More consumers are watching TV shows over the Internet using computers hooked up to their sets. But this can be a hassle. The major Web browsers were made for close-up use, so they have icons, toolbars and menus that can be too small to see from an optimal TV-viewing distance. And they are meant to be used with mouses, or laptop touch pads, and keyboards.
So, many people wind up sitting on the couch with a laptop and a long cord, or with a wireless keyboard and mouse on a coffee table.
There are various workarounds, such as using the browsers’ zoom controls, fiddling with screen resolutions, and using wireless adapters to eliminate cords. But now, a small company from Rockville, Md., Hillcrest Labs, thinks it has a simpler, better idea. It has invented a new kind of Web browser and a new kind of wireless remote control explicitly designed for using TV-connected computers from the couch.
One product is a free browser called Kylo, available at kylo.tv, which came out in beta form a few weeks ago. Hillcrest calls it “the Web browser for television,” and it runs on both Windows and Mac. It has huge icons, and a large on-screen keyboard for pecking out Web addresses and search terms with your cursor.
Kylo has an easy zooming control and a home page with a scrollable display of big tiles that link to 128 popular Web video sites.
The other is an unusual remote called the Loop, which controls the computer, not the TV. It’s a $99 bagel-shaped gadget with four buttons and a wheel. You wave the Loop in the air to move the cursor, to scroll and to select items. It came out last summer and works on Windows and Mac.
The Loop feels comfortable in the hand, and is designed to move the cursor with small wrist or arm movements. Your thumb controls the scroll wheel and buttons—the two largest correspond to the left and right mouse buttons.
Each product can be used separately, but the company sees them as a perfect combination for using a TV-connected computer.
I’ve been testing Kylo and the Loop, and they do work well together. Using an Apple (AAPL) Mac Mini and a Toshiba Satellite laptop plugged into my large flat-panel TV, I was able to sit across my family room and wield the two Hillcrest products to watch videos from all over the Web. I also used the Loop by itself to run other computer programs on the TV screen, including Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer.
But both products have enough rough edges and missing features that I consider them promising advances in solving computer-to-TV issues, rather than polished solutions.
I’ll get to some of these downsides in a bit, but I want to mention one right away. Hulu, one of the most popular video sites on the Web, blocks Kylo users from viewing its content. This isn’t Hillcrest’s fault, but it does reduce Kylo’s usefulness.
Kylo is fully capable of displaying Hulu’s TV shows and movies. But, just as little Hillcrest was about to unveil the new browser, Hulu cut off access for Kylo users. Hulu explains that it did this because under its agreements with its media-company partners and investors (including News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and its Web sites) it is intended for streaming TV shows and movies to computer screens, not TV screens. This is because the media companies don’t want free computer-to-TV streaming to compete too much with cable and satellite providers, which are major sources of revenue for them.
Ironically, I was able to watch Hulu videos just fine on my TV using the Loop and the same computers, by merely switching from Kylo to other browsers. It seems Hillcrest’s crime was openly declaring that Kylo was explicitly meant for use on TV screens.
So, what are the other downsides of Kylo and the Loop? For one, depending on your TV-computer combination, setting the screen resolution to optimize Kylo might cut off menus and window controls when using other software. And Kylo lacks some common browser features, like the ability to email links to a site.
As for the Loop, because it is radically different from a standard mouse or TV remote, it takes time to master. Also, since the Loop only controls the computer, it can’t turn the TV on or off. It also doesn’t have volume and mute buttons. You still need your TV remote for some tasks. Further, once you’re at a Web site using Kylo, it can be hard to see the tiny controls often used for playing videos in full screen. And the Loop lacks an Escape button, which is the typical way to exit full-screen video mode.
But, for people who love using their computers with their TVs, these two works in progress are worth a try.