Sungale recently gave me the opportunity to review its Cloud TV box, and given the overuse of the word “Cloud” lately, you might be wondering exactly what that is. Sungale says that it allows you to “Watch high quality TV programs ABSOLUTELY FREE! No contract, no subscription, no fee.” In a nutshell, it’s a streaming appliance that accesses RSS video feeds of most of the networks you might want to watch. But it’s not all that simple.
Before we dive into watching TV, let’s look at the physical box. The Cloud TV (also known as the STB266) is of the same black, sqaure, puck-looking design that many companies have adopted, and around five inches square. Build quality is about what you’d expect (as in, perfectly fine, but not Apple-awesome) and it’s got more connections on it than most boxes of this sort, including Ethernet, HDMI, AV outs (both composite and component), a trio of USB ports, an SD/SDHC card slot, and the ubiquitous wall-wart DC power connection. Included in the box are the power supply, a small remote, a small wireless mouse, and a quick start guide.
Firing it up is pretty simple, and it leads to a very familiar setup screen. The Cloud TV runs Android as its OS. I do like this fact, as I’ve carried an Android handset for several years. (Being the good reviewer that I try to be, the quick start guide was in hand as I went through this process, but color me confused when it was instructing me to touch this button and touch that button and kept referring to “the tablet.” My guess is that Sungale carried over a guide from another product and forgot to change some things.) Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread is under the hood, but you are presented with a modified version of Android that formats things in a pretty logical way. Sungale notes that with this implementation of Android, the OS version is not terribly important. I would agree, as a lot of Android OS version differences are user interface related, but even so, Sungale plans on adopting future versions.
Anyone familiar with an Android device will see a lot of familiar navigation items. iOS users may have a little bit of a struggle at first, but overall, it’s pretty intuitive. Navigation is less than a stellar event with the included remote. To say that it’s not the world’s best remote would be an understatement, but fortunately, Sungale included a wireless mouse. The mouse definitely speeds up navigation, although said navigation isn’t strictly mouse-like as on your computer. The buttons are assigned a little differently and it’ll take some getting used to. Midway through the review period, Sungale sent me an air mouse, which they plan on shipping with the Cloud TV moving forward. For couch-based navigation, this is superior to the wireless mouse, since you don’t need a surface to mouse around. It also auto-calibrates itself to whatever orientation you’re using, so there’s not a defined “sweet spot” for using it. However, the lack of touch input absolutely effects the overall user experience. Android, by its nature, is built around touch, so some things are very difficult or cumbersome without this input method or a lot of tinkering to make up for its loss. The mouse is a decent stand-in, but doesn’t replace true touch input. Anything other than simple navigation will likely benefit from having the wireless mouse receiver occupying one of the three USB ports.
As I dug into what’s pre-loaded, my first stop was the “Internet TV” button. Now, as stated before, the Cloud TV aggregates network RSS feeds. Translation — if it’s on their website, you see it on Cloud TV. What that means for the end user is that you’re at the mercy of the network’s website. If they happen to post full shows, you might be in luck, but these are usually posted in a delayed fashion. Mostly though, you’ll just find clips and webisodes of a lot of the shows you might want to watch. The major hitch I discovered is that some networks have disabled content on mobile devices, a category which the Cloud TV gets lumped into because of its OS. The bottom line is that you can’t use Cloud TV in the same way as a cable box (watching live TV) or as a Hulu-like service (watching full shows with delay) simply because the networks don’t offer that service through their websites. (Side note: I did try Hulu Plus on the Cloud TV. It will install from the Android Market, but when launched, Hulu says it is not a “supported device” and therefore doesn’t work.)
All of that aside, the Cloud TV does a pretty decent job of getting a variety of content into one place. Toss in an external drive with music, movies, and photos, and it does a nice job of playing what you bring. The thing that limits the Cloud TV significantly is the content providers themselves, but that’s been a battle that has only been gaining intensity over the past several years.
In terms of video quality, it’s very hit or miss. I set the Cloud TV to output 1080p and Android scaled up very well. The interface looks sharp and all the menus look solid. When it starts to pull content from the web, however, the wheels more or less fall off. Cloud TV, for the most part, uses Android’s native video player. I’m a fan of it on my phone, but not so much here. Even the “HQ” setting doesn’t produce HD results, and I think that’s likely due to the fact that the content providers are seeing Cloud TV as a mobile device, and feeding it video that would probably look perfectly acceptable on a four-inch screen. This is not really a knock on the Cloud TV itself, since it’s only pulling down what the content providers are putting out there. Some applications and networks launch their content into a browser window, but with the same results.
Bring your own content to the party, though, and all of a sudden, the Cloud TV wakes up. I’m not surprised, given that it has pretty decent specs, including hardware 1080p decoding. I threw some HD content on a USB thumb drive and the Cloud TV instantly accessed the files. Image quality was very good and the audio was crisp. You can do the usual things (pictures, music, videos) as with most devices of this type.
Overall, the Cloud TV is an interesting proposition. If the content providers played along, it would be a really cool box, but with their limitations imposed, it really takes away from the usefulness. Especially without the ability to use a service like Hulu, it more or less fails in the TV department. Its benefits are directly attributed to it being tied into the Android ecosystem, and by that, I mean apps. It’s easy to find niche apps on Android, so you’ll likely find something to help in your media consumption — from music and video players, to slideshow viewers, to games, or really anything else — except Hulu, which is a bummer.
For $129.99, this won’t be for everyone. It is certainly not as mainstream a streaming appliance as a Roku or Apple TV, but if you like the idea of an Android-based media player and are willing to deal with some idiosyncrasies, it well-made little box with some potential.