Watching HBO GO On The Big Screen

Dave Zatz —  June 7, 2011 — 36 Comments

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Coincidentally, last week, both Blake Krikorian and I worked out methods to move compelling HBO GO content from smartphone to television. Blake, who you might recognize as the inventor of the Slingbox and champion of the Crestron Android app, ultimately got it done via his Motorola Atrix… in conjunction with the multimedia dock. Like the Atrix’s netbook enclosure accessory, the multimedia dock launches Motorola’s Linux webtop OS/interface and Blake merely brought up HBO GO via the desktop version of Firefox. On a 103″ plasma. As I quipped on Facebook, 320×240 never looked so good. (Although, HBO is definitely streaming higher res than that.) Jason Hirschhorn, who you might recognize as a former MTV, Sling, or MySpace executive and curator of the must-follow MediaReDEFined, snapped the incriminating photographic evidence.

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Likewise, I attempted to harness the power of my iPhone in ways it wasn’t intended… by HBO. Having picked up Apple’s digital AV adapter, I had plans to pipe iPhone app content onto the TV via HDMI (as screen mirroring is only offered from the iPad 2). Unfortunately, although not unsurprisingly, most app providers haven’t enabled this functionality. And, once again, I jailbroke my phone to extend its capabilities. The $4 DisplayOut app (purchased via Cydia) provides iPhone 4 display mirroring, in addition to pushing audio out over the aforementioned HDMI. Stretched Flight of the Conchords quality wasn’t great on the big screen and the process of streaming while mirroring pretty much crushes the iPhone battery. Not to mention Apple’s dongle is not compatible with their iPhone bumper. So while I figured I’d end up writing a post chronicling how this $40 cable would replace my more bulky Roku on travel, it just wasn’t meant to be.

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36 responses to Watching HBO GO On The Big Screen

  1. “Likewise, I attempted to harness the power of my iPhone … Stretched Flight of the Conchords quality wasn’t great on the big screen”

    But that’s not the real test. You should have tried with your iPad.

    The iPhone’s lack of 5ghz WiFi means that of course you’re going to end up with lousy lean-back PQ. 2.4ghz WiFi just won’t cut it through any means. The real test would be to try the same thing with the iPad’s 5ghz WiFi and see if that produces something akin to Official Netflix “good enough” PQ™ for HBO GO.

    The only real question to be answered is whether or not HBO is deliberately throttling their streaming bandwidth to a lower PQ to avoid lean-back cannibalization from their multicast revenue streams. And iPad video out would likely answer that question.

  2. My (wife’s) iPad is first gen and I believe has very similar hardware specs to the iPhone 4. It’s the newer iPad 2 that’d be a good test. But there are multiple factors in play. First, what res is HBO streaming to the iPhone. It’s probably better than 320×240 but it may not be 720p – which is what I was using for the screen mirroring. And once on my 1080p set, it was both letter boxed and pillar boxed so I used one of the TV zoom settings to fill the screen. So it’s lower res content stretched to fillw a larger, higher res screen. Also, who knows if there’s pq degradation of some sort (like dropped frames) introduced by the screen mirroring app/function. Also, I disagree with your 2.4MHz assertion – I’ve streamed high def Vudu content over 802.11g for years and it’s looked stellar.

  3. “Also, I disagree with your 2.4MHz assertion – I’ve streamed high def Vudu content over 802.11g for years and it’s looked stellar.”

    Interesting. I’m genuinely curious why we have the discrepancy in perception.

    I have tried two competent 2.4ghz transmitters in close proximity to my Netflix receiver, and when Netflix is connected via 2.4ghz, it almost always can’t negotiate its “HD” stream. If I switch the Netflix receiver over to my 5ghz transmitter, Netflix almost always can negotiate its “HD” stream.

    So, at least with my own experiences, 2.4ghz vs 5ghz is night vs day for hi-PQ lean-back streaming.

    That’s 75% of what I base my “2.4ghz isn’t good for hi-PQ lean-back” notion upon. The other 25% is what I’ve read on the topic from other tech and videophile writers.

    “My (wife’s) iPad is first gen and I believe has very similar hardware specs to the iPhone 4.”

