AirTV: OTA/OTT Box of the Future, But Not Yet
The new AirTV receiver, made to integrate Sling TV and other over-the-top sources with over-the-air local channels, was a big hit at CES. As I wrote and photographed at the show, that AirTV allows users to mix OTA channels with Sling channels in a favorites list, making it easy to switch between say, NFL Network and the local CBS station.
Having heard reports of a two-week or longer delay in shipping for some signups, I was so excited to get my AirTV box delivered today. It has a lot of great features, but it does not have that OTA favorites integration. A call to support verified what I experienced, but they assured me that those features will probably arrive in a future software update. How disappointing to be shown one set of features at CES only to find them unavailable 10 days later!
The AirTV starts up as an Android TV box before defaulting to SlingTV. It has full access to the Google Play Store for apps, movies, TV and music. The receiver comes with Sling TV, YouTube, and Netflix preloaded, has Chromecast baked in, and it works fine with Hulu, Crackle, Vudu, ESPN, and any other Android TV app I’ve tried on it. Even Tablo works; that’s another OTA channel source. The remote is a little wide (about 2.25 inches) but has a nice, smooth feel. There’s a small, easy-to-remember set of buttons, including dedicated Google, Netflix, and Sling access. The remote also has a mic for voice commands.
After I plugged in the AirTV OTA Adapter, really a Hauppauge USB dongle, the AirTV recognized it and, after prompting me, scanned in my local channels. It missed the goofy channels that broadcast without identifiers (looking at you, KHDT) and missed my Movies! affiliate, but pulled in the majors just fine.
For me, the biggest disappointment is how awkward it is to watch OTA channels on AirTV. After that initial scan, the only way to access locals is to scroll all the way to the right in the Sling TV guide, click the unlabeled blank TV for “View Over the Air and Internet Channels,” then click Launch. That brings you to the most recently viewed channel; the remote’s up and down buttons will channel up and down. After some trial and error, without the benefit of documentation, I discovered that holding the OK button for a second before releasing it brings up a list of previous channels, plus a link to the OTA program guide. That guide can import OTT live channels such as those in Pluto TV. But clicking the Guide button on the remote drags the user away to the Sling guide and the most recent Sling channel viewed.
The AirTV has two USB ports – presumably one for the OTA dongle and one for an external hard drive. Although it recognizes a USB drive, it will only use it for Android-based storage; there’s still no DVR. Another oddity: my TV set reports that the HDMI signal from the AirTV receiver is just 720p. My other HDMI sources, including my ChannelMaster DVR+, serve up the full 1080p. AirTV is reportedly capable of 4K, but I don’t have any 4K sets to test.
In summary, the AirTV is a perky, responsive TV box. I had hoped to see exactly how well it integrates OTA with OTT only to discover that it hardly integrates them at all. This receiver has a lot of promise, and the right software, especially if it includes a DVR, could make this the perfect cord-cutter device. As it works today, it’s still missing some pieces.