If you’ve ever spent any time channel surfing in a hotel room, chances are you’ll immediately see the appeal of place-shifting technology, which allows you to watch your home TV programs remotely by streaming them over the Internet to a PC, Mac, or smartphone. One of Monsoon Multimedia’s latest offerings in this category, the Vulkano Flow, costs $100 (as of 7/7/2011), supports high-def video, and works pretty well if your remote broadband connection meets its modest bandwidth demands. But you have to accept some image quality compromises, and its controls for remote access generally work extremely slowly.
Like the more full-featured (and pricey) Vulkano Deluxe ( ) I reviewed earlier this year, the Flow works by intercepting the video stream that travels between your cable or satellite box and your HDTV, and making it available via the Internet to player software that you can download and install on a PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet. The Mac and PC players are free, but you have to pay $13 for the Vulkano Player for Flow and Blast iOS app, as well as apps on other platforms.
The main drawback of this scheme is that most current HD cable or satellite boxes connect to HDTVs via an HDMI cable, which securely delivers both high-def digital video and 5.1 or 7.1 audio, too. Copy-protection technology doesn’t allow an unauthorized third-party device such as a Vulkano to grab a copy of the digital signal en route to your set. So the best a Vulkano can do is to use the set-top box’s analog outputs, which don’t have those security issues but also can’t deliver the pristine quality of the digital video signal. For audio, meanwhile, the Vulkano can only use the box’s analog stereo outputs—forget 5.1, let alone 7.1.
This isn’t ideal, but on a small smartphone or laptop display, the video quality issues are less apparent than they would be on a big HDTV screen.
Like its predecessors, the Vulkano Flow is a black, keyboard-sized slab. It comes with cables to connect to a set-top box’s analog outputs for either component or composite video, and for stereo audio. Component video, which uses three separate cables, delivers the best quality analog connection; composite video carries all the image info on a single cable and isn’t quite as good.
You must provide your own cables for connecting the Flow to the HDTV. The quick setup guide blithely declares that you can use the same cables you previously used to connect the set-top box directly to the TV, but if you have been using an HDMI cable, you can’t do this—the Flow has no HDMI port (as did the Deluxe). So you’re on your own for finding another set of analog cables that match the ones you use to connect the Flow to the set-top box (the instructions say the two sets of cables must be the same).
Aside from the setup guide’s failure to address this issue, however, the lack of a second set of analog cables may not be as stingy as it sounds: Many HDTVs do come with component cables that sit unused because HDMI does deliver superior quality. Check your set’s manual to see if there should be one kicking around someplace, or pay a few dollars to get the second set of cables. Also, you can still enjoy the superior quality of digital video once you finish the setup routine: Simply keep the HDMI connection between the set-top box and the TV, and use the HDMI input as the TV’s video source.
You must also connect the Vulkano Flow to your home network. I ran an ethernet cable between its gigabit ethernet port and a free port on a HomePlug AV switch, but the Flow also has integrated support for 802.11n Wi-Fi. However, I experienced problems trying to watch TV remotely over a Wi-Fi connection, especially when the remote connection also used Wi-Fi. In general, I strongly recommend using a wired connection for streaming media.
Once all the connections are in place and you’ve pugged the Flow’s AC cord into a wall outlet, you must switch the TV to the input the Flow uses, and then complete setup through either the PC or Mac software player. The player detects the presence of a Flow on the network and prompts you to give it a name and a password. You must also enter your location and cable or satellite service provider, so that the unit can download the appropriate electronic program guide.
You must specify the brand and model of your set-top box so that the software players can control the set through virtual remotes that prompt the Flow to send commands via infrared, the same way an actual remote does. The Vulkano Flow can emit infrared signals on its own, but if the box doesn’t respond to them (mine didn’t), you can plug in an included infrared blaster cable to focus the signals more precisely.
With the blaster connected, my set-top box responded accurately to all commands sent from my players. But several seconds of lag always occur, during which the player screen blacks out as it processes the command and buffers content. This can be particularly annoying when you are using a virtual jog wheel to scroll through menus embedded in other menus. You have to wait several seconds for each and every scrolling operation, so it can take half a minute or more to get to a program choice, for example.
Once video playback began, however, the quality was quite good on the shows I watched on a notebook PC and on my iPad over a hotel Wi-Fi connection. With my iPhone, quality varied widely depending on the quality of my data connection. It was generally good with Wi-Fi, but over AT&T’s 3G network, I sometimes got messages saying there wasn’t enough bandwidth for video (in which case the player simply provided audio without images until it was able to add the video). The players show you what sort of speed they’re getting, and when the video can play at roughly 400 kpbs or faster, it was at least watchable if not surprisingly good.
The player app now allows recording directly to a mobile device. This is available first on the iPhone and iPad, and is coming soon for Android. The app adds full DVR capabilities, so you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward through video you’ve recorded. On iOS, it records as an H.264+AAC MP4 file, at either 640-by-480 or 352-by-240 resolution. If you get record-happy, don’t worry—you’ll get a warning that you have insufficient memory.
What I really like about the Vulkano system is that it lets you watch pretty much anything you could see sitting in front of your TV. Using the virtual remote, you can not only change channels but also access shows recorded on the integrated DVR, or even Comcast’s on-demand content. I was able, for example, to watch the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones in a Seattle hotel room with no real problem. The quality certainly fell short of the digital version on my 42-inch 1080p plasma (resolution tops out at 720 by 480 pixels, and Monsoon recommends using lower resolutions when outside your home network), but I encountered practically no skips or stutters.
The experience was best on my notebook PC because the player includes an actual visual replica of the Comcast remote I use at home, complete with some (but not all) clickable buttons. On the iPad and iPhone players, you get generic remote menus that don’t provide all the controls available on the PC player’s remote. On the mobile devices, for example, I wasn’t able to figure out how to pause and restart or rewind a recorded or on-demand program.
The players give you some context-sensitive settings options, including screen resolution and aspect ratio. Although the Flow lacks built-in storage (which was included in the earlier model I tested), the players can still record programs while you’re watching them and save them to the hard drive or flash memory of the device running the player. However, you can’t schedule recordings using the electronic programming guide, so the DVR capability is more like a backup for when you have to walk away from a show in progress.
Macworld’s buying advice
Overall, I enjoyed watching my TV remotely using the Flow and various software players. The quality was better than I’d experienced with older versions, and I particularly liked being able to access my DVR recordings and on-demand content, since that’s the content I watch most frequently (I rarely watch live TV at home). The only thing that really can be irritating is having to wait for the remote to get through menus that at home you’d be able to navigate in a few seconds.
Of course, audio and video quality takes a hit (and I’d highly recommend listening to the audio with a headset since the volume through speakers tends to be rather low, even when turned up all the way). But that hit is not big enough to preclude enjoyment, especially when your only other options are the generally limited TV lineups you get when you travel. Also, when I’m at home, I can still watch the best quality HDTV using the HDMI input from my HD cable box—there’s no reason to disconnect it, and you really only need to tune to the analog input from the Flow during setup. The only conceivable problem that might arise is if two people attempt to control the set-top box simultaneously, one at home and one using a Vulkano player remotely.
Monsoon’s decision to drop some features (most notably the more elaborate DVR functionality and built-in storage) and market a lower-priced unit seems like a good one. When I’m on the road, a price of $100 (with no service charges) seems like a bargain for a product that allows you to watch pretty good versions of the programs I enjoy at home.