Do you love funky proprietary software enough to force your loved ones to run it too? That's the question Cisco seems to be asking with the FlipShare TV, a new set-top box designed to help make sharing Flip videos super-simple for even the most basic user. Unfortunately, some puzzling design choices and big limitations combined with the less-than-wonderful FlipShare software make this seem like more of a hassle than it's worth. What do we mean? Read on for the full review.
The actual FlipShare TV set-top box is pretty basic stuff: it's smaller than a CD case, just big enough to accommodate power, HDMI, and composite video jacks. In the first of many puzzling design choices, Cisco cheaps out and only packs in composite cables, which is super lame considering the tech-averse target market here. Similarly, the seven-button remote is RF-based, which means you can't use the FlipShare with a universal remote -- not the world's greatest inconvenience, but still annoying.
That's nothing compared to the most puzzling design choice of all: the wireless dongle. For reasons we still don't entirely understand, the FlipShare TV doesn't connect to your home WiFi network directly -- instead, it comes with a wireless dongle that plugs into your computer and streams video over a proprietary 2.4 / 5GHz RF link. Cisco told us the idea is to make setup as simple as possible for non-technical users to get up and running -- the software is preloaded on the stick, so you just plug it in, install, and go -- but that means that the set-top is totally useless unless your computer is turned on with the dongle plugged in and the FlipShare app running. That seems hopelessly clunky to us, and we're not sure saving a few moments of potential set-up frustration is worth disrupting what would otherwise be a straightforward experience -- and besides, shouldn't Cisco know how to make connecting a device to a WiFi network simple and painless?
Of course, there's one major benefit to using a proprietary dongle, especially for the low-tech audience: the FlipShare can be optimized for a known high-bandwidth connection, and indeed, it streams HD Flip videos from local machines without hesitation. But to get to point where you're actually streaming video, you have to go through the FlipShare app on the desktop, which is really the heart of the whole enterprise. FlipShare is certainly a serviceable piece of software, but it's clearly made for absolute novices and optimized for, well, sharing. Apart from quick cuts, there aren't any editing options, and storage and archival is pretty much up to you -- videos are auto-sorted into folders by date on import, but there's no search. Videos can be sent to YouTube and Facebook, and Flip is also rolling out Flip Channels, which can be accessed from the FlipShare TV and apps on iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. We encountered a couple FlipShare crashes on both our 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo iMac or our bruiser HP Elitebook, which makes us a little wary about long-term performance -- it's is very clearly built as a cross-platform app, and we've had painful experiences with those in the past. And remember, FlipShare has to be running and streaming video over the dongle the entire time you're using the set-top, so a lower-powered machine might feel the strain -- and if your computer goes to sleep, hangs, or crashes while you're watching the FlipShare, well, you won't be watching it any more.
Once you've got the set-top plugged in to your TV, you just plug the dongle into your machine and wait -- the box and dongle are paired at the factory, so it just takes a second for them to find each other. From that point things are pretty simple: you can play videos you've got shared on your local machine, or open Flip Channels shared by others. Local videos are streamed at full resolution and look exactly like they do off your Flip, while videos from the Channels are compressed to a lower bitrate for Internet delivery and are of slightly lower quality. It's pretty brain-dead stuff, and the interface is spare and functional -- we wouldn't call it "attractive," but has a certain minimal charm. And... that's really it. You can add photos to FlipShare and play them if you wish, and you can have it play other videos if you're willing to sort out the right codec and bitrate, but you're better off getting a real media streamer if that's your goal. The FlipShare TV is fundamentally about watching Flip videos, and it does that extremely well. The only question is whether you're willing to pay $150 for a limited device with such a quirky set-up process.
The whole time we were using the FlipShare TV, we found ourselves imagining a variation on the core idea that we think would be a much bigger hit: a WiFi-enabled box targeted at grandparents that defaults to streaming videos from your Flip Channel. Once you'd gone over and set it up, all they'd have to do is turn it on to watch your latest videos, and then they could turn it off. Simple, really -- it would basically turn an HDTV into a giant RSS digital photo frame. We'd buy that for $150, no question.
Instead, the current version of the FlipShare TV requires Gran to pull out a dongle, plug it into her laptop, run the FlipShare software, and then turn on her TV and the FlipShare box. If her laptop goes to sleep, slows down, or crashes while she's watching a video, she's done. That's far from optimal, and we just don't see how it beats true WiFi apart from guaranteeing bandwidth -- think about trying to explain all these steps to a tech-illiterate person, versus just setting the box up for them and walking away. Flip's certainly on to something with the idea of the FlipShare TV, and particularly with the idea of Channels, but for now we'd say you're better off saving that $150 for something with slightly more functionality.