TIME Media

Sony’s New TV Streaming Service Is Way Easier to Use Than Your Cable Box

PlayStation Vue is out Wednesday in three major cities

Sony’s slick new cable competitor is finally here.

PlayStation Vue, which launches Wednesday in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, is Sony’s attempt to bring the traditional cable bundle online. It boasts a streamlined, personalized interface and an emphasis on recording shows automatically so users can binge-watch at their leisure. The service brings a much-needed overhaul to the clunky cable box interfaces to which we’ve all grown accustomed, but the price tag of $50 per month to start and lack of key channels may keep cord-cutters from hopping on board.

Vue, which will be available initially for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, attempts to marry cable’s wide selection of live content with the ease-of-use of online platforms like Netflix and Hulu. The service boasts more than 50 live channels, including CBS, Fox, NBC, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, with AMC on the way next month. A cloud-based DVR-system automatically records at least three days of content for most of the channels. Users can also record 28 days’ worth of programming for up to 500 shows. Couple these features with Vue’s on-demand movie and TV show libraries — which Sony says are comparable to what you’d get with a typical cable subscription — and Vue comes packed with an absolutely massive trove of content.

Sony simplified navigating its humongous offering by focusing on content rather than channel numbers and showtimes. In the midst of a live show, users can bring up a menu that will show the current program, upcoming shows on the same channel, recently watched shows across all of PlayStation Vue, and Netflix-like recommendations based on the show currently airing. Users can also select individual channels to view their lineups and most popular shows, or select “Live TV” to see all the shows on air at a given moment. “Live TV” can be sorted by real-time popularity, making it easier to quickly flip to a March Madness basketball game or the latest episode of Empire. Dwayne Benefield, head of the PlayStation Vue service, says pretty much any show can be accessed within three or four clicks.

“We wanted to take out the frustration of finding what you want,” Benefield says.

Vue also sports a more traditional TV Guide-like schedule listing and a search option. There’s an “Explore” tab that lets users filter shows by genre, channel and age-appropriateness (an option we’d love to see on Netflix’s apps). Sony is clearly trying to serve users who want to quickly find a specific program as well as those who want to lean back and channel surf, and it appears as if Vue’s speedy interface may be flexible enough to do both (Sony demoed Vue for TIME on a PlayStation 4, the most powerful platform that runs the service; Benefield says menus will be similarly snappy on PS3).

While Sony has developed a user interface that puts most traditional cable operators’ to shame, Vue comes with big caveats. Sony has yet to work out a carriage deal with Disney, meaning ABC, Disney Channel and ESPN are nowhere to be seen. ESPN is the most valuable television property by a huge margin, and a staple of nearly every cable package. It’s a glaring omission in a service aimed at young, male gamers.

“We do recognize that there are other channels our user group wants,” Benefield says, though he won’t directly mention ESPN. “We’re in discussions with networks.”

Another issue may be price. The basic-tier version of Vue costs $50 per month. A version that includes additional sports channels is $60 per month and an expanded cable equivalent that includes dozens more niche channels is $70 per month. In New York, Time Warner Cable offers a cable package that costs $40 per month for the first year and includes ESPN. But adding in the cost of renting a cable box that includes On-Demand shows and DVR functionality boosts the cost to $64 per month, to say nothing of installation fees. By avoiding these fees and their associated headaches (you don’t have to wait for a cable guy to come install Sony’s service), Vue can undercut its most direct competitors on price slightly. But it’s still more expensive than services like Netflix and Hulu, or even Dish Network’s live-TV streaming service Sling TV, which includes ESPN but not broadcast networks.

Vue is also limited in reach by being tied to PlayStation consoles. There’s a version in the works for Apple’s iPad, and Benefield says Vue will eventually spread to other streaming devices as well. For now, the app is aimed at a narrow base of consumers. To lure a big fish like ESPN, Vue may need to build up a subscriber base so large it can’t be ignored. But with Sony only vaguely committing to expanding Vue to more cities at some point later in the year, 2015 seems like an experimental year for the service.

