If I asked you what’s the first thing that comes to mind about the history of television, you’d most probably bring up names like John Logie Baird, or Marconi. Or perhaps give a detailed description of a post-war family huddled around a box the size of a modern-day London apartment watching Ajax commercials and Blue Peter. You may be of a younger age group and perhaps recall a time when you ‘had to get up to switch the channels’, or ‘the remote control was actually connected by a cord’, or that a television cost a decades wages.
What may not come to the forefront of your mind is the fact that Japan joined the world of broadcasting in 1950, making it one of the first countries in the world with a full, yet experimental, television service. In 1979 Japan was at the forefront again, with NHK launching the world’s first consumer HDTV television service. By 1981, Sony was developing HD video cameras, and by April 1984 had consumer products available in shops nationwide.
Sony. Inventors of Betamax. The Walkman. MiniDisc. Hi-MD. SDDS. 3.5″ Floppy Disks. Blu Ray. This shortlist alone makes for quite a staggering portfolio. So how did a company with such an illustrious technological history make such a catastrophic mess of things with their venture in to IPTV (Internet Protocol television)? Let’s find out with a real first-hand look at PlayStation Vue from someone who actually used the service. Me.
Cutting The Cord
PlayStation Vue marks Sony’s first venture in to the world of IPTV. Perhaps seen as an unexpected foray for a brand more focused on video games. Industry rivals Microsoft launched their XBOX One console in 2013 with an idea of it being the one set top box you will need under your television. Broadcast services inclusive. It launched with mixed reactions to it being an all-in-one system, but given Microsoft showed their road map cards, and that IPTV has rocketed in popularity in the last five years, it’s entirely reasonable to presume Sony did not want to be left behind. Rather than settle for making their existing and future hardware a gateway to such services, it appears they’ve decided to go all in with the launch of PlayStation Vue.
In an attempt to get cable and satellite television customers to switch over to IPTV, or, ‘cut the cord’, Sony struck a number of deals with big name content providers to furnish a very attractive set of channel packs at (somewhat) reasonable prices. The service launched in 2015, solely in the USA, to residents in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco. It was later launched nationwide in March 2016. However, launch cities aside, live broadcasts across the ABC, FOX and NBC networks remain unavailable to subscribers and as VOD (Video On Demand) content only. At the time of writing this still applies.
A 7 day trial is available to new customers. Pre-requisites being you must have a US PSN ID and, more importantly, a US address and billing method. PlayStation Vue is not available outside the USA.
I’m not a full-time resident of the USA. However I did manage to sign up for the PlayStation Vue service (albeit a bit of VPN-related fiddling was required). The sign up process is slightly more complex as legitimate bank and billing information is required, and will need to be authenticated prior to your being offered a free PlayStation Vue trial. It is at this stage that, for full transparency, I would like to declare that I provided no false information for the duration of my free trial. I do not under any circumstances condone fraud. Granted, the Vue service is only available within the United States, however I wanted to sign up for the intents and purposes of discovering what Sony’s new service was all about and to share my experience with other ‘outsiders’.
From outside, the content on offer from the PlayStation Vue service is streets ahead of anything else currently available via the same medium. Sony have put together a service that provides an incredible amount of content in terms of the number of channels available, though at the time of writing it is currently not that far ahead of its nearest rival, Sling (operated by the Dish Network) in a straight side by side comparison. Where PlayStation Vue genuinely excels is in the On Demand arena. Both PlayStation Vue and its rivals offer VOD (Video On Demand) and catch up in varied quantities. However, the ace up Sony’s sleeve is their cloud-based DVR service. It basically means that for all intents and purposes PlayStation Vue has been designed to function exactly like the traditional cable and satellite services we are all familiar with. You may remember Sony tried something not too dissimilar in the past with their Japan-only release of the Sony PlayStation PSX console. Essentially the PSX was a PlayStation 2 console with a built in tuner and DVR service. It flopped fantastically, but in my opinion, this is where the foundations for PlayStation Vue had first been set.
