ZeeVee ZvBox Zv-100
These days, there's a wide range of products that will stream on-demand movies from the Internet to your living room (Apple TV, Vudu, Xbox 360, TiVo, PS3, and Roku's Netflix Player). The ability to access YouTube videos, video podcasts, and other online content is built into some of those products as well, and it's even beginning to appear as a feature in many high-end TVs (either built-in or as an add-on). Of course, many of those same products (as well as Windows Media Center extenders) can stream video files from a networked PC, too. But if you like online video beyond YouTube--all of the Flash-based video you find on sites like Hulu, ABC, Comedy Central, AOL Video, and even our own CBS and CNET TV--you've largely been out of luck once you leave the computer screen.
But a product called the ZvBox aims to change all that. It can broadcast your PC's video output to multiple HDTVs in the house, which means you'll be able to watch any video your computer can play from the comfort of your couch. To make PC navigation on your TV easier, the ZvBox also includes an RF remote with cursor control for accessing the desktop (i.e., the one now being shown on your TV screen). The whole system isn't a bad idea, in theory, and it basically delivers on its mission to liberate your PC-based video content. Unfortunately, the ZvBox's exorbitant $500 price tag, its somewhat convoluted setup routine, and the frustrating remote control lag make it tough to recommend, at least in its current incarnation.
The ZeeVee ZvBox Zv-100 (got all that?) package includes two main components--the ZvBox itself and the wireless remote--and several bundled accessories. The main ZvBox unit is a nondescript black box that looks like an elongated VHS tape; its main function is to split your PC monitor video output (VGA) to your DTV (via coaxial cable). The remote is a sizable unit that includes a laptop-style trackpad and mouse buttons for remotely controlling the PC's desktop. It communicates to the PC wirelessly, via a USB antenna dongle; it can also control basic TV functions (volume, channel, power) on up to three sets via infrared.
Of course, before you hook up anything, you install the ZeeVee software on your PC. (Sorry, Mac fans: this is strictly Windows only). The software works with the ZvBox and the remote to toggle the screen mirroring function on and off as you command; it also includes a home screen for easy access to a variety of popular Web video destinations, including YouTube and Hulu.
The ZvBox needs to be near your computer, where it sits between the PC and monitor, effectively "mirroring" the computer's video output (a VGA passthrough port still lets you use the monitor as usual when the ZvBox isn't in action). You also connect the ZvBox to the PC's USB port (for control). Then you need to get the box attached to your TV.
If your house is prewired for cable TV, you can actually tap into that system with a channel filter dongle that you add into the wiring mix. When properly set up, it should "broadcast" your PC's video signal to all the DTVs in the house. ZeeVee also throws in a couple of splitters, and the setup chart includes several variations for tapping into your home's existing wiring while not upsetting the TV or cable modem service. We opted for the easiest and most straightforward approach: just running the standard coaxial cable from the ZvBox directly into the back of our DTV.
Note that we did specify DTV, by the way: the ZvBox broadcasts the signal to digital channel 125-99. That means you'll need a set with a digital QAM tuner. Most recent HDTVs should work. Be aware, though, that you'll need to run an RF cable directly to the back of the set (not just the cable box). Also, those using over-the-air antennas will likely need to toggle their TVs from "antenna" to "cable" mode. (At least, that's what we had to do to get things to work on separate Sony and Panasonic TVs.)
Another setup issue: because the ZvBox only has a VGA input, anyone using DVI or HDMI links between their PC and their monitor will have to downgrade to that connector. You can pick up the requisite dongles and adapter cables on the cheap, but it's something to consider if you're interested.
Once the ZvBox itself is properly configured, you also need to attach the USB antenna dongle, which allows the RF remote to control the PC, even if it's in a different room.
After everything's hooked up, you should be able to turn the TV to channel 125-99, punch the home button on the remote, and get the ZeeVee home screen. Alas, it didn't work for us the first time, but ZeeVee's suggestion that we update our video card drivers to the most current version fixed the issue. We appreciated the fact that the software allows you to tweak the image to match any overscan or underscan that might exist on your TV--you should be able to get a pixel-by-pixel matchup.
