Recordings and Cloud DVR
But viewing live TV over the internet is only half of Aereo\’s appeal. Users can also record up to 20 or 60 hours of DVR recordings and stash them in the cloud, where they can then be accessed from any Aereo-compatible device.
From a core functionality standpoint, Aereo\’s DVR capabilities are just swell. Little options to record are located all over the interface, and the process of recording a show and then accessing it later is mostly painless.
When one chooses to record a show, a small menu will pop up asking if the user wants to record that one episode, every upcoming episode, or every new upcoming episode of that program. If a user has multiple recordings scheduled for the future, they can prioritize which recordings should be recorded above all else.
From there, users can make it so their recordings start up to 10 minutes before and after the program\’s scheduled airtime, which is nifty considering the sometimes flakey schedule of live TV. Likewise, users can choose to stop their recordings up to 10 minutes before or up to an hour after their intended finish times. Again, the more specific one can be, the better.
The dedicated Recordings tab keeps all of a user\’s saved programs under one roof, and is similarly nice looking and simple to use. Everything in it should be self-explanatory to anyone who\’s familiar with a typical DVR. Taped shows can be organized by title or date, a list of all of a user’s previous recordings is kept handy, and saved programs can be deleted at any time.
As is the recurring theme with this service, Aereo’s DVR is great at what does, but hindered by the features it lacks. Some of the smaller issues — there are no dedicated fast forward or rewind buttons, users can’t save their place in a particular program unless they hit the Stop button, etc. – can be excused, but there are some more notable problems at play.
Aereo grants two antennas for each user, which means that subscribers can only record two programs at a time. That’s not the worst thing in the world, since many cable services have the same limit. But unlike cable, Aereo doesn’t let users stream one show while they are recording another one at the same time, or vice versa, if they’re on the $8 per month plan. Unless they’re on the $12 plan, users would be out of luck if they wanted to tape the newest episode of Parks and Recreation while they catch up on the latest Two and Half Men, which airs simultaneously.
The other dilemma here ties back into Aereo’s reliance on the cloud. Since this is an always-on service, users can only access their recordings when they have an internet connection. This won’t often be an issue on desktops, but it does inherently limit Aereo’s usefulness on the go. Especially considering the potential bandwidth issues that stem from streaming video over a mobile data connection (which isn’t always bountiful), TG would like to be able stash recorded programs locally on one’s devices.
Likewise, users can only watch recorded programs when they are within their registered coverage area. So, since TG used the Boston version of the service, it wasn’t able to access its saved programs on a recent trip to Los Angeles. This is the kind of thing that will go over the heads of most everyday users, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant for travelers.
On the top of the interface sit five persistent drop-down tabs, most of which are fairly self-explanatory. A Feed menu gives a brief description of notable upcoming programs, but doesn’t often provide relevant recommendations and only works when the browser window is fullscreen. Other tabs for inviting friends, general settings, and checking the status of one’s allotted antennas and DVR space all do what one would expect too.
The most notable drop-down tab is home to Aereo’s search function, which aims to accommodate more organic queries to varying degrees of success. For basic searches, it’s fine. Those who look up “30 Rock” will get a neat list of recorded and upcoming 30 Rock episodes in chronological order. It lets users record any upcoming program right from the returned results, can be accessed at any time, and doesn’t interrupt any shows that may be streaming at the time (on the web, at least). The search bar also gives suggestions mid-query, and while it isn’t exactly fast, it’s appreciated.
The organic bit, however, comes through the range of terms that Aereo has apparently baked into the engine. Users can search with general terms like “comedy” or “soap opera” to get a list of upcoming programs in those specific genres, for instance, or can look up “on Fox” or “on MyNetworkTV” for the programs coming on those particular channels. Searching by a specific date (like “on 6/19”), time (“at 6am”), day (“on Wednesday”), or period of programming (“at primetime”) is encouraged too. And using the “n!” tag in a search limits all of its results to new programs airing within the next week.
