Remember when families used to gather around the television to watch home videos? The process sounds old fashioned now that we spend so much time watching videos on our computer screens. The company that introduced the popular Flip hand-held video cameras, now owned by Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), wants to send you and your home videos back to the living room.
This week, I tested the device that hopes to do that: FlipShare TV (www.theflip.com). This is a $150 box that’s available as of Wednesday at Amazon.com (AMZN). It plugs into any TV and receives videos that are wirelessly shared. These videos can come directly from the hard drive of a nearby Windows PC or Mac, or via “channels” that you create so you or anyone else can post and share videos via the Internet by simply entering an email address.
FlipShare TV would be a useful gift for friends or family members who don’t want to bother with logging onto a site to watch shared videos or photos. It takes just minutes to set up, thanks to straightforward plug-and-play software, which originally made the Flip video cameras so popular.
I tried FlipShare TV using Windows PCs and Macs, on an analog TV (using the included red, white and yellow audio-video cable to connect the box to the TV) and on a high-definition TV (using an HDMI cable, which is sold separately, usually for between $10 and $20). Included with FlipShare TV are a simple white remote control and a USB key that plugs into the computer to communicate with the box.
My FlipShare TV box occasionally dropped the signal of a computer that was just 10 feet away, forcing me to unplug and re-plug its power cord to get it to work. Cisco said this was a problem in the pre-production unit that I tested and that this issue was fixed in final-production boxes. The company recommends that the FlipShare TV box be within 200 feet of the computer with the plugged-in USB key. When it worked, I enjoyed watching videos, like those from a friend’s Thanksgiving charades tournament, on the big screen with such little effort.
A few obstacles stand between you and the nostalgia of once again watching home videos from the couch. For starters, only videos that are captured with a Flip video camera (the least expensive model costs $150) definitely can be shared via the FlipShare TV box. (A techie workaround may be used to convert some other videos into a different format for viewing, but the company isn’t advertising this.)
Another problem is that to receive new videos on the FlipShare TV box, your corresponding computer must be on, its USB key must be plugged into it, and the FlipShare software must be running.
But the most irritating issue with the FlipShare TV is that this box lacks an indicator to notify users when new videos are available for viewing. Instead, people must rely on text messages, emails, or Facebook notifications to know when someone has shared a new video. There is nothing wrong with these kinds of notifications—at least not for frequent users of email, Facebook and text messaging. But I imagine my grandparents or my parents using FlipShare TV, and none of them would want to be told about new videos via text message or Facebook. My parents would likely be checking email on a different floor of our house, not near the main TV where this box would sit.
Assuming all systems are go, you need only to hit the “Input” button on your regular TV remote to switch over to FlipShare TV. The box creates its own point-to-point wireless network linking it to the USB key on the computer, so it doesn’t depend on the quality of your home Wi-Fi network, or even require that you have one.
FlipShare software, which installs on a Mac or Windows PC as soon as the USB key is plugged in, is easy to learn if you’ve never used it. If you own a Flip video camera, this software was automatically installed when you first plugged the camera into a computer, offering to save the camera’s videos. It even auto-sorts video clips in folders like “September 2009″ according to when they were captured.
A category called Flip Channels creates a private place online where you can drag and drop any video for instant sharing with selected people, who receive notifications that a video is available for viewing on the channel. Those people can revisit the channel online whenever they want, unlike the traditional method of sharing videos via email, which requires digging up the original email to locate a video link again. And if the original “sharer” allows it, you can “re-share” a video via the Flip Channels with other people. Flip Channels also serve as a Web-based storage place for your videos, so you don’t have to worry about your hard drive crashing and losing all of the Flip videos you’ve off-loaded onto a computer.
A menu button on the FlipShare TV box remote displays a simple list on the TV screen with the option to view favorites (like a special video you saved), videos stored on the computer or videos shared via channels.
As soon as a new video is posted to a channel you have acces to, it appears on the TV menu in a section labeled “New Items.” Two friends shared several videos with me and thumbnail images representing each clip appeared instantly in New Items on my TV screen. After I watched a new video, it no longer appeared in that section but instead was placed into a section with the channel name given by the person who shared it. Along with videos, I also imported some JPEG photos to my personal channel.
After 10 minutes of sitting idle, the screen of the TV connected to your FlipShare TV box will fill with still images representing each video, like an ever-changing collage.
So as it is now, this box helps people circumvent the computer and go straight to the living room—but only as long as they are aware that someone shared a new video with them; their computer is on with its USB key plugged in; and the FlipShare software is running on a computer within range. Cisco says it will introduce a version of the FlipShare TV next year with an indicator so people will know exactly when someone has shared a video with them.
FlipShare TV makes a lot of sense as a simple way to watch videos and look at photos in the living room. But it needs to be more intuitive for all users before family and friends can really sit back and enjoy the show.