Friday, June 26, 2015

Cable Modem Guide for TWC Maxx, and Why You Need to Stop Renting

(Post updated 8/15/2015 to add info on Amazon's trade-in program and point out that Maxx is live at my address.)
(Post updated 5/7/2016 to add info Arris SB6190 and to update pricing info)

You may not be aware, but Time Warner Cable got rid of their analog TV channels that were hogging huge amounts of network bandwidth (FINALLY!) and is bringing faster Internet speeds to Dallas with what they're branding "TWC Maxx."  Some areas already have it, and Lake Highlands is coming Real Soon Now™.

I've never paid for blazing fast speeds, and have been happily plugging along with their standard 15Mbps service since they upgraded their standard service from 10Mbps to 15Mbps.  In August (I'm told), my speed is going to jump to 50Mbps for the same price, and up to 300Mbps for those interested in paying for it .  The current top end is 100Mbps.  That's a significant jump.  The standard speed will be faster than AT&T offers with their VDSL2 "Uverse Max Turbo" service, which isn't even offered at my address.  At my address, the FASTEST service AT&T offers is a 18Mbps, so TWC is clearly the best option already, and it's about to get better.

We All Like Saving Money

So, that's great and wonderful, and now you know.  And that's not really why I decided to write this.  The real reason is to point out that if you're renting your cable modem, you're flushing money down the toilet, and probably have mediocre hardware to boot.  I know, I know, you really don't spend any time at all thinking about this little blinky box, right?


ARRIS Motorola SurfBoard SB6141 Cable Modem
Nobody really wants to think about this thing.


Maybe just a little thought is needed every 3-4 years, and this might be the time.  First off: you don't have to rent your cable modem.  Many people simply don't know that.  You can buy your own (there is an approved list of modems and an allowed list of modems) and call TWC and they will pair it with your account.

Several years ago I stopped renting.  The modem I bought supports speeds to 100Mbps, or 6.67 times what I'm currently using.  I think I was paying $6/month and calculated that it would take me a year to break even on my $70 purchase.  About a year later they raised the fee to $8/month.  Basically it's a fee that they have just been ratcheting up because people ignore it.  Yikes, this is a no-brainer, right?

Other Reasons NOT to Rent

OK, so money is the obvious reason you shouldn't rent, but there's more to it than that.

Channels, Channels, Channels

You may be thinking "If I rent from TWC, they'll always make sure my hardware is up to date."  In case you didn't notice, TWC is a cable company, and they are going to give you the minimum amount of service they think they can get away with to keep you as a customer.  As such, if your modem works, and you're not paying for a speed tier that requires it, you're not going to get upgraded unless you go out of your way to push their buttons.

"So what!?" you say.  Let's say you have a 2009 model, discontinued but still supported Motorola SB6120.  I'm not sure that TWC ever rented these out, but let's go with this.  This modem is DOCSIS 3.0, on the approved list, and they will provision it for speeds up to 50Mbps.  Unless you pay for >50Mbps, they aren't likely to offer you an upgrade.  Why would they when you will happily keep paying them $8 a month?  The problem is, this ancient modem is an early DOCSIS 3.0 4 channel modem.

The reason this is bad is that fewer channels means a higher probability of one your neighbors' traffic clogging the series of tubes, er channels, between you and your emergency kitten.  Basically, fewer channels means it's less likely that you will get your provisioned speed.  Additionally, you will possibly be limited in channel selection with all the much older devices sharing the same clogged up channels.  Sometimes life will be fine, others life will be bad, and you won't really know why.
The 2012 Arris (nee Motorola) SB6141 (the modem I bought 3 years ago) is an 8 channel modem:

SB6141 Cable Modem Status Page Showing 8 Channels
8 channels, bonded together on my SB6141

Not coincidentally, TWC will provision it up to 100Mbps.  The odds of having significant problems with channels being busy at 50Mbps or less with this modem are far, far lower than with a 4 channel modem.  Even if you are paying for minimum speeds, going to 8 channels will help deliver a better experience.  The newest modems that are required for the top tier speeds utilize 16 channels.

