Lenovo’s Q150 as Set Top Box: Nice Hardware, Bleh Software

Over the past few years, I have given just about any device capable of sending a signal to a TV display as shot at my video rack, from the very first Replay TV and TiVo boxes through Apple TV, Roku, and Western Digital’s WD TV Live Plus. But I have always resisted PCs because of their bulk, noisiness, and their terrible user interface for watching TV.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q150 handily solves the first two problems. It is a very small nettop, about the size of a paperback book, that runs all but silently and can even be hidden away on the back of a flat-panel set with a VESA mount. It comes with a little t-shaped wireless mini-keyboard/mouse that functions as a remote control. There’s a $350 version that would be usable as an ultra-small, light-duty desktop, but for video use, you’d want the $399 model that Lenovo sent me: a 1.66 GHz Intel Atom processor, NVIDIA Ion graphics, 500 GB hard drive, and HDMI out for simple connection to an HD display.Lenovo N5901 keyboardThe keyboard/remote is a bit odd but a good solution to the challenge of controlling Windows with a handheld device. No doubt about it, Windows requires a full qwerty keyboard and mouse. Typing on the keyboard is a bit awkward but since you won’t generally be entering anything longer than a URL, it’s tolerable. The trackball with a mouse button to either side of it worked fine, though I wish that depressing the trackball would replicate a left mouse click–pointing and clicking is the main thing you do with this device and the simpler you can make it, the better.

Video playback from the IdeaCentre was flawless, with the image quality as good as the source material permitted. I was planning to run an Ethernet drop to the basement to give it a wired connection, but haven’t gotten around to it. I may not bother, since I have had no problems using the built-in wireless to connect to a Wi-Fi access point located in the room immediately above.

The problems start, however, with the use of Windows as a media player. For all of its many faults, the Motorola set top box that I use with Verizon FiOS presents a straightforward user experience by showing me what is available to watch, Nothing like it exists for the PC (or Mac, for that matter). I can use Windows Media Center  to watch content I have stored on my network, but it doesn;t provide either internet or cable content. Finding TV shows requires jumping from site to site on the Web–Hulu, network sites, South Park, and many more. Aggregators like Clicker.com help, but not much, since once you select content, you are redirected to a source site, and each of them has its own user interface.

Even once you find content, watching it isn’t always easy. I find myself toggling in and out of full-screen mode a lot and I have found that on some sites, Hulu in particular, full-screen does not always work reliably. Playing Netflix Watch Instantly through a browser presents a much less satisfactory user interface than on a dedicated players, even a relatively clunky one like the Xbox. In the end, it’s the same old PC problem: I find myself fussing with the demands of the system when all I want to do is watch a TV show.

My PC experiment leaves me feeling that a dedicated set top box is the best choice for getting internet content to a TV, My two favorites are Roku (from $70) and the WD TV Live Plus ($150). Both are dead simple to set up and use. The WD unit offers Netflix Play Instantly (like other players, no additional charge for Netflix subscribers) and a variety of other net content. It also lets you play videos stored on your home network and supports nearly all popular video formats including AVC (but not DRM-protected purchased video.)

Roku can’t play your own content, but offers a richer choice of on-line alternatives, including free, subscription, and pay-per-view channels. If you’re a movie buff, the combination of Netflix and Amazon rentals is tough to beat.

It will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with in its expected replacement for the very limited Apple TV. Odds are it will be another solid choice that will only serve to widen the usability gap between PCs and dedicated set top boxes.

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