Aereo's premise is a clever one: for $12 / month, it streams over-the-air broadcast channels to almost any device with an HTML5-supporting browser — only iOS devices and Roku are supported now, but the company promises near-universal support is coming. It's designed to be a complement to Hulu or Netflix, except in this case it's actually streaming live TV from NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS, and others. The service went live today in New York City as a first trial for the company, even while it's in the midst of defending the legality of its service and business model. We got to try Aereo out for ourselves, and though it's not hard to see why the company's in that legal trouble it's also not hard to figure out why Aereo is a great idea.
The whole system works inside your browser, without need for any native apps. Once you've signed up (you still need an invite to do so), you just load aereo.com in your browser and sign into your account. Just like that, up comes a split-screen web app, with one half devoted to a channel guide, a quarter to the video playing, and a quarter to sharing and playback options. The app is remarkably smooth, letting you scroll through time slots and channels, and choose something to watch easily; we had a couple of hang-ups as things loaded, but not very many.
Choosing something to watch is as simple as tapping it in the channel guide. You can choose the quality of your video ("High" appears to be 720p, and looks great either full-screen or on a TV), and whatever you chose starts playing after a buffering period, which for us ranged from three to thirty seconds. You can watch in your browser, or if you have an Apple TV, you can use AirPlay to watch TV... on your TV. If you have a Roku device, Aereo's just another channel, and appears to be even more seamlessly integrated into the system. You can quickly post what you're watching to Twitter or Facebook, or connect your accounts and see what your friends are watching as well.
There's also a surprisingly full-featured DVR built into Aereo. You get 40 hours of storage, and since each Aereo account nets you two antennas, you can record one thing while you watch another. You can also schedule recordings, so if you know you're going to miss the March Madness games this Thursday you can set them to record right now. Recordings are accessible through a tab at the top of the screen, and in a clever touch if you open the recordings tab, the show currently playing becomes a thumbnail in the lower right corner — picture-in-picture style — ready to be activated again with one tap.
Aereo doesn't provide much in the way of functionality that I couldn't already get elsewhere. But it's so much simpler than dealing with DVR software for a PC, external antennas, and the like, and thanks to mobile support it's extremely portable — plus the guide is so much more usable than most over-the-air services. Many cable cancelers (like myself) miss a couple of network shows, plus sports and news, and for $12 / month Aereo brings a lot of that back to the devices we use already. It's hard to be psyched about giving Aereo your money until it resolves its legal proceedings — its antenna farm is reminiscent of Zediva's DVD players, which didn't stand up to similar scrutiny — but if Aereo can prove it's legitimate, it could be a good friend to cord-cutters.