Review: Belkin @TV plus
While television networks and cable providers are slowly trickling out apps to stream individual channels to your iOS device, your entire existing television subscription might be more portable than you realize. For years, Sling Media has sold Slingboxes to stream channels from cable boxes to computers or mobile devices, and now Belkin is following suit with @TV plus ($180*, aka At TV Plus). Housed in a glossy black plastic enclosure that's similar in shape to a first-generation Apple TV, @TV plus connects to your cable box, encodes the cable signal for home or cellular viewing, and wirelessly broadcasts it to your router for up to 10 devices to watch at once. Though it's nowhere near as easy to set up as Belkin's dead simple WeMo home remote systems, and could use some improvements on the software side, @TV plus offers a viable alternative to the basic $180 Slingbox Solo for remote television access.
It’s important to understand up front what Belkin does and doesn’t include in the @TV plus package. For $180, you get the @TV plus unit, one set of component video and stereo audio cables, a wall adapter, an Ethernet cable, and a two-headed Infrared blaster cable, all of which connect to the system’s back side. You have to download all of the software on your own, with pointers from Belkin’s included instructions. Enter the App Store and you’ll find two separate @TV apps—both called Belkin @TV—with separate price tags and supported devices. If you want to watch @TV content on your computer, there’s no charge for the software, just like Slingbox. Want to watch it on your iPad? Again, there’s no charge, which puts you at an advantage relative to Sling Media’s $30 SlingPlayer Mobile for iPad. But if you want to view content on your iPhone or iPod touch, Belkin surprisingly sells a separate Belkin @TV for iPhone and iPod touch app for $13. True, this is cheaper than Sling’s even more objectionable and similarly standalone $30 iPhone/iPod app—which is only rarely discounted—but the idea of paying more than Belkin’s hardware retail price to view streaming content with any iOS device remains pretty crummy. You’ll need to decide whether you’re willing to accept the potential for additional expense, depending on the devices you’re using.
Rather than bundling a CD with @TV plus—optical drives can no longer be taken for granted—Belkin directs users to visit a URL to grab the latest version of its free @TV computer application. This was where we experienced our first hiccup during setup: though it is Wi-Fi-capable, @TV plus needs to be connected via Ethernet either to your router or a computer for initial configuration. Depending on your computer, cable box and router environment, you might experience other challenges: since @TV plus also needs to connect to your cable box during this process, you might have to move the cable box and router close together, or instead use a computer with an Ethernet port, which Apple’s increasingly popular MacBook Airs lack. We successfully used a spare AirPort Express for the initial configuration process, but found the Ethernet-based setup requirements a little contorted, particularly for a device with wireless hardware inside. A purely wireless, iOS-based setup alternative would truly be welcome.
Another issue we encountered during @TV plus setup was more of a surprise. We plugged the unit into the back of a cable box using the included component cables, but the @TV software couldn’t find a video signal—only audio was playing. While this may vary between cable boxes, we found that ours was unwilling to simultaneously send video through its HDMI and component ports, which meant that we had to stop using the TV’s HDMI port and instead let Belkin’s box pass video back to the TV set through its component output ports. This also meant finding a second set of component video and audio cables to use for output, as Belkin only includes cables for input purposes. Your mileage may vary on this element of the experience based on your cable box and TV connection, but it suffices to say that since @TV plus has no HDMI ports, component video—or falling back to an older, lower-resolution composite signal—might be your only options for re-establishing a cable signal to your TV.
Once we resolved these issues, using @TV plus was largely smooth sailing. It does take a little additional effort to teach the computer software which cable company, cable box, and cable package you have, but once that’s done, your computer and iOS devices can access a scrollable, searchable program guide—plus the ability to select any channel you subscribe to, regardless of whether you’re in the room with the cable box or not. This is all handled by @TV plus and the included Infrared blaster, which properly communicates the channel you’d like to watch to your cable box, and quickly begins to encode both video and audio for streaming across your home network. Having seen other developers achieve various degrees of success with universal remote alternatives for iOS devices, we certainly don’t take for granted the fact that Belkin’s software worked perfectly for schedule browsing, searching, and channel changing. That it does this all from anywhere your Wi-Fi network can reach, and relatively quickly at that, is actually quite nice.
Apart from modest and quickly resolved audio stuttering and a slow frame rate when a device makes its initial connection to @TV plus, video streaming was smooth and reasonably clear during our testing. Channels display at up to 720x480 resolution—roughly DVD quality—and can fall back to as low as 352x240 resolution for lower-bandwidth cellular connections, notably roughly the same as what TVs used to look like prior to the popularization of HDTV broadcasting. Bitrates and resolutions can be changed for both home and remote viewing, and we had no problem whatsoever getting iPads or iPhones to stream videos after little more than a username and password were entered into their respective apps.
Regardless of platform, each app has tabs to let you change and search channels, as well as a killer feature: recording. When you’re watching a show, you can just hit a record button to start recording, ending either manually when you hit stop, or after a set duration of time; this even works directly from iOS devices, storing content locally, and you can transfer recordings from one device to another. There’s also a timeshifting feature that can be set up on a computer to allow extended periods of pausing via passive recording, though it’s subject to the memory limitations of the receiving device, as shown in the screenshot below. Currently missing is scheduled recording; we’ll have to see whether Belkin adds that in the future.
If there’s one major gap in @TV plus at the moment, it’s Belkin’s incomplete approach to handling video streaming to cellular devices. As it turns out, your router needs to be configured for port forwarding/port mapping, but if you’re using an Apple router with AirPort Utility, you won’t find this to be anywhere near as easy as it should be. The @TV plus software tries to set this up automatically—something it can generally handle for routers that support the UPnP standard—but if and when it fails, it makes only a half-hearted attempt to tell you how to fix the issue. For instance, it promises a link to “detailed instructions for Apple routers” that currently lead to nothing of the sort, and there’s nothing in the present instruction manuals to help you through the problems. We had to manually acquire and test outside information to set up the router to handle @TV plus streaming, and although it worked properly thereafter, there’s no reason Belkin’s software should leave any user hanging on this (or other) signature features.
Judged from a big picture perspective, Belkin’s @TV plus is a pretty neat new product: if you’ve been looking for a way to enjoy your cable TV subscription through your computer or iOS device anywhere in your home, or outside via a cellular connection, you’ll find it here. And there’s a good chance that it will be more affordable than a Slingbox, even though the price differences aren’t as dramatic as they could have been. That having been said, it’s critically important for Belkin to quickly and decisively address the unit’s setup and software challenges, which may prevent this otherwise powerful video streaming and recording device from being quickly used to its fullest potential. For the time being, @TV plus works well enough to merit our general recommendation; with a handful of small but critical changes, it could easily merit a higher rating.