TV Without Cable: February Review

February has come and gone. 24 is getting more intense though I still like season 5 better than this season. The Office continues to stand out as a great show in its own right.

In February I spent $33.67 on video expenses. Compared to my usual cable bill of $70, that's more than a 50% savings. So far this year I've spent $95.61 on video, a 31% savings over cable. My 24 season pass is still in effect and I bought another season pass: $15 for all 13 eleven-minute episodes of Frisky Dingo, a hilariously irreverent series from the same Adult Swim team that produced Sealab 2021.

Xbox Video Marketplace

Also this month, I decided to try the Xbox 360's video marketplace for the first time. After buying some Xbox Live points directly through the console, I decided to try downloading A Scanner Darkly. The standard-def version (480p) was a little over 1 GB in size. After about 10% of the video had downloaded I was told that I could start watching the video while the rest continued to download in the background. A Scanner Darkly is produced in an abstractly-colored rotoscoped style so even the best quality rip wouldn't be "life-like," but the playback was as smooth and as sharp as a DVD would be. About 40 minutes in, during a particularly tense scene, the video cut out entirely; turns out there wasn't any video left in the buffer, so I was told to wait while more video downloaded.

I waited about 20 minutes for another few percent of the movie to download. I then hit "play" again, which started the movie from the beginning. I hit the fast-forward button to go back to the 40-minute mark, but I saw a message to the effect of "Feature not available until download is complete." Unwilling to watch the first forty minutes of the film again (and unwilling to chance another drop-out) I popped in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an original Xbox game. The download promptly stopped cold as the game booted. Although Xbox 360 games may be played while movies download in the background, original Xbox games may not. I instead flipped the input over to the PlayStation 2, played some Okami, and a couple of hours later my download had finished. Since I had started watching A Scanner Darkly, I had just 22 hours left to finish it before the license would expire. (When the license expires, the file is not deleted automatically; instead it just sits there, taking up a nice chunk of my hard drive's space, until I manually get rid of it.)

For movies, the Xbox video marketplace is disappointing. I didn't expect there to be any DVD-style extras like commentary tracks, but there aren't even chapter markings. When I was finally able to fast-forward through the movie, the "next chapter" button just skipped past about 40 seconds of the movie. The fastest way to get to my expected scene was to mash the same button sixty times. Even with a numeric keypad on the Xbox's remote, there is no convenient "jump to time" feature like the one found on my old ReplayTV DVR (and on no DVR I've used since then).

I later decided to try the marketplace's TV download functionality. Like other Windows Media-based stores like Amazon Unbox, the TV download selection is relegated to a subset of what iTunes offers. (So much for freedom of choice.) The "NBC" category offers only Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, not The Office nor any other shows. After a little browsing on the remote, I downloaded the pilot episode of the surreal Comedy Central series Stella. Watching this episode after it had downloaded completely was completely trouble-free. The paucity of original shows, and the fact that I can only watch these shows on my own Xbox, makes the video marketplace pretty unappealing.


This past month I've also started playing around with peer-to-peer television (P2PTV) services. TVU Networks, based in China, offers a no-frills client that connects to dozens of channels. The American channels include the San Francisco affiliates of CBS and Fox (but not NBC), Fox News Channel (but not CNN or MSNBC), and some general-interest Canadian cable networks. The quality is very good and as long as you're watching a popular channel, the video starts quickly. This is all questionably legal, and even though the channels are transmitted "peer-to-peer" there is clearly only one source. The networks just need to find the guy with a TV capture card who's publishing the video and they can cut a channel off at the head.

I just got a Joost invite; more about that in a bit.

I'm still using my aging PowerBook as a video device. All the good media boxes have yet to hit the market.