Snapstick preview and hands-on

We just finished up a meeting with the folks from Snapstick and came away surprisingly impressed with their foray into the increasingly cramped space of the connected living room. Snapstick's concept isn't that different from other mobile phone to TV systems we've seen, but it's implementation is definitely more unique than most other solutions currently available. Read on past the break for a quick rundown of the tech that makes the Snapstick system work, as well as a video of the system in action.

For starters, let's clarify exactly what the Snapstick is. The hardware consists of a small set top box running a stripped down version of Ubuntu, but you wouldn't ever know it if you weren't told so. While the hardware is still not finalized, we were shown two different prototype boxes -- one running on Intel Atom and another with an unspecified NVIDIA chip -- but both had the same physical enclosure. The box connects to your home network as well as your TV through HDMI, and there are a couple of USB ports around back as well. D-Link has already been announced as a partner, but the hardware we saw was definitely not final, though it definitely won't have an awkward form factor like the Boxee Box. Once the box is connected and online, you go ahead and download the Snapstick app for your iPhone or iPad, or install the specialized Snapstick browser toolbar or bookmarklet.

The Snapstick iOS app is essentially a weird combination of browser and VNC app. You start by browsing to any website on your i-device and cue up a video or whatever content you're trying to snap. Once loaded, a quick flick of the wrist sends the link in the browser over to the Snapstick box and in about five seconds the same page from your phone appears on the TV screen. At this point, the app switches into control mode, which is actually just a remote desktop implementation controlling the Ubuntu Snapstick box. Whatever you do on your controlling device then happens on the screen, and although we noticed a bit of lag it certainly wasn't terrible for a product that's still in the development phase. Scrolling on the phone with two fingers shifts the image on screen, and familiar gestures like pinch to zoom work well for navigating on the smaller screen of your iPad or iPhone. You can switch back to browser mode while video is playing on the TV, and the address bar doubles as a Google search box much like Chrome.

Here's where things get interesting. Because all of the video processing is actually done on the box itself, you can play any kind of web content back regardless of whether or not it will play on your iPhone. Yes, that means full Flash videos and websites like Pandora and Hulu work like a charm. We queued up an episode of Modern Family for free on Hulu on our device, snapped our wrist, and were watching within seconds. We aren't going to judge playback at this point because the hardware has not been finalized, but we were assured that it would be able to handle HD content without a hitch and we're inclined to believe these guys.

Because the Box runs a version of Ubuntu that's not differentiable from a standard PC, Snapstick shouldn't have any of the same content licensing problems as other internet TV devices -- namely Google TV. That's not to say the money-hungry TV networks and content owners can't block the device, but at least as we understand it, they'll have a difficult time doing so.

The Snapstick app also had an button to launch apps, which at this point were limited to Pandora, Skype, and a terminal program we presume won't be present at launch. Again, because the box is running Ubuntu at its core, it can run Linux apps natively, but it also includes shortcuts to webapps as well. The Pandora button launched the full-on Pandora experience on the TV, and we'd assume they'll add one for Hulu before the product ships. The only native app being shown off was Skype, and there was a camera mounted on top of the demo TV, though we didn't get to actually check out video calling in action. Additionally, we spotted an option to "Control TV", which could indicate some sort of IR-blaster functionality that could allow for direct TV control within the Snapstick environment, but for now the button didn't do anything.

Overall, we're really impressed with Snapstick's initial offering and we're glad we finally got to see the device in action. It's quite interesting to see this new take on web-to-TV, especially considering the advantages this poses over other similar platforms. The Snapstick folks also informed us they're shooting for a sub-$200 price tag off the bat, but they'd like to get it down to that magical $100 price point in due time. We're equally excited to see what hackers can do when they get their hands on this, because the novel approach the company is taking makes us think it definitely has the potential to shake things up in the home entertainment space. We'll be receiving a box when the company takes it into BETA sometime later this month, and we'll be sure to keep you updated on any developments as we get 'em.