Rogue One Review

(Spoilers ahead, stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie.)

I think Rogue One is half of an unexpectedly great movie.

The first half, with all the planet-hopping, introduction of characters with absolutely no attention to backstory or sense (I didn’t understand Forrest Whittaker’s character motivation at all), and corny rah-rah-rebellion speechifying, is a muddled, confusing mess.

But the second half of the movie, once they assault the beach planet with the shield, suddenly becomes a great war movie. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t “The Longest Day” or “Bridge Over The River Kwai” or “The Guns of Navarone” or “The Battle of Midway” or “Tora, Tora, Tora” in space, but that’s what we got.

Better yet, the battle sequences (both on the ground and in space) were effectively planned and executed, the action was swift and breathtaking, and yet it was easy to follow what was happening — unlike the action in any Michael Bay movie, or the unaffecting and unmemorable CGI chaos that was the climax of The Avengers.
Yet for all the grand sweep and scale of the battle sequences, they felt like they had real stakes and personal pathos. The most surprising thing for a big budget tentpole franchise movie was that it had an actual ending, and all the characters actually die in compelling and affecting ways. That’s something I’ve never seen in any Marvel Cinematic Universe film — no one can really die, because we know they have to live so that they can star in their own franchise films, and of course we know they have to get back together for the Avengers Secret Civil Wars Multiverse Crisis event.

So yes, I loved the war movie half of Rogue One. Then I saw the last 10 minutes, in which Darth Vader sheds 30 years of marketing to make him cute and cuddly, and uses his Force powers to just decimate a bunch of Rebel soldiers and show us exactly why a Sith Lord should be feared and dreaded. And Rogue One takes us right to the beginning of Episode IV, compete with CGI Leia. That was deeply satisfying. It was good stuff, almost enough to make me forget how bad the first half was.

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DirecTV NOW Review

DirecTV Now on iPad

The holy grail of cord-cutters is a non-cable streaming service that allows us to select only the channels and programs we want, watch on any device, and have reliable cloud-based DVR, all for around 20-30 bucks a month. If that existed, I would jump on that in a heartbeat.

DirecTV Now from AT&T is not that. Not even close. 

What DirecTV Now is, is a streaming version of a traditional cable TV service, with all of the long-standing flaws of cable TV. Sure, you can get up to 120 channels, if you sign up for the top-tier Gotta Have It plan for $70 a month. But as Bruce Springsteen once sang, there’s 57 channels and nothing on. If anything, The Boss underestimated the truly vast amount of “nothing on” we get with a typical cable subscription. And AT&T will charge you a lot for that nothing. Make no mistake, DirecTV Now is not the disruptive revolution that we have been searching for, for years now. It’s merely an online extension of the same old one-size-fits-all cable TV service that overcharges customers for the few channels and programs we do want, plus a metric crapload of channels we don’t want or need. 

Here’s one small example: the Disney Channel, Disney Jr., and Disney X D are bundled with all DirecTV Now plans. Which would be great — if our household still had kids who were interested in those channels. But two of our kids have moved out and have jobs, one more about to leave home for college, and a 12-year-old who would rather play Overwatch than watch the Mickey Mouse Club. 

So DirecTV Now is pretty much the same old cable service, just without the cable. But wait, they offered a pretty sweet introductory deal of $35 a month for their 100-channel Go Big plan, and if you prepaid for three months of service, they gave you an 4th gen Apple TV — which is how they got me. I figured, it’s like getting an Apple TV and three months of cable for $105, not a bad deal. The promo price on the Go Big plan ends on January 9th, 2017, after which it increases to the normal price of $60 as month. Those who got in on the $35 a month promo price will keep that for the time being — so we’re told.

So the introductory deal was pretty good, even though I really didn’t need another Apple TV. And hey, maybe some people want to have a streaming version of a cable TV bundle. The ability to watch DirecTV Now on iPhone or iPad in addition to a TV is also an occasionally handy feature. Although it’s bad for the cause of net neutrality, AT&T phone customers like me get the added perk of DirecTV Now streaming on mobile without counting against my cellular data limit. 

Here are some other things I like (or at least, don’t actively dislike) about DirecTV Now:

  • My DirecTV Now account lets me sign in to some TV anywhere apps (nowhere near as many as with a true cable TV account): ABC, ESPN, the three Disney apps (not that these add value to me personally), Freeform (formerly ABC Family), and best of all, HBO Go. This last one is the one that I use most of all, for shows like Westworld, Game of Thrones, and Veep.
  • Speaking of HBO, DirecTV Now lets you add it to your service for just $5 a month extra, as opposed to $15 a month on competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. $5 a month for full HBO Go access is probably the best part of this whole deal for me.
  • DirecTV Now’s selection of on-demand programs was pretty pathetic at launch, but has been steadily improving. They claim to have over 15,000 TV episodes and movies on-demand, but of course this is only a benefit if your desired show or movie is among those 15,000.
  • Certain channels offer a 72-hour “catch-up” feature for selected shows, so if you missed your show when it aired live, there’s a chance that you still might be able to watch it within the next three days. Again, depending on the show, your mileage may vary.