Despite the question marks, Sony’s new TV service seems robust and well-implemented. It’s an important early step ushering in an era where consumers where have considerably more choice in how they pay for TV. However, those choices will be much more convoluted than the old cable bundle. In addition to Vue and Sling TV, Apple is reportedly prepping a similar cable-like service, while networks like HBO, CBS and Nickelodeon are planning to offer their content on a stand-alone basis.

“What we’re beginning to see is a continuum of offers,” says Dan Cryan, a broadband media analyst at IHS. “I dont think we know yet what the sweet spots are along that spectrum.”

Read next: 5 Things Apple’s TV Streaming Service Will Need to Kill Cable

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TIME Media

More Channels Could Be Coming to Apple’s TV Service

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents Democalypse 2014: South By South Mess
Rick Kern—Getty Images for Comedy Central Host Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" covers the Midterm elections in Austin with "Democalypse 2014: South By South Mess" at ZACH Theatre on October 28, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Discovery and Viacom are reportedly in talks with Apple

Apple’s rumored upcoming pay-TV service may be getting a more robust channel offering than originally thought.

The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the new service, now says that Discovery Communications (owner of Discovery Channel and Animal Planet) and Viacom (owner of Nickelodeon and Comedy Central) are in talks to partner with Apple, a move that could bring programs like MythBusters and The Daily Show to the platform.

The Journal had earlier reported that Disney, CBS and 21st Century Fox were considering bringing their channels to the service, which would deliver content via the Internet on Apple devices such as the Apple TV and iPad.

The price of Apple’s service is still up in the air, but figures ranging from $25 to $40 per month have been floated so far in media reports. If the new service actually launches, Apple will be competing not only with traditional cable operators but also other tech companies like Sony that are also planning on launching pay-TV offerings.

(Read more: 5 Things Apple’s TV Streaming Service Will Need to Kill Cable)

TIME Media

5 Things Apple’s TV Streaming Service Will Need to Kill Cable

Apple IPads Sales Down
Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images In this photo illustration the logo on an Apple iPad is seen on August 6, 2014 in London, England.

Apple's streaming TV service could be announced this summer

The rumor mill is once again churning over an Apple television service.

This time, the Wall Street Journal claims Apple is on the verge of rolling out a TV streaming service that could be announced as soon as June. But exact details about the company’s offerings are few and far between.

In the past, Apple TV rumors have ranged far and wide, from an Apple-manufactured television set to a partnership between the tech giant and Comcast. But the arrival of several Internet-based television streaming services on the market in early 2015 paints a clearer picture of the opportunities and constraints Apple will be working with as it enters a quickly growing market.

By surveying the current playing field, we’ve determined five features Apple’s television service needs to compete if it hopes to disrupt the pay-TV world the way iTunes changed the music industry:

ESPN

Content is king, as they say, and there is no content more important than the world’s most popular sports network. ESPN’s stranglehold on the pay-TV ecosystem is well-documented — and it’s only growing stronger as live events become a lone bright spot in a world of continually declining television ratings.

The Disney-owned channel nets a massive $6 per subscriber from cable operators, yet never gets into the public negotiation spats that can consume other networks. It’s long been considered a given that any pay-TV bundle has to include ESPN, though Sony is planning to launch its own online TV-service without the network. Whether that strategy will work out remains to be seen, but common wisdom suggests any service that wants true mass adoption absolutely must include ESPN.

A Cheap Price

The average price of basic cable is now $64.41 per month, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Many Americans pay more than $100 per month for expanded cable packages. Apple’s service will attempt to undercut these rates with pricing at about $30 to $40 per month, according to the Journal, for a bundle of about 25 channels.

That price is still a lot more than services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Instant Video, which cost less than $10 per month. Dish Network’s competing cable replacement Sling TV, meanwhile, costs $20 per month for a bundle of about a dozen live channels that includes ESPN and AMC. If Apple wants to compete in this area, it will probably have to tap into its massive cash hoard and offer television fans a deal that’s simply too good to refuse.

