I Am a Road Warrior

by Barrett

My essential gear stands ready for the morning commute. All systems are go!

I can see the technology police in my rear view mirror.
They’re never far behind.

Take heed of this story, which reminds me of man’s failed journey
back to the moon.
Dramatic advances in technology have not made returning there any easier.
Let me explain…

Before Thunderdome
I am a road warrior.
Or to be more precise, a Metro-North train commuter.

Let’s just say once upon a time I was cast out of paradise. And I now have a daily eighty minute work-commute to New York City.

Not that I’m complaining. When I board the packed train every morning, I walk past commuters with even longer commutes. But I can’t avoid the reality that my nights are now shorter because of my daily trek.

As a result, my 42” Plasma TV is mostly dark on weeknights.
My pride and joy from three years ago no longer serves up the majority of my media consumption.

What’s a healthy, red-blooded American TV viewer to do?

The silver lining to a long commute is converting the two hours of uninterrupted train void into something useful. Some people read. Others sleep.  I like to catch up on the TV I’m no longer watching at home.

How does that work, exactly, as I nimbly sit between two other commuters, (in the dreaded center seat) traveling seventy miles an hour on track three?

Maybe there’s an app for that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the ‘Preapplenary’ Dinosaur Era, without the conveniences of smartphone tech, I had it all figured it all out. Back then, I was moving my TV recordings like magic for mobile consumption onto my little DVD player.

My favorite TV shows were captured by my Panasonic DVR/DVD recorder. The shows were recorded first to its hard drive, and then transferred via a built-in, high-speed process to re-recordable DVDs (how environmentally friendly of me). Within fifteen minutes or so, I could prep six hours of mobile TV to take with me for the week on the train. No computer required.

I took my nimble Panasonic 7” DVD player that fit comfortably in my soft briefcase, and when I set myself up in my train seat complete with Bose noise cancelling headsets, people looked at me like I had invented cold fusion.

I was a mobile tech god, and feeling very much invincible.

Wrath of the Titans
Technology is supposed to make your life easier. And here I was, happily keeping up with all my favorite shows. What could be better?

Technology is always evolving.
And sometimes that can be a problem, when everything is already perfect.
Especially when there’s business profit on the line.

One rainy day a couple years ago, it was clear I had angered the technology gods, and a whole bunch of their lawyers.

First, Panasonic and other manufacturers of TV recorders with hard drives suddenly stopped making them.
“No more demand for the product,” they said.
I say, “All that free media copying. Very bad. You should be buying it. “

DVD recorders (sans DVR) were allowed to keep living, but I found their usefulness limited. You’re forced to constantly pay attention to how much space is left on a DVD and then swap it out every six hours. Or else your last-episode-of-the-season recording doesn’t happen. It’s back to the nightmare days of programming your old VCR. What a pain!

The killer blow came via my friendly cable company.
Cablevision, like all patriotic American companies, has a right to protect its product from being stolen. So they, like other cable companies, had been scrambling many of their channels to prevent people from illegally sampling all the programming goodness without renting a cable box. I have no problem with that.

The spigot began closing, and one day, my Panasonic DVR/DVD recorder just saw blue. Blue on every channel. Nothing but blue.

Yeah, I was blue. And a whole lot of other colors.
It wasn’t like I was trying to steal anything. I was paying Cablevision a pretty penny every month. But I was breaking the law.

You may ask, “Why not just have my recorder drink from the free digital broadcast stream in the sky?”
I’ve got bad reception at home. D’oh!

Wait a minute! I also had a built in DVR in my cable box! Couldn’t I still legally transfer my shows to my blue brick? Sure. But there’s a catch-
It’s real time transfer. No more high speed. That old technology is now illegal.

That slowed down the DVD transfer from fifteen minutes to six hours!
What commuter has time for that?

So after my glorious and free media age of agility, all my recorded media became imprisoned safely and legally back at home in my cable box.

What’s a road warrior to do?

I hate admitting this, but my solution was to simply lick my wounds and go cold turkey on my TV shows. Instead, I decided to focus on all the movies I was missing at the local multiplex. (As a new parent, I hear this is typical.)
As I was already a Netflix subscriber, I loaded up my movie cue and began packing the red envelope as a part of my standard travel kit.

Digital Xanadu
Now don’t get me wrong. Technology hasn’t abandoned the mobile viewer. Not one bit. There are plenty of options available today to facilitate mobile media viewing.