All of these functions can be mixed and matched. So, if users wanted to see what comedies were airing on NBC during primetime, they could search “comedy on NBC at primetime.” If they wanted to know what new sports event will be on FOX this coming Saturday at 7pm, they could just look up “n! sports on FOX on Saturday at 7pm.” Most users will probably never be that specific in looking for content, but these more sophisticated kind of queries do work – so long as users play by Aereo’s rules.
Notice how almost every sample search term up there uses the word “on” or “at”? Well, without those, Aereo’s organic search becomes a little bit messy. Searching “on Fox” lists what’s on that particular channel, for example, but just looking for “fox” brings up a jumbled list of shows with the actual word “fox” in their title or description. More complicated queries like “comedy NBC 7pm” brings up a bunch of shows with the words “comedy” or “NBC” in their name (TG doesn’t believe Aereo isn’t wise enough to think “NBC Nightly News” is a comedy), but looking up “comedy on NBC at 7pm” will give users exactly what they’re looking for.
This is admittedly a bit of a nitpick, but it would be nice to see Aereo’s search abilities open up a little bit more beyond its preset keywords, especially if its goal is to facilitate more organic queries. Despite this, what’s here is still fairly impressive, and will work more than fine for the everyday subscriber.
Just about everything TG has described thus far applies to the web version of Aereo, but since one of the service\’s core selling points is its functionality on multiple devices, we\’d be remiss not to quickly get into Aereo\’s smartphone, tablet and media streamer variants.
The most crucial thing to note is that Aereo isn\’t an app. It works on any iPad and any iPhone running iOS 4 and up, but it won\’t be found in the App Store. Instead, users access Aereo through a web browser. These devices can then stream Aereo back to an Apple TV through AirPlay.
This makes the mobile version of the service more or less identical to the desktop version, only with a few obvious visual tweaks to better suit it to smaller form factors. Besides that, all the same pluses and problems TG found with the web client apply here — many of which may be bettered, or at least more streamlined, with a dedicated app.
Its performance still depends on one’s internet connection, and since mobile data isn’t always as consistent as a home network, TG found that it was better off just setting the stream to the less taxing Low video quality setting. Those who get good 4G LTE speeds will be fine blasting it up to High, however.
If it wasn’t already apparent, it must be mentioned that there is no Android support to be found here. Aereo is limited to just iOS devices as of today, which gives it a large base to start with but deeply restricts its utility to millions of potential customers.
Aereo says that it will be adding Android support soon (no word on BlackBerry 10 or Windows Phone 8), and that will help. But its present omission, combined with the lack of a dedicated app, make it seem as if Aereo’s mobile efforts are a work in progress. That being said, what is here still runs smoothly and looks good while doing so.
The one place where Aereo is an app, however, is on Roku. There, it requires at least firmware 3.0, and it’s a private channel that has to be accessed and linked to from Aereo’s settings menu. Its interface is a little bit different than on every other device, as it’s friendlier to remote controls and thus a bit slower to navigate. It doesn’t come with a Featured tab, its shows are organized in a horizontal tile-based line, and in general the white spaces of the web clients are replaced with a blacker look.
Aereo on the Roku still has all the same recording, viewing, and search options as the other versions, and still works as well as does everywhere else. It can be controlled regularly with a Roku remote, but also makes use of a unique “Two Screen Mode” that turns a user’s Aereo-ready iPhone, iPad or computer into a separate remote as well. That’s not as handy as using a regular remote given the style of its interface, but it’s there for those who want to use it.
The Roku version of Aereo makes a good companion to other Roku apps by bringing actual TV stations into the fray. The only real problem with it is its overall utility in the first place. Given that it maxes out at 720p – and that’s assuming one has a solid internet connection – eats up bandwidth, and offers the kind of channels that can already be watched through traditional means, some users may find it a hassle compared to the traditional route.
Nevertheless, a TV platform would still be a little misguided without support for actual television displays. Roku and Apple TV support won’t cover everyone, but for the connected crowd Aereo is appeasing, it’ll do the trick, especially when used in conjunction with other devices.