A Slick Interface

The easiest leg up Apple and other tech companies will immediately have over traditional cable operators will likely come through their user interfaces. There’s no doubt Apple’s solution will be elegant and intuitive in a way that traditional cable is not–juding by the efforts of Sony and Dish Network, it will probably place an emphasis on helping people find specific programming based on genre or show name rather than forcing users to scroll through dozens of channel schedules.

The lack of installation fees (no more waiting all afternoon for the cable guy!) will also be a plus. Expect tight integration with Apple’s iOS devices as well, letting users watch shows on the go (though certain content, like NFL broadcasts, is already tied up in mobile-specific deals).

Built-in DVR

DVR has long been an added luxury that cable subscribers can opt to splurge on — but tech entrants into pay-TV are now making it standard. Sony’s PlayStation Vue has a cloud-based DVR that automatically records three days of most of the service’s content. It also allows users to save individual shows for as long as 28 days.

This feature makes sense for young subscribers who have eschewed appointment viewing in favor of binging on TV shows when they get a chance to catch up. Apple needs a feature like this to let users continue the behavior they’ve grown accustomed to using services like Netflix.

Integration With Other Video Services

Even as several online TV streaming services are touting their ability to merge content from many channels into a more elegant interface, they often still remain siloed off from one other. Some set-top boxes, like Amazon’s Fire TV, have made some effort at integration by including content from Hulu and Crackle in search results along with Amazon Video content. But a service that allowed the user to seamlessly choose between content from live TV, traditional video-on-demand, and popular platforms such as Netflix would truly be something special. At the very least, Apple’s service should make it easy to switch between live-TV content and shows or movies bought on iTunes.

Read next: Here’s Everything That’s Wrong With Cable and Satellite TV Bills

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TIME Gadgets

One of Google’s Best Devices Is Getting a Big Upgrade

Google Unveils Updated Nexus 7 in Push Against Apple, Microsoft
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The new Google Chromecast is connected to the the back of a television during an event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

Your TV remote can now control your Chromecast

Google’s Chromecast is a quick and cheap way to stream video on your TV from an Internet-connected device. You plug in the Chromecast dongle, and you can watch almost anything on your television that you could watch on your smartphone or laptop.

But controlling Chromecast video on the TV usually means hunting back through your laptop or smartphone to press pause, play or pick some new content.

No more: Google has released a firmware update that lets Chromecast users control their streaming with a TV remote. Apps including YouTube, Netflix, ESPN, Play Music, HBO Go, BBC iPlayer and TuneIn Radio are all supported, the Verge reports. The downside is that you can only use the play and pause buttons — also, some TVs may not be supported.

Happy watching.

TIME apps

You Asked: What Is the Meerkat App?

Meerkat
Meerkat Meerkat

This new livestreaming app has taken off on Twitter

In television, there have been moments — like the 1980 Miracle on Ice game, Nixon’s resignation, baby Jessica’s rescue, and O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco — when everyone stopped what they were doing and just watched. And now on Twitter, there will be moments — a political protest, a new product launch, or even some reality star spouting off about some random nonsense — when few, some, many, or maybe even lots of people will drop everything to do the same.

This is the democratic magic of Meerkat, a new livestreaming app that has taken iPhones by storm, climbing steadily in App Store rankings since late February.

While livestreaming is nothing new, Meerkat, an easy-to-use iPhone app, makes it easier than it’s ever been. The Meerkat app links with Twitter accounts, letting a person on one side of the phone stream a live video feed of whatever they’re looking at — or a video selfie.

And because you use your Twitter credentials to sign into the app, all the commentary moves through the social network. In other words, while you’re watching someone’s Meerkat feed, you can comment on it with tweets that the broadcaster can see and respond to.

Meerkat

Though it only launched February 27, Meerkat has already made waves across social media, with some users “meerkating” at the Apple Watch event earlier this week. And if that term sounds eerily similar to the word “marketing,” it may not be a coincidence.

