Want to watch TV on your iPad? It's natural, healthy and it sure does seem like everyone is doing it. There are hearty hardware-supported options from companies like Elgato, and most pay TV subscription services (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, DirecTV, RCN, Dish Network etc.) have figured out a way to move some of the programming you're paying for from the big screen to the small.
Waiting a day or so, of course, means that prime-time programming on Hulu Plus and Netflix has you mostly covered; but that loses you local news, sports and talk. Even single channels, brands or sports leagues (ESPN, NBA Courtside, MLB At Bat) are getting into the action -- but getting live access means hefty subscription fees, being an existing cable/satellite customer, or both.
If you're not interested in the supra-broadcast offerings that cable or satellite can deliver -- or if you just can't stomach the idea of paying $60, $75 or more per month to watch television -- there is this ancient and hoary concept called "over the air." Yes, Americans are still benefiting from their divinely granted inalienable rights to free TV, but they need antennas and reasonable signal strength, not to mention TVs. Elgato's HDHomeRun product works well to take your TV programming to your Mac or PC, but it's a $179.95 cost and you can't really carry it around with you.
That's why Aereo's offering -- $12 a month for broadcast TV to your iPhone, iPad, Roku box or browser, as long as you live in New York City -- is so intriguing. Aereo has chosen to deliver over-the-air television programming straight to the browser, rather than through a native iOS app, and the result is remarkably smooth and easy to use. By combining your device with a remote antenna/DVR combo, and allowing easy AirPlay/Apple TV streaming or Roku integration for big-screen viewing, the service seems to have found a way to deliver a premium live and recorded programming experience without the steep price.
The geofencing limitation on Aereo's market is a consequence both of the technology that Aereo has invented and the television industry's regulatory ecosystem. Aereo is working around the legal minefields of "rebroadcasting" to customers by making every subscriber the renter of a tiny bit of New York real estate -- a pair of teensy HD antennas, each the size of a dime, rack upon rack of them in the company's datacenter. Through the subscriber website, you can browse and search the live TV program guide, assign episodes for recording on a 40 GB DVR, share viewing choices with Twitter or Facebook contacts -- it's all there, and all pretty easy.
The proof of any streaming service, however, is in the video quality. Aereo allows users to force a low, medium or high quality setting, plus an automatic setting that adjusts to available bandwidth. In my testing of Aereo's service, I made a point of sticking to high-speed WiFi on my iPad 2 to give the video quality the best chance to show off -- and show off it did. The video clip above gives you a taste, but keep in mind that you can quickly take the video full-screen (I didn't show that in the demo, as Reflection doesn't handle full-screen video correctly). The full-screen streaming looks fantastic; it's largely indistinguishable from broadcast at its best, and even when it chunks up a bit it's still very watchable.
Aereo is offering 90 days of free trial service to New Yorkers on a rolling invitation basis as it spins up into full operation. There are still a few rough edges to fix; if you're timeshifting a program by a few minutes, for instance, it has a habit of cutting off when you reach the scheduled stop time (rather than just rolling forward as it would on a conventional DVR). Building the service on a pure HTML/mobile web platform, however, gives the company space to iterate rapidly and fix bugs faster than Apple's review process would allow. Support for more browsers and more devices is also in the immediate plans.
If I was in a cord-cutting mood -- but I still wanted to keep my DVR capability and supercharge my TV mobility -- I'd put Aereo at the top of my service list. It remains to be seen how well customers take to it and what kind of geographic range the service will eventually cover; if you don't live in NYC then (forgive me for this) you'll have to stay tuned.