In terms of general performance, Aereo runs fine. It does what it does well. But its biggest problems come with the things it doesn’t do or, more accurately, have in the first place.
Some of these are nagging annoyances. Channel navigation, for one, is strictly limited to the Guide tab. The idea of “flipping through channels” is out of the question here, as there’s no way to directly change the station when watching a show either in the standard display or in fullscreen.
When one goes back to Guide while a program is playing, the display turns into a tiny mini-viewer instead of stopping the show entirely. That’s mostly good, but the mini-viewer itself is far too small to be considered useful. Worse, it can’t be resized to a more appropriate form, nor can it be moved to anywhere besides the bottom right corner of the interface.
But Aereo’s biggest problem may be that it deals solely in over-the-air TV channels. That means there’s no cable, which in turn means that Aereo’s channel selection is sharply limited. Aereo’s network in Boston offers just 23 channels, for instance, many of which simply don’t offer quality content.
ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, and the CW are all here, but, at least to this reviewer, those channels’ primetime programs aren’t consistently interesting. Other local stations like Ion, METV, MyNetworkTV, Qubo, TCN, and Daystar are even less relevant.
Yes, hugely popular shows like American Idol, CSI, Modern Family and many others can all be watched and recorded over the service, and that’s great, but anyone hoping for the like of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Daily Show, The Walking Dead and countless others won’t have any luck here. This is doubly worse for Aereo considering many big cable series can be had on other streaming platforms like Netflix or HBO Go.
The same idea goes for sports, which is the entity that is keeping so many TV viewers tethered to the cord in the first place. Only the biggest sporting events are aired over broadcast TV, and while it’s admittedly neat to have recordings of the NBA Finals waiting in one’s cloud DVR, any serious fans would still be missing the majority of their favorite team’s happenings without cable.
This is all compounded by the fact that over-the-air TV could already be had for cheap before Aereo came around. It wouldn’t provide the same mobility or DVR functionality on its own, but one could just as easily buy a digital antenna and hook it up to their television to get all of these same channels. For those without steady internet, that may even be the more stable experience. It wouldn’t require regular monthly payments either.
Aereo is undoubtedly significant for its technical ability to replicate live TV on external devices, but its quality is still directly tied to the quality of its supported stations. And right now, its selection is far from plentiful.
The good news is that Aereo recognizes this, and has gotten stations like Bloomberg TV to hop onboard since it first launched in New York City. It’s going to take quite a bit more than that to make the service worth paying for, though. And with the legal battles in which Aereo is currently mired, it’s unlikely that the company will be able to bring many non-over-the-air channels into the service right away.
For those who can get by with just the basic slate of TV channels, Aereo is a winner. It’s hard to envision too many people falling into that category, though, which limits the service’s utility from the get-go. One could argue that Aereo would go well in conjunction with something like Netflix, but that streaming service overwhelms with high-quality content. Aereo feels incapacitated by comparison, especially when it’s asking for the same price of admission.
Post-Living Room TV
Aereo is undoubtedly a name to remember. The major broadcasters are afraid of it for a reason: it has laid the groundwork for a post-living room era of television. It, and services like it, could pave the way for a new generation of viewership, one that adapts to this century’s mobile, multi-device, connected lifestyle without sacrificing the familiarity of the TV institution so many know and love today.
It isn’t like Netflix or Hulu so much as it is old TV, just on the internet. It works, it’s pretty and it’s cheap. And for those who can get by with just broadcast TV, hate cable bills, and would pay for a nifty cloud DVR service, it’s worth trying out today. Someday, it could be a big deal.
But it isn’t right now. The Aereo project just doesn’t feel finished, and consumers should treat it as such. Its content selection is lacking, it isn’t available on the most popular mobile OS in the world, and it suffers from an aggregate of smaller nags. Some of that isn’t explicitly Aereo’s fault, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that Aereo’s future prospects are much more promising than its current ones. Aereo may very well be something special soon, but for now, only the most fleeting of TV users should consider cutting the cord for it.