Using the Neuros Link
After unboxing, hooking up power, Ethernet (or WiFi) and an HDMI cable to connect the LINK to my Phillips 52-inch flat-panel LCD Digital TV, the familiar Ubuntu loading screen appeared, followed by an auto-login under the 'Neuros' user account and auto-launch of the open-source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) and customzied Firefox web browser set with the Neuros.TV site as the browser's default home page. However, before an on-screen interaction can take place, the wireless keyboard needs to be paired with the inserted USB keyboard receiver by pressing the sync buttons on both devices. Once connected, the keyboard has a fairly decent range (I was able to have keypresses detected up to 15 feet away) and because it's RF-based, does not require line-of-sight alignment with a reader (unlike the AppleTV or more television remote controls). Configuring the XBMC settings is easy and straightforward (for more details on XBMC, visit the XBMC website). Once the XBMC is set up, launching view web videos from its selection menu will bring the previously launched Firefox browser to the forefront.
Although the Neuros.TV web site is freely available for anyone to use, the LINK's default web page is app.neuros.tv, an AJAX-driven custom site that aggregates video search results from a number of providers, ranging from YouTube and hulu to commercial purchase sites like Amazon and Netflix. Results can even be collected from news sites like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times to social media sites like MySpace and Yahoo as well as other video sharing sites like blip.tv. In fact, the site does such a good job aggregating results that it may become a popular bookmarked destination for any Internet-connected media junkie. The only concern I had with the app.neuros.tv site was its user registration requirement. While I'm sure Neuros' intentions are to enhance the user experience via future customization and customized search category optimization, I still felt uncomfortable with having Neuros be aware of knowing my media viewing preferences, especially since their use of this captured search data is not clearly understood. Of course, for the security-savvy user who would still prefer to use the fine Neuros.tv site, simply setting the browser's home page to www.neuros.tv will bypass this registration requirement.
After customizing and tweaking the LINK to the optimal viewing settings, I unleashed the device on my unsuspecting family to see how they preferred it to the AppleTV they had been using for over a year. It was through this test that I collected advantages and limitations of the LINK as well as formulate a number of programs I could write to further elevate the LINK to an enjoyable family media experience.
The most obvious advantage of the LINK above any other TV-connected media device my family and I have used is the wireless keyboard input and the immediate familiarity with the computer interface. We are predominantly a Linux family, so navigating around the XBMC, Firefox and the Neuros Ubuntu desktop were second nature. The Neuros TV service made locating web video content a breeze and we spent hours watching compelling video streams from numerous sources. After watching videos, my kids headed straight for Flash-based gaming sites which displayed fine (with caveats; see limitations below). I was able to easily pull down additional programs and dependencies via the Synaptic package manager to further customize the LINK system.
Perhaps the most annoying limitation of current configuration of the LINK is the CPU and video chipsets being employed. While the decoding works fine for standard definition content, frame drops and tearing occur on full-screen, HD media playback. Additionally, Flash-based content like games and interaction learning simulations slowed to a crawl when displayed in full screen mode. Speaking of full screen mode, the results returned by the Neuros.TV service are simply links to the web pages containing the flash player contents rather than a direct connection to the media itself. This requires users to re-center the page or hunt for the "full-screen" icon on the various players. And because the LINK is Linux-based, content sites that don't support Linux (like ABC.com's proprietary Move Networks media player) cannot be viewed. Finally, using the wireless keyboard trackball resulted in the typical jitter small trackballs generate, making precise coordination of the onscreen cursor an occasionally frustrating experience.
If the LINK had been a closed, proprietary media device, my family and I would simply have to accept these limitations and be reminded of them each time we used the LINK. However, because its open and I'm a developer, I was energized by the possibilities of how to easily circumvent these limitations and improve the interactive experience in exciting new ways.