Andre's Blog
Perfection is when there is nothing left to take away
Roger Dodger

Remember the times when you could do simple things with your TV and VCR, like use picture-in-picture and to rewind the tape, and they just worked? Those were simpler times and those simple user controls worked 99% of the time and it seemed that things will only get better from there as technology evolved. Right? Not if Rogers Canada has anything to do with that.

Back to the Future

The first Rogers’ PVR I got was a silver Scientific Atlanta box that had a UI design similar to what you would expect from a VCR and, while somewhat awkward in places, it was quite responsive everywhere, except in Rogers On Demand, which talked to Rogers servers and worked quite poorly on evenings and weekends, when the demand was high. It got worse and worse and, eventually, I called Rogers Support and they said that the obsolete PVR box was the problem and suggested to pick up a new PVR, which was NextBox by Cisco.

I don't know if the new PVR used some new development framework or if Rogers' developers drowned in technical debt, but things just went downhill. It appears that the new framework is some form of JavaScript, like Node.js, because the screen often became blank with the only word on it being "undefined", which hinted that Rogers has jumped on the JavaScript train. Service outages on evenings and weekends became a norm at that point.

JavaScript undefined Displayed
JavaScript undefined Displayed
JavaScript undefined Displayed
Server Timeout Error

Code quality problems started piling up pretty much everywhere. Non-ASCII characters were incorrectly encoded or just rendered as question marks. Special HTML characters, like angle brackets and quotes were double-encoded and appeared either as HTML entities or had JavaScript encoding applied incorrectly or inconsistently.

Out-of-place JavaScript Encoding
Out-of-place JavaScript Encoding
Bad Conversion of Quote Characters

Pausing a show and sometimes just watching one could easily restart it and having fast-forward disabled makes people having to wait for up to an hour to catch up with where the show was interrupted. One time I had to "watch" the beginning of the same show 4 times because it kept restarting by itself. Some episodes were missing in the listing, some were listed more than once and contents of some were truncated or garbled. That became a reality of the new cable TV. I started to miss the good old VCR.

Garbled Feed

Finding a Black Cat in a Dark Room

Well, it can’t be all that bad, right? What about the instant search capability? VCR couldn’t do that. Turns out Rogers can’t either. How else entering the name of the show "Private Eyes" would give you a single match titled Gettysburg? Search results, even when they did come back with more sensible results, weren’t ordered by date, so you would have to hack through dozens of unrelated or just old search results before you could find the one you wanted.

Search for "Private Eyes" Finds Gettysburg

Who's Side Are You On?

One thing VCRs did well is that they allowed users to skip commercials. High-end VCRs even did it automatically, without wasting tape to record them. VCRs were on the user side. PVRs are not and we are forced to watch all commercials through the entire show and Rogers even managed to make it worse than it was before - now they are running the same few commercials on every break, so you start to hate these products and services. Some commercials are well made, but when you watch one every 5-10 minutes, they get to you. I hate Amazon Echo and cannot stand the pouty girl throwing herself a party while talking to Echo. I cannot stand the Tim Hortons commercial with employees doing a Broadway number and a few others. Things get even worse when a poorly-produced commercial comes along, like Diamond & Diamond where everybody intensely collaborates in front of the camera. Companies that don’t understand that advertising with Rogers negatively impacts their brand, deserve to lose their money and customers.

It's the Little Things that Matter

What about simple things that computers do so well, like pushing up in selection lists the shows we watch all the time or more intuitive recording navigation, like seeking within a recorded program or just keeping a wish list or a list of watched movies? Well, not with Rogers. Here’s a few examples to illustrate the point.

Fast forward and rewind has five speeds when watching TV recordings and just one speed in movies. Is Rogers having problems seeking within a stream or some team just ran out of time when they were rushing their release? Having to spend a few minutes to fast-forward at the slowest speed a self-restarted movie on a Saturday night doesn't really help to build confidence in your service provider.

Selecting "This just in" in the movie tile screen takes you to a new menu with the same selection as on the tile screen and with the entry "This just in" selected, so you have to select it again to get to the actual movie list.

The tile screen is practically unusable because all titles are truncated and images are often missing. There’s an option to show a textual list of shows instead of tiles, which is good, but the choice to use that list is resets with every software update or a reboot. Aren’t computers good at keeping data? Rogers didn’t come across of those, I suppose.

Empty Movie Tiles
Truncated Movie Titles

The UI is incredibly sluggish and remote control buttons are queued at some unexpected points. A few times I would watch a movie preview and push Stop because I didn’t like the preview and then the PVR stopped responding to the remote control completely and in about 30 seconds the previewed movie starts playing and I had to spend 30-40 minutes on the phone with Rogers to refund those movies.

Picture-in-Picture (PiP) is another example of a complete UI mess. Normally, each channel in PiP has its own buffer, so you can flip between channels to skip commercials. However, if you move the PiP window on the screen, the buffer in the PiP window is reset in one of the positions (funny enough, just one) and you can no longer rewind it. Swapping the live view and PiP is just as bad - sometimes the inner picture comes back as a black screen and even if it works, you cannot rewind until you hit Live View button and then start with just the first rewind speed and then increase it or otherwise the rewind controls are displayed on the screen as if they are working, but the program is just playing back as usual.

Picture-in-Picture Empty Frame

Content Choices

Movies and shows disappear from the Rogers On Demand listing at different times for different shows and sometimes there is no indication how long some show will be available. One time an episode was missing from a series and I called Rogers Support to see if they can get it back. A couple of days later the entire show was removed from that channel. At the moment of this writing, all Comedy Central channel shows, but one, are gone for weeks. Ironically, the only show remaining is called "This is Not Happening". Well, it really is...

Show recommendations are truly disconnected from reality and often suggest the same show I just watched or a previous episode of the same show. What’s even worse is that the entire UI is unresponsive until these stupid recommendations are retrieved, so when you are trying to delete a show you have to wait until the recommendations are refreshed.

Useless Recommendations

To be Fair

It would be unfair to say that Rogers ignores all these problems. They are trying, but while fixing issues, Rogers developers often break more than they fix, which shows the poor state of their code and development discipline. Consequently, using Rogers PVR today is just as frustrating as it was a year ago and a year before that.

Most of these issues are rooted in buggy code, so Rogers Support cannot do anything and their most common advice is to reboot the PVR - the process that takes 5-10 minutes to complete and in most cases doesn't resolve anything because the PVR loads the same buggy code after the reboot.

It's nice that Rogers Support is there late at night, but about the only useful thing they can do is to refund a movie you didn't watch or give you a few free movies to compensate for the frustration caused by this inferior service.

Final Word

This brings up a very good question - if Rogers is so bad, why am I still with them? The first reason is that I’m paying Rogers indirectly - my condominium includes Rogers basic service into the maintenance fee, so whether I use Rogers or not, I’m paying for some of their service anyway. The second, and the main reason, is that I don’t want to create a bunch of accounts with a bunch of content providers all over the web. I want a service that would provide all of my channels in one place and there’s not a lot of choice for services like this. Concentrating content providers in one place is one thing Rogers has done well over the years. Perhaps because it doesn’t require writing much code. Rogers and coding don’t mix very well.