Akimbo Systems Video On Demand Player

Programming delivered fresh from the Internet to your set-top box.

Not to date myself, but I'm old enough to remember when video on demand was one of those coming technologies that made the hip groovesters at the malt shop say, "Neat-O!" even if they had no idea how it would actually work. But video on demand has been a fact of life for some time now, and everyone I know who actually uses it simply adores the power and convenience.

Akimbo has entered the video on demand fray with a unique service, the first to deliver video content via the Internet to a set-top box, versus the more traditional cable/satellite VOD solutions. The Akimbo player is also comparable to a DVR. Both are hard-disk-drive-based source components, but the only signal Akimbo can accept is the digital programming available from their dedicated servers in the form of DRM-protected Windows Media 9 files. As a result, Akimbo is putting much time and money into providing a wide variety of content, positioning themselves first and foremost as a service provider. Keep in mind that the deck is not an encoder of any sort—it's strictly a Windows Media 9 decoder.

The Box
The hardware is understated and simple to set up. It's a compact box containing an 80-gigabyte hard drive with the necessary jacks and ports around the back. I connected the Akimbo player, the AP1200, to a power source, my audio/video gear, and my local area network via a Cat-5 cable, and the unit recognized the hookup and completed the rest of the configuration automatically. The onscreen user interface deliberately doesn't ask too many questions, such as IP addresses, which few consumers have memorized. The slowest part here was when the Akimbo refreshed the licenses for the content previously on the player I borrowed for my review. The deck is currently compatible with only one USB wireless network adapter, the Linksys WUSB12, which is sold separately on the Akimbo Website and elsewhere. You can also plug in any brand of Wi-Fi bridges directly into the Ethernet port. Since this is a downloading system, not a streaming one, the lower data throughput speed of wireless is something of a nonissue.

The video options are composite or S-video. In addition to a generally softer image, composite video revealed an odd, moving screen-door pattern over some of the menus. This problem disappeared when I stepped up to S-video. The analog stereo connection was adequate for most of the content, although the audio was cleaner and displayed more dynamic range over digital optical. Since two-channel audio is the most this system can handle, though, now would be a good time to fire up that Dolby Pro Logic II processor. I would also have to say that the overall volume level is relatively low.

You'll need to set up an account, using your credit card for billing, and the prompts will direct you to the my.akimbo.com Website to complete the activation. Using a TiVo-like business model, Akimbo offers your choice of a monthly service fee or a lifetime service subscription—the latter being a good chunk of money up front but a good savings over the long haul. And then it's time to go shopping: Akimbo offers about four-dozen themed "channels" of programming, and the $10-per-month basic subscription provides unlimited access to half of them, plus the Guide. Some of these premium content providers will charge an additional $5 monthly, with free associated downloads. Some downloads expire 30 days from acquisition, while others are open-ended. Some free premium content is available, and two-week trials of all memberships are complimentary. Movies are also available on a pay-per-view basis, as well, such as titles from the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) catalog for $1.99 each. More movies are added every month, and, unlike cable video on demand, monthly additions are not removed, so the selection will only grow. The TCM Movie of the Week is free, and you can set the Akimbo to download it automatically.

I needed to remind myself that Akimbo is not providing a live TV experience, such as the more ubiquitous TiVo. This is about downloading now and watching later. Modern Internet speeds can sometimes work faster than real time—a one-hour program could be delivered in less than an hour—so, someday, they will likely add a progressive download feature. Once a modest buffer has been established, you would be able to begin watching before the download is complete. It took me almost an hour to download the 12-minute Robot Chicken, and later the same for a 23-minute Home Movies episode. It took two-and-a-half hours for the 102-minute Adventures of Robin Hood. Ultimately, the speed of your ISP will be the limiting factor.

The Content
The programming is more about eclecticism than, well, favoritism. It's less of an opportunity to tune in our old standbys and more a chance to discover new and different entertainment and educational shows. And, yes, there's even some hybrid "edutainment" from familiar sources such as National Geographic, Turner Classic Movies, and my guilty pleasure, Adult Swim. Choose from lots of lifestyle programs (I'm finally learning something about wine!) and plenty of ethnic fare. There are dedicated Indian and Chinese channels, as well as the gamut of short films. There's everything from G-rated cartoons to full-length X-rated movies. I was struck by how youth-oriented much of the programming is, with a lot of political commentary, animation, and edgy humor, often in segments as short as three minutes. But the so-called Action TV is devoted to skiing and. . . golf? A recent deal with Major League Baseball means that America's pastime is reportedly on the way, with downloadable 15-minute condensations of all of the day's games, and even more new content is coming soon.

Brief cross-promotional clips appear at the start of some programs, which are otherwise commercial-free, and so I didn't miss the 30-second forward-skip button absent from the very interesting, stubby little remote control. Instant replay allows you to jump back, and only one forward/reverse scanning speed is available, at about ten times normal speed.

Most content is compressed to an efficient rate of 1.5 to 2 megabits per second. Many of the short subjects were originally created on the computer and designed to be shared the same way. So, when you watch them in the home theater, they can look somewhat blocky, with a jagged stair-step effect on what should be clean curves, and there are other visual anomalies born of the compression. High-quality content like Robin Hood fares better; despite a definite digital look, it was colorful and richly detailed. The synchronization was off on some programs, audio preceding video, with some mild audio distortion, but I attribute this to flaws in the source material, not the delivery. The player did take several seconds to recover from fast-forwarding to play normally again, after a series of digital hiccups similar to those I noticed at other times. But, while response time was often slow, the unit never froze or crashed. The Akimbo Player does not offer a setting for 16:9 displays.

The Interface
Since you could potentially amass hundreds of items in your library, searching through it can be a challenge. You can organize files alphabetically, ascending or descending, or by channel or the date and time of recording. Some shows are listed only by episode title and not show title, so this name alone might not be helpful. Fortunately, almost every recorded program comes with a specific, corresponding color image that appears in a large window as you land on each title. But these scroll-through lists can be quite long, so folders or perhaps grouping by genre would be welcome features. Further, if you're midway through the list and move back to the previous menu screen for some reason, the Akimbo sends you back to the very top of the list.

The My Akimbo section of the official Website is an easy way to learn about new content as partners are added. It also offers complete control over your account, from any computer, even if you're at the office and want to pick out something to watch that night. You can select what to download to the always-connected Akimbo player on a moment's notice. The mouse and keyboard make this management method remarkably quick, as it will no doubt be when the Akimbo service becomes imminently available on Windows Media Center Edition PCs, turning your computer into a fully featured player. Video quality could potentially improve on a high-end WinMCE-based Akimbo, although the fee structure will likely remain the same.

• The hard drive plays a vast quantity of content from Akimbo partner suppliers
• Downloads via broadband (required) for later viewing
• Programming ranges from the familiar to the obscure

Akimbo Systems
(650) 627-8678