There hasn’t been a gadget that I was initially interested about more than the ZvBox. In my world of 250 press releases a week and thousands of random gadgets, that’s something. The device hijacks a QAM channel over your home’s coax network and streams digital media through it. Since most people already have coax ran, at lease close to their HDTVs, the concept is solid. With that being said, it was like Christmas morning when I received the review unit, but quickly turned into Christmas ’89. The year the big package under the tree turned out to be luggage rather than the PowerPad I was expecting. Yeah, I am that disappointed with the ZvBox.
In fact, when I was initially done testing the unit, I was convinced that I was going to send the unit back to the company, as I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Then a few minutes later it hit me that I do not review products for companies but rather for you, the reader. There are some fine aspects to this product but you really should read on to hear the rest.
The ZvBox works. It does what it says it can do. The unit does in fact stream Internet media over your home’s coax network; the picture might be bad, and the controls clunky, but it does work. (More on that down farther) Installation wasn’t that hard either. The unit doesn’t ship with any software CDs but rather installs itself via USB when first plugged in; I love that.
The software guides you through the installation easy enough. Just a few clicks and it takes care of the rest. I should note that it took 20 minutes on one step to find the available channel but it did eventually install.
The ZvBox works by intercepting the host computer’s VGA output and streams that signal over the coax lines on a designated QAM signal. In doing so, it hijacks the home computer and does not allow any interaction while the service is ran which means, ZvBox owners should have a dedicated PC. Moreover, it seems that the software is a resource hog, causing the host PC to bog down when trying to run the software.
Eventually though, I got a signal on channel 125, the default ZvBox channel. The home screen popped up and it looked great. On the home screen was a bunch of links to different video sharing sites, so I immediately chose Hulu – huge commercial content with usually great picture quality. HD content was an option, and I picked the Office episode when Toby left. That’s when all my hopes and dreams came crashing down like on that Christmas morning long ago.
The ZvBox allows user access to video streaming sites but doesn’t optimize the front-end for users. Oh no, the link for the clip I chose took me to the normal Hulu website for that video stream. You then have to use the laggy mouse touchpad to navigate and start playing the video as if you were on your computer.
The same thing happens on all of the home page shortcuts. Trying to find the tiny, full screen shortcut on some video sites can be frustrating enough, but then compound a 1-second laggy mouse control on top makes the interaction throw-the-remote-into-the-wall frustrating. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that clips play full screen without any user interaction.
TIVO recent implementation of YouTube is great in comparison. The front-end is replaced with a TIVO-formatted screen and the clips automatically play in full screen. It isn’t perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than using a website on a HDTV with bad controls.
On a couple of occasions, Hulu videos were playing on two different windows. It was almost like the website wanted to open a second window to play in full screen but kept playing one in the background. Eventually though, I was able to close down the top window, but I almost did reach the aforementioned throwing frustration with the laggy mouse.
I expected the picture quality to be low and I was right. The SD video of course stuttered, pixilated, and had terrible noise everywhere. Hulu’s HD content was better, but definitely not glorious high definition.
After exploring the home screen for a bit, I discovered that these shortcuts were not the main draw. Most of the content was just clips and even some of it wasn’t available on when the link sent you to the actual webpage.
The almost saving grace for the ZvBox is that it provides a direct link to Windows Media Center on the host computer. That computer does have to have the program installed in order to stream anything of your network to the hook’d up HDTVs and don’t forget that someone else cannot use the host computer when ZvBox is one.
I love the concept. Really, I do, but the implantation is horrible. Sometimes the ZvBox software reverted to the host PC, leaving the HDTV blank with no explanation why. I was able to watch clips of The Office and media off my network but it was frustratingly painful; there is no way a non-techie person could use this box. Jittery controls, non-formatted clips, and hijacking the host computer outweighs the potential benefits. It’s just bad.
Oh, and did I mention the ZvBox costs $500? For that price, a person has so many better options to stream media to their HDTV. Xbox 360, Windows Media Center Extenders and even TiVo can do a lot of what this box attempts. Even a low-end computer with an HDMI-out will allow people to watch Hulu and YouTube clips on a HDTV. Yes, none of those solutions streams the content over coax, but they do provide a better picture quality and a heck of a lot better experience. Perhaps firmware upgrades will eventually make this device usable, but until then, I simply cannot recommend the ZvBox.