RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo) review:

RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo)

At the end of the day, the Akimbo service sinks or swims based on its content. If you're expecting a full replacement for your cable service, Akimbo most likely won't fit the bill--they even admit as much in their online FAQ. However, if you're looking to augment your current cable or satellite service with some niche programming, Akimbo has some decent offerings. Based on its list of most popular programs, the service seems to be a hit with anime fans, who can take advantage of both the Anime Network and Anime One channels. There's also plenty of content from channels you've probably never heard of--such as Security TV, WahIndia, and Sail.TV--as well as selections from cable stalwarts like Discovery, TLC and The Travel Channel. Of course, whether or not Akimbo's programming appeals to you is a matter of personal preference--you should definitely check out their program offerings before deciding whether or not it's worth making the investment.

In addition to Akimbo's content, there is also the ability to rent or purchase movies via the Movielink service. Unfortunately, our review model logged into a prerelease server that did not offer the Movielink service, so we were unable to review how the service performed. However, retail users of the Video On Demand Player should have access to the entire range of the Movielink library. That's a much wider selection of movies than Akimbo offers, but the Movielink flicks will cost you anywhere from $2 to $4.50 to "rent."

After you decide whether or not you like what Akimbo and Movielink have to offer, you have to decide if they're worth the money. While there is some content included in Akimbo's $10 monthly fee, a large amount of the programs also require a separate fee to watch. For example, Citizen Kane from Turner Classic Movies costs an additional $2 to rent for a 30-day period. Prices vary; for example, episodes of Fawlty Towers from the BBC cost only 50 cents to rent for 30 days, while an episode American Chopper from the Discovery Channel costs $2 to rent for 7 days. Some subscriptions offer a steady stream of daily content for a nominal monthly fee--$3 a month gets you "condensed game highlights" of the previous day's Major League Baseball games, for instance. The bottom line is that these costs add up in a hurry, so anyone expecting to save a lot of money over cable should make sure they are aware of all the charges--this isn't a Netflix- or Blockbuster-style "all you can eat" subscription. Although Akimbo's slogan is "your wish is on demand", the service varies quite a bit from the cable video-on-demand experience. How quickly the box is able to grab content depends on the speed of your connection and how fast their servers are; we felt it was a little slow: A 24-minute Dr. Who episode took 45 minutes to download, and the 88-minute classic movie The Magnificent Ambersons needed 127 minutes to fully stream in. (Important caveats: we were using a test server, not the "retail" one, and our office broadband connection isn't the speediest we've used.) With download times like these--and the fact that you can't begin playback until a program is fully downloaded--we found the best way to use Akimbo is to just load up the queue before you go to bed or to work, and let the content trickle down in the intervening hours. (You can watch any previously downloaded programs while new a new one is downloaded in the background.)

Anyone who was frustrated with the old Akimbo box will like some of the usability tweaks on the RCA version. In addition to some of the intuitive interface improvements mentioned above, you can now use multispeed fast-forward and rewind, so getting to a specific scene in a movie or a how-to video is easier. And while not a feature of the box itself, the Akimbo Web site has been overhauled to make it easier to find programming recommendations that appeal to you.

The video quality of the programming varied, and although the box offers a component-video connection, it can output at only standard-def 480i resolution. We were impressed by some programs, such as Fawlty Towers that looked to be close to DVD-quality (although, admittedly, that 1975 Brit-com was never a hallmark for reference video quality). However, some other shows, such as Extreme Engineering were marred by extremely noticeable jaggies and serious MPEG-2 compression artifacts--for instance, in a dark scene showing the bottom of a bridge, there were visible blocks of alternating colors, rather than a smooth gradation. Content from Internet sources, such as Rocketboom, looked expectedly low-res, but it was watchable if you're willing to put up with some serious jaggies. We'd like to see a choice between a low-resolution "quick download" or a DVD-quality version, so the user could decide whether they value timeliness or quality more.

In the end, the RCA Video On Demand box is up against a wide range of competitors--including cable and satellite video-on-demand channels, Netflix and Blockbuster DVD-by-mail services, and hardware rivals such as MovieBeam and, in 2007, Apple. Like any of those offerings, the RCA box comes down to the value proposition you get from the Akimbo and Movielink services. Compared to, say, Netflix, Akimbo definitely wins in timeliness, with its ability to indulge our impulse-buying wishes. On the other hand, we're guessing the vast majority of people would be more satisfied with Netflix's huge library of titles--you can even rent HD-DVD and Blu-Ray titles now. Akimbo definitely shows a lot of promise, but unless a few of their niche channels really appeal to you, we'd probably hold off until they expand their content offerings and work out a better pricing scheme.

What you'll pay

    Visit manufacturer site for details.

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