Hot on the heels of the official Hulu Plus launch comes a new device from Orb Networks that promises to bring all of Hulu.com’s content on your TV screen — for free, with no subscription required. Orb TV, a small streaming unit with the form factor of a hockey puck, also offers access to content from ESPN 3, Netflix, Comedy Central and other cable networks — but the company doesn’t have agreements with any of them. Check out my video with Orb CEO Joe Costello below for details:
Orb’s trick is a small piece of software that users install on their PCs. Videos from Hulu and other online sources stream through the PC client, which then sends the signal via Wi-Fi to the Orb TV unit. There’s little networks can do to stop this kind of architecture, according to Costello.
Orb, which sells for $99, also did a few other novel things: Some other companies sell media streaming products at around the same price point without Wi-Fi, prompting users to either use Ethernet or buy an additional Wi-Fi adapter. Orb, on the other hand, only connects via Wi-Fi, completely dropping the Ethernet port.
The device also comes without a remote control. Instead, users are prompted to download remote control applications for their iPhones or Android smart phones.
So how well does it work? I had a chance to test an Orb TV for a little while today, and my first impression was that the setup process is actually pretty well done. The device doesn’t prompt you to enter long, cryptic Wi-Fi access keys via an on-screen keyboard, but instead is connected to your PC or Mac via USB for configuration.
Streaming also worked well, and the show-centric programming guide on my smartphone offered an easy way to access content from Hulu and other sites.
However, Orb decided to release the first iteration of Orb TV without HDMI, relying instead exclusively on SD video via composite output. That’s a big bummer, and it kind of made me question the whole concept: Why would you stream Internet content to the best screen in your house if it looks better on your computer?
Costello told me that the reason for not using HDMI has to do with the Wi-Fi requirements for HD streaming. I don’t quite buy that argument, and I assume it has more to do with attempts to keep the price of the unit low.
Orb Networks has plans to eventually release an HDMI version, and Costello said that the company will offer an API to add additional video sources to the device. That could help to make Orb successful — and it will definitely put more pressure on networks to rethink their stance towards policies leading them to block devices like Google TV and the Boxee Box.