ZvBox’s Unhappy Marriage of PC and HDTV

9/12/08Follow @wroush

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the support section of the company’s website. Since then, ZeeVee has put a warning into its online FAQ saying that “If the card won’t allow 1280 x 720 output even after updating the driver, it will be necessary to replace the video card for ZvBox to work.”

Needless to say, I wasn’t about to replace the video card in a four-year-old laptop. At that point I was close to giving up on the ZvBox, and I wrote to ZeeVee, saying I’d have to return the unit and cancel my review. But then the company generously offered to ship me a spare Windows Vista desktop PC.

Once the ZvBox had an up-to-date PC to work with, I was able to complete the process of installing the box and optimizing the PC signal for my HDTV. Finally, I’d have a chance to see how Web videos look and sound when the computer’s signal was flowing through the ZvBox. (I would have made some popcorn, but I can’t have popcorn again until my braces come off in November.)

And the system actually worked—once or twice. I went to Netflix.com, where many videos are available for instant viewing via a Windows-only streaming video player, and watched La Notte, the black-and-white Michelangelo Antonioni classic from 1961. The video and sound quality were fine—the same as what you’d get if you were watching on a PC screen, just bigger. Using the ZvBox’s remote control, I was able to pause, play, and rewind just as if I’d been sitting at my PC.

ZeeVee\'s Zviewer interface for the ZvBoxThis, then, was the holy grail; I was consuming Internet video on my big screen. Now that so many current TV series are available as iTunes downloads or from streaming video sites such as Hulu, the capabilities promised by ZeeVee are exactly what’s needed to liberate Internet content from our PCs. In theory, it allows users to watch their favorite shows on the big-screen TVs that they’ve all shelled out so much for, while avoiding the extortionate prices charged by the cable TV monopolies. And by far the coolest thing about ZvBox—if you get to this point—is its ZViewer software, a kind of video portal with big fat buttons that make it easy to use the ZvBox remote to browse and watch videos from Hulu, YouTube, ABC, and quite a few other sources.

Sadly, practice hasn’t quite caught up with theory. I ran into a couple more serious snags with the ZvBox—one in the “annoying” category, and the other in the “I give up” category. The annoying problem was that the ZvBox could not consistently get the PC picture lined up with the edges of my HDTV screen; part of the PC desktop was always bleeding off the TV (invariably, a part that contained a crucial element like a button for closing a window, or the ZvBox’s own icon in the system tray). So every time I started up the PC and the ZvBox, I had to go through a multi-step process to reset the alignment.

Much worse was the sound problem. Usually, there wasn’t any. My La Notte viewing turned out to be one of the only times when I could get the ZvBox to send sound to my TV’s speakers. I contacted ZeeVee about this problem, and got a return call (on a Sunday!) from a very kind customer-support technician. Together, we determined that the problem was, once again, not really ZeeVee’s fault. It seems that Windows Vista is rather single-minded about the way it assigns the audio signal from various programs to various peripherals. Once it makes a decision, it’s hard to undo. And about two-thirds of the time that I started up the loaner PC, it decided that it was going to send sound from the ZViewer to some device other than my TV (even though there were no other devices hooked up to the computer). It looked like it was going to take a dispensation from Steve Ballmer to fix it.

To be fair, there was probably some other workaround for the sound problem, but I just didn’t have the heart to pursue it. And I’m an eager early adopter of most new electronic gadgets—if not an “alpha geek,” then at least a beta. If I can’t make the ZvBox work with all of the other finicky devices that are part of the Internet video equation, then average computer owners probably can’t, either.

I’m disheartened by my experience with the ZvBox, because I know that the ZeeVee engineers are working hard to make their technology compatible with a wide range of setups. I’m left with the suspicion that the only commercially viable Internet video solution will be an Apple-style unification of hardware and software —in other words, an HDTV with some kind of built-in Web terminal. (AppleTV is a start in this direction, but even that device has to interface with your TV, your Mac, and your home Wi-Fi network.)

ZeeVee says it’s working on a Mac-compatible version of the ZvBox. Given that the Mac universe is so much more user-friendly than the Windows world, I wouldn’t be surprised if that version is free of many of the snags that tripped me up this time. But for me, for now, it’s back to watching videos on the small screen of my laptop.

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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.