Here’s the thing: DirecTV Now sounds good on paper, but the service itself is riddled with bugs. Two months after signing on, I’m still dealing with these issues, some on a daily basis:

  • “Too many simultaneous users” error message. You may only stream DirecTV Now on two devices per account. However, I see this message at least once a day, even if I’m streaming to just one device.
  • “You may only view channels that are part of your package” error message. On channels that I *know* are part of my package.
  • Frozen video. All too often, my wife or I will try to watch something on demand from the DirecTV Now watchlist, when suddenly the video will simply freeze, while the audio keeps playing. It’s to the point that my wife won’t even bother using DirecTV Now if I’m not around, since she doesn’t want to deal with the hassle.
  • Audio/video out of sync. This issue is rare, but it does happen.

Most of these issues are resolved by a force quit of the DirecTV Now app. The frozen video issues only occur in watchlist programs, not in live TV streams. As a card-carrying tech nerd, I’m more understanding and forgiving than most when it comes to launch bugs, especially at scale. I’m waiting patiently for AT&T to resolve these issues, but my patience is wearing thin.

Even aside from the bugs, though, there are some annoying shortcomings with the service, any of which might be a deal breaker, depending on how important certain shows or channels are to you:

  • No CBS. Maybe coming soon, but also maybe never.
  • Local channels available only in select markets.
  • Even if local channels are available in your market, NBC is only viewable on mobile or desktop browsers, not on Apple TV.
  • If you’re a big sports fan, you’ll miss the NFL Sunday Ticket, not available on DirecTV Now.

But for me the, the absolute biggest drawback with the service is the lack of any DVR functionality. AT&T claims that it’s coming in 2017, but this is cold comfort, especially consdering that PlayStation Vue already offers DVR, and Sling TV’s DVR feature is currently in beta.

Summing up, DirecTV Now is not the all-in-one cord-cutting solution you were hoping for. And even if all you wanted is an oxymoronic wireless cable service, DirecTV Now still suffers from significant bugs and shortcomings which cripple its usefulness. 

Pros:

  • $35 a month introductory price for 100 channels a good deal
  • $5 a month for HBO is the best deal in town
  • Access to some key TV anywhere apps
  • Steadily improving video on-demand library
  • Mobile streaming doesn’t use mobile data for AT&T wireless customers

Cons:

  • After two months, service still has major bugs
  • Local channel access spotty at best, varies by device
  • No cloud DVR

Bottom line: 5/10 (meh.)

Plex DVR Beta First Impressions


I’ve been using Plex DVR beta for about a week now, and here are my first impressions.

  • First of all, you need to be a Plex Pass subscriber to have access to Plex DVR. As a heavy Plex user, I recommend it, as I enjoy getting exclusive access to cutting edge Plex features.
  • You have to install a special version of Plex Media Server to use Plex DVR, which is available from the Plex forums. Installing Plex DVR beta was very easy and straightforward. The only snag was that I had to uninstall my current Plex Media Server to install the beta version — there was no clear documentation, and I had momentary fear that I would have to re-setup my Plex libraries, which is a PITA under Ubuntu.
  • Once installed, there’s a new button in Plex server settings: Set Up DVR. It detected my SiliconDust HDHomeRun Connect on the network instantly. Then it gave me the option to select which of the 60 detected channels it should download EPG info for. Once selections are made, it took about 5-10 minutes to download the 2-week episode guide from the Plex servers (powered by GraceNote).
  • Once the EPG was downloaded, all shows available to record appear in a new Plex menu on the left side, Program Guide. Unlike a traditional DVR which lists upcoming shows in a TV schedule grid, Plex DVR lists them in categories: Starting Soon, On Right Now, New Episodes Tonight, Upcoming Movies, Upcoming Sports, and Upcoming News. You also have the option to drill down into categories like Movies, News, TV Shows and Sports.
  • Programming a recording couldn’t be easier: select a program, hit the record button. You can set options to record all episodes, a particular episode, new airings only, or new and repeat airings.
  • Because I went cheap and bought the HDHomeRun Connect (base model), the recording quality is MPEG-2 original broadcast resolution, so a 1-hour HD broadcast could take up to about 5-6 Gb of HDD space. If I had spent a little more money, I could have gotten the HDHomeRun Extend, which transcodes to H264 on-the-fly, for much smaller file sizes. I might just purchase that in the future.
  • My first recording was standard definition, 640×480, 1 hour, 572Mb. Not bad.
  • The TV tuners (there are 2 of them) on the HDHomeRun Connect are much better than the TV tuners in my Vizio TV, and the MediaWorx DVR. On those tuners, some channels have static and pixelation. On the HomeRun, everything is smooth and clear.
  • Plex DVR currently does not have the ability to show live TV, only recordings. Plex says they are interested in developing live TV viewing and time shifting capabilities.
  • Recorded an episode of Bones in HD, 3+ Gb file size. Plex DVR has an option to transcode while recording, but that needs a fast CPU. I suppose I can manually transcode after recording using Handbrake, or generate mobile-optimized versions using the Optimize feature in Plex.
  • You can only browse the Program Guide and set recordings in the Plex Web interface, not in any of the Plex apps.

