From the Net to the TV screen, with help from Netgear [UPDATED]
Netgear's Digital Entertainer Live (aka the EVA2000) isn't that device. But it comes tantalizingly close -- close enough, perhaps, to satisfy the needs of some avid online video fans. It also brings into focus the technical and design problems that need to be solved before the living room TV can be as friendly to Internet video as the PC in the den.
The company gave a preview of the device at January's Consumer Electronics Show, positioning it as an inexpensive yet versatile link between the Web and the TV screen. By the time it started selling the EVA2000 in mid-September, however, Netgear had pared back its capabilities a bit. The box could still connect directly to YouTube and numerous other online video sites. But to access Hulu, Netflix and a handful of other popular outlets ...
... the box had to rely on a computer running PlayOn, a media-serving program that MediaMall Technologies sells for $40. The change helped keep down the cost of the device, and arguably made it more future-proof -- the PlayOn software will be easier to adapt to new video formats than Netgear's firmware.
Netgear loaned me a Digital Entertainer Live a few weeks ago, and I've found much to like about it. Setting it up was ridiculously easy -- I plugged it in to my home network (using a Netgear Ethernet-over-power-line rather than the optional wireless adapter), hooked it up to my TV with an HDMI cable and turned it on, and it quickly found its way online. Enabling it to play media stored on my PC took more effort, but not much -- I had to tweak the settings on the PC's Windows Media Player to enable sharing.
Software on the box enables it to connect to YouTube and close to 70 other websites that offer video on demand. Most of these offer snack-size clips of comedy, news, sports and niche topics, but a few offer long-form video. For example, there's Crackle, which carries full-length movies and TV shows (usually stuff from the vaults, not new releases). The amount of content is overwhelming; to make it easier to manage, Netgear offers a nifty search engine to round up clips from YouTube, MySpace, Metacafe, Break.com and Blip.TV, among others. The main weakness of the search is that it's not good at finding full-length material.
The box's built-in software also enables you to download movies from CinemaNow for a fee (typically $3 to $4 to rent, $15 to $20 to buy). The box has no room to store movies, though, so you have to plug a thumb drive or a portable hard drive into a USB port in the back of the EVA2000. CinemaNow's progressive download feature worked like a charm for me the first time I tried it, letting me watch the movie about two minutes after I started downloading it. The second time, though, it was foiled by the dreaded prime-time Internet traffic jam; we had to pause the playback several times to let more bits accumulate. The limits imposed by CinemaNow aren't friendly to renters -- you lose access to the file 24 hours after you start playback, which seems criminally short in comparison to the local video store's terms. But that's not Netgear's fault, or even CinemaNow's -- it's the studios' doing.
The PlayOn software was also simple to install and use, although it mysteriously lost its ability to communicate with the EVA2000 a few days into my testing. I later figured out that when I updated my anti-virus software, it cut off the box's ability to talk to the PlayOn server. (File under "It's Always Something"). PlayOn provided a seamless gateway to videos on Hulu, CBS.com and Netflix (provided, of course, that you're a subscriber). Hulu is a virtual mother lode, providing a huge amount of new TV episodes from the broadcast networks and selected cable outlets. (There's a fair amount of material from the vaults, too.) It also did something my Samsung Blu-ray player can't do: It let me browse Netflix's collection and add to my "instant watch" queue without having to visit Netflix's website via my computer.
That's the good news. Now for the shortcomings. The price -- $179, plus $40 for the not-really-optional PlayOn software -- is twice as high as Roku's evolving digital video player. Roku's box is limited to Netflix, Amazon video-on-demand and Major League Baseball streams, but the company promises more capabilities to come.
Updated, Oct. 19, 5:03 p.m.: Netgear tells me that their website had the incorrect price last week. The true MSRP is $149. And EVA2000 owners purchase the PlayOn software for $30, a $10 discount from the normal price.
Second, the picture quality was disappointing for much of the material. This may not be Netgear's fault -- I have a 50-inch wide-screen set, and some online video clips are hard to watch in full-screen mode even on a 20-inch computer monitor. Most videos from Hulu seemed to be in VHS quality -- better in slow-moving passages, worse in action scenes. Those from CBS.com were noticeably worse, and those from Crackle seemed a little better. The only ones that approached DVD quality were the movies downloaded from CinemaNow. I'd hoped to try out some high-definition streams with the EVA2000, but I couldn't find any. Picture quality may be a universal problem in this market, at least until streaming sites use significantly higher bit rates or more efficient compression technology.
Finally, aside from its search engine, the EVA2000's user interface is an uninspiring collection of menus and folders. It's easy to navigate with a basic remote control, but it can take forever to work your way through a site like Hulu to find, say, the season-opening episode of "30 Rock." The box makes so much content available, it demands an interface that uses smarter menus that take advantage of the whole screen. I'm waiting for gesture-sensitive technology such as Hillcrest Labs' Loop pointer to gain wider use -- that was one of the things I liked most about ZillionTV's demo, although a former employee (now blogging at XYHD.tv) has advised against holding one's breath for that company's service to launch.
These issues are serious enough to make me bide my time and wait for someone like Boxee to find a home on a low-priced set-top. Maybe analyst Phil Leigh is right, and hooking a laptop to a big-screen TV will become mainstream. I will confess to gazing longingly at ads for laptops with HDMI outputs. But darn it, I want something for $150 or less that will let me watch videos not just from YouTube or Hulu, but also from ESPN.com, Cartoon Network and any other site that offers something great. Is that too much to ask?
-- Jon Healey