Stanching the Flow

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BitDepth#988 for May 12, 2015

Flow’s new online schedule is comprehensive but difficult to read on standard definition screens, where the tiny text proves difficult to read.
Flow’s new online schedule is comprehensive but difficult to read on standard definition screens, where the tiny text proves difficult to read.

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A couple of months ago, Flow kindly switched me to their new Advanced Video Services, a suite of IP based technologies designed to launch the company’s cable TV offerings fully into the 21st century, giving me a month to test the service before asking me to choose my package.

I chose the Basic package, the second tier of their four tiers of services at a cost of $275 per month. Prices range from $180 for their 44 channel starter package to a premium package ($479) with the sports and entertainment choices that would meet the needs of most households.

I’ll admit to having a bit of a unique situation here, though I suspect every home has their viewing quirks. The management is upset at not being able to access Bloomberg without paying $84.

The wee tyrant would probably enjoy the Family Time package, adding $30 to the monthly bill.

I watch local news on cable on the second box in my home office and the one time I tried the “Play from Beginning” function of the new system on a local news show, it simply didn’t work.

This is also an adamantly standard definition household, and upgrades to the viewing experience aren’t currently scheduled.

That’s been another part of the experience. If your signal isn’t leaving Flow’s new set-top box via its HDMI port, you’re going to catch hell trying to work with the new menus and channel selection system, which is not optimized for lower resolution screens.

Activist Colin Robinson contacted me soon after switching to share his experiences, which closely track my own.

“As a subscriber to Flow’s HDTV and old disc-based PVR, I’m deeply disappointed I switched,” he explains.

“A single button no longer turns on TV and cable box, and you can’t just rewind a show in progress—that’s now a six keystroke affair; installation took two visits, and I still have signal strength and guide issues.”

“The biggest hit was my 87-year-old mother stopped watching TV on her own: she just couldn’t use the all-black, small-button remote and on-screen menus, every channel number she had memorised had changed, and scrolling favourites is no longer a one-button affair.”

Robinson documented his experiences in more detail here.

In contrast, lecturer and computing expert Simon Fraser thoroughly enjoys the new service.

In an online conversation about his experiences, he gave his mother’s experience with the service a C rating and his own a “high B.” Flow’s customer service won a D minus.

“Picture quality is quite good in both locations, and the number of HD channels is decent,” Fraser explained, “price is also pretty good.” 

“The box suffers from some UI Problems when compared with my old set-top box but that’s partly me getting accustomed to a new system. I also think that the deficiencies could be remedied by a firmware upgrade.”

“This digital service is probably very sensitive to line quality,” he explained after I described by issues with the service.

Those problems include service dropouts lasting hours that initially defied resets of both the SIM card in the box, and customer support probing of the system.

Eventually, service returns after such episodes, but continuously restarting the box and even unplugging it feels more like 1990’s computing than 21st century cable service.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve actually stopped bothering to understand the service. I run my signal into a device that allows my server to act as a DVR, and I’ve been exploring the quality of current over-the-air (OTA) signals using modern flat reception digital antennae which can be as cheap as US$10 and look far more hip than rabbit ears.

I’m going to have to mount the antenna outside the old, thick concrete walls here, but I’m getting really good signal from CNC3, fair reception of the Parliament channel and have to cross my fingers about the flaky signals from CTV and TV6.

I’m going to return the Flow box connected to my home office, and the one in the living room is on the firing line. Behind the trigger is a Roku.