Overall, Plex DVR is already a great product. It’s certainly the easiest over-the-air DVR software to set up and use. The biggest limitation for me is poor over-the-air TV reception due to my indoor TV antenna. Once I am able to get an outdoor TV antenna installed, and have solid access to all of my local over-the-air stations, I expect Plex DVR to be an essential component of my cord-cutting efforts.

More on Plex DVR

One of my favorite features is the ability to program recordings and change DVR settings in the Plex web app, which means full control over the DVR front and back end from my phone, tablet or computer. I don’t have to sit in my living room and program the DVR with a remote, I can do it from anywhere, especially since I have configured my Plex server to be accessible remotely.

In the future, it would be nice if the DVR could be programmed from the various Plex apps. I’m sure this is on their product roadmap after the DVR feature goes 1.0. But being able to access it via Plex Web is good enough for now.

Save Space on Jolicloud

I’ve been happily running Jolicloud Alpha 2c on my Asus Eee PC 701 for the last couple of months. Along with the Google Chrome Dev Preview¬†browser¬†for Linux, this is without question the best lightweight OS for my netbook’s tiny 4Gb SSD drive.

However, I was dismayed to see my remaining free space steadily dropping from about 1.3 gigs free just after installation, to less than 250 Mb free this morning. I searched online for some tips to retrieve my unused space, but could only find this terminal command to delete cached installation files:

“sudo apt-get clean”

After poking around a little more, I discovered a utility in the Accessories folder called “Disk Usage Analyzer” that was really helpful in figuring out which directories inside my home folder were taking up the most space:
disk_usage_analyzer

This handy utility helped me realize that a bunch of Prism cache files inside my home folder were taking up nearly a gig’s worth of space on my 4Gb SSD (Prism is a minimal web browser used by Jolicloud to create local executables of web-based services). Armed with that information, I was able to delete the cache files. Now my free space is back up to over a gig.

Bye-bye, Comcast

Dear Comcast,

Here’s why I am leaving you.

Last Saturday, I started moving from old house to new house. I called Comcast customer service to schedule a transfer of service from old house to new house. I was given a time window of 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. By 5:30 pm on Saturday, after waiting at my new house since 3:00 pm, your local technician/installer had not showed. I called Comcast: “Oh, sorry, he’s a little delayed but will be there shortly.”

Long story short, technician never showed up on Saturday. Called Comcast again: “Oh, sorry, someone from Dispatch will contact you by 7:00 pm to reschedule.”

Nobody from Comcast called me to reschedule. I had to call Comcast early Sunday to reschedule. Spoke to nice rep named Joanne: “Oh, sorry, but we don’t do installs on Sunday. Soonest would be Monday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.”

Me: “No can do, I’ll be at work. My wife can be home by around 3:30 pm.

Joanne: “Okay, I’ll put in a note that even though the time window is 1:00 to 5:00 pm, the tech should come around after 3:30 pm.”

Me: “Thanks.”

Monday, my phone rings at 1:30 pm: “Hello, this Comcast, the technician is at your house waiting for you.”

Me (incredulous): “But I specifically told Comcast yesterday that no one can be at my house until 3:30 pm.”

Rep from local Comcast installer: “Dunno.”

Me: “Fine, I’ll leave work just to meet the tech at my house.”

Local installer: “Okay, the tech says that he will wait for you.”

Me, driving like a madman to meet the tech at my house. Get there, nobody is there. Me, calling local installer’s office: “Your tech isn’t here waiting for me.”

Local installer: “Oh, he just went to get some lunch, he’ll be back in 20-30 minutes.”

Me: “So…you call me, tell me the tech is at my house two hours earlier than he was supposed to be there, I leave work just to meet the tech at my house, whereupon I find that he’s just left my house to grab some lunch.”

