iOS & Mac reviews

Vdio review: Rdio’s new video-on-demand service

Vdio is a new video streaming service from Rdio, currently in beta. Last month Rdio invited their premium subscribers in the UK and USA to try it out, offering a £20 (or $25) credit to kick the tyres, and as a happy Rdio user I was interested enough to give it a go. Plus, who could turn down £20 worth of new release rentals for free?

Given that a lot of the work I do is for the TV and movie industries, I watch surprisingly little TV and hardly ever go to the cinema. This latter decision is largely down to two things: quality and price. Instead, my wife and I rent new release movies from iTunes via our Apple TV and watch them on our widescreen telly in the comfort of our lounge. It’s vastly cheaper (generally £4.49 for us both to watch a new release at home as opposed to about £20 to see it at the cinema), with no annoying chatters/rustlers/texters, no need to leave the house, and all the mid-movie snacks and refreshments we like, including the all-important stash of cold Brewdogs.

Yes, some films are better experienced at the cinema with the bigger screen, the sound, and the ooohs and aaaahs of a rapt audience, but we find those movies are few and far between and even then it really takes something special to make it worth the 400% higher price, the annoyance that comes with mixing with the general public, and the trek to the cinema; your mileage may vary, obviously, but we like to watch at home.

Enter Vdio

Despite the affiliation, Vdio isn’t ‘Rdio for film and TV’. Where Rdio takes a flat monthly rate and lets you stream and cache as much music as your ears can listen to, Vdio is really just like iTunes, only offering purchases and short-term rentals.

This is probably a licensing thing; studios are not going to let the general public mass-stream as many new releases as they like for a flat rate paid to a third party. That’s why Netflix only really deals in older shows and movies, where the licensing is a lot less restrictive (although they can still lose thousands of films and shows at a time when their license agreements with the studios end).

So in a world where I’m happy with iTunes rentals, Vdio has to go some to get me interested and fumbles the ball by only offering streaming; you can’t download and keep your purchases, or cache them locally Rdio-style (although they say this latter feature is in development). I’m not going to purchase a digital video I can’t download and keep forever, so it’s the first black mark.

What’s it like to use?

Despite the streaming limitations I can’t turn down £20 of free rentals and so this weekend we decided to try out the service to watch Jack Reacher. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the movie is like because we couldn’t watch it the way we wanted to, via Airplay on out TV, which may or may not be a problem with Vdio or with my ATV – the Vdio support team immediately blamed the ATV, which I’m not sure is actually the issue.

It’s not all bad, though. Here’s what our experience of using Vdio from a iPad was like:

Firstly, browsing and purchasing has to be done in a web browser, with viewing taken care of by a Vdio app. The reason for this is that if Vdio made purchases available within their app then Apple would want 30% of the price. To get around this the transaction has to be done in the browser, with the added wrinkle that the Vdio app can make no mention of that or else Apple gets sniffy again. Indeed, the app just shows a Purchases screen and Sign Out button.

It’s not ideal but it’s not Vdio’s fault – to give just one high-profile example, the same limitations affect Amazon’s Kindle app which no longer offers a link to the Kindle store for the same reason.

As a side note, it’s curious that their Rdio app does offer to sell you either of the two Rdio subscription models available, but if you make the mistake of signing up within the Rdio app you’ll pay about 30% more than buying the exact same subscription from the Rdio website because they hiked the in-app price to cover Apple’s 30% cut. That’s bloody cheeky, in my opinion, and unfair on customers who would rightly assume that buying a subscription should cost exactly the same no matter where it’s purchased from.

I was pretty sure that Apple specifically banned this practice precisely because it lets users down. Perhaps they relaxed the rules on it. Either way, if you’re considering an Rdio sub you should be aware of that and sign up from the Rdio website and not the app. If you’re wanting to purchase Vdio stuff, you’ll need to head to their website.

Browsing and purchasing

Vdio’s website itself is a sleek black and yellow design with sections for Movies, TV, Favourites and your purchases. There’s also a social aspect carried over from Rdio in which you can see what your Rdio friends are watching. Personally I don’t use these sorts of social features but they’re there if you want them.

