Many users are ditching their expensive cable channel packages, instead relying on services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes for the bulk of their media viewing. But these services lack a vital element that is sure to be missed by TV addicts: live streaming broadcast channels. Aereo allows users to watch and record live television -- CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC and more -- from almost any device, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks and set-top boxes like the Roku. The company has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and some broadcasters have threatened to take their programming off the airwaves. Does Aereo live up to the hype?
What is Aereo?
Imagine if your rabbit-ear antenna was connected to a PC that sent the signal to any of your devices. That's what Aereo does. Aereo provides live streams of TV shows over the Internet. The company captures over-the-air broadcasts, digitizes the video feed, and streams it to your phone, tablet or other gadget.
In order to operate within the law, each Aereo subscriber has two dedicated antennas that remain remotely located at Aereo's warehouse. Although broadcasters claim that Aereo is distributing copyrighted shows without compensating the original broadcast company, this service falls within legal territory due to the fact that users are provided their own antennas. It's technically the same as a consumer purchasing and keeping a digital antenna in their living room -- except the cord is much longer.
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Currently, Aereo is only available in the New York metropolitan area, which includes limited parts of New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Users can access Aereo's live stream and their recorded shows from within any of the supported areas, but none of the features are available outside of this zone. We were able to watch TV at our offices in Manhattan as well as an apartment in Brooklyn, but got an error when we took a trip to visit family in Arizona.
Aereo is working to expand its availability and recently announced a May launch in Boston. This new location brings Aereo to 4.5 million new users, but also fresh new lawsuits as cable providers fight to shut Aereo down. Aereo may need to battle legal disputes in each new city it supports.
Boston is just the beginning of a larger, national expansion plan that includes bringing the service to 22 new cities. These cities include Miami, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Cleveland, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, Salt Lake City, Birmingham, Providence, and Madison, Wis.
Aereo isn't yet a viable replacement for a full cable or satellite package. Instead, the company mostly offers all the channels that are already available through an over-the-air digital receiver, plus a few extras.
There are currently 31 different live channels available through Aereo, which include both local and national broadcasters. Major networks include CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, The CW and PBS, which are the main draw of the service. Other lesser known channels include ION, MyNetworkTV and two Home Shopping Network channels. For younger children, there's PBS Kids and Qubo.
Aereo also features a fairly large selection of Spanish and Asian language channels, which occupy 10 of the available stations.
Fortunately, Aero's channel selection is expanding. In December of 2012, Aereo announced a deal with Bloomberg to live-stream Bloomberg TV. Bloomberg TV is the first cable channel to come to Aereo, hopefully paving the way for other content providers to follow suit.
As someone who gave up cable over five years ago, Aereo provided a nice transition back into the live TV world. Watching half an hour of live news in the morning before work isn't an experience that can be duplicated using other digital streaming services, whether free or premium.
Aereo does not have a dedicated app (except on the Roku), instead existing as a Web application. Users navigate to aereo.com on their notebook, tablet or smartphone in order to use Aereo, but both tablets and smartphones can then save the website to their home screen in order to have an applike Aereo experience.
Once logged in, users are greeted with featured shows, such as "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Community" and "The Office," and a channel guide that displays current live shows. Clicking on a show brings up the show's details as well as the ability to watch or record the episode.
There are three different video quality settings -- low, medium and high -- as well as the option to let Aereo auto-select the appropriate setting. There's also the option to tweet or share your current show on Facebook.
Next to the Features tab in the website's top menu is a Recordings tab, which shows all episodes that are saved on Aereo's system. Users can sort these shows by date or title, as well as manage all upcoming recordings and delete content in order to create more space. Users will receive a warning when the allocated storage space is almost full, prompting them to delete old episodes in order to create more free space.
The Roku app has a slightly different design than the website, creating an interface that's optimized for a large screen and remote control. There's no section with featured shows; users navigate directly to the live television guide or to recordings directly from the main screen. Each show is represented as a tile, which are presented in a horizontal row similar to Apple's Cover Flow. Clicking on a show shows the details and gives the option to either watch or record the episode.
Overall, the Aereo's user interface was smooth and intuitive. However, there were a few quirks that reminded us that we were using a Web app rather than a native application. Random pauses or delays in loading after clicking buttons left us wishing there was an official app available for the iPhone and iPad, despite everything working as promised.
