We've been playing around with Kodak's new Theatre HD Player for the past few days, and our feelings are mixed. Kodak is doing a lot of interesting and innovative things here, especially with the gyroscopic Pointer Remote it has included for interfacing with the box, but we're not convinced this thing is polished or helpful enough to justify the $299 asking price. Check out our full impressions after the break.
This is where Kodak really shines. The box is small, sexy, and ridiculously easy to set up -- with your choice of component or HDMI in the back, optical or RCA audio, and not even a silly "power button" to mess with.
But, of course, most of these set-top boxes are pretty simple. What really gets us is the gyro-based "Pointer Remote" (Update: built by Hillcrest Labs, thanks macclient!). To say the thing Just Works is an understatement, we really never expected to have a wireless (RF, no line of sight required), surfaceless mousing experience this effortless. There's no need to sync the mouse to the box, you just pop in the batteries and go. There's no calibration needed either, you pretty much just bend your wrist in the way you think you ought to, and the cursor goes exactly where you want it to go -- if it gets off track a bit of jiggling, leaning it to one side, or clicking the "hide cursor" button makes everything right again.
You would think the Wiimote, with its sensor bar-based frame of reference would be better at operating an onscreen pointer, but the Power Remote blows it away -- we were able to type on the onscreen keyboard at about two or three times the speed with the Pointer Remote, pretty dang great for what at the end of the day is a fairly basic set-top box.
There's Ethernet and WiFi, and we went with the latter, which hooked up without a problem, though Kodak recommends you go the wired route for serious usage -- we're rebels like that.
Kodak has a lot of really good and interesting (and attractive) stuff on the software side, but unfortunately they don't seem to have quite sealed the deal -- there are enough annoyances, hang-ups and missing features to make the box, which at the end of the day is built to turn your TV into a glorified digital picture frame, hard to recommend at its $299 pricepoint.
Set-up is a breeze, with desktop side Kodak EasyShare digital display software (also used to manage Kodak wireless picture frames) that automagically seeks out media. Unfortunately it's rather indiscriminate. For instance, it was happy to tell the Theatre HD box all about our iTunes Movie Store purchases, which the box failed miserably at playing -- after taking ages to load, buffer and then actually play a black screen with occasional "glitchy" noises. Also, it builds previews for certain file types, but not for others -- it's a bit of a crap shoot. Overall we'd say we're very pleased with how easy it is to track down our computer's media, but at the end of the day the software and / or the set-top box need to do a better job of making sense of all that data.
(Codec support is super extensive, other than the aforementioned lack of iTunes Movies and a failure to track down our Zune tracks. Most everything else on our hard drive played without a hitch, including full HD 1080p 30fps video).
Online set-up is similarly easy, but with better results: we put in our YouTube and Flickr logins and we were looking at our respective contacts and subscriptions in no time, and they seem to be logically presented. Flickr surfing was much more responsive than YouTube, however, which seemed to have trouble buffering videos and even just pulling up various menus and pages. The interfaces for both are super slick, but we're not sure where the speed bottleneck is coming from.
There's also what we would call "non-native" support for a myriad of services like Facebook, RSS feeds and Weather through Kodak's FrameChannel partnership. FrameChannel works with lazy photoframe manufacturers to package RSS feeds and the like as images that can then be streamed to the device, complete with oversized and incredibly annoying advertisements. Given the fact that coding an RSS app is practically a "Hello World" exercise these days, it's extremely disappointing that Kodak didn't do that itself.
Actually using all this stuff in the living room, Pointer Remote in hand, is a combination of incredible intuitiveness and occasional frustration. Kodak has a fairly simple menu structure, with a lot of sub categories underneath, and persistent shortcuts to music, help, settings and home. The animations to drill through the menus are smooth, but every action seems to bring with it a slightly annoying delay -- you can't blaze through anything. The good news is that you never feel like you're thumbing through an unending list of options, thanks to the quick, precise pointer movements and the familiar scroll wheel. The back button on the Remote quickly gets us out of our rabbit trails, but we still found the deep folder structures a bit overwhelming at times. The player also had a nasty habit of not showing a picture on the first try. We'd click a pic, get a buffering icon, and then get blackness. We had to back out and click again before we actually saw the image -- this happened both online and on locally-stored images.
The most basic functionality of the box -- popping in a memory card, skimming through the pictures, and building slideshows out of it -- works as effortlessly as you would think, but unfortunately the only online upload option the entire device offers is Kodak Gallery. Newsflash: we don't use Kodak Gallery, and we don't know anyone that does. We're sure that these strange creatures exist, but until they represent a majority of the population, we'd really appreciate being able to upload content to Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and so forth.
We'd say the main problem here is that Kodak hasn't quite managed to make a product easy enough to use that we could recommend to the people who would actually get the most use out of it: our parents. There were enough breaks in the usability and layers of complication to make it too frustrating to the basic user -- for instance, the box found our PC automatically, but once that PC feel asleep and was reawoken, Theatre HD couldn't find the PC's content until we manually re-added it in the settings menu. On the flip side, there's not enough power or capability here to appeal to the power user -- especially with devices like media extenders and the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii offering most of these features (or more) for less cost. Add in some Netflix, Flickr and YouTube uploads and patch up some of these usability problems and then maybe we'll talk.
The good news is that Kodak has a wonderful box and a wonderful input mechanism on its hands, and if it's willing to put in the work and capital to build a truly great piece of 2.0 software for it, we might have something here that's worth the $299 asking price. Oh, and let use the Pointer Remote with our computers... pretty please?