    The radio is the important difference, if my understanding of the location of hi-PQ video streaming bottlenecks is correct. The rest of the hardware is likely up to snuff.

  4. “it was both letter boxed and pillar boxed so I used one of the TV zoom settings to fill the screen.”

    A second, and crucial issue. I wonder why. Is everything the iPhone spits out via this connecter non-fullscreen, or just HBO?

  5. Are your experiences in streaming Netflix reserved to TiVo? Or also from your Mac Mini? As you know, I’ve had Netflix problems on TiVo over the years – perhaps it requires more throughput which could explain your results.

  6. “Are your experiences in streaming Netflix reserved to TiVo? Or also from your Mac Mini? As you know, I’ve had Netflix problems on TiVo over the years – perhaps it requires more throughput which could explain your results.”

    I’ve got two boxes hooked up to my lean-back: a TiVo HD, and a Mac Mini with a GPU that Flash can use for hardware acceleration.

    I’ve never seen streaming “good enough” lean-back PQ through the Mac Mini. The machine should be specced well enough, but in both Safari and 3rd party apps, lean-back PQ always falls short of “good enough”. I’m not sure if the problem is Safari, Flash (even with GPU acceleration), other plug-ins like Silverlight, or streaming companies that automatically don’t give their high bandwidth streams to browser clients. I’ve always been curious about understanding the nature of the problem. Even if I connect the Mini via ethernet, the Netflix client in the browser won’t negotiate the “HD” stream.

    The one and only place I’ve ever seen streaming “good enough” lean-back PQ is through the Netflix client on my TiVo HD. And there, as stated, 2.4ghz vs 5ghz is night vs day.

    Also, beyond my limited personal experience with those two boxes, from what I’ve read on the topic:

    5ghz, beyond delivering significantly higher overall bandwidth than 2.4ghz, also delivers significantly more consistent minimum bandwidth, which is exactly what Netflix is measuring when it does its negotiation process to decide which stream to deliver to you. In other words, 2.4ghz is prone to short but deep valleys in throughput, which is murder on streaming, and most streaming companies just (sensibly) send the lower bandwidth stream if they notice the short but deep valleys in throughput.

  7. FWIW, If you can genuinely get consistent Netflix “HD” streams via 2.4ghz WiFi via any client, then I’d bet the difference in our cases isn’t my TiVo Netflix client, but instead in differences in terroir.

    I’m urban and you’re suburban, which could mean that you face a less heavily congested 2.4ghz environment than I do, which could mean that you get better 2.4ghz performance than me. One disadvantage/advantage of 5ghz lays in its lesser range than 2.4ghz. The disadvantages of lesser range are obvious, but the advantage is less congestion in densely populated areas…

  8. Could be… but I was also living in various MDUs for a time. Meaning lots of access points. Have you tried moving the channel your broadcast on? I usually try to get a few digits away from the middle – enough for some breathing room but not so far to majorly impact performance. (I do have next to no interference from other 2.4GHz technologies, which may be worth mentioning.)

  9. Will the new simpler mirror feature in ios5 work in the future to do just this, with an apple tv?

  10. It may make it easier, but I’d expect dropped frames or similar since the probably DVD quality video is being streamed wirelessly into the iPad and out to the AppleTV simultaneously. Perhaps Apple will utilize clever dual band tricks to optimize performance or its inherently better as Chucky suspects.. But I’d still put it firmly in the hack category. What we need is a native Apple TV or Roku HBO GO client… at a higher res. Perhaps HBO’s new leadership will see to that. And maybe a OTT subscription option.

  11. “I do have next to no interference from other 2.4GHz technologies, which may be worth mentioning.”

    You mentioned Vudu above, but let’s use Netflix as a benchmark. Do you have a Netflix connected lean-back setup in your home that you are serving via 2.4ghz WiFi that can consistently negotiate Netflix “HD” streams?

    If so, I’ve learned something new today.

  12. My Netflix is usually served over 802.11n these days, but not sure which frequency. Which is why I mentioned Vudu, because that box has a basically dedicated 802.11g wireless bridge attached to it. Well, it did when it was all hooked up. At even half the theoretic bandwidth of 802.11g, it shouldn’t be a problem to stream in HD. But as you say, interference, distance, etc could impact reliability and throughput.