Aereo doesn't just provide live-streaming TV to your digital devices; there's also digital video recording (DVR) with Tivo-like functionality. Users find their favorite shows, using either the search function or by navigating to an episode's airtime through the guide. You can then record either a single episode, all new episodes or every single future episode. Users can also set the priority of scheduled recordings just in case there are any conflicts.
Recorded shows are saved on Aereo's remote servers and can be accessed and watched from any device. Because playback is handled by Aereo, shows can be started on one device then seamlessly continued on another. We recorded an episode of "Shark Tank" and watched the beginning on our Roku before pausing the show and continuing the episode on our iPad. For monthly subscribers, recordings are stored until they're explicitly deleted by the user, whereas a user with a day pass has 10 days to watch a recording.
Closed captioning is available, but isn't supported on all devices. We were able to turn on captions on our iPad by navigating to the video section of the device's settings and enabling closed captions for the entire tablet. On our Roku, however, there was no option to use closed captioning.
Aereo for the Roku has two-screen Mode, which allows any authorized device to control the channel selection on the Roku. This works automatically when you enter the two-screen Mode setting on the Roku and login to Aereo on another device, but isn't as handy as using the official Roku remote. Until recently, the Aereo app for Roku did not support the Roku remote, relying solely on Two-Screen Mode, but the addition of the Roku controller makes Two-Screen Mode feel sluggish and obsolete.
Aereo works on a variety of different device types, including desktop browsers, tablets, smartphones and TV-connected devices. However, not all devices in these categories can run Aereo. For example, only Apple-branded tablets and smartphones, such as the iPad or iPhone, can run Aereo, so Android users are out of luck. Aereo works on TV sets, but only through Roku or AppleTV, and the latter relies on AirPlay to stream television rather than having a dedicated channel.
If you're using a PC or Mac, a wide range of desktop Web browsers are compatible with this streaming TV service, including Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer. Just be sure you have the most recent version of your browser.
We used Aereo with Chrome on both a PC and a Mac, Firefox, and iPad and iPhone and on the Roku and enjoyed a seamless experience regardless of the device.
The performance and image quality of Aereo depended on our Internet connection. When using a reliable Wi-Fi network, we loaded "Dr. Phil" almost instantly, even with the video quality setting on high. We could easily make out the intricate paisleys in Dr. Phil's tie as he listened to the story of a former beauty queen.
Live TV and DVR recording loaded more slowly when using Aereo on an iPhone 4S, even on the auto-detect quality setting. However, this may be due to AT&T's sluggish HSPA+ network. When we set the video quality to "low," things sped up.
Aereo supports up to five authorized devices per account. This means users can connect a Roku, home computer, work computer, iPhone and iPad and still be within the limits. Individual devices can be deauthorized at any time in order to add new devices, but no more than five can be connected to a single account at one time.
Despite the five-device authorization limit, each account still only has two dedicated antennas, so only two separate shows can be watched or recorded at one time. We pulled up NBC on our PC and FOX on our iPhone then tried to access ABC on a laptop, but couldn't get the third channel. Instead, we were prompted to stop an existing stream in order to access the new one. We then tried to access FOX, which was already streaming on our iPhone, and were prompted to stop the stream on our iPhone in order to watch on our laptop.
There are numerous service plans from which to choose, so users can pick a service package that fits their specific needs. Users can test the Aereo service for free, but are limited to one hour of streaming TV per day and no DVR storage space. There's also a Day Pass, which costs $1 and allows users to purchase service for a single day; the option includes two antennas and three hours of DVR storage that can be accessed for 10 days.
Regular users can opt for a monthly plan, which costs either $8 per month or $12 per month depending on the desired DVR storage space. The cheaper option offers 20 hours of recorded video while the more expensive plan provides 40 hours. Any recorded videos can be watched at any time, but only within Aereo's coverage area.
There's also an annual option that costs $80 per year, which includes all the benefits of the $12-per-month plan.
More and more consumers are ditching their cable plans in favor or digital video services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Aereo is a similar post-cable company but offers something different: live television. While the channel selection and coverage area are still fairly limited, Aereo offers an inexpensive way to watch your favorite major network shows or get real-time news updates during important events.
Aereo isn't a cable TV replacement, as many users will miss such channels as Comedy Central, AMC, Bravo, TBS and Cartoon Network. However, the ability to watch everything from "The Big Bang Theory" to "The Voice" on mobile devices is extremely convenient, and Roku support makes Aereo feel like real TV. If you're sick of paying for a huge cable bill, but still want a few live TV options, Aereo is a service to watch.