The problem is each solution has an added cost associated with it.
And I’d prefer not to pay for my TV shows a second time just to watch them outside the immediate vicinity of my home entertainment center.
I feel once is plenty, thank you very much.

All this said, here are some of your choices:

This is what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy. It works. It’s fast. Perfect.
Of course, you’re paying $1.99 or $2.99 (HD) a pop for an episode of your favorite TV series. (Apple used to rent out episodes, but
they killed that option last summer.)
Yes, I’ve bought TV episodes via iTunes and quickly transferred the content to my iPhone, but I don’t fancy the idea of owning lots of memory-heavy episodes I only intend to watch once.

DVD Box Sets
You can always buy DVD box sets of your favorite TV series. But waiting months later to watch the most recent season brings new meaning to the concept of patience. Plus water cooler chat will ruin most of the good stuff before you get to it.

I really want to buy a TiVo box.
(The prices have really come down, starting at $150, plus the $15 monthly service plan.) But I don’t own one precisely because all of its content can’t be easily transferred for portable viewing. Once upon a time, TiVo made their boxes with a DVD recorder built in. No more. Remember, that’s illegal.

Now, they’ve got something ‘better.’
It’s the one-two-three TivoToGo service, which allows you to transfer your TV recordings from a network-connected TiVo to your computer via TiVo Desktop Software. Then you compress the files for your smartphone via a program called Toast. Finally, you upload the file to your portable device.

“Yoi, Ishta Nem!”
(My mother would utter this phrase learned from her Hungarian relatives for times of complete frustration.)

So TiVo has taken my two-minute solution and created a several hour process. Ludicrous!

This is a little $200 DVR that bridges your cable box to your Mac, where you can watch and convert programming to iTunes. This seems relatively straight forward, but I’m still not too psyched to be using my computer as a prep station to route my TV shows to my iPhone. That’s still more work than I want to put in.

Yes, I know it’s built into my iPhone, and yes I’ve successfully watched its short form programming while on the train. But I never considered the 3G stream would hold up for 30 or 60 minutes. That said…

I tried a new service this week that a reader let me know had finally come to Cablevision subscribers- HBO GO.
All that HBO programming I never have time to watch. On demand. On my iPhone. Would full episodes really work over 3G? On a moving train, passing through black holes of cell phone coverage.

It did!

Now, it wasn’t perfect, and the picture did stall occasionally, requiring me to reload. But I am still very impressed.

Wow. This feels like a game changer. And it doesn’t cost any more!
(You have to already be an HBO subscriber.)

Now that I’ve realized 3G streaming while commuting actually works (mostly), I have a renewed interest in a box that’s been around for a few years called Slingbox.
This $180 device connects to your cable box or DVD recorder and then to your home network, creating a video stream to the web. Like a virtual universal remote, it can control your recorded programming (or live TV) for display on your mobile device via a download called SlingPlayer Mobile. ($30) There’s also a HD version of the box, but I’m not sure I’d want/need HD with 3G.

It seems almost too good to be true. And the product isn’t something I hear about a lot. Nor are retailers like Best Buy pushing it. So this device clearly hasn’t gone mainstream yet. (no pun intended)
But it’s gotten decent reviews. Maybe… just maybe, this could be my magic bullet.
I may just have to try this out one day soon.
Stay tuned…

The Dream Stream Won’t be Forever Free
It’s still sinking in. So now I don’t have to take my shows with me? They’re always out there waiting for me?  There’s even a Hulu Plus app?!
(yes, subscription required)

I know my newly realized mobile media dream solution has one fatal flaw. And I’ll soon be on the wrong side of the law again. I’ll be sucking too much bandwidth out of my all-you-can-eat data plan from AT&T Wireless. Their newer data plans already have caps, after which hefty charges are assigned to your monthly bill (ticket).

I know it’s just a matter of time before it suddenly becomes a technology crime to stream like this for free. My iPhone’s portal is gonna get locked down, and they’re throwin’ away the key. No doubt about it.

Until then, I’ve decided to make the most of it. I should commute like there’s no tomorrow! Maybe even sport a new iPad with Retina Display and 4G LTE.

Riding the speeding train with my full cup.
Drunk with the satisfaction that for now, technology has once again made my life just a little bit better.

Drink. Drink, like there’s no tomorrow!