezed in control of 7 different devices, it’s now a 7-in-1 remote!

Sure, I have to remember a lot of stuff, but I did document it all in the 5-in-1’s manual. I use it often enough that I rarely refer to my notes anymore. Now that’s a kludge! (Clumsy and inelegant, but effective.)

Now the phone, a rooted, wifi-only Motorola Electrify smartphone ($0):

Of the top row of apps, the first three are diagnostics for the Raspberry Pi media computer in the theater room.

The fourth one, Remote Ripple, is the app version of TightVNC. With TightVNC software running on the Windows computers, I can use the app to take over their desktops and update software, move files around, etc. Very useful!

Home theater apps on smartphone

Home theater apps on smartphone

The X10 Commander app allows me to control devices around the house over wifi on the home network. I have an X10 ActiveHome Pro Computer Interface Module USB-attached to the office computer and plugged into the AC wall socket. The computer runs the X10 Commander software, which interprets wifi signals from the app and converts them in to the control pulses sent over house wiring to X10 modules for the lights, fans and coffee maker.

The TiVo app can serve as a remote control for the TiVo. More importantly, it shows you a program guide and lets you set up recordings.

(The My Media Center app does the same function for Windows Media Center, but that is for the theater room, not the den. Yatse is a remote control for the Raspberry Pi, also in the theater room.)

The Roku app is a second remote for any of the three Roku boxes in the house.

Puffin is a browser that will play Flash-based video. This was a great discovery for me.

One thing I missed after cutting the cable TV cord was the “Morning Joe” show on msnbc (also the Saturday/Sunday morning “Up with Steve Kornacki”). Free 24/7 feeds of both CNN International and msnbc International are available on the web, but both are Flash-based. With Puffin, I can play either on the smartphone, and better yet, the Nexus 7 tablet.

(Drop me an email for the URLs if you can’t find them. I know of no equivalent web feed for Fox News. Rupert Murdoch is tight-fisted with his cable content.)

I have the TV Listings app set up to show shows a program guide for cable in Tulsa. I only use it for CNN/msnbc, and not much for them, but if you are still on cable or satellite, it could be more useful to you.

There is a Roku Highlights document link on the smartphone. This is my own Google Doc created to remind me and my wife some of all the specific shows we like that are available through various Roku channels.

These channels include Plex (all movies and TV shows on computers in our house), Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Sky News International in HD, Crackle, Shout Factory, iTunes Podcasts, Nowhere TV. I note the shows that either of us might want to watch, but that slip our mind when trying to think of something good to watch.

I am able to update this doc on the smartphone or on the computer. We don’t use this as much as I thought we would, but I still like to have it available as a comprehensive memory jog.

Under the table is a clipboard with a printout of the Roku highlights list. I add items as I think of them for future updates. Low tech is sometimes the appropriate tech.

Anyway, these two devices do it all for me in the den.

Mohu Channels

Mohu Channels

From Multichannel News yesterday:

Mohu Channels Lets Users Watch OTA, Stream, Surf; Device Combines Content Types Into a Single Custom Guide

Excerpt:

“Mohu, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based maker of over-the-air HD antennae, has officially launched its Mohu Channels front-end device enabling users to manage OTA broadcast, Web-based and streaming content from a single screen.

“Mohu Channels, consisting of a small Mohu Channels Tuner and a handheld keyboard that functions as a remote control, allows users to create custom TV guides combining the three types of content, eliminating the need to switch between various input devices connected to the TV.”


The TiVo Roamio DVR series just discussed lets you add subscription content providers Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus, but not free Crackle, Plex and Media Browser (we currently use a Roku box to access the latter three. Plex and Media Browser serve your own movie/TV/music content from a PC.) The Roamio’s new OnePass feature makes it possible to see the shows you select from paid providers listed alongside your DVR-recorded shows, which is a big step forward in integrating the cord-cutting TV experience.

Mohu Channels also accommodates Netflix and Hulu Plus, though not Amazon. But it can handle Crackle, Plex and Media Browser, since they are available as free Android apps (Channels is Android-based, like a phone or tablet). If Channels offered Amazon as well, which is likely being negotiated, it would become an even stronger contender by possibly eliminating the need for another set-top box.

Over-the-air TV channels are integrated into Channels’ program guide. Any app in the Google Play store can be a channel. Even websites can be given their own channel.

(Case in point of how a website as channel could be valuable to the cord-cutter: this page has a live 24-hour free stream of CNN. This one has same for msnbc. The unique Channels remote with motion control air mouse should make the navigation to go full screen on the video feel natural.)

What does Channels lack? A DVR capability. My wife records the daytime “General Hospital” on our TiVo Roamio OTA and frequently runs it back to review what she missed while cooking, talking on the phone, etc. That would seem to be a problem for us with Channels.

saschannels

3/25/2015: Get Channels for $99: use coupon code SASCHANNELS at checkout.

To partially address it, Channels runs a constant buffer of 30 minutes on OTA content, facilitating easy pause and replay of shows watched in more or less real time. Hulu Plus could mostly replace a DVR for current network shows.

