ZvBox’s Unhappy Marriage of PC and HDTV
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.
Being 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 inthe 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.
This, 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.