Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been considering ways to trim my TV bill, which has risen well above $100 a month. One option that always crops up: ditching satellite TV service, at least in a few rooms, in favor of free over-the-air TV signals. But what if you can't get decent reception using an antenna?
That's where Aereo—a new service that delivers over-the-air signals via your Internet connection and lets you record them on a virtual DVR—comes in. I've been using Aereo for more than a month now, and I'm impressed.
The concept is simple: For an $8 monthly fee, you get 30 or so broadcast stations—including ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC—plus a cloud-based DVR that lets you record 20 hours of programs and movies and save them online. If you need more storage, an additional $4 a month gets you 60 hours of recording time.
The virtual DVR works just like a local DVR, so you can pause, stop, and rewind programs. Since each subscriber gets two antennas/TV tuners, you can record two shows at a time, or watch one live TV show while recording another.
As you might expect, Aereo isn't popular with the broadcast networks it carries, which have sued the company for distributing content they say it isn't paying for. But so far Aereo has been winning in court, based on the fact that every subscriber gets his or her own tiny micro-antennas, which are housed at an Aereo warehouse. Aereo's argument is that it's really in the antenna-renting business—the only difference is that the rented antenna is in their warehouse instead of your home.
During my test, I used Aereo on a Roku streaming-media box connected to a TV at home, on my iPad in different rooms of the house, and on a Mac computer at work. Aereo isn't perfect—and in my case, it wouldn't save me money unless I cut out my pay-TV service entirely. But for others it could be a solution to escalating pay-TV bills. Its biggest limitation is the same as that of getting over-the-air stations from an indoor antenna: You won't get so-called cable channels such as CNN, Bravo, or my son's favorite, Cartoon Network, or premium services such as HBO and Showtime.
Also, Aereo tracks where you are, so you can receive signals only when you're within a certain broadcast range. That means that for now, you're not be able to watch TV shows using Aereo when you travel to another city, although that's a feature the company says it's working on.
Getting started Aereo is available in only a handful of markets right now—Atlanta, Boston, New York, and some areas in Utah—but it hopes to spread to 22 additional metropolitan areas over the next several months, including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and Houston starting later this month. I visited Aereo.com using my Mac notebook and signed up for the service. You have to provide some personal info and a credit card number. Aereo offers the first month free as a trial, but if you don't cancel, your credit card will be charged each month after that.
Right now you can watch Aereo using a Web browser on Macs and PCs, an iPhone or iPad, or a Roku or Apple TV streaming-media player. (If you have an Apple TV, you can also beam TV shows from your iPad or iPhone to your TV using AirPlay.) Support for Android phones and tablets is coming soon, the company says, as is the ability to use Aereo from a videogame console. Aereo lets you authorize up to five different devices for the service.
Setting up Aereo to work on my iPad was also fairly straightforward, but getting it to work with the Roku was a bit more complicated. I assumed Aereo would be listed as a channel option on the Roku, but it's not. You have to log in at Aereo.com, open the Settings tab, and then click on "Link with Roku." You then must flip-flop between the Aereo and Roku websites to get a unique code that allows you to link Aereo with the Roku. It took a while for Aereo to be listed as a Roku channel, but once it appeared, it worked flawlessly with my Roku box for the duration of my test.
To deal with interruptions or stops and starts, during setup you can choose "Slow Start," which creates a longer buffering time (meaning longer portions of program are temporarily stored on the device). The tradeoff is that it takes a bit longer for shows to start playing.
For most programs this didn't matter, but if you're within earshot of another TV showing the same program, it can become annoying. For example, I was watching the Giants-Patriots game in our family room via the Roku while my wife was watching it on a TV in our nearby living room. I could hear a team scoring from the other TV about 15 seconds before the play happened on my TV, taking some excitement out of the play. I imagine this would be equally irksome while watching a game show such as "Jeopardy" or waiting for the "American Idol" winner to be announced.
How it works
Once you log into Aereo, you get a list of all available broadcast stations in your market. I was able to get about 30 stations, including all the major national networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, and CW—as well as more niche-oriented fare, such as Bloomberg business news, a few nostalgia channels (MeTV and Cozi) that show classic TV reruns, two shopping channels, and a few kids' stations, including PBS Kids. There were also several Spanish-language channels, including Telemundo, and a few Asian-language stations.
The Aereo interface may look a bit different depending on the browser and device you're using, but it works similarly across all of them. When you first log in, you'll land on the guide and the featured screen. You simply scroll through the listing and click on one to watch it or record it. The guide provides up to two weeks worth of future programming for you to record.
To optimize performance, you can vary the video quality of the shows that are streaming. Aereo actually makes copies of the show you're watching, each in a different bit rate. (Unless you choose to save them, recordings are automatically deleted when you're done watching a show to free up your available recording space.) The lowest setting is best for mobile devices that connect via a cellular service, while the medium rate is optimized for most Wi-Fi connections.
