You're probably wondering why I'm expending so many bits on reviewing Belkin's @TV TV anywhere set-top box. Even though I have reservations about and had problems with its initial implementation, as you'll see, overall I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone who spends a lot of time away from home and TV hearth.
Today I'll walk you though the pros and cons of actually using @TV.
@TV app and software
When you fire up the @TV tablet or smartphone app or laptop PC for the first time, you're asked for the name you assigned your @TV and your password. Once given, you never have to enter either again to watch @TV (you'll need your password to adjust advanced set-up settings, which hopefully you won't need).
@TV will default to the highest possible resolution setting; during the physical set-up, it's recommended you also connect an old-fashioned analog video jack (yellow) in case your Internet connection isn't strong.
Tap the video and you'll get transport controls - pause, fast forward, rewind and record (which I'll discuss in a moment). Below the image are options for Remote, Guide, Playlist (shows you've recorded), Favorites (channels you frequently watch) and Settings.
Of these, Remote is most important.
Remote control issues
On the iPad, touching Remote provides controls for the cable/satellite box you use at home - tap "Guide," for instance, on the @TV Remote screen, and the program guide on your cable or satellite box at home pops up.
Instead of a single remote control array, Belkin has divvied the controls across three screens:
Channel, which gives you a numeric keyboard for changing channels (as in the picture above left);
Menu, which provides access to your TV's cable or satellite program guide, page-up/page down for quickly hop-scotching through your program guide and DVR list, last channel return, and the up/down/left/right/Select navigational array; and,
DVR, which provides the Record button and additional navigational controls the purpose of which I'm still mystified by.
By contrast, Slingbox provides you with an on-screen replicate of your actual remote control. I found Belkin's three-screen solution counter intuitive - I now have to remember which controls are on which screen.
Further, the control commands seem unfinished. I had to annoyingly manually program the Page Up/Page Down and List commands, for instance. If my remote commands are incomplete, it's a fair bet command sets of other cable/satellite boxes are incomplete as well.
Conversely, the @TV remote control on Mac and Windows PCs is a visual and clickable representation of your actual remote, ala Slingbox. But, again, I encountered issues.
First, my cable box - the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD - is listed three times in the set-up, and none of them produced an accurate representation of the two remote controls I'm familiar with on either a Mac or a Windows PC. On my MacBook Air I couldn't get a remote that included the DVR List button, some lacked the colored yellow, blue and red buttons, and several controls were grayed out, indicating they were not available even though they should have been.
@TV offers three functions Slingbox does not:
reception via cellular as well as Wi-Fi (although with cellular data caps, I don't recommend streaming your TV via this connection).
multiple device connections, although connecting via two or more devices can degrade reception - I had an iPhone, iPad, Mac and Windows @TV apps running simultaneously with no significant lags or buffering issues.
record programs locally onto your tablet, smartphone or laptop for off-line viewing.
This last is a handy function - you can watch stuff from your TV without needing an internet connection. An hour's worth of TV will require about 1 GB of memory.
One caveat - you have to keep your cable or satellite box on the channel you're recording to @TV. You also can't multitask on your tablet while recording to @TV - the @TV app has to remain front-and-center. @TV won't record if the app is shunted to the background in favor of another app or if you turn the tablet screen off, which means you should have the AC power connected while recording.
Also, I could find no way to timer set an @TV recording. Before you can start recording, you are asked to name the recording and set a duration time in minutes, which meant I kept having to annoyingly figure the appropriate multiples of 60-plus to figure out how long the recording should last. On the Windows and Mac @TV software you can set a specific time to end recording.
But in practice I could only get @TV recording to work a couple of times on my Mac, my iPad and via the Android app on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. On all but a few occasions, the @TV lost its Wi-Fi connection way before the recording was completed. But I don't know if it was my Wi-Fi network or the @TV app's fault (I suspect the former).
Overall, @TV maintained a more consistent and higher-quality video stream than my Slingbox, with less buffering. Unlike Slingbox, I never had to manually switch from a higher- to lower-quality setting. @TV did a better job of self-adjusting to the strength of the Wi-Fi connection.
Perhaps the relative processing power of the remote viewing device is a factor. My MacBook Air, with its more powerful processor, seemed to provide the most robust streaming experience when compared to an iPad 3, my iPhone 4S and especially my nearly five-year-old Windows laptop.
But the frequency of the disconnections on my iPad, the remote device I'll most likely use with @TV, is my only major @TV complaint.
Since this is largely Belkin's first version of @TV, future app and firmware updates are likely to resolve some of these early hiccups.
All-in-all, I highly recommend Belkin's @TV to transform your home TV into an constant and familiar travel companion.