Today contributor Alan Wolk provides a hands-on review of Aereo. Alan is Global Lead Analyst at KIT digital. He frequently speaks about the television industry in general and second screen interactions in particular, both at conferences and to anyone who'll listen. Recently named as one of the "Top 20 Thinkers In Social TV and Second Screen" Alan is one of the main architects behind the award-winning KIT Social Program Guide and writes about the television industry at the Toad Stool blog. You can find him on Twitter at @awolk
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Aereo: The Hands-On Review
by Alan Wolk
I’ve been testing out Aereo for the past two weeks (see video below), ever since they expanded their service area to include the entire New York metropolitan area. I tested it at home where I have a blazing fast 50 Mbps FIOS connection using both their new Roku app and my iPad 3, and outside the house, where I rely on a Verizon Wireless iPhone 5 with 4G service. (Well, when 4G is available, that is.)
Interface: The interface on the iPad and iPhone are fairly similar. There aren’t that many channels: Aereo has fleshed out the over-the-air offering with iON and a couple of foreign-language offerings, but most users are going to be looking for content from the Big 4 networks and PBS.
On the Roku app, the channels are arranged in Roku’s linear filmstrip layout, so that getting from one end to the other is quite a hassle.
Changing the Channel: This is Aereo’s biggest fail: changing the channel is a monumental hassle on all their devices. On the iPad or iPhone, it’s a multi-step process: Minimize the screen, hit “done”, go back to the channel guide, find the channel you want to switch to, go to that channel’s screen, hit “play” (versus “record”), go to the first screen, maximize the video.
In other words, they’ve gone backwards from the circa 1955 stand up/walk to the TV/manually turn the channel dial/sit back down model. The process really needs to be streamlined. The Roku app eliminates the minimize and maximize steps, but is otherwise similarly cumbersome.
Second Screen Functionality: You can use the iPad as a remote for your Roku app, though other than the ability to skip through commercials, you don’t gain a whole lot. The interface is clunky and not all that intuitive (you’ve got to tune the Roku app to “Two Screen Mode”, find the show on the iPad and then choose “watch on TV.” In my experience, the pairing didn’t always take. But there’s no additional information on the show, no added functionality beyond the ability to tweet/post that you are watching it.
Picture Quality: Generally excellent. There was zero difference between what I get on Aereo and what I got through my set top box or via iTunes or Netflix on the iPad. Granted, I am no a videophile, but I didn’t detect any distinction. I tested it on both a high-end Sony TV and a mid-range Dynex model.
Out of Home: And here my troubles began. Aereo works fine if you have a decent WiFi connection. (It worked flawlessly on my high speed WiFi connection at home and a couple of steps below flawlessly on a not-very-speedy connection at a Manhattan coffee shop.)
But how often do you have both a WiFi connection and a free half hour with which to watch TV? That’s why I’m thinking that the primary out-of-home use case for Aereo (and TV everywhere, in general) is going to be as a commuting device. So I tested Aereo on my half hour commute into Manhattan from suburban New Jersey via NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex train line. It was not a good experience: TV may be everywhere, but WiFi isn’t, and even my Verizon Wireless 4G connection proved spotty: lots and lots of buffering on both live and recorded TV, to the point where it just became frustrating. (A particular nadir was when it froze just before the contestants gave their answers in a hotly contested Final Jeopardy round.) I understand the technological limitations of a moving vehicle (the app has to jump from signal tower to signal tower) but that just explains why I kept getting all the buffering: it doesn’t make it not happen.
I also tested the app using a 4G connection in a local coffee shop, both in Manhattan and in New Jersey. In both instances, the app had some buffering, particularly on recorded shows. I’d put it as mildly annoying (versus deal-killer for the train ride experience) and something I might use to watch a can’t-miss event - the recorded shows had too much buffering to be worth it.
Prognosis: Cable TV went mainstream around 1980, and in the intervening three plus decades, we’ve gotten too used to having more than four choices for live TV. That’s why I suspect that even for “cord-nevers,” Aereo is never going to feel like anything other than a temporary fix. There’s no ESPN, no CNN, no AMC or MTV. It’s a great solution for someone who’s barely ever home to watch TV, but I can’t see it as a permanent replacement for pay TV
That said, I do think Aereo have a place in the TV ecosystem, not as a replacement for an existing cable subscription, but rather as an add-on. For $8/month and the price of a Roku box or iPad, it’s a great way to add TV service to a guest room or a child’s room. For people looking to cut their cable bills, having fewer set-top boxes can be a real cost-savings and between Aereo and OTT services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, you’ve got a great set-up for a TV that doesn’t generally get a lot of use.
The out-of-home experiences I had with Aereo are going to be a problem with all TV Everywhere experiences until the US upgrades 4G capacity and the industry figures how to make pass-off a lot smoother. So while the idea of what Aereo can do is great, the actual execution is at the mercy of a less-than-adequate 4G network.