basketball

Evoca TV offers a cheaper way to watch the Blazers, but it’s not for everyone (review)

It’s been a thrilling start to the Portland Trail Blazers season.

The team notched 10 early wins, newcomer Jerami Grant is an immediate sensation, rookie Shaedon Sharpe has electrified the court with spectacular dunks, the team has won two games with deep shots at the buzzer, and the Blazers have (briefly) spent time atop the Western Conference standings.

Many fans didn’t see any of that, though.

The Blazers have consigned their broadcasts to Root Sports, a regional network accessible only to the dwindling audience of cable and satellite TV viewers and a pair of smaller streaming networks. Until recently, fans had little choice but to spend at least $80 a month to see the Blazers bundled in with a whole bunch of other channels they’ll probably never watch.

A new subscription service called Evoca TV promises a better deal: $30 a month for Root Sports (bundled in with a whole bunch of other channels you’ll certainly never watch).

Evoca TV

WHAT IT IS: Subscription TV service featuring Northwest sports

PRICE: $30 per month; $25 for the service and $5 to rent Evoca’s video box; TV antenna comes free with a subscription

WHAT YOU GET: Local broadcast channels (which are available free whether or not you subscribe to Evoca), Root Sports (which includes the Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Mariners and Seattle Kraken), Portland Thorns games, plus various second-tier streaming channels including Bloomberg TV, the Weather Channel, Court TV, Circle, the Game Show Network and others

I’ve been trying it out for the past month to see if Evoca delivers. Unfortunately, it’s been a mixed bag.

While the Blazers have been ferociously entertaining, Evoca is an unusual service that relies on a proprietary streaming box and TV antenna. Its DVR is clunky, only records sports, and won’t allow you to watch recorded games until they’re over. My picture quality has been suboptimal, and I’ve encountered a number of technical hiccups that required some persistence to overcome.

Mostly, though, it’s difficult to recommend Evoca because it doesn’t offer broadly appealing features beyond the Blazers and some other regional sports teams — notably the Seattle Mariners, Kraken, the Portland Thorns and the minor league Portland Winterhawks hockey games. (Evoca hopes to add more teams eventually, either through Root Sports or other networks.)

Its channel lineup consists mostly of local broadcast stations, which are free whether or not you subscribe to Evoca, and niche cable networks like Court TV and Circle, where you can see reruns of the ’80s crime drama “Hunter.”

If you’re a hardcore fan who doesn’t subscribe to cable, tends to watch games live, and you’re technically adept, then yes, Evoca is a good value. But if you’re seeking a bigger streaming bundle, or you’re just a casual fan, look elsewhere.

NEW TWIST ON OLD TECH

Explaining what Evoca is, and what it isn’t, begins with discussing what’s happened to the sports TV landscape.

For 25 years, the Blazers broadcast a selection of their games for free on KGW. That ended five years ago as the team opted to maximize its short-term revenue by showing games exclusively on cable. The team has been on three networks since — Comcast Sports Northwest, NBC Sports Northwest and now Root Sports.

EVOCA TV

WHAT’S TO LIKE

• THE BLAZERS: A likeable, hard-working, entertaining and — above all — winning team.

• PRICE: $30 a month is a lot to see just a handful of teams — Evoca also carries the Portland Thorns and Winterhawks and the Seattle Mariners and Kraken — but the alternatives cost three times as much.

• DVR: You can’t access a recorded game until the buzzer sounds, but then you can see a full-game replay.

• MOBILE STREAMING: Watch the game live on your smartphone, tablet or PC.

• LITTLE LAG: Streaming services and cable TV often have a significant delay. You may see people attending a game tweeting about a big play long before you’ve seen it on TV. Evoca has very little lag.

WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE

• IT’S BARE BONES: You get just a handful of teams. Beyond that, there’s a bunch of niche streaming channels and the local broadcast stations, which you can already see for free with a TV antenna.

• DVR: You can’t pause a game you’re watching live or access the recording until the game is over. It’s clunky to fast-forward to a specific moment in a game.

• ANOTHER BOX AND REMOTE: If you’ve already got a streaming box and a DVD player, now you’re going to have to plug in a third box. You may run out of ports on your TV, and it’s one more remote to keep track of by the couch. And it limits your viewing to one TV per household (unless you pay $5 a month for a second Evoca box).

• TECHNICAL HICCUPS: I had to change the device’s network settings to connect my Evoca box to the internet and perform a complicated system update when the DVR stopped working. I’ve occasionally had to reset the box when it’s frozen. (Customer service has been knowledgeable and helpful when I’ve called — but they’re not available around the clock.)