  13. “My Netflix is usually served over 802.11n, but not sure which frequency.”

    If memory serves, you’re using a Cupertino dual-band transmitter. If that’s true, you can create a 2.4ghz only WiFi ‘n’ network using the Cupertino interface.

    If I got all that correct, and if you’re ever curious, try setting up a 2.4ghz only network and connecting your Netflix client via that. My bet is that you won’t be able to consistently get the Netflix “HD” streams.

  14. “Which is why I mentioned Vudu … At even half the theoretic bandwidth of 802.11g, it shouldn’t be a problem to stream in HD”

    Of course, all the different OTT companies each have their own radically different definitions of “HD”, in terms of bandwidth, codecs, and resultant PQ, which is why Netflix is a useful common benchmark.

  15. The AppleTV would be MUCH better if it ran iOS app on it. Load HBO Go on it and enjoy…

    Maybe some day!

  16. Vudu’s HD (not even HDX) is much better than Netflix HD.

    Getting back on topic, the worst part of HBO (and Hulu too) is not supporting HDMI-out, so the content doesn’t fill the screen. Apps that supports HDMI out, like Apple’s Videos or Netflix, can be coded to support widescreen displays when doing HDMI-out.

    P.S. This reminds me I need to finish my wire-free HDMI solution for iPads. Got everything working on my iPad 2, but need to devise a slim enclosure.

  17. yes, slingbox streaming. Nice

    http://gizmodo.com/5809584/curious-how-ipad-airplay-mirroring-works

    on the LAN this should be pretty darn good. this might be my travel replacement. apple tv hockey puck and ipad for movies, slingbox, etc. (by by carrying the slingcatcher on extended holidays)

  18. @Chucky,

    Agree with Dave, nothing inherently better in 5GHz Wifi vs. 2.4GHz. I’ve regularly sent Tivo HD recordings in HD (probably 15Mbps peak, but VBR) over an 802.11n network using Tivo 802.11g adapters (not even n) and had it work just fine. Not sure why you’ve had such bad experience with 2.4GHz. I will say in my last house I couldn’t get Wifi to go 10 feet, so YMMV.

    @Dave,

    I just signed up for HBO and installed the Go app. BTW it DOES work with Comcast. Maybe it didn’t at one point? Anyway, works fine, if a bit flaky (certain shows play fine if occasionally dropping into audio only, while others crash the app repeatedly). I’ll have to try an HDMI out hookup when I get back home again, since I do have an iPad 2 (sold the iPad 1 on Gazelle and almost paid for the iPad 2 honestly).

  19. Glenn, the issues I was previously having with HBO GO were related to the Comcast/Xfinity webpage login via Google TV which was blocked. I’ve had decent luck on the iPhone and iPad. It’s not as reliable as Hulu Plus or Netflix at this point, but mostly good. And, of course, the content selection is high quality with full seasons.

  20. This is almost comical.

    hbogo.com (or any other flash site) + PlayBook + Micro HDMI cable
    =
    HD video (or whatever your connection can handle) in full screen and properly scaled. No side bars, pillars or other nonsense.

    Very handy for ESPN360 but the streams aren’t nearly as high as Epixhd, hbogo and the like.

  21. I used HBOGo for the first time last night on my iPad 2 and was a bit let down by quality of Deadwood episode I had started watching. I had some other Internet activity at the moment, so it might’ve bumped me down to lower-quality tier, but what is best-case quality I can expect? Is it 480p, 720p, Netflix SD, Netflix HD, or something else?

  22. Ivan, I’m not sure we know HBO’s max streaming resolution. I’ve been watching most of Game of Thrones on the iPad and I’d say we’re probably in the neighborhood of 640×480 when it’s fully buffered. Could be more. I wouldn’t say it’s outstanding, but it’s very watchable. Especially since the content is so good and engrosses me.

  23. Dave, as a general question, do you find that lower-quality video is more noticeable on portable devices (e.g. iPad) due to shorter viewing distance? I’d watched entire Trigun series on a TV (Netflix SD on TiVo) and wasn’t as put off as when I tried to watch non-HD video on iPad 2.

