The desire to cut the cable- or satellite-TV cord has never been greater. It's the loss of favorite shows and live events that keeps more people from snipping the wire. TV antenna maker Mohu is trying to make cord cutting more appealing with Channels, a small device that combines streaming video functions a la Roku or Apple TV with a digital TV tuner for live television.
And depending on how the Supreme Court rules on live TV-streaming service Aereo, using an antenna may once again be the only way to get broadcast television without a pay-TV subscription.
The maker of a very popular line of thin HDTV antennas, Mohu is far from a startup. But it's dipping its toe cautiously into this new market by planning to seek funding for Channels through a Kickstarter campaign rather than bankrolling the product outright. Channels does have a slew of features that might entice potential backers — who can get the device for as little as a $79 pledge. (Mohu said that prices would likely be higher if and when the product goes into retail sales.)
The device itself is unimposing. Resembling an oversized white dongle, with a coaxial antenna cable on one end and an HDMI cable on the other, Channels has the kind of homemade look that is a hallmark of Kickstarter. In a promo photo, Mohu shows Channels sitting behind the TV, out of the way.
Based on screen mockups that Mohu shared with Tom's Guide, Channels seems to do a good job of integrating online and over-the-air (OTA) TV. Its signature feature is a "Channel Guide," which resembles the programming grid on a cable or satellite box, but can integrate links to video apps such as Netflix that users can install as well as links to specific webpages that they want to bookmark, such as Yahoo or Pinterest, together with listings for channels such as CBS or ABC.
"We are taking a different approach than other providers, and we're not wanting to turn the TV into a computer," Mohu's CEO, Mark Buff, told us last summer when he first teased the idea for Channels. He said he wanted to make the interface as close as possible to the old TV model of, "power on, power off, channel up, channel down." Channels will try to achieve that by essentially making any video source, audio service or even website look like, well, a channel.
Getting people to make apps for a device is tricky. To get around that problem, Mohu built Channels to run on Android (specifically, 4.2 Jelly Bean) so it can use any app in the Google Play Store. That automatically adds options to install all the big and many small video and music providers, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify and many others.
The list could also, for that matter, include "Angry Birds," WhatsApp or even a mobile banking app. And there's a potential problem. Consumers will be starting from zero (Mohu doesn't plan to pre-load apps), and it could take a little savvy to find the right apps that work well and look right on a TV. But Mohu doesn't sound worried. "We are pleasantly surprised at how good the apps look," Randy Drawas, Mohu's chief marketing officer, told us. "Every app that we've loaded onto our device looks perfect."
After over-the-air TV and Android apps, the third content source, called "Web," is simply comprised of websites. You can choose to make, say, Yahoo, Facebook or Gmail appear as an icon that you can select from the Channel Guide. Incorporating websites seems to contradict Buff's desire to not make a device that turns a TV into a computer.
The remote control for Channels also has a computer look. It's a thin QWERTY keyboard, optimized for thumb typing, but with those "volume up" and "volume down" (and mute) buttons on the left side and "channel up" and "channel down" buttons on the right. (The remote can be set to control a TV.) The controller also has accelerometers that allow it to act as an "air remote," as Mohu calls it, for controlling a cursor on the TV screen.
Channels isn’t the first device to combine a TV tuner and an Internet connection. Channel Master, another antenna maker, sells a device called DVR+ that does approximately the same thing, though it supports only one online video service, Vudu. As the name implies, DVR+ can also record programs received over-the-air using one tuner, while a second tuner can send live TV to the screen. But DVR+ costs quite a bit more, at $250, without Wi-Fi (which requires an adapter). And users have to supply their own USB hard drive to store recordings. Mohu Channels will not have recording capabilities.
Mohu will offer three configurations in its Kickstarter campaign. The first is just the box (with remote, power adapter and HDMI cable) for an $89 contribution, though the first 200 backers get it for $79. Mohu incudes one of its antennas in a second package and an antenna and signal amplifier in the third. As with the basic package, it offers discounts to earlier contributors.
Mohu is seeking $35,000 on Kickstarter to complete the Channels project, which it expects to launch shortly. If Mohu makes its goal, it expects to start delivering the devices in June.