Hitting or exceeding a Kickstarter funding goal isn't a guarantee of success (as the well-funded Ouya game console flop demonstrates), but it's certainly a good sign. In the case of antenna maker Mohu, it's a sign that people want its Channels set-top box, which combines an HDTV antenna tuner with the online video features of a set-top box such as Apple TV or Roku. The device met its modest $35,000 funding goal in just four days.
Tom's Guide went hands on with a prototype recently, and we found both good features and a few that still need work.
A curious interface
Mohu, which has sold about 1.5 million of its flat TV antennas, set out to make the $89 Channels device experience about a simple as (and similar to) channel surfing on a regular TV as possible. And it's largely succeeding. On powering up, the box brings you to Mohu's version of a programming grid, which contains both channels such as CBS and streaming apps such as Hulu. It also provides shortcuts to websites that you can choose to bookmark. (In the future, Mohu plans to add its own channel that points users to free online video sources, such as the websites of TV networks.)
Mohu does not offer apps tailored to its device, as Apple TV and Roku do, for example. Instead, it relies on users to load apps from the Google Play store to run on its Android-powered device. Mohu representatives told us that they haven't had any trouble with the apps they have downloaded, and major ones such as Netflix looked fine when we saw them.
Treating broadcast and online sources as equals reflects a world in which people watch both. But there is a big problem with Mohu's channel grid: It's blank. To populate the list with an up-to-date schedule, Mohu would have to include access to an online listing service, which would require buyers to maintain a subscription of a few dollars per month. Instead, Mohu has a workaround: When you click on a channel, it receives programming data from the broadcast signal. But you would have to click on every channel to fill out the grid. Mohu representatives told us that they exploring whether there is a better fix.
It's possible to change the order of items on the grid – for example, to put Netflix first or push NBC further down. And users decide what channels and services to put on the grid in the first place, as well as what to remove at any time. It's not possible, however, to sort the grid to show, say, just TV channels or just online apps. Unfortunately, there is no universal search which would allow you, for example, to look for "NCIS" and see both what streaming services have episodes as well as if episodes are also being broadcast at that time. (Some new smart TVs will have the ability to search across both online and cable or satellite TV.)
You can navigate to a video source by selecting it on the grid or simply hitting the channel up and channel down buttons on Mohu's keyboard-style remote control. It's an odd experience to be watching, say, the local news or a talk show, then hit the channel button and end up in the Netflix app. There is nothing specifically "on" Netflix to surf to at that moment. (You can watch whatever you want, when you want.) This might be a case of Mohu overdoing the old-fashioned TV metaphor. Flipping through live TV channels would probably suffice.
Performance and design
Mohu brought along one of its popular flat antennas (without an amplifier) for the demo, which allowed the Channels box to receive most of the major network affiliates in good quality. That's no mean feat in downtown Manhattan, without a clear line of sight to a broadcast antenna (even though we were just a dozen blocks from the Empire State Building, where the major broadcasters have antennas.)
Mohu Channels does a few clever things in the setup. If you enter your zip code, the box accesses an online database of local stations and searches for only those channels. Mohu told us this shortens the search time by half. After its search, the Channels box also shows the strength of each signal, so you can decide what channels are worth including on your grid or how to reposition the antenna.
The wireless remote works fairly well. The accelerometer-based mouse means you have to get the hang of waving the remote in midair to navigate the screen. But you can also navigate menus using directional arrows on the keyboard.
The Channels device itself is a white box with rounded edges measuring a small 4.8 inches long by 2.6 inches wide, with a coaxial cable connector for an antenna on one end and HDMI, USB and Ethernet ports on the other. The USB port is for side-loading Android apps rather than downloading them from Google Play, and the Ethernet port is a backup in case you don't want to use the built-in Wi-Fi capability.
Mohu is offering various configurations on its Kickstarter page, from $89 for just the device to $149 for Channels and a 50-mile-range antenna with a signal amplifier.
The funding period ends on April 10, which means Mohu may end up with a lot more than the $35,000 it had been seeking. Backers will get their devices in June, when Mohu also plans to offer Channels for sale to the public, probably at higher prices than the backers have paid, Mohu told us, though the company hasn't specified a price yet.
That Mohu Channels has done so well on Kickstarter may be an indication of who will most like the device — early adopters who don't mind a little experimentation. These might be the same people who have already cut cable and tried the combination of antenna and online viewing, and will be glad to get both in one box. And they won't mind having to hunt for video and music apps on a Google Play store meant for mobiles, not set-top boxes. For people who already have a streaming video box, such as a Roku, it might be hard to switch from what they are already comfortable with. (Roku's universal search feature in itself may be just too much to give up.) But as cable- and satellite-TV prices keep rising, cord-cutting could grow, and Mohu's ability to bring in live network TV could soften the blow for switchers.