The main Vue service application is available on the current crop of PlayStation consoles; Google’s Chromecast as well as Roku and Amazon Fire TV set top boxes. Accessing the PlayStation Vue service should be straightforward. Except Sony have felt the need to require you to sign up and activate your PlayStation Vue subscription via a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 console, or an Amazon Fire TV device only. No exceptions. Don’t have either of those? You can authenticate your credentials with individual service provider applications, such as the Fox Soccer 2 Go app. Though this only authenticates your account to use that particular application to view content, it does not authenticate your account against the official PlayStation Vue app. Yes, this really is as foolish as it sounds and the first, massive flaw in the PlayStation Vue project.
The Vue From Outside
Should you not be so exhausted as to be unable to continue after navigating all of those hurdles, you, the hero/heroine of this new IPTV adventure, are airdropped in to the next battle arena, armed with just your TV remote (or Android app) and your PlayStation Vue subscription. Next you must duel the multi-headed hydra that is Geo Locking. This issue in particular is awash like a contagious rash, all over the official support forums, social media and the industry press. Unlike Netflix who recently made it very clear they are employing techniques to (successfully might I add) block VPN and DNS IP ranges. Sony have decided to take the matter a step further by imposing very crippling restrictions.
Sony appear to be (although this is unconfirmed) employing similar techniques to Netflix in the VPN and DNS blocking departments. However they have also taken it upon themselves to restrict access to the PlayStation Vue service from outside the home. Customers cannot even stream to multiple devices at the same time, even from the same location! You can register and activate up to 5 devices, sure. Try to access 2 or more devices at the same time though and you’ll find your account locked out and a polite message from Sony instructing you to call their customer service number in order to unlock your account.
Fine, we all make mistakes. But what if it happens again? Or if you launch a Vue-activated device by accident? Well, Sony have decided you are allowed only one account unlock every three months. The mind boggles. It just beggars belief that someone pitched this idea at an internal meeting and it was given the green light.
It doesn’t end there. You may be abiding by the rules, using your account legitimately only to find one day your account is locked without your prior knowledge (this actually happened to me). Not only are multiple streams a no-no, but Sony appears to have taken the Netflix idea a stage further and tied hosts to specific IP addresses. In basic terms what this means is, pay attention to the zip code PlayStation Vue detects when you first sign up. That zip code is tied to the IP you registered with at that same time. If your ISP does not provide a static IP address and your IP changes too many times with a certain time period, or moves outside a zip code (which is entirely possible depending on your location etc) your account will be locked. Sony may even go so far as to deny an account unlock and simply terminate your account, keeping already collected funds from your chosen payment method. No refunds.
Sony’s explanation appears to be based off of regional programme licensing, partnership deals and so on. Perhaps there is a slight truth in that, especially considering the size of the country they are serving and existing ‘traditional’ regional deals that may already be in place. In my opinion, I think it’s more of a case of trying to rule the product less with an iron fist, but with a giant claw made of diamond and Kevlar. The whole idea of geo locking IP addresses to zip codes and triggering account locks from dynamic address updates is borderline masochistic. It also appears to be the number one complaint, head and shoulders above any other that Sony customer support is receiving right now. I’d like to imagine it’s something customers will see remedied in the near future, especially if the PlayStation Vue service is to survive and prosper. But this is Sony we are talking about. Draconian and in it to the death. The lyrics to the song Lock and Key by Rush feel somewhat appropriate here. It’s a very sad state of affairs, and it’s practices like this and those currently being employed by Netflix targeting legitimate, paying customers, that will stunt and stagnate the growth of a rapid, exciting and interesting future industry of content delivery. On the plus side, it is nice to see that Sling (at least at the time of writing) have not introduced such draconian measures.
Under Lock and Key
So you are finally off the phone to customer service for the fifty-seventh time, your account has been unlocked and you are watching PlayStation Vue on one device, at home and you’ve called your ISP to ask them not to reboot your modem and change your IP address at least until The Tonight Show is over. What now? What is PlayStation Vue actually like?
Not all that great if I’m being one hundred percent honest with you. For the purposes of this review, I signed up for a fully-loaded 7 day free trial. I used both an Amazon Fire TV 4K set top box as well as the Android app and a gen 1 Chromecast. My week was split 50/50 across the devices.
