I’ve had the Bell IPTV service (otherwise known as FibeTV) hooked up for a couple of months now after switching from Rogers, and I’m ready to do a direct comparison. This is the Bell IPTV service (TV over internet), and not their satellite service. Bell has been selectively wiring certain condos with fibre to deliver this service.
Update (07/2011): Bell Entertainment Services (BES) is now being folded into the FibeTV business unit and all customers are being switched over. Notable changes:
– The pricing is less than BES regular pricing, but more than the 2010 promotional pricing.
– The “time shifting” pack (i.e. west coast affiliates of the the networks) is no longer an option for $, it is included as part of the basic package.
– There are more channels available (CNBC is now available, yay!)
– There are more movie channels in HD.
– The IPTV boxes are now black instead of silver
– The DVR box now offered is the Motorola VIP 1232, which has twice the hard drive capacity as the VIP 1216
– BES customers do not get the new IPTV boxes with the migration. However, the monthly fee for the old DVR box is now waived; the monthly fee for the slave boxes is not.
Update (01/2012): Major firmware update to version 2.1. The first thing you will notice are the cosmetic differences, the UI now looks better, but is functionally similar. More HD channels can now be recorded simultaneously with the same hardware, and some bugs have been fixed.
First we have to understand the difference between the two services. Rogers has traditional cable technology, where all the channels are blasted into your household over coax, and each cable tuner tunes to the station that you want to pay attention to. The Bell IPTV cable boxes request the station that you want to watch or record, and a central server somewhere sends it over the internet to the box where it is decoded and displayed. The very first thing the Bell cable installers did was to rewire all the in-wall coax to behave as a wired HPNA home network, with each of the cable boxes behaving like a network device. This leads to many inherent advantages and disadvantages outlined below:
– IPTV is more future proof. Regular cable is limited by the total bandwidth that your coax is able to carry. Since only a few channels are being sent to your home at a time on IPTV, expanding the channel line up is potentially unlimited.
– Each IPTV cable box has an ethernet jack on the back of it which connects you to your home network. That gives you a network node at each cable box where you can hook up any manner of ethernet device. I hooked up 2 wifi routers at different nodes to give me better wireless coverage in my home (setting up a router-router configuration turned out to be more complicated than I thought, but works like a charm once set up), I hooked up my PS3 (wired) so I can now stream videos directly off the hard drive of my desktop computer at the other end of my home, and I hooked up my ReplayTV to a node so I can now download recorded content to my desktop. The possibilities are endless. Update (09/2011) There appears to have been an update to the IPTV protocols which is causing stability problems on my wireless access points when there is IPTV traffic (i.e. any TV is on, or the DVR is recording something). I was able to resolve the problem on my D-Link DIR-615 by enabling the QoS engine, but I have yet been able to resolve the issue on my Linksys WRT160N
– Since IPTV is streaming through your internet gateway, in theory watching more channels affects your internet bandwidth and using more internet might affect your TV watching. In practice TV bandwidth is pre-allocated, I have not observed anything noticeable in any kind of stressed situation. Also, cable internet is supposed to be higher bandwidth than [vDSL?, xDSL?], but in practice Rogers was overloading their subscribers so much that my Bell internet is noticeably faster than Rogers internet.
– If you have lots of TV’s, then the number of channels that you can watch over cable is dependent on the number of cable boxes. With Bell IPTV, there is some maximum bandwidth achievable through my residential gateway (I don’t know what that is), and at some point you run out of simultaneous channels you can stream into your home. I have 2 TV’s hooked up (one server, one slave) which gives me total of 2 HD and 1 SD channel that can be watched/recorded simultaneously. Update (01/2012) The new firmware 2.1 update now allows a total of 3 HD and 1 HD channels that can be watched/recorded simultaneously.
– The Bell IPTV boxes are asymmetric. There is one master DVR box which does all the recording, and all the others are slaves. Thus any of the boxes can watch anything that you’ve recorded, and you can begin watching on one box, pause, and continue watching on any of the other boxes, which is a great feature. However, the button latencies are higher on the slave box which can be annoying, and the slave boxes cannot pause/rewind live TV but the master can. With Rogers, each cable box DVR can only view the content that it has recorded, and if the cable box does not have a DVR, there is no recording capability.
– Update (07/2011) Network bandwidth utilized is commensurate with the number of channels being watched or recorded. (Well duh, that’s the way ethernet works, packets are sent everywhere into the subnet, regardless of whether devices are listening for them or not). This could affect your wifi connection speed (which is normally less than your wired bandwidth) for wireless access points set up off the IPTV boxes if you are using a slower wifi standard. However, this does NOT affect the ethernet ports or wifi coming out of the Cellpipe gateway, because that router can differentiate between regular internet traffic and IPTV traffic.
