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.
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.
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.