The Small Screen Revolution (Part 2)

4/22/2013 2:47:10 PM

Thinking outside the box

A number of boxes on the market are tailored towards mobile and computer TV watches who want to watch satellite or Freeview channels, while on the go, either over a home network or, in some cases, the internet. USB tuners for computers often come with software support for this feature, but a number of standalone boxes are specifically designed for this purpose. Many feature built-in TV tuners or are capable of re-distributing video and audio from a connected source.

Where necessary, video is usually transcoded to a format suitable for playing on your target device (eg. H.264 for Apple handhelds). Typically, streams are in standard definition quality only (not that this is too much of an issue on the cramped screen of an iPhone). Most such solutions allow hardware to be remotely operated via a virtual interface. For external sources, an IR blaster is usually included in order to relay commands.

The first, so-called ‘place-shifting’ product to appear was Sling Media’s Slingbox. This started life as an ‘in-between’ box but the range has latterly expanded to include a model with a digital terrestrial tuner: the Slingbox Solo, and an HD ready ‘slinger’: the Pro-HD (sadly the HD here refers to the presence of component video inputs and not an HD tuner). Echostar, which owns Sling Media, made a virtue of this when it produced the HDS-600RS Freesat box with integrated ‘Sling Loaded’ functionality for remote streaming doing away with the need to purchase an additional Slingbox. Sadly, it did not see fit to offer the same with its recently released Freeview+ HD PVR.

Description: The View21 Freeview + HD PVR can stream TV to Apple mobiles using an app

The View21 Freeview + HD PVR can stream TV to Apple mobiles using an app

Mobile streaming duties of live and recorded TV are handled by the Slingplayer Mobile application. It’s Wi-Fi/3G/4G- compatible and costs $15.75 for Apple users, $13.55 for Android users or $16.55 for those with Windows Mobile-equipped handhelds. Featuring a remote control interface for operating source equipment and a choice of high or low quality streams, it’s not cheap but having had a head start on the competition it’s as slick as they come.

Legato is a brand well known in mobile TV circles and is especially popular with the Mac community which is rarely catered-for by such devices. Its Eye TV Netstream network TV boxes come with a choice of dual digital terrestrial tuners, allowing two networked users to view two different channels at the same time. Bundled Eye TV 3 software can be used to convert recorded shows for viewing on Apple handhelds and an accompanying free Eye TV app (currently for Apple devices only) used to remotely stream (via Wi-Fi or 3G) recordings or live TV channels. An EPG is included. Other manufacturers offer boxes with similar functionality. Hauppauge-offshoot PCTV System’s Broadway HD-S2 and T2 products sport SD/HD satellite and SD terrestrial tuners respectively, and can also distribute video from an externally connected source. Video can be streamed to other devices (over a WiFi network or the internet) by logging into the box via a web browser using the ‘DistanTV’ system.

AVerMedia’s HomeFree product line up of network tuners come equipped with DTT reception and external video capturing capability and allow two users to watch video from different sources at the same time though remote viewing is restricted to local network only. An accompanying Home Free Player app is a free download for Apple devices and features an EPG.

Harvard International’s recently launched View 21 Freeview+ PVR is supported by the View 21 Play app (currently for Apple handhelds only), which allows live TV and recordings to be streaming over a home network even while something else is being viewed on the TV at the same time.

Finally, Belkin’s @TV box doesn’t come with a TV tuner onboard, but can distribute TV from two connected sources. Apps are available free of charge for Apple’s iPad and Android tablets, or costing $13.55 for the iPhone and Android phones enabling streaming over a network or the internet with a choice of high, medium or low quality settings as well as remote recording and time shifting. Also featured is a slick Rovi EPG for Freeview channels complete with additional programming information, including cast biographies.

Description: Belkin’s @TV box can stream TV from connected receivers

Belkin’s @TV box can stream TV from connected receivers

Sky vs virgin

Both sky and Virgin, offer mobile TV solutions which complement your subscription by letting you view live and on demand TV from channels you pay for on multiple devices, both of which are accessible either via a web browser or apps.

Also available on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, Sky Go offers 43 channels for live streaming, including Sky Sports and Movies alongside films and TV on-demand with an interface that includes the full Sky EPG as well as grouping shows according to type, and genre or as series ‘box sets’. Non-Sky subscribers can also use the service with monthly subscription deals ranging from $22.5 to $60/month/

The Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G-compatible Sky Go App is available as a free download for Apple handhelds and some HTC/Samsung-produced Android smartphones. In all cases, Sky imposes a two device usage limit (smartphones and laptops included) per household at any one time and you can switch between them via the Sky Go website.

Description: Sky and virgin’s apps are at their best viewed on the iPad’s larger screen

Sky and Vigin’s apps at their best viewed on the iPad’s larger screen

Whereas Sky has chosen to issue a separate Sky+ app suitable for remotely operating and programming its iconic receiver, Virgin Media has adapted an all-in one approach for its TV Anywhere service, combining live and on-demand TV streaming with truly ‘remote control’ capability for its TiVo PVR.

Live channels in your subscription package (if available) can be streamed remotely to your device and web users can also view on-demand TV including what’s available free from providers such as BBC iPlayer. All versions feature an EPG, which is not dissimilar to that found on TiVo. As with Sky Go, only two devices can be used at a time.

While the browser version of TV Anywhere allows you to access your TiVo box remotely to a degree such as setting up recordings and organizing the My Shows (eg. Recordings) section, the mobile app goes further.

With your device paired to your TiVo over a home network, you can assume full control including giving programmers the trademark ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs down’. The interface includes a virtual recreation of the TiVo remote and allows for touch/gesture-based control.

TV Anywhere is currently only available for Apple handhelds with an Android version set to follow later in the year. Wi-Fi is supported but not (yet) streaming over 3G.

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