2 Devices are Better Than One

Another way people get suckered in is the "I have a modem AND router in one."  This makes me cringe.  First, your router is your gateway between you and the Internet at large.  Ideally it would be a "plug-it-in-and-forget-it"purchase, and that's unfortunately how we tend to treat it, but the reality is:
You really need to pay attention to your router.  If it's not being patched with new firmware, you need to replace it.  Is this something you really want to trust to your cable company?

Beyond that, the combo products include WiFi, which is another problem.  First, you may or may not really want your WiFi access point to be in the same location as your modem.  My modem is in a closet in the back of my house, and in a less than ideal location for WiFi.  Second, if you haven't realized it, WiFi (802.11) is changing relatively rapidly.  The current 802.11ac standard is more and more widely deployed.  Do you want to tie your WiFi, which you may want to upgrade every 2-3 years with your cable modem, which you can probably keep for the next 5-6 years if you do it right?  Also, do you really think TWC cares that much if you're stuck with an older 802.11n device?  At an extra $5/month beyond the modem fee?  Forever?

So What to Buy?

Now that you're (hopefully) convinced that renting is a Bad Idea™, the question remains: what to buy?  My focus for this is on TWC's Maxx rollout, but the advice is applicable to a numerous cable provider networks, and I've tried to link a few of their compatibility pages below:

Conservative: 8 Channels

If your plan is to stay in a 100Mbps or lower tier for the foreseeable future, the 2012 DOCSIS 3.0/ipv6 compliant, 8 channel Arris SB6141 remains a good option.  If you look around a little you can find a used or refurbished one cheap, and things should get better as people upgrading to the latest speed tiers sell their old modems.  Even new, an Arris SB6141 will pay for itself in less than a year compared to leasing.

High Speed: 16 Channels

If your plan is to take advantage of faster tiers, you have a little more of a dilemma.  The Arris SB6183 is a widely supported option that seems to be a safe bet.  It's about 50% more expensive than the Arris SB6141, and is a 16 channel modem that supports the 300 Mbps tier on TWC's Maxx, as well as similar tiers with the other ISP's.  It seems like a no-brainer, but it's not a completely "future proof" purchase, because...

Higher Speed? Better? Someday?  Maybe?: 32 Channels (added 5/7/2016)

Arris now has a 32 Arris SB6190 modem, which wasn't available when I originally wrote this article.  It's not on every cable company compatibility list, but if it's on yours, you might consider splurging ($150 today vs. $95 Arris SB6183) for doubling the channels.  TWC doesn't currently offer better speeds with the SB6190, and I'm told that they will only use 16 channels even if you have 32 available.  Will they someday?  Maybe?  It's hard to say, but you may get more consistent speeds if they were to enable spreading traffic over 32 channels instead of 16 and you wereon the top speed tier, but they don't, so I can't recommend spending the extra $55.  You may think it's worth it for some reason.

DOCSIS 3.1

In the world of technology there is always something else, and in cable modems it's the DOCSIS 3.1 standard.  DOCSIS 3.1 is going to support speeds more than 10X that of DOCSIS 3.0.  DOCSIS 3.1 is so new that there's really nothing you can go buy today.  Comcast has just started testing it in the field with plans for deployments in 2016, and it's really unclear to me when TWC or others will roll it out.

My guess is that by this time next year there will be a good DOCSIS 3.1 retail option, that it will be relatively expensive, and that most people won't have DOCSIS 3.1 on their cable networks.  That said, the modems will work with DOCSIS 3.0 networks, so you should start to see these modems making it onto compatibility lists so that you can make an informed decision on what to buy, and you could then buy one and be "future proof" for some time.  This same post a year from now would almost certainly say "Invest in a DOCSIS 3.1 modem and don't look back."

Conclusion

What would I do?  I'd probably grab the Arris SB6183 today and sell it when I had a DOCSIS 3.1 option.  That said, I wouldn't blame someone for searching out an Arris SB6141 and biding their time.  Maybe I'd contact the author and see if he wanted to sell his 6141 so that he could justify the upgrade to an Arris SB6183...