If that sounds like a rather long and daunting setup process, that's because it was--even for experienced techies like ourselves. If you're the type of person who builds his/her own computer or who's the designated "IT guy" for the entire family, you'll probably do all right--but this is definitely not a product for anyone who's ever had to call in the Geek Squad. That said, it's worth noting that you don't need any home network for ZvBox to function--only the coaxial cable links are needed for multi-TV distribution, and most houses already wired for cable probably have that in place.
Once we finally had the ZvBox up and running, we were ready to settle in and watch some video. Indeed, anything you could watch on your PC--be it streaming online video (Hulu, YouTube, NBC, ABC, CNN, CBS, Fox, etc.), downloadable video (Amazon Unbox, iTunes, Movielink, Joost), or any video files you have on your PC (obtained legitimately or otherwise) will work. The normal caveats apply--low-resolution files will look blocky and blurry on your HDTVs big screen, but anything encoded at 640x480 or better (and at a good bitrate) will look considerably better. Most of the "default" Flash-based videos on Hulu, for instance, were quite watchable, and things got even better when we toggled to the 480p mode available on many vids. Ditto for the 720p content available on Hulu's "HD Gallery." (Currently, 720p is ZvBox's maximum supported resolution, but the company says that 1080i support is coming soon via a software upgrade.)
When you power up the ZvBox (via the remote), it automatically loads up the "Zviewer" application that has a splash screen with shortcuts to most of the popular online video destinations. You can also customize the program with shortcuts to plenty of sites, media-centric applications, and media-filled folders. Then, use the ZvRemote to point and click to your choices, as you would with a mouse. You can also maneuver with a browser, of course, and the remote uses a text-messaging style keypad input for typing in Web addresses.
The remote works, but for one major issue: there's a delay of about half a second from your input (typing, moving the cursor) to what's happening on the screen. Presumably, this is because the ZvBox is transcoding the video signal from the VGA input to coaxial output. Whatever the reason, the end result is maddening--it's kind of like driving on an icy road. While it's not fair to call it unusable, it is considerably unpleasant--especially for anyone used to the lightning-fast response you get on, say, an Apple TV.
Another issue: because most videos are played in a browser window or an application (Windows Media Player, iTunes, what have you), you can end up opening several windows at once. That can sap system resources and slow things down. We misclicked something, and ended up with an episode of The Office playing in two different windows, one about 5 seconds behind the other. We were able to close one out, but it took some finger gymnastics using that aforementioned laggy mouse pointer.
While we had no complaints with the ZvBox's overall picture quality (resolution, color, contrast, etc.), we noticed some shimmering that appeared to be RF interference. Indeed, we were using a coaxial line of at least 50 feet for our hookup. But if ZvBox is designed to be hooked into a whole-house cable system, that makes us think the RF interference may be more pronounced with such setups.
Two other drawbacks worth noting: First off, the ZvBox pretty much takes over the host PC while you're using it, so don't expect that one family member is going to be using the computer to, say, browse the Web or run Quicken while you're using the ZvBox from afar. Secondly, we don't really find the multi-TV playback option to be particularly useful. Yes, it's nice if you want to watch the first half of a movie in the living room and then move to the bedroom. But we don't think people will be watching the same program simultaneously in multiple rooms of the house. Also, we can think of plenty of online video viewing that we'd prefer to keep confidential--not broadcast to the rest of the house on a channel that anyone could access.
Was the ZvBox the "Hulu box" we'd been dreaming of? Indeed, we were able to use it to fire up select episodes of Burn Notice, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development straight off Hulu, and enjoy them on our big-screen TV. And it worked just as well for any other digital content (Web videos, music, and photos). But the overall experience just wasn't very satisfying because there seemed to be too many strings attached: the system's elaborate setup requirements, its pokey onscreen navigation, and--especially--its high price.
It's that last one that'll be the real deal-killer for most users. While a passionate fan of Web video might be motivated to take the plunge at $250 or $300, the $500 price tag puts the ZvBox into competition with full-on PCs. At that point, you might as well just get an entry-level PC--something like the eMachines T5254 or $500 Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop--and connect it directly to your TV. Pair it with a good wireless keyboard like the Logitech diNovo Mini, and you've got sofa-based access to the entire panoply of Web-based video on your living room HDTV--for roughly the same overall price. Until ZeeVee can provide a better or cheaper alternative to that sort of setup, it's unclear why we'd want the ZvBox instead.