The highest video quality is reserved for those with faster broadband connections. Since my broadband speed is typically in the 30-Mbps range, I was able to choose the highest-quality option, which produced a nice sharp picture. You're able to manually select the video quality you'll receive, or you can opt for the Auto setting which selects the best bit rate depending on available bandwidth.
Three main tabs appear at the top left of the home page: Featured, which shows highlighted shows; Guide, which provides a list of the shows that are currently on, plus a grid with upcoming programs on all the available channels; and Recordings, where you can view or delete any of your recordings, as well set the priority levels of these shows. (When you click on a show, you have the option of recording just a single episode, all episodes, or just the new ones.)
You can manage most of Aereo's operations via the Settings icon in the top-right corner of the screen. This is where you can check your connection speed, view account details, access Facebook or Twitter, see billing info, and change your password. It's also where you can customize the guide with the channels you want to see. (Using the Roku I found this feature counterintuitive, as clicking on the "Show Channel +" tag actually removes the channel from the lineup, while clicking "Hide Channel -" adds it.) There are also icons for search, checking your antenna (and DVR) status, and a news feed that provides info on upcoming shows.
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Aereo in action
Aereo worked well on all the devices I used. I spent most of my time with Aereo watching shows on a Roku box connected to a 50-inch 1080p plasma TV. Picture quality was uniformly very good—definitely high-def quality, and far superior to what I was able to get using an indoor antenna, which was only able to pull in two or three channels.
Thanks to robust broadband connections—30 Mbps at home and above 60 Mbps on my Mac Powerbook at work—the programs I watched looked sharp, without any visible pixelation. The one exception was during some fast-moving scenes with quick transitions, where I noticed some digital artifacts likely due to compression.
I did encounter some issues when using my iPad; the video stream never stopped playing, but I could see the resolution changing from sharp high-definition video to something that looked more like standard-def fare. After anywhere from a few seconds to nearly a minute the high-def stream would return. This happened more frequently when my iPad was being used in a room farthest from my router, so my guess is that the problem was with my wireless network, not Aereo.
At home I'm using DirecTV's most advanced DVR, the Genie. Compared with the DirecTV guide, Aereo's seems primitive, like an old "TV Guide" grid; it's not hard to use, it just has less functionality.
The guide shows everything that's currently playing, and you can get additional info about the show—as well as the option to watch or record it—simply by clicking on it. But you can't really channel-surf like I do with DirecTV, flipping through dozens of channels in the course of a few seconds. And unlike regular TV, you're not watching a channel—you're watching a show. This means that when the show ends, the next program doesn't automatically start playing; you have to go back to the menu, manually select the next show, and press Watch. The company says it's looking at ways to enable consecutive-show viewing.
When you're watching a program on the Roku, pressing the asterisk (*) button on the remote brings up a menu that lets you record the program, start it from the beginning, or change the video-quality settings.
I found the search function surprisingly robust. Not only could I search for specific programs, I could also search by genre—sports, comedy, and so on— and even narrow searches by combining a genre search with the network it airs on. You can limit searches to new programs simply by typing "n!" at the end of the search term. You can also use the search tool to search for your saved recordings, which are displayed at the top of the search results.
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Aereo is a great concept, and it's executed well, but it's not for everyone. Based on my experience, it's best suited for those who already watch a lot of network television (daytime soaps, prime-time dramas and comedies), and who don't get great reception from an antenna. It's also great for those who already use an antenna but who would like to add DVR capability to the mix, and maybe get a few more channels as a bonus. Aereo may also appeal to the generation of viewers already accustomed to getting shows and movies—free and otherwise—via the Internet rather than from a TV service provider.
Aereo might also be an option in homes with some TVs that are mainly used to watch broadcast stations, such as a bedroom set you use to watch the nightly news or "Jimmy Kimmel Live." You might decide to keep cable connected to your main TVs, but switch to Aereo for others so you don't have to pay a monthly cable-box rental. Since I pay a flat DVR service fee and a nominal amount for each extra box, Aereo wasn't able to save me much money by replacing the settop box on just one TV, but it could if I could do without pay TV on several (or all) of my sets.
Clearly, Aereo isn't best suited for those whose TV diets consist mainly of cable shows like "Anderson Cooper 360" or "The Walking Dead," or premium-channel fare like "Game of Thrones" or "Ray Donovan." Also, while you'll get the big games broadcast on the major networks, football fans won't get games shown on ESPN or other sports channels, including many college games shown on regional sports networks. How well Aereo fits your needs really depends on the type of shows you watch, and how important it is to you to watch them immediately.
Of course, Aereo doesn't have to go it alone; you can combine it with a streaming service such as Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, or Netflix, to fill in the content gaps. With a total monthly outlay of $16—or $20 if you want the bigger DVR storage—the combination of Aereo and a streaming service will still probably cost less and offer more diversity than most basic cable packages.
Whether you or not you decide to kick your cable to the curb, Aereo is yet another option in a growing assortment of viewing choices. Provided the company keeps winning its lawsuits, there's a chance Aereo may soon be available in your neck of the woods. Since the first month is free, I'd suggest you give it a try.
—James K. Willcox
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