• PICTURE: My picture quality is far less sharp than on other streaming networks.

— Mike Rogoway

Evoca is using contemporary technology — an unusual patchwork of broadcasting and streaming — to recreate the old world of local TV and local sports.

“What we’ve tried to do is go into the space where everyone else has exited, with local programming and sports,” said CEO Todd Achilles, a former HP executive who grew up in West Linn and now runs Evoca from Boise.

Evoca offers service in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona and Michigan. (Even though the service spans five states, you only get to see broadcasts carried in your local market.)

Your $30 gets you a TV streaming box that uses Google’s Android platform, a remote control and a TV antenna. (The $30 includes $5 a month to rent Evoca’s streaming box. Alternately, you can save that $5 and pay $200 for the box.)

Evoca gets most of its programming — including Roots Sports and the Blazers — over the air, using a new broadcast standard called ATSC 3.0 that promises higher picture quality and more channels. It routes that programming through its own TV box, which bundles the broadcast channels and streaming networks together.

That sounds appealing, but in practice it’s been buggy, at least for me. Evoca’s TV box wouldn’t connect to my home Wi-Fi out of the box, so I had to call customer service for help. They walked me through changes to the box’s network settings to enable a connection.

Evoca set up pretty quickly after that, but I’ve had hiccups since. I needed customer service again when the DVR quit working. They walked me through a somewhat complex software update. Evoca’s box has occasionally gone offline or frozen, requiring me to reboot the device.

Roku, Apple and others have spoiled us with dependable, consistent streaming experiences. Achilles acknowledged that the Evoca isn’t there yet — and that it needs to be, to be competitive.

“We have to be plug and play,” he told me. “There’s still a gap to where we want to be.”

If diving into the network settings now and then is an acceptable tradeoff to save $50 a month, great. Evoca might be a good fit. But many fans wouldn’t tolerate the possibility of missing a game because of technical issues — and Evoca’s customer service staff (while very helpful in my experience) doesn’t work nights.

FUZZY DETAILS

Picture quality is another issue. To my eyes, Evoca’s broadcasts of Root Sports games don’t appear to hit even regular high-definition quality (sometimes called 720p or 1080p). The picture appears a little hazy – not as grainy as the old, standard-definition programming but noticeably below the crispness we’ve become accustomed to in the HD era.

And because it broadcasts over the air, there’s no Evoca TV app for smart TVs or streaming boxes. That means that if you have more than one TV in your home, you’ll need an Evoca box for each one you want to use the service on — at $5 a month each. You may run out of HDMI ports on your TV, and even if you don’t, you’ll have another remote to keep track of.

If you decide you don’t like the service, you’ll have to mail each box back to Evoca, though the company says it will pay the cost of the return. And there’s no cancellation fee.

Evoca has recently added a feature, though, that’s genuinely attractive: Subscribers can watch Root Sports on the network’s app on their smartphone, tablet or PC. So if you’re sitting on the bus, or doing dishes, or anywhere where there isn’t a TV, you can still keep up on the action.

With other services, that’s what a DVR is for. Recording programs and pausing live TV is a luxury, but one many of us have come to rely upon.

Evoca’s box can’t record programming, which means no DVR for most channels. The company has come up with a workaround for the Blazers and other games on Root Sports. It streams a recorded version of the games through its box – but not until after the game is over. So in that sense, it works more like an old-fashioned VCR than a DVR.

“We’re working on some ways to have that kind of more immediate playback and have that DVR function available sooner,” Achilles said.

For now, at least, Evoca’s DVR is as clunky as that old VCR. It’s cumbersome to fast-forward to a specific moment in a game. (You can skip ahead in 10-second increments to jump past commercials.) It doesn’t remember where you left off. (There, the VCR has Evoca beat.) And you can’t watch recorded games on smartphones or tablets.

Does all this sound like a headache? If it does, Evoca isn’t for you. I wouldn’t recommend it for most people – and certainly not for anyone other than dedicated fans of the teams it carries (the Blazers, Thorns, Kraken, Mariners and Winterhawks).

Having said that, there is a narrow category of people for whom it will appeal — dedicated fans who don’t have cable, are willing to be patient with the technology and want to save some money.

I’m not sure that’s a big market, but it’s a market that includes me. I’ll continue subscribing to Evoca so long as the Blazers are competitive, and hope the service improves.

— Mike Rogoway | mrogoway@oregonian.com | Twitter: @rogoway |

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