Thursday, March 24, 2011

IPTV - TV over the Internet with Bell Fibe

I'm not afraid to admit it I haven't had cable tv in over 8 years - until recently that is. Partly this is due the ubiquitous crap on tv and it's partly due to the fact that I'm a horrid tv addict.

In Toronto, an antenna will pick up a bunch of channels, so a cable or satellite package isn't necessary. We bought a digital antenna last year and got high definition channels and US signals. But then the American channels stopped sending their signals over the air, and we definitely missed PBS. We also rented, bought, borrowed and signed out from the library a lot of DVDs. This kind of on-demand service better suited our lifestyle and viewing preferences.

When TV channels and YouTube started offering more and more content online about 3 years ago we loved being able to watch what we want without charge. But either hooking up our laptop to our tv or watching programs on the laptop was a poor experience, so we didn't do it often.

Bell Fibe
My kid and wife have been pestering me for ages to get cable. Around Christmas I was feeling generous when Bell called offering their IPTV service - Bell Fibe. The price was good - $27 a month for the basic package with 2 years free use of a personal video recorder (PVR). As an Internet fanatic, I was also intrigued by the idea of receiving my tv signal via the Net.

I'm not sure how Bell Fibe compares to other services. Still, here are my experiences for anyone considering Bell Fibe or IPTV.

Signal quality
There is occassionally buggy or no reception - this happens every few days, including during our fav shows. I never experienced this in the many years of cable nor have I seen it when watching satellite tv at others' houses, so this is a problem. If we have the fan on in the same room as our receiver the signal is a mess - this will be a huge problem in summer.

Can't surf the Net on TV
I believe the salesperson promised me the ability to surf the Net seamlessly from our TV. I was definitely promised faster download speeds for my overall surfing. Neither has happened. Bell Fibe is supposed to come with proactive monitoring to ensure that we always have highspeed, but I haven't noticed a difference. The former may have been wishful thinking on my part. We also got a Wii this Christmas and I was excited to be able to surf web on it - but the usability and viewability sucks for everything except Youtube. YouTube detects we're watching on a TV browser and offers a medium-tailored version - I wish more sites did this.

System compatibility
Before we had Bell Fibe we had a new Sony tv, an antenna, Blu-ray player, VCR (yes we still have one), and a Wii. They all played nice together and the remotes got along well. Bell Fibe needs a custom remote and has not got along well with the others. Things are hard to operate now and Bell often gets out of sync and needs annoying manual resetting.

Search & guide features
The promo material for Bell Fibe hypes their unique search capability as one of their main distinguishing traits. Users can search by program or actor up to two weeks in advance. At first, I thought this was great, but it doesn't take long to get to know when and which network a fav show is on. It was more useful when we had a free trial with a gazillion channels as I could quickly find Xena playing somewhere at any given moment. A serious flaw, however, is that the actor info for shows only lists up to four actors. And the actors listed may not necessarily be the leads or stars. Frankly stars are the only ones who anyone would search for, so this often negates the value of this feature.

Their tv guide feature seems standard to all tv services now. Listings include title, plot synopsis, date of production, rating, and cast. The guide allows one to add and then browse by favourites. A feature they don't have that I have seen and like is colour coding of channels based on channels one gets and doesn't. We have to manually remove the channels we don't get up from our guide, but this means they don't show up at all so we don't know when a channel is offering a free preview.

Split-screens - I like the ability to have the main screen stay open and have another mini-screen appear on the bottom. Also, one can browse the guide and see a mini-screen of a channel without actually having to go to that channel. I'm not sure if these features are standard on other services but they are definitely great for channel surfers such as myself.

Family friendly
I'm not sure if satellite or cable offer this feature, but I really like Bell Fibe's parental controls. I can quickly set the tv to block my kid from seeing inappropriate stuff while we channel surf. The blocking is based on ratings, however, so they are not foolproof. We can easily unlock by show or for a block of hours by entering our four digit passcode. It also blocks the pay-per-view and video-on-demand service, which is great as my six-year-old already knows how to pull these up and is enthralled by them.

At Christmas Bell had a special channel with games, music, countdown, and links to holiday programs. We loved this, but they haven't had anything else like it subsequently.

Bell Fibe's pricing structures does not appear to be significantly different than other services. One cannot completely custom order channels despite Bell's claims of this. One has to get a certain high and expensive tiered service before being able to order a-la-carte. Their channel packages, as with other services, are ridiculously expensive and bundle a ton of crap with a few good channels. Video-on-demand is also crazily expensive at $12 for a new release or $7 for really, really old movies. Their VOD offerings, and preview functionality, however is impressive.

Interactive television? Not yet
One thing that does seem awesome - but is nothin yet is the "Interactive" and "Learn" buttons on remote. They don't currently do anything but apparently their our plans for this. Interactive tv - wow, I'm not holding my breath for that as it's been much-promised but little delivered for years now.

I've seen commercials that with Bell Fibe one can program the PVR via the Internet from any location. This would be great when travelling or if one forgot or suddenly heard of a must-see program. I have no idea if this service actually exists yet and I can't find any mention of it on Bell's website.

Final thoughts
Currently, Bell Fibe is only in Toronto and Montreal. They aren't the only, or first, IPTV service in Canada, as it appears to be Saskatchewan's Sasktel, offered the service since 2006. BTW - Sasktel is the first company in North America to offer HD channels over the Internet (according to the Leader-Post).

I like the price of the service and the PVR (the true game-changer). But problems with reception, particularly when our fan is on, is a definite drawback. I'm interested in possible future innovations resulting from IPTV. But I'm not completely sold on it, at least until reception is as good as - if not better - than cable or satellite.

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