Lets you access and set recordings via PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, Android
Supports only analog inputs
Recorded shows must be downloaded, not streamed
Shows recorded in high definition aren’t viewable on your smartphone
The Monsoon Vulkano lets you remotely access live and recorded TV on a wide variety of devices at a reasonable price, but does impose some compromises in quality.
Monsoon Multimedia has been making place-shifting set-top boxes—devices that essentially let you watch your own TV remotely—for several years. Now, with its Vulkano Deluxe line, Monsoon adds time-shifting features (in other words, a DVR) to the mix. The result is a box that promises to let you watch live high-definition TV and recorded shows on any screen (including your smartphone’s screen) wherever you are. But it doesn’t always fulfill that promise to perfection.
Whereas most set-top boxes we’ve seen (for instance, the early Slingbox Solo, the Roku players , and the Boxee Box ) are squarish or boxily rectangular, the Vulkano is a thin slab about the size of a PC keyboard. Monsoon offers three versions of the Vulkano. The Vulkano Platinum ($150) has no built-in storage and therefore doesn’t support DVR features; the Vulkano Deluxe ($280), which I tested, comes with a 16GB SD Card that slides into a slot on the box; and the Vulkano Deluxe Pro ($380) comes with a 1TB eSATA hard drive.
You connect the Vulkano to an HDTV via an included HDMI cable (Monsoon also supplies component video cables—kudos to the company for doing so). But because of copy protection technology for digital content, the Vulkano doesn’t accept digital inputs. The best you can do to record high-def (720p or 1080i) content off a cable or satellite box is to connect with the included analog component cables. (The Vulkano also supports composite and S-video connections, but they are inferior in quality to component video.) Similarly, you cannot record 5.1-channel or better audio; the Vulkano has only stereo inputs.
What this means is that the qualiity of video and audio recorded in high definition won’t be as good as it would be over a digital connection—and you’ll notice the difference if you’ve been using an HDMI connection to your cable box and switch to the Vulkano’s analog connection. On the other hand, if you’re accessing live TV remotely, network issues related to streaming media are far more likely to degrade video quality than is the use of analog cables to move content to the Vulkano.
The Vulkano connects to your network via its gigabit ethernet port or its built-in 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter. During setup, you must make sure that your router supports the Vulkano’s remote access features; this is supposed to happen automatically with any UPnP-enabled router, but I had to go into my router’s settings and manually forward a couple of ports to the Vulkano’s IP address.
An infrared blaster lets you transmit commands to your cable box by positioning it near the box’s IR receiver.
Once you’ve made the connections, the Vulkano’s main interface will appear when you tune your TV to its input. Here you can set up your account information, including creating a name for your Vulkano and telling it the source of your cable/satellite feed so that the Vulkano can download guide info. Using the guide, you can set up and view recordings as well as live TV. The Vulkano also has an Internet apps feature that lets you watch YouTube videos on your TV (you can’t log in to your YouTube account to access favorites, however). You can use the Vulkano to play your own movies, photos, and music from a USB drive (it has two USB ports) or from a network-connected device with UPnP support.
To view live TV or recorded shows remotely, you must install a free Vulkano player app on the remote device. Vulkano offers players for PCs, Macs, iPads, and the leading smartphone platforms (Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone, with Symbian and Linux support promised “soon”). The players enable you view live TV and to set or watch recordings, with a few caveats.
First, for live TV, bandwidth matters. The Vulkano’s instructions suggest that you start with the lowest screen resolution for remote viewing, and move up from that setting only if you are assured of superior bandwidth. I tried watching live TV from a hotel room in Paris, and the quality was so poor (with repeated freezes and stutters) that I gave up. But in other locations, the video was at least adequate. Still, I never managed to raise the volume of the audio to a satisfactory level: Even turned up all the way on my notebook or iPhone, it was by no means loud.
Second, for recordings, the Vulkano does not even try to stream videos. Rather, it lets you download them to the local device for playback. This takes a while, but it makes for better quality when you watch the video.
Third, you have to plan ahead when setting recordings, since no one recording does it all: The Vulkano offers several recording profiles optimized for playback on different supported devices. If you record a show using the PC/Mac/TV profile, you won’t be able to play it back on a smartphone, since smartphone players support only lower-resolution recordings. The reverse does not hold true: You can play an iPhone recording on your TV, but the low-res video won’t look very good on the large screen.
One feature I like in the players is the virtual remote control for live TV. On the desktop player, you get a clickable image of your remote (Vulkano has them for all the major cable/satellite services). With a good local area network connection, I was able to use the virtual remote not just to watch live TV but to stream recordings on my cable box’s integrated DVR. You can do this with the more streamlined mobile phone app, but in my tests the set responded to commands very slowly.
In contrast, the remote that came with the Vulkano itself felt cheap and didn’t always respond as snappily as I would have liked.
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Overall, the Vulkano worked pretty much as promised, with bandwidth being the major obstacle to great remote video. It’s far from perfect, however: Its inability to record all video in one high-def format and then downsize it as needed for phones meant that I had to choose a format in advance; and of course I wish that the Vulkano could do everything with a digital connection rather than with the analog hookup imposed by DRM technologies. Finally, the remote needs to be more responsive—and you have to be ready to dig into your network settings to make it all work.