Slingbox has owned the video placeshifting market for the past five years, to the extent that such an act has been coined as "slinging" content. To the company's credit, there has been a steady amount of copycats to come and go, but the Vulkano Flow is easily one of the best.
While the experience is a bit clunkier than what Slingbox users might be used to, the Vulkano Flow does offer some additional features the Slingbox Solo doesn't like wireless access. It also beats the Solo in the pricing department, as the Flow can be had for just $100.
Setting up the Flow is certainly a little less polished than the Slingbox experience, but it's just as--if not more--functional. After attaching the device to a home network, the Vulkano software locates the Flow on the network and checks for the latest firmware (which updated quite a bit during our review process).
The installation wizard continues through various setup screens that configure video settings, set top box controls, and location information for the EPG, the system's built-in Electronic Programming Guide.
These settings also allow the user to dictate streaming resolutions and bitrates, a nice touch for the do-it-yourself power user. Here are also controls for the player's recording settings, for when users wish to record TV content to their computer.
Design and features
The Flow itself is 16 inches wide by 5 inches deep by 1 inch high and will take up a decent amount of room in a home theater setup. It's lightweight and plastic, and can feel flimsy when being held. We wish it had a more compact design, similar to that of the Solo, so that it wouldn't take up as much surface area.
That aside, the Flow boasts passthrough composite and component video connections, though there aren't any HDMI ports. Around back also lie an Ethernet port, reset button, and IR blaster socket. The Flow can also work via a Wi-Fi signal, but we'd recommend a wired connection for the best performance.
There also seem to be a few dormant ports on the Flow, including an "RSVD" button, a USB port (that essentially has no purpose), an infrared IR window, and another slot covered by some electrical tape. The unit we received looked finished enough, but we can imagine that some of these outstanding items will be addressed for a proper retail release.
The Flow includes most of what's needed right out of the box, including composite and component wires, a 6-foot Ethernet cord, IR blaster, and power cord. Another composite or component wire will be required for passthrough.
The Vulkano Flow doesn't attempt to do more than advertised--and for customers who want a device focused on video and audio placeshifting, the Flow will work well. Overall performance on the Flow PC and Mac-based players was great. The system was able to deliver a high-quality video stream when attached via an Ethernet connection. The stream quality certainly dipped when we tried it over Wi-Fi, but by no means rendered it unwatchable. That said, for those tapping into the Flow from outside their home network, we'd adamantly recommend a wired connection.
On paper, the Flow's electronic program guide (EPG) sounds like a fantastic way to bypass the tediousness of controlling a set-top box with a delay. The EPG is stored on the client-side, so there's no lag in choosing content. That said, we didn't always find the EPG to be completely accurate with times and descriptions, though some of the blame here can be directed at the channel guide content provider.
We really like the fact that users can pause and rewind live TV natively via the Flow client when being used on a PC or Mac. The player keeps a running buffer constantly recording so that rewinding can be done instantly and not remotely.
The PC and Mac clients (and we're told the iPad as well) allows for TV recording. In the client settings, users can allocate a directory for local saving, which the client will encode in MP4 format. It's tough to imagine a scenario where a user would need to record TV live to their computer, but the functionality is certainly a welcome feature, especially because it leaves us with a self-contained file of any TV program. Just note that the PC or Mac must be turned on to do so, as the Flow player records in real time.
Flow owners can also placeshift content to their mobile devices, but we weren't able to test these items in our initial review. When we've had some hands-on time with the software, we'll update this review with iPad and Android app impressions. The Flow player client is available for Android, iPhone, iPad, and BlackBerry devices for $12.99.
The Vulkano Flow is a great streaming-centric device that does a wonderful job at placeshifting content to a PC, Mac, or mobile platform. We love its TiVo-like recording abilities and the EPG's ability to bypass laggy remote control, even though the whole implementation isn't perfect.
It's a bit unsettling that at the time of this review the company's site hasn't even been updated to reflect the 2011 line of products nor is there a specific support section devoted to the Flow or the step-up hard-drive-enabled Vulkano Blast.
Overall, we were impressed by the Vulkano Flow with its bevy of streaming-focus features and DIY-friendliness. For those who need their hands held through the waters of placeshifting, the Slingbox Solo is a proven alternative, and it also lets users watch their own content via the company's Web site. On the other hand it's more expensive than the Flow, and the corresponding mobile apps clock in at around $30.