There’s been a lot said of Vdio’s sharing policies as published in their Terms and Conditions, that almost all of us sign up for without reading these days. Essentially they reserve the right to publish your viewing history publicly unless you turn that off immediately, so go looking for that control first if that bothers you.

The one criticism I have of the site from a usability point of view is that it’s not clear if a movie is available for rent, purchase, or both, and neither is it clear what the price is; both are revealed when you click the button marked ‘Watch’. This seems pretty counter-intuitive in the world of one-click-purchasing ("If I click ‘Watch’ won’t it take the money from my account?") and wastes clicks as you have to first tap on the film to see the description (including a trailer if available) then tap on ‘Watch’ to see the price, then tap a third time to make a purchase. Compare this to iTunes where one tap displays the description and price on one screen, and the second makes the purchase.

Their FAQ explains where to find the prices; my argument would be that if you have to explain where to find them, they’re in the wrong place.

Purchase or rental made, now you hop back to the app to watch it. All this works just fine with purchases showing up immediately. However, when we then tried to stream the video via AirPlay to our Apple TV 2, problems arose.

AirPlay problems

The stream attempted to start, the iPad screen displaying ‘streaming over Airplay’ and the TV screen showing the usual Loading spinner, but failed immediately, returning us to the ATV menu screens. We tried with an iPad mini and an iPad 3 and both failed. I restarted all the devices and tried again, and also tried the next day in the hope that perhaps the problem solved itself, but to no avail.

A quick check of other iOS apps that stream video via AirPlay (for example, Google’s YouTube app) revealed that this problem seemed unique to the Vdio app.

Perhaps it’s because I am running a jailbreak on my ATV in order to use Firecore’s ATV Flash Black software. The version of iOS it’s running isn’t the latest but it’s recent enough to support Airplay and mirroring, so it would be unfortunate indeed that Vdio is the only app that doesn’t support Airplay to jailbroken ATVs.

In the end we attempted to watch Mr Jack Reacher doing his thang by running the movie on the iPad and mirroring the screen to the ATV over Airplay. However, due to way mirroring works we ended up with a pretty huge black border all the way around the video, making it appear we were watching it on a tiny 19" LCD as opposed to the 37" screen it actually is, and after half a hour of struggling to enjoy this experience we gave up.

A couple of days later I tried streaming a ‘Preview’ and that worked fine, as it has done before. Perhaps there was just an issue with that movie, but Vdio say if anything it’s Apple’s device so it’s Apple’s problem.

Nitpicking: splash-screens and previews

On a very nit-picky note, the splash-screen that greets you while the app starts up looks alarmingly like your iPad screen has been sloshed with liquid, damaging the LCD and causing weird discolouration; I speak from experience of having done exactly this and so the first time I fired it up it gave me a good twenty seconds of panic while I double checked my screen in other apps.

I know, it’s not the end of the world, but remember when Apple used a time-lapse image of a night sky as the wallpaper for the very first iPad and the star-trails looked like scratches on the screen to the uninitiated? Well, it’s like that; it’ll probably only bother you the first (couple of) times you launch the app, but it’s a curious choice.

Secondly, those ‘Previews’ aren’t trailers; they’re usually the first few minutes of the film, credits and all, which aren’t that helpful for deciding if you want to watch something. Mind you, trailers aren’t that reliable either but I’d prefer to see them. I wonder if it’s another licensing issue?

Pricing and quality

I compared a bunch of their movie and TV prices against those offered by iTunes and the short story is that they’re practically identical across new and old releases. Apple undercuts Vdio more often than Vdio undercuts Apple, but it all balances out in the long run. There are outliers, though; for example, Argo is £4 more expensive to buy from Apple so if you have access to both services it pays to check, assuming you don’t mind the lack of Vdio downloads.

Vdio skirts around making promises about video quality by offering just one set of rates and stating only that they provide the "highest definition" that they can, whereas Apple usually offers both SD and HD qualities and rates.