– Update (07/2011) A recent firmware update has made a slight change (for the better) in the way the record button works. Previously, when the record button was pressed, the DVR would begin recording from the moment the button was pressed. Now, if you had been watching the channel prior to hitting record button, it will go back as far as it can in your viewing history up to the beginning of the program and begin the recording there. This only works with the DVR boxes and not the slave boxes (because timeshifting is not supported on the slaves).
User Interface and TV Guide
– The Rogers UI is the worst piece of dreck ever. It looks terrible, its non-intuitive, and takes lots of keystrokes to do anything. Their recent “quickstart” guide makes the user hit 3 buttons to get to the TV guide instead of the previous 1.
– The Rogers guide can look 6 days into the future. Bell has 10 days of programming that is more accurate and more descriptive.
– The Rogers guide can only search for titles on that day. Bell can search the entire 10 days for title or actor.
– Bell does not have one button closed captioning, and you have to navigate through lots of menus to get there, which is annoying.
– The Bell remote does not properly label the zoom button (it is actually the enter button).
– The Bell remote has illuminated keys, the Rogers remote does not.
– The Rogers remote has a better layout with DVR functions on the bottom and number pad at the top. The Bell remote has the DVR functions at the top and the number pad on the bottom.
– Update (07/2011) A recent firmware update to the Bell boxes have changed the UI (for the worse) for all the features accessible via the ENTER key. It now costs many more keystrokes to change the zoom factor.
Channel Line Up
Similar channel line ups, with slightly different mix of HD channels. Rogers has lots of aliased channels, each channel appearing several times as different channel numbers in the guide, Bell has a more sensible set up. One noticeable absence, Bell does not carry CNBC. Update (11/2010): Bell now carries CNBC in its Learning and News theme pack.
Update (08/2011): Space channel now in HD, yay!
Winner: Rogers Update (11/2010): Draw Update (07/2011): Bell now wins with the FibeTV lineup
– Lots of reliability problems with Rogers. It would sometimes not record things that I wanted to record, and it would erase recorded programs that I would not want erased. I have seen several times when I erase a program that several unrelated recorded programs get erased. Occasional service outages.
– Some incidents with Bell. Occasionally did not record programs that I wanted to record, but this seemed to happen in the first 3 weeks of service and hasn’t happened since. This is a newly deployed service so we can forgive them for working out the kinks. Update (11/2010): Has not happened since the first month of service
– Sometimes a series record on the Bell boxes will stop working. You can actually tell when this is about to happen when you look at your future scheduled recordings and your usual series don’t show up. The only thing you can do is delete the series and then set up a new series record. I suspect this can happen after a firmware update, but it’s hard to make that correlation because the box does not announce when a firmware update has happened. Update (11/2010): Has not happened since the first few months of service.
– There was one incident where the power cord to the Bell internet gateway became unplugged and caused a TV outage. Programs that recorded during that outage were blank and could not be erased (thus auto erasing of non-critical programs when the drive got full, stopped working and just halted recording instead). Eventually I figured out that I had to do a hard boot of the cable boxes before I could erase them.
– The 5.1 audio over HDMI on the Bell boxes does not work (it works for a few minutes and then drops audio). It does work over SPDIF and requires some inconvenient rewiring every time I want to watch a bluray. This did work with the Rogers cable box.
– When fast forwarding with Bell, every once in a while it will just halt on a black screen. Press play and the fast forward again to get things moving again. A minor annoyance. Update (8/2010): This problems appears to have vanished with more recent firmware
– The zoom feature (for zooming letterboxed content) on the Bell boxes have chroma flickering. The more zoom, the more flickering. Use your TV’s aspect feature to zoom instead, unless you are using closed captions, where you have to use the cable box zoom. The SW is probably doing something dumb, like scaling before deinterlacing on the chroma. Update: a recent firmware update now makes the zoom feature not work at all. If you try to use it, the cable box will crash and reboot. Update (8/2010): The hang is gone and the flickering is back to the way it was before. Update (01/2012): This bug now appears to be fixed with firmware 2.1.
– Update (8/2010): Every few weeks, at around 1 am, the Bell gateway decides to refresh its IP address. Ordinarily this would not be much of an issue, except that it takes about a half an hour to get a new IP (it should take seconds). During this time, you have no TV, no internet, and no phone. I have not seen an occurance of this in the past 3 weeks, so hopefully they have corrected the issue. Update (11/2010): They appear to have ceased the IP refresh, and you will keep the same IP address until you reboot your Cellpipe gateway.