Me, furious: “Please write this down in your notes so that Comcast can read them. Comcast, I am done with you. You have screwed up this supposedly simple installation at every step of the way, in every way imaginable. I will have nothing more to do with you. Today, I cancel my Comcast account forever.”

Me, now calling AT&T U-Verse.

And that’s why I’m leaving you, Comcast.

Unhappily yours,
Martin

A Frigid(nightm)are / Electro-sux Horror Story

This is my family’s personal horror story about our ongoing customer service nightmare at the hands of Frigidaire/Electrolux.
On July 24, 2009, our eight-month-old Frigidaire refrigerator unexpectedly broke down and stopped cooling. All it would do was beep continuously. There was no reason for the failure: it simply stopped working.
We called Frigidaire/Electrolux customer service (their call center is located in the Philippines) to report the problem. Little did we know that we would be forced to call them every day, several times a day, for the next month.
The part to fix our refrigerator (the control board) was out of stock, so on or around July 30, 2009, Frigidaire/Electrolux customer service told us that if the part had not arrived by August 4, 2009, our refrigerator would be replaced with a new one. We would have been happy with this resolution, had it in fact taken place as promised. But as we soon discovered, Frigidaire/Electrolux customer service is full of empty promises.
In the meantime, we had lost about $400 worth of food that had been stored in the refrigerator. We threw out most of the food and kept what we could in a couple of coolers. We have been buying 40 pounds of ice practically every day since July 24, to keep the food cold.
On August 7, 2009, we received a copy of a letter from Frigidaire addressed to our local dealer from whom we had bought the refrigerator (Fry’s Electronics), requesting that Fry’s replace our failed refrigerator with a new unit.
That letter was sent from Frigidaire to Fry’s customer relations on August 7, 2009. On that same day, my wife Sandra personally went to Fry’s to ensure that they received the letter and to expedite the replacement of our refrigerator. Then ensued two days of being bounced around between Fry’s and Frigidaire — Fry’s wouldn’t release a replacement until they could verify the letter from Frigidaire, and it seemed that no one from Frigidaire was willing to take ownership of our situation and help us get our replacement faster.
On August 10, 2009 we called Frigidaire’s customer service call center for what seemed like the dozenth time. We were getting frustrated because we didn’t know anymore what to say or how to complain to them that would get our replacement refrigerator into our hands faster. Finally, the call center in the Philippines put us in touch with a higher-up customer service representative in the Frigidaire/Electrolux headquarters in Georgia. This person, Felicia Roseboro, told us she was referring our case to the “replacement department,” to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
On August 13, 2009, Ms.Roseboro told us that they could not find a local dealer in San Jose, CA who would agree to replace our refrigerator. On August 14, 2009, we received a call from a certain Keela Rhodes of Frigidaire informing us that instead of replacing our refrigerator, they would simply ” buy back” our refrigerator for the purchase price minus the tax, delivery and installation charges. She told us to expect a letter from Frigidaire/Electrolux later that day.
At the time of this writing, we have received a copy of said letter. It instructs us to send our own letter of response to Frigidaire/Electrolux agreeing to the buy-back, as well as the original purchase receipt and the refrigerator’s original “serial tag.” Since we are not sure what this “serial tag” is, for the last three days we have been sending email and leaving voicemail with Ms. Rhodes and Ms. Roseboro, asking for a simple clarification of what this serial tag is.
We have not received any response from Frigidaire/Electrolux since August 14, 2009.
Meanwhile, we have been spending extra money on food and ice for our coolers, every day since the eight-month-old refrigerator broke down 26 days ago. In four days, it will have been one month since the refrigerator stopped working.
We feel that no one in Frigidaire/Electrolux is genuinely interested in helping us receive a replacement.
We feel that if we do not call or email Frigidaire/Electrolux on a daily basis, then that company is perfectly content to disregard the hardship and inconvenience that our entire family has suffered, and continues to suffer daily, due to the failure of their eight-month-old refrigerator.
It’s bad enough that the refrigerator failed after only eight months of operation. It’s even worse that Frigidaire/Electrolux do not seem to stand behind their product. The worst part is that they make their customers feel like we don’t matter to them at all.
We just want a working refrigerator. We want Frigidaire/Electrolux to do right by its customers and ensure that this issue is resolved to our satisfaction, After all, it’s not our fault that the product failed. We have already been promised a replacement. How long do we have to wait for that replacement to be given to us?
in conclusion, my advice to you all is to stay away from all Frigidaire and Electrolux products. Let’s refuse to support a company that doesn’t value its customers enough to process a product replacement in a timely manner. Let’s use the vaunted power of the consumer to punish Frigidaire with our wallets.