ZvBox’s Unhappy Marriage of PC and HDTV

9/12/08Follow @wroush

I really wish that I could write a positive review of the ZvBox—the appliance from Littleton, MA-based ZeeVee that taps into your house’s TV cables, allowing you to watch videos playing on your Windows PC from any high-definition TV in your house. When I first profiled ZeeVee back in May, I had high hopes for the device, which finally hit stores in early August. As you know if you’ve been reading this column regularly, I’m on the edge of giving up my home cable TV subscription, and a gadget like the ZvBox seemed to offer a perfect substitute: a way to get my favorite shows for free over the Internet but still be able to watch them on the big screen in my living room. On top of all that, the people at ZeeVee are super-nice: they went well beyond the call of duty as I was doing the research for this review, loaning me not only a review unit but the extra hardware I needed to make the system work (more on that below), and calmly fielding several panicked calls for assistance.

Alas, I can’t recommend this first version of the $499 ZvBox to the general home user. The company’s “localcasting” concept is great. But you can only expect the average consumer to cope with so many kinks, adjustments, workarounds, and other snafus—and the ZvBox just generates too many.

To be fair, most of the problems I ran into while testing the ZvBox are not technically ZeeVee’s fault. The issue, at its most basic, is that TVs are TVs, and computers are computers. They were not designed to interact. In most homes, they aren’t even in the same room—which means that connecting them is going to be a kludge, no matter how you slice it. And while the latest high-definition TVs come with all sorts of ports for digital input, they’re still programmed to expect video signals very different from the ones generated by most PCs. (The vertical resolution of most HDTVs, for example, is either 720 or 1,080 pixels, while many PCs are limited to a vertical resolution of 600, 768, or 800 pixels.) When you throw your home’s coaxial cable network and an operating system as cumbersome as Windows into the mix—well, let’s just say that ZeeVee is biting into a very complicated problem, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it took a couple of generations of hardware experimentation to thoroughly chew it up.

ZeeVee\'s ZvBoxBeing the kind of person who actually enjoys sitting amidst the dust bunnies behind the entertainment center, puzzling out the dozens of cables connecting all of my audiovisual and gaming gear, I thought I’d be up to the challenge of installing the ZvBox. But my first moment of trepidation came when I opened the box and discovered a “Get Going Guide” that included 12 dense pages of diagrams, kicking off with a glossary of “fundamental technical concepts.”

The only really important concept, as it turns out, is that the ZvBox takes video and audio signals from your computer—signals that would ordinarily go to an external VGA monitor and speakers—and transmits them instead over an empty channel on your house’s coaxial cable system. If you tune your TV to that channel, you’ll see and hear whatever is happening on your PC. ZeeVee calls this localcasting.

My first problem—and it’s no fault of ZeeVee’s, although it does limit the potential market for the ZvBox—was that I live in an apartment building. I have a cable outlet in every room, but I have no idea where cable actually enters my apartment, which you need to know to set up the ZvBox. (You have to add a little widget called a channel filter to the network to create that needed empty channel.) So to try out the ZvBox, I had to bypass my apartment’s built-in cables and connect the device directly to my HDTV. This defeated the whole purpose of the localcasting approach—in effect, turning the box into a very expensive VGA cable—but I didn’t have any other way to test its other features.

My second problem was that my home PC is a Dell Inspiron 8600 Windows XP laptop that I purchased in 2004. It came with an Nvidia GEForce 5200 video card. Remember that resolution-mismatch issue I mentioned above? ZvBox deals with it by adjusting your PC’s output resolution to something that your HDTV can deal with—namely, 1280 x 720 pixels. Unfortunately, many older graphics cards can’t reset the display resolution to an arbitrary number like 1280 x 720.

Again, this problem wasn’t ZeeVee’s responsibility. But it could obviously prevent quite a few people from actually using the ZvBox in their homes. And when I first got the ZvBox review unit, there wasn’t a word about this potential major complication in the “Get Going Guide” or in … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Tim Rowe

    Great review, Wade. I’ve been experimenting in this area for about the past 4 years, and the first relatively smooth TV-to-PC experiences I’ve had have been with AppleTV and the Netflix Rokubox. Both are essentially set top boxes so they work as well with the TV as your cable box, but they draw their content from the Internet.