In practice, our iPad stream of Jack Reacher wavered between apparently high definition and soft-as-old-boots definition; this happens with iTunes streams as well, to be fair, and is just a side-effect of internet video streaming. If your connection is fast and solid, you’ll be fine.

The big problem Vdio has in comparison to competitors like iTunes and Amazon, as I mentioned before, is that Vdio doesn’t offer permanent downloads of your purchases, nor offline cacheing of rentals – if you’re not online, you can’t watch anything. iTunes also offers downloadable ‘extra features’ on an increasing number of titles, which Vdio lacks.

Cacheing for offline play in particular is something Rdio excels at. They say this feature may be coming in the future and as the service is still in beta that’s a perfectly tolerable delay, but if it remains impossible to download and permanently keep your own copies of purchased films or TV series that would be a deal-breaker.

In summary

By replicating the iTunes video business model but not their feature-set Vdio as it currently stands is a bit of a disappointment, especially given the problems I encountered streaming via Airplay and then troubleshooting the problem on their forum. I think it’s a good tactical move for Rdio to get in on the digital video market now while it’s building pace with consumers, but on the basis of this offering there’s a lot of development to be done before it can compete with the other big names like iTunes and Amazon.

At best it’s a great option to compare rental prices against the competition, or if you have a pathological aversion to giving money to Apple/Amazon, but I’ll never be able to recommend purchasing digital movies from a company that won’t (or can’t) let you keep your own offline copy.

ExcludeTop7 iOS & Mac how-tos

Adventures in Apple TV streaming: switching from XBMC to Firecore’s ATV Flash

I’ve got an AppleTV 2. I like bouncing video from my iPad 1 to the telly via AirPlay but other than that it’s largely useless because I don’t buy video from iTunes and I don’t convert the video I do own to the format that iTunes and all dependant Apple devices recognise, because life’s too short. Instead, I jailbroke the box when I got it and installed XBMC. This worked really well until I upgraded to Lion which broke streaming due to Apple changing how Lion handled SMB sharing.

After much hair-pulling and XBMC-forum-surfing I found workarounds and posted about them (here and here). I stuck with using Playback to get my media available on the network, but I missed the lack of cover-art and metadata (which Playback doesn’t support). And then eventually my XBMC install became quite unusable after something, somewhere, stopped it from reliably connecting to anything at all. After all the jiggery pokery trying to get streaming working again I had no idea what I’d done and I gave up.

I switched back to streaming to my Xbox 360 via Playback even though: the 360 sounds like a jet engine taking off; it drinks electricity like water on a hot day; and it doesn’t show metadata or cover-art (whether you’re using Playback or not). It just streams the video, but that’s all I wanted at this point.


Yesterday I had the house to myself and I decided to start over.

According to the AppleTV menus I was running OS 4.1.1, a comparatively archaic version. You may have noticed that for some reason Apple’s naming conventions for their iDevice versions of iOS and their ATV versions of iOS do not match, although for a brief time around iOS 4.3 they came in sync. I found a great post on Firecore’s forum that explained it. The current version of that post is reproduced below for ease of reference:

Firecore forum post explaining iOS naming conventions for ATV2 vs iDevices

It turns out that the ATV2 OS version 4.3 is the most recent version that supports untethered jail breaking, and that version also adds Airplay support for many 3rd party apps, not just Apple’s (try it with AirVideo from your iPad – just awesome). There is currently a tethered jailbreak for 4.4 (which is the equivalent of iOS 5.0.1 for iDevices) but trust me, you’d be better sticking to untethered if you value a quiet life.

UPDATE: When I performed the jailbreak only the 4.3 version supported untethered, but the latest Seas0npass includes an untethered jailbreak for 4.4. The major differences are AirPlay Mirroring from the iPad 2 but seeing as I only have an iPad 1 I am sticking with my 4.3 jailbreak for now.

I downloaded Seas0nPass from Firecore’s website, performed the jailbreak to 4.3 and all went well. I reinstalled XBMC Version 11 (Eden) which adds greater stability and also a new, easy-to-do streaming solution called AFP that supposedly works well with Lion. Well, it didn’t work out for me.