– Update (11/2010): There was one instance when the Bell TV servers went down for about a day. Internet and phone were still working. The channels came up one by one as they rebooted their servers. Later Bell sent a letter profusely apologizing, which is more than Rogers ever did with their outages.
– Low bitrate on Rogers HD. Lots of macroblocking and mosquitoing as a result of trying to squeeze more channels onto that coax. Standard def programming has lots of noise, poor black levels. Lots of SD channels are still analog.
– Occasional packet drop on Bell which can lead to picture errors or a dropped frame. It is infrequent enough to not bother me that much.
– Standard def programs on Bell drops the frame rate every few minutes when displaying on a HD TV. Strangely, this does not happen when displaying to 480i. I have a theory that their inverse pulldown detection algorithm is producing too many false positives. Update (11/2010): This appear to happen less often, but has not entirely gone away
– When the Bell master box is recording a show, there are many frame drops and audio drops when playing back a recorded show on a slave box. There is plenty of network bandwidth, the master box may be running into hard drive seek time issues. Update (8/2010): The issue appears to have been resolved.
– Update (8/2010): On Bell, there is a brief lightning like effect when there is a fast moving object on the screen. For a long time I thought this was my eyes playing tricks on me, but it really is there and has always been there. It is momentary, and when I pause it, it is not there in the still frame. Speculation: perhaps they are trying to overdrive the display when my TV is already overdriving? Overdrive is a technique to get fast response times from LCD displays where they overbright or overdark pixels of the current frame based on the previous frame to try to get the LCD crystals to move faster. If you do it twice, then you will see white or black lightning on the fast changing parts of the screen. Update (11/2010) I believe I know the cause of this. First a bit of background story. In the early days of NTSC, there was a need to distinguish analog sync signals from a black pixel on the screen, so a DC offset was added to the entire image part of the signal, called the pedestal. This is the reason that blacks on old analog TV sets are really a dark gray and not really black. When digital video came around, a standard emerged (CCIR-601) for the digital representation of the YUV NTSC signal, which had an 8 bit luma but only utilized the range from 16 to 235 instead of 0 to 255 (a similar range of 16 to 240 was conferred upon the chroma components). The reason for this limited range was the capability of encoding the sync signals as well as the image pixels, and also for providing a buffer zone for any underflow or overflow when digitally manipulating the pixels. The formal definition of the values between zero and 16 is black, and from 235 to 255 is white, however in practice many implementations consider zero to be black and 255 to be white, and other values outside the legal range are grays as what you would expect them to be. TV’s tend to adhere to the formal rule, and computer monitors tend to not, and modern monitors which can do both may or may not adhere. With the advent of HDTV they used a colour space standard known as Rec 709, but they forgot that they don’t need these buffer zones any more with a digital interconnect and the limited ranges remain. [Sidebar: a standard known as xv color uses the full range and has an bigger gamut, but both the source capture and display device have to support the standard for the benefits to be realized]. Since dynamic range is an inherent weakness of digital video systems, Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided to use the full range of 0 to 255, even with the standard limited range sources (this is something I noticed with the Bell boxes right away but gave it no heed, and Microsoft also does this with MediaCenter). Since the source still has limited range, the actual effect is to just boost the contrast and saturation, and doesn’t actually expand the dynamic range (there some benefits if you do additional colour processing though). Couple the non-compliant signal with my Sony TV’s motion enhancer (a form of frame rate conversion), which somewhere in its math clips to 16 and 235, and you get the lightning. Since there is no way to turn off the expanded colour range on the Bell boxes, the only solution is to disable the motion enhancer.
Cost per channel is cheaper on Bell. Cost per cable box is also cheaper. The half price promotion through the rest of 2010 makes it even better.
Overall winner: Bell. The wired expansion of my home network, the radically superior user interface, and the better HD quality makes Bell IPTV an easy pick over Rogers, but there is still lots of room for improvement. The things that annoy me the most about Bell are the 5.1 over HDMI bug, the zoom bug, the SD frame rate bug, lack of one touch closed captioning,
and no CNBC. Feature suggestions for future firmware is to play media from the USB port, or slingbox-like features where I can stream directly from my DVR to my remote PC when I am travelling. I would also love to be able to transfer recorded shows to my desktop PC (like I can with my ReplayTV), but I know there are legal issues with that.