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RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo) review: RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo)

RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo)

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Matthew Moskovciak
Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg

Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

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8 min read

Akimbo's onscreen visual interface isn't up to TiVo standards, but it's improved from earlier versions and is mostly easy to use. The main menus used to find content are the Just In, Library, and Guide menus. As you might have guessed, the Just In menu shows you the most recently downloaded programs, as well as showing you the status of programs being downloaded plus the rest of your queue. The Library menu brings up your collection of downloaded material, which can be filtered by channel, alphabetical name, downloaded date, and that which is soon to be deleted. We would have liked the option to make our own organization scheme, but that's not really a knock as most network media players lack this feature. The Guide menu is used to find new programs to download, and you can browse by Recent Additions, Top Rated, Channel, Category, Search and Favorite Channels.

6.0

RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo)

The Good

The RCA Video On Demand Player delivers Movielink and Akimbo video services to your TV from a single set-top box. Between the two services, you can get a variety of mainstream and niche programming--much of it unavailable on cable or satellite--as well as movies. It offers a fairly intuitive interface and full parental viewing controls.

The Bad

Many Akimbo programs--and all Movielink movies--require pay-per-view fees in addition to the $10 monthly fee. The programs entail long download times and can't start playing until they're fully downloaded. Downloads aren't intended to be archived and need to be erased soon after viewing. Video quality on most Akimbo programming is less than digital-cable quality. HD video is a no-show, and the box lacks aspect ratio control. The included remote isn't particularly well designed, and there's no built-in wireless networking access.

The Bottom Line

RCA's broadband video box delivers a promising combination of Akimbo and Movielink video content, but slow download speeds and potentially expensive pay-per-view pricing limit its appeal.
Intro
If you were to ask most people what the ultimate home-video experience would be, we're guessing most people would want the ability to be able to pull up any program or movie they can think of and start watching it right away. While cable companies are doing their best with pay-per-view and video-on-demand, IPTV (TV via the Internet) services are trying to get a piece of the potentially lucrative pie as well. But while many of these services focus on delivering video content to people's computer monitors or cell phones, there's a small but growing number of devices that deliver Internet video services to your TV. The latest is the RCA Video On Demand Player, which offers video content from the Akimbo service and Movielink feature film downloads. For $10 a month (plus some additional per-use charges for some Akimbo and all Movielink videos), you can pick and choose which videos you'd like to download to the device's 80GB hard drive. The RCA Video On Demand Player is a bland, functional box that might otherwise be mistaken for a cable tuner or even an old VCR. On the front panel, there's both a power button and a directional pad, which is nice when the remote is missing. To the right of the directional pad are LED indicators that let you know how close your most recent download is to finishing and whether you have newly downloaded material. While it's nice to be able to see the progress without having to fire up your TV or switch inputs, home-theater purists will lament the fact that there's no option to turn off these lights altogether.

Another main menu is Member Central, which is used to keep track of your current subscriptions. We were able to sign up for subscriptions to the Turner Classic Movie of the Week and the Rocketboom video blog without any problems. An even better option would be if you could use the subscriptions like TiVo's Season Pass feature and, for instance, download every new episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force as they're broadcast on regular TV. Instead, you're limited to a more scattershot listing of what the content partners feel comfortable with releasing--which is often older episodes from past seasons.

The few interface annoyances we did encounter were more a result of the stubby remote control. It has only 17 buttons, and they're laid out in a less than intuitive fashion. For instance, it's often confusing as to whether to use the Back button or the left directional pad to return to a previous screen. Likewise, the fast-forward and rewind buttons also double as page-up and page-down keys. (As always, you could simply co-opt the RCA's onscreen functions with any decent universal remote control.) In terms of hardware, the RCA Video On Demand Player is a pretty straightforward device. Once you configure your Akimbo account--it requires a $10 monthly fee, and provides access to a baseline level of programming--you simply fire up the box, pick the videos you want, and once they're fully downloaded to its internal 80GB hard drive, watch to your heart's content. The box will connect to any TV or A/V receiver, thanks to a full assortment of A/V jacks. On the back panel, you'll find component video (which was missing from the previous Akimbo model), two S-Video jacks, two digital audio outputs (one optical, one coaxial), and a composite A/V output.

Of course, the box needs to pull down content from the Net via your broadband home network. It connects to your router via an Ethernet wired connection, or you can plug an optional wireless adapter (available separately) into one of the two rear-panel USB ports to interface with your Wi-Fi network instead. We'd love it if those USB ports could also be used to transfer downloaded content to portable devices such as a video iPod, but no such functionality is on deck for now.

The RCA box doesn't support HD output; the downloadable content is strictly standard-definition fare. (Owners of Media Center Edition PCs can get a software-only version of the Akimbo service that provides access to all of the content available on the RCA device, plus some HD programming as well.) That's a sensible concept--HD content would take much longer to download. But we still would have liked to see some sort of aspect-ratio control. For instance, many of the old films available from the Turner Classic Movies library were letterboxed, but appeared "windowboxed" (surrounded by black bars on all four sides) on wide-screen TVs. Fortunately, the zoom function found on most such sets is a good workaround.

The parental controls feature is particularly well implemented. You can dial in the rating limit you'd like, and once the lock is on, it hides any content that exceeds that limit. That's important, because there's a wide selection of graphic adult videos among Akimbo's offerings. With the parental controls engaged, not only is the content restricted, it won't even show up on the menus--it's effectively invisible--until and unless you disengage the lock.

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.

6.0

RCA Video On Demand Player (Akimbo)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 5
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