Although XBMC showed me an AFP connection to my networked computers, and although I’d turned AFP on and set up the folders I wanted to share, XBMC wasn’t seeing any shares. I appreciate it’s a work in progress and that maybe I missed something, but after trying all the other usual methods and coming up with a whole bunch of not-much just like last time (some folders shared, others didn’t, don’t know why, can’t be bothered to work it out any more), I decided that XBMC is still far too flakey to get stressed over and started looking at Firecore’s ATV Flash solution.

(For clarity – my Playback shares still worked but it doesn’t send any metadata like cover-art and that’s the main reason I like XBMC; ATV Flash does use metadata, so it won my favour.)

It’s a $30 bit of software that gets installed onto the ATV at the click of a button (unlike XBMC which requires installing either it or NitoTV via the Terminal, which can be a bit fiddly). The main difference between it and XBMC is that ATV Flash sets up shop in the AppleTV’s existing dashboard, maintaining the Apple-y feel; interactions all use the existing Apple UI. It’s pretty cool.

I’d had a look at ATV Flash before, when it was in beta, and had been suspicious of paying for software that does something that XBMC does with greater customisability for free. However, I was at the end of my tether with the implications of ‘free’ for now, and Firecore promised that setting up shared media would be as simple as making sure File Sharing was turned on in my Mac’s settings.

It worked seamlessly.

I appreciate there are people complaining in their forums that it doesn’t do this, doesn’t do that, glitches with streaming, etc, but the same is true throughout computing – some people’s setups will play nice and others won’t. My experience so far has been flawless, touch wood. We streamed a movie over wifi from my iMac to the ATV and it was smooth and uninterrupted (the movie itself, Insidious, was fun but kinda stoopid). It has a couple of areas I’d like to see improved, such as the ability to scrape for movie metadata based on a folder name rather than a media-file (because all my movies reside in their own named folder within a Movies folder) but apparently features like that are coming, and updates do seem to be quite regular.

So: it didn’t crash, it was ridiculously easy to add my computer’s shared folders, and it all feels like it’s part of the same Apple experience.

You do have to buy before you try, but they have a 15-day money back guarantee. I can’t tell you how well that works because I won’t be needing it. For $30, I’ve hopefully found my final ATV2 streaming solution.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.

ExcludeTop7 How-Tos iOS & Mac how-tos

Another way to stream to XBMC on an ATV2 from a Lion Mac

A couple of days ago I wrote about how to set up your Lion Mac to stream media to XBMC on your jailbroken AppleTV 2, since Lion changed the way SMB worked and hence broke SMB streaming. It involved a great wee application called Playback, which streams to a whole bunch of devices including XBMC installations. It avoids having to get your hands dirty in Terminal, but requires a £10 license (a small and well-deserved price to pay).

I’ve had an eye on the usual forums and spotted another method of doing the same thing which also has the advantage of being free and of being able to take advantage of your meticulously organised fanart, posters and .nfo files, something I don’t think Playback does (if it does, please let me know how in the comments).

This alternative uses WebDAV and an application called MediaMaster Server, which is free on the Mac App Store – and seeing as this post is really just for Lion users, that shouldn’t be any barrier to entry. I believe the app is actually meant as a free complement to a paid iPad app for streaming media to your iPad, but it also happens to work nicely with XBMC.

Here’s how you set it up:

1) Download the application and launch it.

2) Click ‘Select root directory’ and navigate to the folder that contains your various media folders. For example, all my various types of media have their own folders, and all of those reside in my ‘Media’ folder on my external drive. That is the folder I’ve used as my root directory.

3) In the settings tab, give yourself a username and password, and click on ‘Secure HTTP’ if you want a secure setup. I left the port as the default.

4) Click the master switch on the left to ON.

5) In XBMC go to setup a new share and navigate to the option that lets you fill in WebDAV (HTTPS) settings.

6) The network address is the local IP address of the computer that’s running MediaMaster Server – for example, (don’t copy that, it’s just an example! Find your own IP address in the Mac’s System Preferences under Network)

7) The port, username and password is whatever you selected in step 3

8) With these details filled in, save it as a source and select it for use. It should detect the various folders within your shared root directory and ask which one you want to use. From here on just set up your folders as unique sources such as TV, Movies, etc.