Update (8/18/15)

First off, I got my 50Mbps today, so it's rolled out in my part of 75238.  Second, I realized that I can trade in my SB6141 and for a $38 Amazon Gift Card, which eats up almost 1/3 of the cost of the SB6183.  That makes the upgrade cycle much easier once you get off the rental treadmill.


Products referenced in this post:


Amazon Fire TV Stick Part 3: Playing Games


If you're looking for information on playing games, particularly RetroArch, on your Fire TV, I created a new web site that includes the RetroArch guide as well as a lot of other stuff. I hope you like it. For the most current information go to:




www.gamingonfire.com






This is the thrilling conclusion to a series on the Amazon Fire TV Stick:
You may recall from my earlier Fire TV Stick posts that I purchased an Amazon Fire Game Controller. The controller has generally become our preferred remote, but that's not why I bought it. I bought it to test playing games on the Fire TV Stick.

One difference between the Fire TV Stick and the regular version of the Fire TV is the processor, with the Fire TV Stick having the weaker processor. Basically, a more powerful processor would take more power and put out more heat, and neither of those things lend themselves to a low power dongle running Android hidden on the back of your TV.

Because of the weaker processor, the number of Android games in Amazon's app store for the Stick compared to the full Fire TV is pretty small, and many of them are OK at best. Out of the box, right after the Fire TV Stick was released and while many developers hadn't had a chance to validate apps, the number of games was ridiculously low.  It has been growing a bit, but we’re really talking about tablet games and not much that is good.  Also, if you're a Kindle Freetime subscriber, you won't find any way to access your Kindle Freetime content from the Fire TV Stick, which is unfortunate.  My son and I have had a few play sessions of Terraria, with him playing on his Kindle Fire HDX 7 and me playing on the Fire TV Stick.  He had a hoot.  I was purely in it for the blog.  Really.

Luckily there is a more awesome reason to buy a controller: Emulators.

Our Fire TV Stick is installed in a TV that has several "classic" game consoles connected to it:
  • An original NES
  • A 3DO
  • An N64
  • A Wii
  • A Wii U
With the Fire TV Stick and the right emulators, you can do a lot more. I downloaded an all-in-one package called "RetroArch" which incorporates emulators for everything from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo 64, and just about every arcade game from your childhood that you can think of. The kicker, of course, is that it includes the emulators, but not the games themselves. You'll need ROM files extracted from your original game cartridges. Well, you might be able to acquire that Zaxxon ROM file through the magic of the Internet, but legal warning: you should only do this if you actually own the game, as I understand that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act actually gives the creators of software that hasn’t been available for sale for decades the right to execute you and all of your family if you should download an illegal copy.

Once you have a copy of RetroArch and the ROM’s for all those cartridges that you legally own but that maybe you lost/broke when you were 12, you’re going to have to figure out how to get everything onto the Fire TV Stick, a process called “sideloading.” With a tablet, you can just plug it into the USB port and copy files, but with the Fire TV Stick it’s a little trickier. You can use the Android debugging software to transfer the files over your network, or, if you have an Android device (including Kindle Fire tablets) you can transfer the files onto the tablet and use a piece of software called AGK Fire to transfer the files. I used AGK Fire.

Super Mario Brothers 2
I got Super Mario Brothers 2 for Christmas in 1988 because my parents loved me enough to actually hunt down both of the difficult to find games that year: first they bought the last copy of Zelda II in a Sears store (I know, right?), but it was actually stolen from a hotel room and they fought the madness again and luckily found a copy of Super Mario Brothers 2.

I can no longer find the cartridge, but I can play it on our Fire TV Stick.

One disappointing thing I’ve noticed, sideloaded apps don’t seem to play too nice in the Fire TV Stick’s menu system, and you have to go through the app settings menu to launch them, so you have to do a little more work to launch RetroArch than normal apps from Amazon’s app store.  Hopefully this will change, or I'll figure out how to manage it better, because doing it this way means unlocking the parental controls to access the app.  (UPDATE: as noted in my new Fire TV Gaming Guide, Fire OS 5.0.5 handles sideloaded apps much better).

