Hands-on with Mohu Channels: Over-the-air TV, streaming apps meet in an Android-powered box

/ Updated: February 27, 2014 1:06 PM PST
Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Mohu made its name selling flat antennas for receiving over-the-air TV, but it's now the latest company jockeying to provide the media box in your living room.

The Mohu Channels set-top box was announced yesterday via a Kickstarter campaign and it's already nearing its $35,000 goal. It's part over-the-air tuner, part streaming media box, part Web browser, and the idea is to bring all of these types of content into the traditional channel grid.

The box: Small and unobtrusive

The box itself looks more like a jumbo inline antenna amplifier than the traditional set-top box design of products like the Apple TV and Roku's boxes. On one side there's an RF jack for connecting an antenna, while the other side has four ports: HDMI, Ethernet, USB, and power. There's also built-in Wi-Fi, although no dual-band support.

Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The USB port may seem promising as a way to add DVR capabilities and media playback from a USB drive, but at the moment it's not used for much beyond being able to connect a full-size keyboard and firmware updates if Mohu's server is down.

The remote: Powerful, but possibly overwhelming

More interesting than that box is the remote. It sports a full keyboard for entering in search terms and long URLs, plus it's motion-sensitive for controlling an onscreen cursor. The remote communicates with the Channels box using RF, rather IR, so you can hide the Channels box behind your TV and the remote still works. The keys are backlit and they illuminate as soon as you pick up the remote. The remote reminds me a lot of the controllers included with old Google TV devices, which certainly offer a lot of functionality, but can also be overwhelming.

Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

In addition to controlling the Channels box, the remote also has a traditional IR blaster at the top for controlling volume and power on your TV. It's programmed to work with Samsung TVs out of the box, but the remote is capable of learning to stand in for any remote that you have. That means not only will it work with whatever brand TV you have, but you can teach it to control a sound bar or AV receiver.

Program guide: OTA, apps, and the Web -- all on a single screen

The program guide is the main screen where you'll interact with the three types of content Mohu Channels serves up: over-the-air TV, apps (from Android), and Web pages. They all show up in the same channel grid, with Netflix in the same column as channel "9.1" and ESPN's home page.

Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Over-the-air channels show up exactly how you'd expect them, and all the program guide information is pulled from the TV signals themselves, rather than a separate provider. Mohu claims the tuner is better than the one inside most TVs, and the box also has cut down on the channel scan time by building in a database of signals that should be available in your ZIP code. There's no dual-tuner support, but that's to be expected since it's not a DVR.

Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Since the box is built on Android, that means you'll also have access to all of the apps in the Google Play store. This opens up tons of content choices -- including Netflix, HBO Go, Spotify, Pandora, and Showtime Anytime -- but the drawback is you'll be using the mobile versions of those apps, designed for a touch experience. Mohu Channels gets around that hurdle using the onscreen cursor, but I've found on similar devices that sometimes the mobile-to-TV transition isn't quite seamless. I'll have to get some more hands-on time with Mohu Channels to see how it holds up in day-to-day use.

Mohu Channels
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Finally, Mohu Channels can also access the Android browser, where you can bookmark Web sites to appear on the channel grid. Both HTML5 and Flash videos are supported and the box has no trouble playing back videos straight from ESPN's home page during the demo. The video automatically went full-screen and then returned to the Web site when it was done. While I often find the "Web on my TV" experience to be clunky, it can still be useful in a pinch for content unavailable elsewhere.

Outlook: An interesting OTA alternative, if it's cheap

In all, it's a neat box, although the advantage of buying a separate over-the-air tuner that also streams content isn't immediately obvious. Every modern HDTV already has a tuner built in and many also have integrated smart-TV suites that offer plenty of streaming services. (Or you can always add a cheap streaming box like the Chromecast or Roku LT.)

Mohu's angle is that as soon as you have to switch inputs, you're adding too much hassle to the TV-watching experience. That may be true in some cases, but adding features that address other major over-the-air shortcomings -- like DVR support -- would certainly widen the appeal.

Mohu Channels is expected to be released in June, but pricing isn't finalized yet. Mohu is currently offering an "early bird" special for Kickstarter backers, in which they can score the box, remote, and an HDMI cable for $79.

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