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ZeeVee: Nifty Idea, But It’s Not EZ

8/27/2008 5:04 AM

What was zee point, again?

That question popped into my head as I spent more than two hours setting up ZeeVee’s ZvBox, a device that turns your computer into a video channel you can watch on a high-definition TV in the living room.

ZvBoxThe box, listed at a pricey $499 (available from retailers including, Best Buy and J&R), basically functions like a mini cable headend. It transcodes the video and audio output from your computer into an MPEG-2 HD feed that is broadcast over the coaxial cable in your home.

I found it nifty to have full access to my computer on a large-screen television. The ZvBox provides very crisp graphics and lets you click around using a special-purpose wireless remote.

But unfortunately, setting up the ZvBox requires you to become an instant cable technician. Even after I got it working, the novelty soon wore off, and not just because typing with the on-screen keyboard was maddening (see the screen shot, below).

The system uses a channel filter on the coax to carve out a slice of spectrum the cable operator isn’t using. After that, you hook up the ZvBox to your PC’s USB and video ports, install the software, then connect the box to the coax using a splitter. Now it’s supposed to be ready to “ZvCast” your own personal HD channel.

At that point the HDTV’s digital cable tuner should pick up the ZvBox signal on the default channel 125. That didn’t work, so I tried tuning to 125.1 and then 125.99. ZeeVee says you might have to tell your HDTV to run a full channel scan–no dice.
on-screen keyboard
I tried configuring ZvBox to broadcast on channel 135 using the setup software, then channel 2. Still nothing.

As I found out later, the ZvBox filter can’t go in front of a line amplifier, according to the company; it has to be installed behind an amplifier. I instead opted for a relatively simple workaround that didn’t require rewiring my basement: I plugged the coax from the ZvBox directly into my HDTV’s cable input.

Whew, success. The TV detected the signal from the box, which after a few flickering moments automatically stretched my computer’s screen resolution to 1200 by 675 to fit into the 16:9 screen ratio. Normally my PC monitor is at 1440 by 900. This was the easiest part of the setup process.

To control the PC, you use the wireless remote, which includes a mouse touchpad, scroll bar and left-right mouse buttons.

The ZViewer application, launched via a button on the remote, tries to package together TV-oriented tasks in point-and-click-friendly menus. It links to individual video segments on a few sites, including Hulu, and YouTube, as well as to programs installed on your computer, like Microsoft’s Media Center, designed for TV displays and remote control navigation.

ZViewerMost video looked pretty good through ZvBox. But as with everything on the Internet, quality is variable. We tried to watch a clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s site and, for whatever reason, it just stuttered and spit until we gave up.

ZvBox has other drawbacks. It ties up your computer if you’re tuning in on the HDTV. If it’s a PC shared among family members, this may be problem.

Frustratingly, text must be entered through a hunt-and-peck on-screen keyboard, which makes searching for content laborious and typing an e-mail ludicrous. (ZeeVee says an optional wireless keyboard will be available before the end of the year.)

And while ZvBox supposedly can transmit the PC signal to up to six HDTVs over cable, there’s only one remote that can be used to control what’s happening.

The company acknowledges that setting up the box is no walk in the park. “I’m not going to lie and say, ‘This is plug it into your computer and it works,’” ZeeVee vice president of marketing Brian Mahony said.

He added that the $499 price point may seem steep until consumers “understand the value” of the ZvBox, by which he means the ability to access any PC-based or Internet content on any HDTV in the house.

“Some people are thinking they can pull the plug on cable TV once they have a ZvBox,” Mahony said.

Maybe someday. For now, most folks expect TV viewing to be a simple, entertaining diversion — not a science project. 

And, by the time it gets easier, the game may be over for startups like ZeeVee. Big guns — like Comcast (with Intel and Yahoo), Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Apple — are all looking for better ways to migrate Net content to the TV.