Once in RetroArch, you’ll want to map the buttons on the Amazon Fire Game Controller to get the controls to work the way you want, but after that it’s 8 bit gaming nirvana. I’ve tried NES and Gameboy games so far with really good results. The D-pad on the Amazon Fire Game Controller isn’t as great as the one on the NES, so games like Ninja Gaiden went from harder than heck to impossible with the controller, but many games work really well. Also, games like Zelda require a second controller to save your game, and I haven’t tried to make a second controller work.  Now, you might point out that you can run these emulators on XXX hardware, and you'd probably be right.  That said, for the cost of the hardware, it's a great way to put a bunch of classing games on your fancy TV without cluttering your room.

Would I buy another Amazon Fire Game Controller? I'm not sure.  It probably would no longer be my first choice, as the Sony Playstation DualShock 4 Controller, while a bit more expensive, is a standard Bluetooth controller and supposedly also works well with the Fire TV Stick (only works with full Fire TV, not stick).  It's supposedly an awesome controller.  I plan to borrow one and test drive it, but assuming it works as others have said, that is probably the right direction to go at this point.

Products referenced in this post:
All posts on the Amazon Fire TV Stick:


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Amazon Fire TV Stick Part 2.1 Miracast Revisited


If you're looking for information on playing games, particularly RetroArch, on your Fire TV, I created a new web site that includes the RetroArch guide as well as a lot of other stuff. I hope you like it. For the most current information go to:




www.gamingonfire.com






This is a small update to the second post in a series on the Amazon Fire TV Stick:
In the second part of my Fire TV Stick review I said that since my 2013 Kindle Fire HD 7 didn't support Miracast.  Well, two things changed shortly after that post. First, the 2013 Kindle Fire HD 7 had been having a problem with its battery, shutting off before it reached 0% on its battery meter.  I opened a chat window with Amazon and they said they'd just send me a new one since it was still in warranty. Turns out that the exchange unit they sent me is a brand new Kindle Fire HDX 7. Also a 2013 model (but still in production, unlike its predecessor which had been superseded), this 7" tablet is Amazon's top model, so it's higher end than my son's tablet that was having battery problems.  It uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon System on a Chip (SoC) which is better than the older Texas Instruments SoC in the previous tablet, and it supports Miracast.  Second, and more simply, I was reminded that Windows 8.1 added support for Miracast, so I realized that I ought to be able to test this with a Windows machine.

Kindle Fire HDX

As anticipated, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 supported Miracast.  Essentially you open the settings menu on the Fire TV Stick and tell it you want to use it as a screen mirror.  You open the settings on the Kindle Fire HDX and tell it you want to mirror its screen.  After several seconds (and one of the times I did it after a couple of retries) the two sync up and everything from the tablet screen is shown on the TV screen.  There is a very small delay (maybe 50 milliseconds?) which would probably be pretty disturbing if you were trying to play any action oriented video game.  Honestly, I really don't think a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time using Miracast from their Kindle Fire tablets to their Fire TV's, but it might be handy occasionally.

Windows 8.1 Laptop

Here's an application I could see me using on occasion to toss my laptop's screen easily onto the TV, so I was anxious to test this out.  We have 3 laptops in our house. 2 are owned by employers and neither has Windows 8.1 on it. The 3rd has an older Intel video chipset and doesn't support Miracast.  For a Windows 8.1 machine to support Miracast, the display drivers must support it.  Current generation laptops are going to have this support, but laptops more than a year or two old aren't going to, though there may be better support on older hardware with AMD or Nvidia video chipsets.  Intel is pretty infamous for terrible support of their ubiquitous, but low end graphics chipsets.

So, unfortunately, the one place where Miracast would be useful, none of our hardware provided support.  I will circle back to this when I have something in house that supports Miracast on the PC.

Products referenced in this post:
All posts on the Fire TV Stick: