/> ED I T O R S C H O I C E IN N O V A T IO N A W A R D
X

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Kula TV review: Kula TV

Donald_Bell.jpg

OVR
4.7

Kula TV

The Good

The Kula portable Internet television delivers free international broadcasts in a convenient, pocket-size design.

The Bad

Streams are often choppy; content is poorly organized; the plastic antenna is flimsy; terrestrial broadcasts are not supported; screen quality is mediocre; the touch-screen interface lags; internal memory is meager; charging requires a power adapter; and battery life is poor.

The Bottom Line

The Kula TV is a neat concept plagued by cheap construction, a half-baked user interface, and poor performance.

There are dozens of ways to watch television content on-the-go these days, but few ways to tune into mobile broadcasts for free. Whether you're downloading shows a la carte on your iPod, streaming them on your cell phone's monthly data plan, or tuning them in over the air using a FloTV subscription, there's seemingly no way to escape being charged for a mobile TV experience.

The Kula TV ($199) from Sungale represents an ambitious attempt to deliver a pocket-sized mobile TV with no strings attached. Using an integrated Wi-Fi antenna, Kula is able to pull down the free streaming video feeds from over 400 broadcasters worldwide, including majors such as CNN, BBC, FOX, and dozens of local affiliate stations. The video streams range in quality, and are essentially repurposed from the same video feeds you could tune in for free on any Web browser, boiled down for a handheld device.

The main menu on the Kula TV includes four touch-screen icons: Kula TV; Storage; Clock; and Settings. After pressing the TV-shaped Kula TV menu icon, you find a submenu of broadcast categories, such as recently watched, comedy, drama, news, children, shopping, and sports. Users also have the option to sort broadcasts by language, country of origin, and even state.

Once a broadcast has been selected, it simply starts streaming. Tapping the screen of a currently playing broadcast returns you to the channel browser. There are no onscreen controls, and no options for pausing or caching content. Controlling the volume of your headphones (or the internal speaker) is done with two physical buttons on the top of the device, located next to the power button.

When you are not near an Internet connection, the Storage option on the main menu allows you to play back any locally stored photo, music, or video files. Internal memory is limited to 2GB, with the option to expand memory using a MicroSD card slot. It should also be mentioned that the video playback screen includes no controls for pausing, skipping, or rewinding playback. Instead, video plays from the beginning, or not at all, making it a poor choice for a portable video player.

The other main menu features, Clock and Settings, offer very little. Clock options include setting the time and date, along with some limited alarm modes. Under Settings, users can select their preferred wireless network, enter router passwords, set an interval for photo slideshows, and view information about the device. Settings for screen brightness are not offered, which is a pity, since the backlit 4.3-inch LCD is a bit dim.

Design
Measuring 5 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and 0.5 inch thick, the Kula TV's chunky, yet pocketable, form feels more like a portable GPS unit than a sexy portable media player. Aside from the previously mentioned volume and power buttons, the device is controlled entirely using the touch screen. The left edge of the Kula TV includes a headphone jack, MicroSD slot, a Mini-USB port for loading media, and a socket for the included power adapter, which is required for recharging the internal battery.

One of the most off-putting aspects of the Kula TV's physical design is the 2.5-inch plastic antenna that folds out from its top. Putting aside our confusion over why a device like this needs an external antenna if it's not grabbing over-the-air broadcasts, we couldn't get past the antenna's flimsy plastic design. Constructed entirely of plastic, using a plastic hinge, the antenna is practically begging to be broken off. We advise keeping the antenna folded up, since it provided us with no discernable improvement in Wi-Fi reception when outstretched.

Kula TV's user interface isn't pretty, and the touch-screen navigation is sluggish and poorly conceived. Scrolling through lists of content requires a precise tap to grab the scrollbar, which dynamically shrinks down to an impossible sliver when lists get long. Upon arriving on a station you'd like to view, a single press of the station name is all it takes to tune it in, although buffering delays can make the experience seem unresponsive or sluggish.

Station organization could also use some work. In spite of the hundreds of streaming TV stations offered, it took us quite a while to find one worth watching. Sorting by genre, language, or location is helpful; however, a search function could really cut through the clutter.

Another seemingly simple feature we're surprised not to find on the Kula TV is the inclusion of free video podcast content. With so many Internet radios including podcast streaming, it seems like a logical fit to have video podcasts on a TV equivalent such as this.

Performance
We've already noted a few of our observations of how the Kula TV holds up under real use conditions, such as the fragile antenna design, lackluster screen brightness, and a half-baked onscreen interface. We wish we could use this section to tell you that the Kula TV is redeemed by phenomenal battery life, video performance, or sound quality, but it simply isn't true.

If there's one silver lining to the Kula TV's performance, it's that the TFT LCD offers impressive viewing angles. The 480x272-pixel screen resolution isn't shabby either, though the inherent grittiness of streaming video can't do it justice.

Because streaming video resolutions differ from station to station, the playback experience on the Kula TV varies dramatically. Some broadcasts play full screen, some are presented within a frame of black bars; some play smoothly, whereas an equal share seem to stutter and buffer every few seconds.

During our time with the Kula TV we found listening to broadcasts using the built-in speaker to be the most natural way to use it around the home. The integrated speaker offers plenty of volume, but does tend to distort when cranked up. Plugging in the included set of earbuds automatically mutes the built-in speaker, but the audio experience is dreadful. We found the lowest volume setting on the Kula TV is still too loud and grating for casual listening. Granted, streaming video content rarely excels in terms of audio quality, but we would have appreciated some finer control over the Kula TV's listening levels.

Sungale rates the Kula TV at 4 hours of battery life after a full charge from the provided (and necessary) power adapter. Our battery life experience was closer to 2-3 hours. By comparison, a $199 8GB iPod Touch delivers 6 hours of video playback, offers more features than the Kula TV, a better design, and arguably provides more free video content, via streams and podcasts.

OVR
4.7

Kula TV

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 6Performance 3