  24. I’m usually more tolerant of lower res television content versus sports or movies, regardless of display or viewing distance (which may ultimately be equivalent). I’d like Game of Thrones in higher def, as it’s more movie-esque, but whatever they stream to the iPad is the highest def and biggest screen I can get it on (other than a computer). My mother-in-law moved in with her boyfriend, but continues to pay for premium cable at her home so I’m making sure she gets her money’s worth. ;)

  25. “Dave, as a general question, do you find that lower-quality video is more noticeable on portable devices (e.g. iPad) due to shorter viewing distance?”

    Lower PQ video is much more noticeable on lean-back than mobile (including tablet) for a whole laundry list of reasons.

    “what is best-case quality I can expect (from HBO GO)? Is it 480p, 720p, Netflix SD, Netflix HD, or something else?”

    With OTT, it’s really useful to remember that we’re talking entirely different PQ measures than QAM. “720″ doesn’t indicate much in terms of PQ in the OTT space.

    To take one example, ABC QAM is 720. But the PQ of that 720 QAM is much higher than the best streaming OTT 720 “HD” I’ve yet seen, which is Netflix HD.

    To take another example, Netflix and Hulu are both 720, yet Netflix has significantly higher PQ than Hulu.

    I talk about Netflix “HD” as “good enough” because although it’s not particularly good PQ compared to even 720 QAM, it’s sorta “good enough” PQ to watch on a lean-back screen, though for anything you really want to watch, you’re better off finding a higher PQ source.

    To best answer your question, I don’t think we yet know what PQ HBO GO is sending out, and whether or not HBO is intentionally keeping their OTT PQ low (as Hulu does) to avoid cannibalizing their MSO revenue streams.

    The entire name “HBO GO” seems to imply that they don’t intend the product to be for lean-back PQ. But then, I’ve read that they’re building the client into new generation TV sets, which seems to imply that it’s not just a mobile product.

    In short, I’d like to know the answer to your question as well, but I’m not sure we’ll have an answer until we can find some clean, non-browser-based way of displaying HBO GO on big screens.

    My guess is that HBO GO’s lean-back PQ will be inferior to the Netflix “good enough”. All the money in video lies in lean-back PQ, and it probably doesn’t make sense for HBO to send out its entire back catalog for free to subscribers in that high value format.

  26. “I’m usually more tolerant of lower res television content … I’d like Game of Thrones in higher def, as it’s more movie-esque”

    It’s not TV. It’s HBO.

    (I use CableCARD to locally cache seasons of stuff like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, precisely because they’re shot with the budget, creative talent, and ambition that is normally reserved for theatrical releases. Stuff like that is intended for high-PQ lean-back viewing.)

  27. “Agree with Dave, nothing inherently better in 5GHz Wifi vs. 2.4GHz. I’ve regularly sent Tivo HD recordings in HD (probably 15Mbps peak, but VBR) over an 802.11n network using Tivo 802.11g adapters (not even n) and had it work just fine.”

    I will, at a bare minimum, fall back on my insistence that the benchmarking done by multiple sources of 5ghz shows dramatic improvement over 2.4ghz. The tech really is inherently better in practice, just as long as the lesser range is acceptable.

    And in the real world, the example you use is irrelevant to the discussion. The example you use involves buffering, so deep valleys in minimum throughput are not a problem. But if you are using OTT streaming services, then minimum throughput is the whole ballgame, since buffering schemes are becoming passe.

    Again, this is why I like using Netflix “HD” as a common benchmark to see if different WAN and LAN products can achieve the necessary minimum throughput. (And I still don’t think 2.4ghz will deliver consistent Netflix “HD” signals.)

  28. “I’d like Game of Thrones in higher def, as it’s more movie-esque”

    FWIW, there’s a lot of teevee shot in “movie-esque” fashion.

    Most of the premium hour-long dramas are shot with enough detail to be intended for lean-back viewing. And even a fair number of the premium sit-coms are as shot that way as well, Flight of the Conchords being a good example.

    Even some of the non-premium teevee is shot in “movie-esque” fashion.

    I locally cached the CableCARD seasons of Fox’s Arrested Development when it was on HDNET commercial-free a couple of years back, so I’ve been able to directly compare the “really good” PQ version of that show against the “good enough” PQ version of that show available on Netflix “HD” streaming.

