Parks Associates Blog

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Roku is feeling its oats and my ZVBox story

Another good CNET article referencing Roku CEO Anthony Wood's comments that he'd like to allow the Roku box to bring streamed video to the TV from multiple sources and not just Netflix, as is the case today. Wired Magazine has a few more details on these comments. For $100, if I can access the Netflix Watch Instantly collection, plus get access to current and archived television shows (and I did get intrigued with old episodes of Battlestar Galactica on a recent trip when I downloaded the NBC Direct player and watched the first episode), I think that's worth it. A third element I'd like is a free streaming Internet radio service - maybe Pandora or a simple media player with some pre-loaded stations. I'm wondering if the Microsoft or RealNetworks media players could be added to these devices ... and what cost they would add to them?

Okay, now onto the subject of the ZVBox. I've written about digital media adapters for awhile now, and I have been able to play around with a few. Here are a few blog references about my experiences:

The main problem I've had with media adapters is that they don't deliver what I want in an "Internet on TV" experience. Look, my needs are simple - I have a couple of Internet radio stations that I'd like to listen to on some in-ceiling speakers we have installed in a few rooms of the house (think Sunday morning before church - that one hour of time I have to read the paper). I also like the idea of Hulu and other Web video programming available on a TV so I can catch up on a show I missed or see an old episode of The A-Team or Battlestar Galatica. And, this is an every-once-in-awhile kind of thing I'd like to do - maybe once a week, the way our schedule is. Perhaps on Tuesday nights, which is - let's face it - a wasteland for TV programming.

[Editor's Note: the views expressed by Kurt Scherf are solely his and not necessarily those of the management of Parks Associates]

This is why the ZVBox sounds appealing to me. Use an in-home network (coax) to turn the HDTVs in the home into second PC monitors. This conceivably lets me as the user make all of the choices I'm making today about what Internet and PC experiences I want to have. The Iowa Hawkeyes radio broadcast on WHO Radio from Des Moines? I can pull that up and have the game playing on the in-home speaker system. The classical radio station from Cincinnati that I like on Sunday mornings? Pull up the Website and start playing classical baroque music. And, while I can interact with the PC through the HDTV and have that freedom, the ZVBox offers the Zviewer, where popular sites such as Hulu, YouTube, and can be accessed pretty readily. So, I've got the best of both worlds - optimal freedom and a "walled garden" of sorts that gives me easier access to pretty much most of what I'd want to watch anyway.

After trying initial set-up of the ZVBox last Saturday, I'll say that the experience is uneven so far. The set-up itself is fine, although making the physical connections to get the box up and running is probably going to be at least somewhat intimidating. They supply a filter that gets installed between the main coax feed coming into the house and the main coax splitter. That itself isn't too bad - just required me getting the ladder out and re-reading the instructions at least a few times to make sure I was getting everything correct.

The under-the-desk physical connections are not the most fun thing in the world to do, but I'm used to that. The ZVBox requires a coax connection, as well as VGA connections to both the PC monitor and the PC itself (the ZVBox essentially becomes a monitor bridge between the PC and the HDTVs in the house). A USB connection is also required between the PC and the ZVBox.

Now, what's nice about the setup is that there's no software to separately load onto the PC (no CDs...thanks, ZeeVee!). Once the USB connection is made and the power plugged in, the ZVBox takes care of loading the right software onto the PC.

So far, the uneven aspect about the ZVBox experience has been trying to figure out how to get the device to work through a coax splitter (which it won't in its current configuration). At the location of the main household PC is a coax jack that feeds both the Media Center features for the PC and the Verizon Actiontec Broadband Home Router (BHR). The coax connection is a critical part of the BHR, since video-on-demand and interactive content (like the Verizon Widgets) and EPG updates are fed from the ONT to the set-top boxes through the BHR. To keep both the BHR connected and get the ZVBox hooked up, I installed a two-way splitter. When I went to my HDTV and tried to tune in channel 125 (the specific channel set-up for the "localcast" from the ZVBox), I got no signal. However, when I unplugged the coax connection from the BHR and ran a direct connection from the ZVBox into the wall jack, it works.

I will say that responsiveness from both ZeeVee and Verizon (yeah ... okay ... it helps to be an analyst) has been great, and the Verizon folks are taking a strong interest in my experience, since ZVBox could be one of the first of many "additional passives" that are added to the home network. The last piece of advice I got from ZeeVee's technical support is to try a "forward feeding" connection, where I move the location of the splitter for the connection to the BHR and the ZVBox itself. We'll see ... the weekend is approaching, and I may have some free time to keep playing with it.

To be fair to the ZeeVee folks, once a successful connection is made between the ZVBox and the HDTV, there is a cool factor of pulling up the Zviewer and playing an episode of The A-Team right from the remote controller. Once I get some of these connection bugs worked out, I think I'll enjoy the experience as I begin to play with the functionality.

One other item that I'll need to complete is rigging a new audio connection between the HDTV and the AV receiver in order to get the audio from the ZV service to play through the receiver and into the surround sound system. Right now, I can only play the sound through the TV's speakers, so I'm going to want to enhance that experience. This will mean more crawling around, messing with a boatload of cables behind the entertainment center, and probably sweating (it's still 90 degrees in Dallas in late September). Maybe I can count it as a workout, though.


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