So what in the hell is Akimbo? Well, basically it's a new video-on- demand/IPTV service that lets you pick what shows you want to watch and then automatically download them over a broadband connection. We're semi-obsessed with IPTV- we're always looking for new ways to stick it to Time Warner, our local cable monopoly-and so we were more than pleased to check out what Akimbo had to offer.
First thing's first: Akimbo isn't something you can access using your PC (at least not yet), and in fact you sort of don't need to own a computer to use the service (you do have to complete your registration over the web; and besides, it seems unlikely you'd have a broadband connection if you didn't have a computer). The shows themselves are downloaded to a TiVo-esque box (yes, you have to find room next to your TV for yet another box) with a built-in 80GB hard drive that's space enough for up to 200 hours of programming.
Speaking of programming, you might find it a little tough to fill up that hard drive with shows you want to watch. The list of available channels and programs isn't bad, and is growing every month, but anyone expecting Akimbo to duplicate the experience of having 150 channels of digital cable is probably in for some disappointment. The idea is to think of Akimbo as an inexpensive and convenient supplement to what's already out there, and they're targeting niches that traditionally aren't very well served by regular cable and satellite services in hopes that enough people will find something they think is worth paying ten bucks a month to download.
Anyway, Akimbo currently offers 46 channels, including A&E, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, BBC, CNN, the History Channel, National Geographic, and Turner Classic Movies, a host of specialty channels (like GreenCine, LetGo! Yoga, and high.tv), foreign language channels (AsiaMovieChannel.com, latelelatina, and AdvenTV, a Turkish language channel), and four adult video channels (you can probably guess what that's all about; there are parental controls if you're worried about kids accessing porn). You can also look at the programming organized by category rather than channel.
Sounds impressive, but the amount of actual programming offered by each channel varies widely. Adult Swim offers a ton of different shows, whereas CNN only has a smattering of specials. Also, not all programs are available with your basic $9.99 monthly subscription—a lot of shows, especially movies, will set you back at least an extra couple of bucks (yep, porno costs extra). You can subscribe to channels for an additional monthly fee. Note that some shows have expiration dates, so you may have somewhere between 2 and 30 days to watch them after they've been downloaded.
SETTING THINGS UP
Getting the Akimbo box set up was easy, it's just a matter of hooking it up to your TV (S Video and connecting it up to your home network (over Ethernet or via a USB WiFi adapter), turning it on, and then entering the necessary info online at my.akimbo.com (which means you need to own a computer, something we're gonna guess you already have if you're rocking broadband at home). We experienced some problems getting our account set up, turns out Akimbo experienced some sort of network outage that made it impossible to complete our registration, but when we tried again 45 minutes later everything worked fine. Once your box is registered you can access the service and start downloading shows.
Here's the big catch with Akimbo: the service isn't truly on-demand in the sense that you can select a program and
then simply start watching it, you have to think ahead of time about what it is you want to watch and then come back
later on. It's a trade-off: you can use Akimbo to get on-demand TV you might have to wait for, or use a DVR to record
TV that's available on the networks' schedule, not yours.
Sorting through content was a snap. The user interface is remarkably TiVo-like, and if you can figure out how to get around a TiVo or a Media Center PC you'll probably have no problem figuring out how to select and record shows. You use the Akimbo Guide, which lists available programming, going through your different channel options to find the shows you want, selecting them for download, and then waiting a few hours...err...until tomorrow for the Akimbo box to pull the shows off of Akimbo's servers (to be fair, some shows were downloaded in less than half an hour).
You can prioritize the order in which shows are downloaded, but with a few exceptions you generally can't simply subscribe to a show and have it automatically delivered to you on a regular basis, which is one of the main advantages of something like Videora, which uses a combination of RSS and BitTorrent to automatically deliver TV shows to our Media Center PC.
Once the shows have been downloaded you're ready to do what you really want: kick back and veg out. We'd only downloaded about 20 hours of programming, so sorting through everything wasn't so rough, but we could imagine it getting a little difficult once the drive was filled with a couple hundred hours of TV. The quality of the video ranged from acceptable to excellent, at best it would be about what you'd get with TiVo shows recorded at the highest settings. We noticed a few hiccups in playback, but we're not sure we'd have even noticed if we hadn't been looking for them. You get all the usual DVR controls—you can pause, rewind, fast-forward, etc. (although rewinding and fast-forwarding were unusually sluggish compared with what we've grown accustomed to).
WHAT COULD THEY DO DIFFERENTLY?
- Open things up. Akimbo already offers a mix of name brand programming with a bunch of stuff we've never heard of, with video podcasting (or whatever you want to call it) just getting off the ground it'd be relatively easy to let pretty much anyone offer their programming through Akimbo. It'd be a little messy without some sort of filtering system, but the quality usually has a way of rising to the top.
- Offer Akimbo as a Windows Media Center plug-in. (They actually promise that this in the works). No one really wants to have yet another box in the house, especially when there's a good chance they already have a TiVo or a Media Center PC or the DVR set top box, so figure out how to create a plug-in for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 that let's users access the service without any additional equipment. If you really want to impress us, cut a deal with TiVo.
- Add support for high definition. Yeah, it'll make the downloads take a little longer, but there a plenty of people out there with HDTVs who don't have access to enough HD programming. You're only a firmware update away from adding support for DivX HD or WMV-HD, and it'd be a snap to offer a selection of high definition TV shows and movies (plus we'd pay more for that than for the regular stuff).
- Add USB 2.0 and HDMI and/or DVI ports. 80GB isn't bad, but users should be able to add additional storage via a
USB 2.0 port. And while you're messing around back there, add an HDMI or a DVI out port. We'd be grateful.
- Placeshifting. Steal a page from Orb Networks and make it possible to access shows stored on the Akimbo box from anywhere.
Is it worth it? $229.99 for the box and $9.99 a month for the service isn't completely unreasonable, but it's hard to imagine a lot of people signing up for a service that isn't a satisfactory replacement for the cable or satellite TV package they might already have, at least not until Akimbo has a more attractive selection of programming. There's a lot to like, though, and there's a lot of promise here. The service itself is fairly easy to use and the execution is flawless—finding, downloading, and watching shows was about as effortless as it gets—but unless there's something in their current offering that catches your eye (the Adult Swim archives are mighty tempting), we'd suggest you want a few more months to see what other shows, movies, and channels they add to their catalog.