“[Meerkat has] been very effective for me,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, an Internet personality and entrepreneur whose use of social media and viral video has netted him more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. Vaynerchuk has used Meerkat to broadcast behind-the-scenes peeks of his YouTube program The #AskGaryVee Show. When you use Meerkat to share video, it automatically tweets a message that says you’re broadcasting live, with a link people can click to watch.

“Within a few minutes, 500 to 800 people are watching me live, at any given time,” says Vaynerchuck. “That is insanity, if you think about it . . . and don’t forget, I am a 39-year-old male who talks about business, so my demo isn’t the most native to this.”

Indeed, this livestreaming technology has far-reaching potential for almost every other demographic: news hounds who want to watch events as they unfold, sports addicts who want a view from the front row, and gossip mongers who will hang on celebrities’ every word.

But the question is, will Meerkat live long enough to get into these key influencer’s hands? Despite — or because of — Meerkat’s quick success, Twitter recently bought Periscope, a different startup developing similar functionality.

It’s unclear if or how Twitter will handle both services. But in the long run, it’s clear that video broadcasting via tweets is here to stay.

“The notion of livestreaming, or using a mobile device as a recorder, and then people on the other end watching, will be an absolute functionality of society, at scale, within 24 months,” says Vaynerchuk, who predicts hundreds of thousands of people will be broadcasting within that time to tens of millions of viewers.

That’s a massive shift in the way people will consume news, sports, or entertainment — though it also has the possibility to profoundly change how people view far-flung parts of the world, with users from different cultures livestreaming even the most mundane aspects of their lives. But this technology will also push a huge amount of data through the Internet, possibly causing growing pains for Twitter, which now mostly pushes 140 characters at a time through the web — though it’s also been adding native video features.

The ephemeral video feeds also have the potential to wreak havoc on conventional entertainment, similar to how YouTube struggled with users uploading bootleg movies and videos that used music without copyright permission. Sports fans are no doubt familiar with the boilerplate sounding “This copyrighted broadcast is the property of the National Football League.” Meerkating is exactly what they are warning you not to do.

This problem might seem like it’s a far-off scenario, but watch Twitter on May 2, when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao face off in one of the highest-profile boxing matches in years. Sure, you can shell out for the likely-$100 pay-per-view broadcast. But whichever fighter you bet on, smarter money will be on people Meerkating the fight live on Twitter, providing their own play by play, no less.

As Vaynerchuk himself might say, jab, jab, jab, right hook.

 

TIME Television

Americans Are Watching More Streaming Video and Less Live TV

More than 40% of U.S. homes use a streaming service

American families are increasingly turning to subscription-based video-on-demand or streaming services like Netflix to watch their favorite TV shows, a new report from Nielsen says.

The report shows that more than 40% of American homes used a streaming service as of November 2014 and 13% of U.S. homes had multiple streaming services. Overall, American adults spent four hours and 51 minutes watching live TV each day in 2014, which is down from the five hours and four minutes they watched during the same period in 2013.

Among the 40% of households that used streaming services, 36% used Netflix, 13% used Amazon Prime and 6.5% used Hulu Plus.

American households that used streaming services were also likely to be more plugged in overall with above average use of HD services, Smart TVs, DVRs, video game consoles and multiple PCs and tablets, the report shows.

“The landscape has created new competitors—akin to a modern-day gold rush—for traditional video and audio, with the emergence of a relatively small number of digital leaders, all of whom are looking not just to compete, but to stake a claim and prosper in that space,” concludes report author Dounia Turrill, senior vice president of insights at Nielsen.

TIME Media

HBO’s Streaming Service Launching Next Month Exclusively on Apple Devices

It launches in April at $14.99 a month

HBO CEO Richard Plepler confirmed at an Apple event Monday that the Cupertino tech giant will initially be the content company’s exclusive provider for an upcoming standalone streaming service, HBO Now.

“When you subscribe to HBO Now, you will have access to all our acclaimed original programming, past present and future, as well as our unmatched lineup of Hollywood blockbusters,” Plepler said.