But we have found watching GH or any other show in her frequent replay style on Hulu Plus via Roku box a trying experience (I found Hulu Plus trying due to its buggy Roku app, clumsy user interface, and poor organization. And the unskippable commercials.)

But if you use Hulu Plus as a way to watch time-shifted series TV (and many people do), Mohu Channels could work for you in just about every way.

And important for the cord-cutter, there is no monthly fee, unlike TiVo.

A selection of the available Plex channels in a browser

In a couple of previous posts (Plex channels as cable substitutes & Fox News, CNN and msnbc channels on Roku & Plex), I discussed Plex channels as content sources for the cord-cutter (which I officially am, as of this month).

Plex channel content is derived from the video podcasts made available by the actual channels. This is true of the equivalent Roku channels as well. I noted that both the Fox News and CNN channels had mostly out-of-date content, whereas msnbc did have daily fresh content, “Morning Joe” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” in particular.

When I tuned in “Morning Joe” on Plex’ msnbc channel yesterday, there was a message that the podcast would be discontinued on 2/27.

Did a little searching and found this post on Benjamin Oakes’ blog: NBC quietly discontinuing video podcasts. Benjamin says, “NBC is dropping all their video podcasts, without explanation… All the audio podcasts remain. This move seems to be about video. That can be said for almost all major broadcasters, like ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS. Seemingly no one is offering video podcasts.”

He winds up, “I can’t tell if video podcasts just didn’t get the traction in the market that they needed or if audio podcasts are just preferable because broadcasters really want to protect their video.”

One of his commenters: “…now that NBC is owned by Comcast, that is probably part of the reason they are limiting the ways that you can watch it. Boo to them!” (See Acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast at Wikipedia.)

Further commentary on this MediaBizTech post: No more NBC Nightly News podcasts. The bigger loser? NBC News.

The move may be to avoid making any DRM-free (Digital Rights Management) content available. The problem is that their apps and websites are often inconvenient ways to view. I say “Boo to them!”, too.

Ah, well, there is still “The Daily Show” on Plex, as well as CNN International live streaming 24/7 via Nowhere Man’s CNN channel on Roku.

(See my second post of the day, Our post-cord-cutting TV Menu, for a large list of our Roku channel options.)

3/11/2015 update:  The first hour of Morning Joe (39 minutes commercial-free) is available as an audio podcast. I use the iTunes channel on Roku to listen.

A Fox News-watching, Dish-subscribing friend of ours called me up to ask if I had a way to get Fox News content over the internet (see previous post, DISH’s carriage dispute with Griffin (KOTV) & News Corp). The answer is yes, but in a very limited way.

roku3Roku has a version of the Fox News Channel.

However, the only live programming it carries is Fox News Radio. It also does not carry or archive their most popular signature shows, such as “Hannity” and “The O’Reilly Factor”. I don’t think our friend is going to find it adequate as a substitute.

Last time I checked, I thought both CNN and msnbc also had their own Roku channels. But I see no CNN, and msnbc “highlights” have been folded into a new NBC channel. Fox Business has a Roku channel, but it is not very up-to-date.

I was able to get CNN as a Roku “private” channel. Here is a list of all Roku private channels. You can see there that the code for CNN is RBFA1. If you log onto your Roku account, and go to the account page, you will see a place to enter the code. Then you will have CNN.

This CNN channel’s content is up-to-date. Also, if you click on the CNN International icon, you will be watching a realtime feed of that channel (the only instance of of this I have seen so far).

A special channel on Roku is Plex, previously described here as both a way to serve your own video/music content, and also to select and watch its own channels, similar to Roku’s.

Within the Roku’s Plex channel, you can select Fox News, CNN and msnbc channels, if you previously set up your computer as a Plex server and added the channels. But today, when I started up any of these Plex channels via Roku, I got a message, “This app isn’t supported. You can still access (whichever channel), but you may encounter unexpected problems.” However, their content appeared up to date.

A selection of the available Plex channels in a browser

The same Plex channels also worked perfectly well from a Plex browser interface. According to Plex, “All Plex channels are maintained and supported by a community of volunteers.” And I believe the Plex channels are populated by the XML feeds provided by CNN, Fox, etc., so they will likely continue.

But as I had previously found, Plex channels, like Roku channels, are not equivalent to basic cable stations, since they require active seeking of specific archived content, not passive surfing of realtime content.

I wish I had better news for our friend, because last year he generously gave me back the bottle of Jägermeister that he took off me in a “dirty Santa” exchange. I have found it invaluable this year, getting me through episodes of “The Bachelor” that my wife finds so fascinating. “The Bachelor” starts a new season tomorrow. 🙁 (My 2008 review of “The Bachelor”.)

If he were, instead, an avid msnbc viewer, he would be in luck. Plex’ msnbc channel has relatively complete and up-to-date content from its shows, no more than a day after the original airings. Fox News’ Plex channel has even less content than their Roku channel. CNN’s Plex channel is completely out of date.

I’ll advise him to switch over to msnbc on Plex, and then he’ll be fine. 😉