Editors' Note: As of spring 2008, the Fanfare video service has been shuttered, and the TakeTV hardware will no longer be sold.
Once a niche category, there are more products now available that can stream downloadable digital video files from a PC to a TV than ever before--everything from Apple TV to Netgear Digital Entertainer HD to the Xbox 360, just to name a few. More often than not, however, they're either somewhat pricey (at least $300 or so) and usually involve some convoluted setup routine in order to get them working on your home network. Neither of those problems apply to the SanDisk Sansa TakeTV (which was originally called the "USB TV" when it debuted at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show). Basically just a USB flash drive with a video-out docking station, the TakeTV makes watching downloadable (or home-ripped) videos a plug-and-play affair--literally. And if you don't have a source for videos, SanDisk's got you covered on that end, too: Its new Fanfare service is an online store that offers similarly easy one-click purchase and downloads of current TV shows. The TakeTV is available in 4GB and 8GB flavors for $100 and $150, respectively.
About the size of the original (nonvideo) iPod Nano, the main module of the Sansa TakeTV is little more than a flash drive, complete with USB plug. Plug it into your PC (or Mac), and it'll self-install as just that. Once it does, you can drag and drop any one of three video file types--DivX, Xvid, or MPEG4--onto the TakeTV. Alternately, you can install the Fanfare application, which provides access to the aforementioned online video store (currently in beta). There, you can download episodes of TV shows from the likes of CBS and Showtime (current pricing: $2 for TV episodes, $5 for movies). Downloads go straight to the TakeTV, so it's a one-click operation--after you've signed up for the Fanfare account. One note: If your Windows PC isn't upgraded with Microsoft's full .Net framework, Fanfare installation will be drawn out with a few rounds of Windows install-and-restart follies. (SanDisk says it's working on a Mac version of the app.)
Once you've got all the videos you want on the unit, just unplug it from the PC and walk over to your TV. There, you'll have already plugged in the TakeTV "docking station"--a USB receptacle that has composite, S-Video, stereo audio outputs (and the requisite AC adapter as well). It's basically like a horizontally oriented iPod dock--which isn't bad, considering the alternative is yet another box taking up space under your TV. Connect it permanently to a free input on your TV or AV receiver, or--if you plan on taking it on the road often--opt for a quick and dirty hook-up to the front-panel inputs on the TV, VCR, or DVD recorder instead. (SanDisk hints that it may offer additional dock-only kits in the near future, so you could move your TakeTV among multiple TVs with even greater ease).
Flip to the correct input on your TV, and the TakeTV menu screen pops up as soon as it's docked. Use the included remote to scroll to your choice, click play, and you're good to go--any compatible file you've downloaded or transferred is available for viewing. Pause and slow-mo options are available, as are rewind and fast-forward. TakeTV includes a decent selection of aspect ratio control modes--such as letterbox and fill--so you shouldn't have any trouble watching shows as you prefer on a standard or widescreen TV. Moreover, NTSC and PAL video output is supported, so it should have no trouble connecting to TVs throughout the world.
Video quality varies according to how the files are encoded, but it was generally good (S-video will look notably sharper than composite, of course). The CSI: Miami episodes pulled from Fanfare looked better than most iTunes Store offerings, but not up to the better video quality we've seen on Xbox Live Marketplace downloads and the on-demand Vudu box. In other words, despite its maximum supported DVD-level resolution of 720x480 (720x576 for PAL), critical viewers will notice some telltale compression artifacts: softness, jaggies, and color solarization. That said, it was still eminently watchable on a 50-inch plasma. And the sample DivX videos (skiing and base jumping footage) included looked noticeably better--a testament to the TakeTV's potential when better video encoding is used (albeit at the expense of much larger file sizes).
What didn't we like? File compatibility is decent--DivX is always a nice feature--but a wider range of formats would've been even better. Don't expect the TakeTV to play back your WMV, Quicktime, and other digital movies. Likewise, it would be great if the TakeTV could also double as a makeshift photo viewer or music player--but it didn't recognize any of our JPEG or MP3 files when docked. (That said, the TakeTV works fine as a standard flash drive--you can use it to transport any type of files between PCs.) Other little annoyances: The system doesn't offer an auto-resume. Return to the main menu in the middle of an episode, and it'll start again from the beginning. Also, most videos had a 3-second delay before playing.
Another problem was the remote itself. It doubles as storage cradle for the main TakeTV unit when it's not in use, so it's got an odd shape that's difficult to grip. Button layout is likewise odd--the gigantic play button is on a separate top section, while the 12 remaining keys (including a five-way directional pad) are down below. The bubble membrane buttons need to be pressed firmly, and you'll need to keep it pointed directly at the TakeTV dock when using. On the bright side, it's a standard infrared remote, so you can always use a good universal remote control instead.
The other limiting factor of the TakeTV has to do not with the hardware, but the Fanfare service. At launch, it's pretty thin--aside from the keystone CBS and Showtime partners, the only other premium (pay) choice is Jaman, which offers arty international fare. Current freebies include programming from the Smithsonian Network, as well as--gulp--the TV Guide Channel and the Weather Channel. Not exactly the 500-channel Valhalla of cable or satellite TV. Ideally, Fanfare will deliver more programming sooner rather than later. Also, there didn't seem to be any way to watch downloaded shows on your PC--somewhat annoying if you're traveling with your laptop, for instance. Of course, SanDisk is positioning Fanfare as its answer to Apple's iTunes Store--so compatibility with a wider variety of devices is a certainty at some point in the future. (Other Sansa portables are said to be first on deck.)
The master plan, according to SanDisk, is that some of the premium content--such as shows that were originally on commercial television--will be offered in two formats: paid downloads (with no ads) or free (but "ad supported"). Sounds like a fair deal, but beware: It's entirely possible that fast-forwarding could be disabled on the ad-supported downloads to keep you from skipping commercials. Annoying, to be sure, but if the stuff is really free, it's an effective trade-off.
Whether or not Fanfare blossoms, we suspect that the TakeTV may become the ultimate accessory for fans of BitTorrent and other similarly legally gray peer-to-peer sites. To date, all of the DivX and Xvid files available on such file trading networks can't be streamed to Apple TVs or Xbox 360s (at least, not without hacks or expert knowledge)--but dragging and dropping them to the TakeTV works like a charm. Of course, it doesn't have to be all pirated video and porn: It'll work just as well with home videos, as well (once you convert them to a compatible format).
In the final analysis, both the TakeTV and the Fanfare video service are works in progress. We fully expect SanDisk to tweak the unit's firmware and the Fanfare software to correct some of the annoyances and shortcomings listed above. In the meantime, though, the product largely delivers on its mission of offering a super simple solution for watching digital video on your TV. Given the modest price, it's a worthwhile recommendation for those looking to watch digital video on their TV--even for (or perhaps especially for) tech luddites.