HBO NOW will cost $14.99 a month when it launches next month, according to Plepler. Users will get the first month free if they sign up via Apple TV, iPad or iPhone. The service will be available on the Apple TV set-top box and as an iPhone and iPad app in the App Store.

The HBO streaming service will be an Apple exclusive for three months after launching.

HBO first announced it was working on a standalone streaming service last October amid competition from streaming services such as Netflix.

Apple CEO Tim Cook also said Apple is dropping the price of its Apple TV from $99 to $69, a move that should help it compete with Roku’s lineup and Amazon’s Fire TV devices.

Read next: Apple Gives More Detail on Upcoming Smart Watch

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TIME apps

Streaming Music Showdown: Spotify vs. Beats

Beats By Dre and Spotify logos
Emmanuel Dunand, Ethan Miller—Getty Images Beats and Spotify logos

How does Apple’s effort stack up against the most popular music service around?

It’s been almost nine months since Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats catapulted the Dr. Dre-backed streaming music service into the limelight for casual music listeners. And while Apple is reportedly working on an overhaul of the service, I spent the last nine months as a paid Beats Music subscriber, after having used Spotify exclusively for more than a year.

Beyond the music, the differences between the two services are stark. Here is what you need to know in comparing the two most prominent (with apologies to all the other players) streaming music services on the market:

Musical Selection

This is a largely subjective category, because it really depends on what you’re looking for. For instance, some tracks, such as “Jungle” by Jay-Z, appear exclusively on Beats before rolling into other services, while other artists, like Led Zeppelin, appeared on Spotify first, then elsewhere next.

Whether these exclusives will affect you is a matter of what kind of music you prefer, but it’s hard to know in advance of subscribing which artists will strike what deals with which service. And the end, most albums end up being available everywhere. Except for Taylor Swift — she pulled her latest tracks from every subscription streaming service.

Winner: Tie

User Interface

One of the biggest differences between these two services (specifically their apps) is the way users interact with them. Spotify has a menu-driven interface that requires a lot of taps to dive into an artist’s catalog from the main screen. Meanwhile, Beats has a visual-driven interface with large tiles that spring users right into the content they want to listen to.

Once a track is playing, Beats transforms into a full-screen player, with large buttons and progress meters, making it ideal for skipping songs on the fly, like when you’re driving (tsk, tsk). Spotify, meanwhile, shrinks the track down to a mini-player that takes up the smallest ribbon at the bottom of the screen. Tapping on the song’s tiny album art will expand it to a full-sized player, but that’s hardly intuitive — and pretty inconvenient, considering the image’s size.

Winner: Beats

Free Accounts

Spotify will let you listen via its mobile app without paying for an account, but that only provides you with a shuffle mode. If you want to listen to an exact song, you’ll have to upgrade to the premium service. Spotify also says “on tablet and computer, you can play any song, any time,” but I found this to be untrue. In fact, this frustration led me to resubscribe to the service. (Tricky move, Spotify.)

Meanwhile, technically, Beats Music does not have a free version. But Apple does offer iTunes Radio gratis, though it doesn’t come close to the free version of Spotify.

Winner: Spotify

Social Integration

Both Beats Music and Spotify offer social integration, letting you post your favorite songs on Twitter and Facebook for your friends to enjoy. But Spotify, which has historically used Facebook Connect to power login information for its service, gives music fans a much richer social experience by allowing you to see your friends’ listening activity.

At first, when Facebook was allowing Spotify to publish activity to the sites News Feed, Spotify seemed hyperactive, alerting every friend to every song that was played. But through some toning down and refinement, Spotify’s social feed is much calmer — you really only see it on a sidebar on the Spotify desktop app unless you dive into the “activity” menu on the service’s mobile app.

Beats, meanwhile, doesn’t show friends’ activity, which could be a selling point if you’re embarrassed by your musical taste, or don’t care to know what your friends are listening to. But it’s hard not to look at Beats’ lack of social integration and see Apple’s failures in this space. The company’s Ping social networking feature in iTunes was one of the company’s most high-visibility failures, and even Game Center, which many iPhone users have logged into (but relatively few use) isn’t very popular.