    And I’ve gotta say that, on a lean-back screen, “really good” tastes three times as good as “good enough”…

  29. Agree, I’d must rather watcher higher def stuff and in a lean back fashion. But given the way my phone calls with Verizon have played out as I added and removed Showtime, ended up on a different package, etc I’m not messing with adding HBO at this time. So iPad it is. Arrested Development was a Hulu Plus series for me on the 3.5″ screen from the gym hamster wheel. As is Flight of the Conchords via HBO GO currently. I’d prefer bigger and sharper, but it’s good enough to keep me motivated at the gym.

  30. Perhaps, I didn’t make myself entirely clear. I wasn’t talking a 3.5″-4.5″ device vs TV, but rather 10″ tablet (10″) vs TV. When held close (e.g. in bed), a smaller tablet screen is comparable to lean-back TV viewing.

    I’ve watched some free iTunes HD content and a bunch of 720p MKVs on my iPad 2 (using a super-mega-uber awesome AV Player HD) and it wasn’t different that watching a regular TV. I imagine, it’d be even more immersive on 16:9 aspect ratio tablets, i.e. non-iPads.

  31. “Perhaps, I didn’t make myself entirely clear … When held close (e.g. in bed), a smaller tablet screen is comparable to lean-back TV viewing. I’ve watched some … HD content… on my iPad 2 … and it wasn’t different that watching a regular TV.”

    Lets tease apart two separate threads here. First is the issue of the experience of tablet viewing vs lean-back viewing. Second is the issue of how the PQ of the source material impacts your experience on both of those form factors.

    I’m only interested in the second issue here.

    And I’m flatly asserting that lower PQ source material can be bothersome in your lean-back setup, even when you can watch the exact same source material on a tablet held close to your face and not be bothered by any PQ issues.

    A 16mm film print that is lovely to watch from the front row of a tiny cinema will look less lovely projected in a big auditorium for identical reasons.

  32. Ivan, I understood your query. And I assume it doesn’t matter. PQ has the same variables and calculation regardless of display size – source resolution, source quality, and size of screen compared to viewing distance. My 720p plasma is just fine because I sit far enough away that it’d look the same as 1080 content.

  33. I just bought the HDMI adapter for my iPad 2 and attempted to get the HBO Go application to work, but to no avail…Once everything is connected and setup…When I launch the HBO Go application on the iPad, it just displays the “HBO GO” logo on the screen and all you can hear is the audio…no video is displayed…

    Has someone actually used the HDMI adapter and gotten HBO Go to work on their television via their iPad 2?

  34. Hey, this is a semi-related question, as I am on a similar quest to have the HBO Go app accessible on my tv. I have Comcast and, as you know, they are anti-Roku/Hbo Go. :( I have an iPad 2, but have not tried the adapter yet. My question is whether or not you have discovered any recent developments on Comcast changing/allowing the Roku access of this app? I called my regional Comcast customer service to “voice my opinion” as the Roku site suggested and was disgusted by the experience. After calming down a few days later, I called Comcast corporate and received a much better response to my query. No answers, obviously, but I felt like I was actually having my voice heard. They said they need people to call in order for changes to be made. They may be placating me, but they were good at it. LOL Anyway, any news you hear about new developments would be appreciated! I am signing up for thread alerts/updates! Thanks!

  35. I’ve only heard the official company line out of Comcast and Roku suggests contacting our providers if we’re not satisfied with their offerings.

  36. “This is petty and makes me like HBO less … HBO stops providing DVDs to Netflix”

    Meh. It’s a minor skirmish in a larger war where cities are already being firebombed.

    Netflix is coming right after HBO at their strength, so why shouldn’t HBO assume a buffalo stance?

    If Netflix can build a studio to compete with HBO’s studio, (a task Showtime and Starz have miserably failed at executing), then Reed Hastings gets the epaulets back on his uniform.

    If Netflix spends lots of its resources building a somewhat dysfunctional studio, which is the somewhat more likely outcome, then it’s like Germany spending all it’s money building a Navy to compete with Britain’s during the run-up to WWI…

    (The stalement outcome is Netflix building up a studio like AMC’s, in which case the HBO/Neflix power balance would remain at status quo.)

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