The Fire TV app, although significantly faster than the APK/Chromecast method, is a mess. The layout is awful. The TV Guide/Planner is a mess and it’s difficult to find anything you want to watch. The limitations of the Fire TV controller mean navigating menus, sub menus, channels, search everything was dogged, slow and laboured. On the positive side, channel switching was responsive and picture quality was superb, if a glitchy at times. One big advantage Sony likes to point out is that Vue bandwidth is unlimited so the displayed picture will be as good as your home connection will allow it to be. Initially I was very impressed, but when I compared it to Sling on the very same box, I actually found that in my experience, Sling was better. The actual bitrate I received from Sling was even proven to be better than that which I received from PlayStation Vue. No contest. The Fire TV experience as a whole was impressive for a few minutes but quickly became tiresome and a chore. By the mid-point of the trial I was looking forward to the Chromecast experience. It shows Sony have made a balls of the Fire TV app, as, if done correctly, the majority of Fire TV apps are intuitive, fluid and on the whole, just excellent. Massive flaw number 2 right there.
Cast No Shadow
PlayStation Vue made its appearance on the Android platform mere days ago (at the time of writing this article). You’d be forgiving for taking the app on board as some sort of on-the-go streaming device. Remember this is not the case. Open the app outside the home and you’ll be able to stream a video. Get home and you’ll find you’re picking up the phone and dialling customer support to get your account unlocked. The APK/Chromecast experience is a flawed, soggy, bug-infested mess. Sure, connecting your Android device with Chromecast is fine, quick and simple. But it’s the actual application itself that is genuinely appalling. It’s worse than Lee Enfield and The Tournament Of Death and that’s being generous.
The app is slow, laggy, crashes repeatedly and very often. When you do manage to get a stream going, the picture quality in general appears to be better than that of the Fire TV. Though tests later showed that the bitrate was essentially the same as that spat out by the Fire TV 4K set top box. Switching channels is lethargic nightmare, or a sloths dream fantasy. Pick your favourite. At times I found a channel would begin to play but then repeat short 2 or 3 second sequences at sporadic intervals. Even a hardware reset didn’t cure the problem. Sure enough reset the device or reboot your connection and within minutes you’ll be on the phone again to customer support pleading your case. Navigation and channel selection is streets ahead of the Fire TV for the obvious touch screen advantage an Android device yields. Yet for its strong advantage in this area, the app takes so long to load (and I can assure you it was not my Internet connection at fault here) that by the time you get around to finding the content you want, you’d have probably completed said task on the Fire TV box. That’s how laborious the Android app is. No joke.
All Good Things…
PlayStation Vue has serious potential. Sony has put together some tasty channel packages and does have that killer app up their sleeve, Cloud DVR. This accounts for nothing though when the service as a whole is so botched. Never mind ignoring the true customer IPTV dream, that of a truly a la carte service. At the present time I cannot see this vision in any of the service providers road maps while in its present mutation, IPTV brings home the bacon. For this dream to be realised the networks and content providers need to let go and offer their services up as individuals. Kind of in the way HBO has done with HBO Now and Showtime. But then you run the risk of a la carte services forcing the industry in the massive segregation, not to mention the likelihood of making the delivery of such services much more expensive compared to traditional services offered today.
To put it bluntly, PlayStation Vue feels like an unfinished project, poorly implemented and rushed to market in the hopes of capturing as much of the target audience as possible with an aim of rolling out much needed improvements further down the line. In my opinion the whole project feels like a case of poor judgement and poor execution from Sony. The PlayStation Vue service in its present form is negatively impacting and punishing customers. It’s tarnishing the Sony brand. It’s incomplete. It’s not worth your time or money.
TRANSPARENCY: I signed up for a free trial to PlayStation Vue entirely off of my own merit to bring this article to you. It is in no way sponsored or endorsed in any way by anyone. Additionally, this article is light on imagery as I do not wish to get in to trouble for capturing imagery of broadcasts, copyright material etc. Thank you.