Winner: Spotify

Desktop App

Don’t spend too long looking for a desktop version of the Beats app — it doesn’t exist, not even on the Mac App Store. Instead, the service is meant to run through your web browser, though good luck with that. Personally, as hard as I push my browser (I have 14 tabs open right now, and that’s below average for me), I’d rather have a separate application chewing on the RAM-intensive music streams. And comically, early on, I couldn’t get Safari to play audio from the Beats service at all — I had to switch to Google Chrome. But that brings up an interesting point: If you really do want a Beats Music app, you can find one on the Chrome Web Store.

Spotify, meanwhile, might be the best desktop music app I’ve ever used. More than just a music player, it’s actually a platform for the service, which allows other programmers to make software that interacts with Spotify. For example, you can link your Spotify account to Last.fm to generate personalized music choices, or you can view lyrics to the song you’re listening to through MusiXmatch.

Spotify’s willingness to open itself up to these outside developers is a key difference between it and Beats Music, and (other than its great library) might be its best feature.

Winner: Spotify

Killer Feature

While most people like Spotify mostly for its music and social features, its platform-like interactivity with other services (described above) is truly its killer feature, letting the service expand and morph in new ways. For instance, if used with certain apps, Spotify’s desktop app can become a karaoke screen, or with other apps it can compete with music-suggesting services like Pandora.

Meanwhile, what made Beats unique was a pair of features. Firstly, expertly-crafted playlists created by humans, not computers, instantly gave users a trove of mixes to choose from. But this feature was quickly aped by Spotify through its ability to let people share their playlists and via expert-driven apps like Rolling Stone Recommends.

Beats’ other killer feature was a fun way to make your own mix called “The Sentence,” where users could tell the app what they are doing (“working out,” “cooking,” hanging out,” etc.) with whom (“my friends,” “my bff,” etc.) and to what kind of music they wanted to hear (“hip-hop,” “bluegrass,” “metal,” etc.). At first, it seems like a great idea, but once you realize you want to chill, party, nap, and barbecue to 90’s rock, it becomes clear that you really don’t need a suggestion engine that caters to every musical genre. The gimmick gets old, quick.

Winner: Spotify

Overall Winner

While Beats user interface is far and away more friendly, over the past nine months with the service I found myself discovering fewer new artists and listing to less music than when I used Spotify. I wanted Beats to be better than it really is, so much so that I probably kept my subscription longer than I otherwise would have. But one week back with Spotify, and I’m back in the fold with all my old playlists — which, ironically, I exported from iTunes.

Maybe Apple’s next iteration of Beats, whether it’s under that name or folded back into iTunes, will be better. But it would take a massive shift in attitude from Apple, because they’d need to embrace social networks that they don’t own and third party developers in a way they currently don’t.

Winner: Spotify

TIME Media

Nickelodeon Is Trying to Hook Pre-Schoolers on Streaming TV

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R. Nelson—Getty Images/Flickr RM Little girl using tablet

New service will have classic kids shows but fewer current hits

Nickelodeon is the next big television brand to throw its hat in the streaming ring.

The Viacom-owned kids’ network on Wednesday announced a new online service called Noggin, which will stream old episodes of shows such as Blue’s Clues and Little Bear for $5.99 per month. The service, available for iOS devices March 5, will also feature older shows such as Allegra’s Window and Gullah Gullah Island, as well as music videos and educational content.

Missing from the service are more recent mega-hits like Dora The Explorer. Nick says the content available on Noggin will remain “separate and distinct” from what you can watch on TV.

For what’s being offered, the price tag may be a bit high. Sesame Street now has a streaming service that costs $3.99 per month, and much of the legacy Nickelodeon content is available to Amazon Prime subscribers–along with a boatload of other features–for $99 per year, or $8.25 per month. However, Nick said it may offer Noggin to cable subscribers free of charge in the future.

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