Lets talk about Aereo—the service that streams over-the-air local TV to any Mac, iOS device, or PC running Safari for $12 per month.
The decidedly McGyver tech behind this venture relies on fingertip-sized TV antennas in data centers that allow servers to live-stream channels with high-definition reception through a speedy Internet connection. Aereo also works with Apple TV via iTunes’ AirPlay and a source iOS device, and Roku-lovers can use the Aereo channel through set-top boxes. The service even flaunts 40 hours of DVR storage space and an HTML 5 experience. That’s right, no apps—nor cords, cables, and boxes. Hence the startup’s “It’s TV made simple” badge.
Aereo is currently an invite-only 90-day free trial to New York City residents. Oh, and the behind-the-scene gurus verify billing and IP addresses, so there is no fooling Aereo when requesting login credentials.
That’s enough with the basics; now time to spill the juicy details:
Upon signing in, users must authorize their device, from which they are verified and then taken to Aereo’s pleasant user-interface that features scrolling promos and a navigation bar equipped with sections for antenna status and DVR storage, account settings, content search, social network linking, Aereo’s news Feed and channel Guide, Featured content, and Recordings.
A quick gander through the Guide revealed 27 stations. This may not seem like much, but the service boasts a few big network names, such as Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS. The Guide also displayed 10-days worth of programming in a grid-like view on the right side.
Users can click on a show’s title to read its summary, and then select either “Watch” or “Record” under the preview, if desired. Watching is only available for live-broadcasts and recorded programs, but users can stop, record, replay, skip, Tweet, Facebook share, and adjust their quality settings under the video box. A live sampling of “Judge Judy” on CBS loaded quickly. The first few minutes played frictionless, but occasional pauses in audio /video were soon followed. Despite the annoying interruptions, the HD quality appeared stunning. Interestingly, the live-streaming commercials seemed to garner the most audio/video disruptions. It is worth mentioning that a playing show will continue to stream while navigating the website, but it downsizes to a small preview affixed in the bottom right corner.
Aereo offers a cloud-based DVR service that allows users to select any show to instantly record, or schedule a recording with two tuners per account. After selecting “Record,” a dialog box floats from the bottom of the browser asking whether the telecast should record “Just this Once,” “Every New Episode,” or “All Episodes.” The Recordings section in the navigation bar allows easy management and access to recorded programs. A 30-second fast-forward button during playback enables users to bypass commercials.
Finally, yet importantly: Noteworthy episodes and movies appear in the Featured and Feed sections, so Aereo can keep users apprised of new content. The Search section is also handy for finding specific productions by title or genre.
Aereo’s fluidity with Safari on the iPhone 4S is lackluster. A Guide list called “On Right Now” immediately appears after signing-in and goes on to make the browser halt and crash. Once Safari finally gets on its feet, the crowded user-interface consistently hiccups, which makes it impossible to navigate the website. If users can sustain the slow response, they will notice “Guide” “Social, and “Settings” sections that pull from the left for respective recording, networking, and account options.
Upon accidentally clicking “Criminal Minds” on ION, a small preview appeared in the bottom-left corner with an option to watch now or record for later, and hitting its play icon causes video to enter full-screen mode. Once finished in full-screen, Aereo placed the preview back to the bottom where it annoyingly blocks a third of the Guide. Live-broadcast loading and quality on the iPhone is about the same as the Mac.
Again, Aereo is painstakingly slow on the iOS smartphone. Scrolling through its 10-day Guide proved impossible, and restarting the app did not help the situation. I eventually admitted defeat and moved to the iPad.
Thankfully, Aereo on the iPad 2 is identical to Aereo on the Mac in both appearance and functionality. The user-interface excels, does not bog down, and responds exceptionally to every gesture.
Video-loading on the iPad is equal to the iPhone and Mac. It is starkly crisp, yet commercials cannot last one-second without pixelating, and the program itself will only air for a few minutes or so before pausing occasionally and resuming after a few-second interruption. However, the HD video quality is superb in full-screen on the tablet, and it probably looks even better on the new iPad’s Retina display.
Overall, Aereo’s HTML5 user-interface is the most impressive on the Mac platform. Its ease of browsing, watching, and recording local TV through Safari is a unique take during an age that offers countless ways of viewing cable without an actual television. The main takeaway with Aereo is that it works best on the Mac and the iPad, video quality is identical to what one would see on a HDTV, and the DVR function is extremely handy.
The main downsides are Aereo’s iPhone version, universal video-loading, and content. The user-interface is frustrating on the smartphone and it repeatedly glitches and crashes in Safari. Meanwhile, video tends to play more seamlessly across all devices at nighttime or on a lower quality setting, while it appears to somewhat glitch during the day, on a higher setting, or when running on the Mountain Lion OS preview versus Lion OS. Video-loading is most prime when watching recorded content stored on Aereo’s servers. With that said, Aereo’s content is limited, yet substantial for what it offers.
In the end, Aereo’s TV-like experience seems encouraging and well worth the test-drive. For many people, its DVR functionality alone is worth the $12 monthly fee. For others, the admission price might be too hefty when compared to cheaper services that also offer cable programming and better streaming.
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