One thing I’ve noticed with my setup, and it may well be to do with me having a recent nightly build of XBMC as opposed to the approved version, is that scraping is painfully slow. It only needs to do it once, of course, but if it’s taking it’s sweet time you could wait until bedtime before setting it running and in the meantime just access your files through the Videos>Files route in XBMC.

So if you’re having Lion/SMB/XBMC/ATV2 woes you now have two options for getting your media centre up and running again! Good luck and thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.

ExcludeTop7 How-Tos iOS & Mac how-tos

How to stream to XBMC on an Apple TV 2 from a Lion Mac using Playback

Note: before we start, if you’re not already using XBMC to stream to your AppleTV, give my article about Firecore’s ATV Flash a read first – it’s a little easier to set up than XBMC and may solve all your problems.

I’ve been using a jailbreaked (is that a word? should it be jailbroken?) AppleTV 2 and XBMC to stream media from my Snow Leopard Mac for about a year now. It’s awesome.

And then Lion came along and broke it.

Like many people, I was using the SMB method to get media to the XBMC installation, but Lion apparently uses a new, Apple-made variant of the SMB protocols which the XBMC and/or the ATV2 doesn’t like. Now, there are ways around this by switching to NFS for example but I have had no end of hassle getting NFS to work properly despite a lot of input from friendly folks like memphiz at the XBMC for iOS forums. I presume I’m doing something wrong, but it’s beyond the scope of my technophilia right now and in the meantime I need a way to watch my media.

Enter Playback by Yazsoft. It streams all your stuff to a variety of devices, such as PS3, XBOX 360, even XBMC and Plex installations, through UPnP. There’s other software that does similar things, such as Connect360 and Rivet, but Rivet doesn’t work on Lion and besides, it just got end-of-life’d (thanks for nothing, guys!) while Connect360 is kinda ugly on your 360 as it doesn’t respect your folder structure and dumps the entire contents of every folder into one long list. Yuck.

Playback, on the other hand, is Lion compatible and when I read it supported XBMC, that’s all I needed to know.

UPDATE: I should have added in the original review that there is one drawback to Playback – it doesn’t support metadata or artwork. That’s half the joy of XBMC, I know, but at the point I wrote this it was media only or nothing at all. In the latest Dharma version of XBMC for ATV2 they’re trying a new method for connecting to your Lion machines but it wasn’t playing nice with my setup for some reason; you may still find Playback useful.

So, if you’re on Lion, using XBMC on your AppleTV 2, and need a simple solution to fix the streaming, try this:

1) Download the Playback demo
2) Set up the preferences so that it’s got access to your media folders
3) Go to your XBMC app on your ATV2
4) Go to Videos and set up a new share
5) Click Browse
6) Select UPnP Devices
7) When the Playback installation for your computer appears, select it (in my case it was SithLord Playback)
8) Select the folder you want to use as a source (in my case I have a Films folder and a TV folder – you can only do one at a time so pick one for now)
9) Give it a name within XBMC
10) Save it

If you have multiple folders you want to share, repeat steps 4 to 10.

Now check it works. I haven’t found a way to make it appear in the TV or the Movies menus that XBMC displays as default, but everything is findable via the Videos menu, no problem.

Once you’ve got it working and you’re happy with it, head back over to Playback and buy a license, which is £10. Until then it limits your streaming to 30 minutes at a time and 2 videos per day.

Now, full disclosure, I’m hoping to get a free license for writing this blog about the app (see here), but I didn’t let that sway my opinion of Playback. This morning it has proved to be a painless way of getting ATV2 XBMC streaming working from my Lion iMac, and has the added bonus of working on my 360 as well, just in case I temporarily brick my ATV2 with further tinkering in the future (it’s happened before!).

So I hope this helps anyone that’s having trouble with their ATV2/XBMC since updating to Lion. Ideally I’d like to get my NFS shares working at some point but in the short term Playback has most definitely been a head-ache free alternative – with that caveat that artwork and metadata don’t show up.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.