Google Play Store has some apps you can’t get on other set-top streamers
Keyboard feels good
Software is painfully slow and riddled with bugs
Tilt-based cursor adds to the frustration
Awkward hardware struggles to fit in an entertainment center
Combining over-the-air and streaming video in one device is a clever idea, but Mohu’s execution is far too sloppy to recommend.
Over-the-air broadcasts are enjoying something of a renaissance in the cord-cutting age. If you live within range of broadcast towers, a simple antenna will deliver basic channels—including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and PBS—in beautiful high definition for free. It’s the perfect supplement to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Mohu Channels is a $150 device that tries to bridge the gap between these over-the-air broadcasts and streaming video. It hooks up with any TV antenna—Mohu sells a bunch of them, but you can bring your own—and mashes a broadcast channel guide and streaming video apps into a single interface.
The concept is clever, as it means you don’t have to switch inputs or swap remote controls, but Mohu’s execution is too sloppy to recommend.
Cursors and keys
Mohu Channels doesn’t look like your average media streamer. It’s shaped like an elliptic cylinder, with Ethernet, USB, HDMI, and power on one side, and a connection for an antenna on the other. It’s sort of an odd design, since there’s no way to stand the cylinder upright with everything plugged in, and it’s too light to stay anchored to an entertainment center anyway. I think you’re supposed to let it hang freely behind your television, which is awkward given the device’s size.
The Mohu Channels remote is shaped like a fat candy bar with a full QWERTY keyboard and arrow keys for navigating the interface. The keys are nice and firm, and whenever you press one, a small light in the top-left corner blinks to confirm the input. It’s a nice touch that keeps you from constantly looking up at the TV while you type.
Because Mohu Channels is trying to replace all your devices, you can also program the remote to control your television’s power and volume—but that’s it. You’ll still need your old remote to change inputs if you have a Blu-ray player, home-theater PC, or any other devices you want to use.
If the interface required only the keyboard, I’d have no complaints with the remote. But Mohu Channels also lets you move a cursor around the screen by tilting the remote in the direction you want to go. This is a horrible way to control a pointing device, as every twist of your wrist sends the cursor flying, and you need steady hands to select anything while keeping the cursor still. You might wonder why Mohu included the cursor at all, but it’s vital for controlling third-party apps. More on that shortly.
The perils of non-TV Android
Mohu Channels’ runs a modified version of Android, replacing the typical home screen with something that resembles a TV channel guide. On top is a list of channels you can get over the air, and below that you’ll see links to the device’s built-in web browser, the Google Play Store, and a handful of built-in apps. You’re free to rearrange these channels and apps however you want, and hide any ones you’d rather not see.
I ran into a couple of issues initially. When I first tried to set up the device, nothing came through the television, but unplugging the device and plugging it back in seemed to bring the signal back. I also found a recurring issue where every time I restarted the device, the full programming schedule failed to load. The only fix is to jump into an app, and then return to guide to refresh the list.
Once the device was up and running, bigger problems began to emerge. Mohu’s software isn’t based on Google’s new TV-friendly version of Android. Instead, it’s a paved-over version of Android’s mobile operating system, which constantly reminds you that it isn’t meant for televisions. You’ll notice elements of the Android tablet interface poking through where they shouldn’t, such as the notification bar that you can pull down from the top of the screen.
But where non-TV Android is most evident is in Mohu Channels’ third-party apps. These apps are designed for touch screens, not keyboard-based remote controls, which is precisely why Mohu included a tilt-based cursor as a workaround. The cursor is supposed to approximate touch input, but it’s actually much more aggravating. To scroll through menus, for instance, you must hold the “select” button, tilt your wrist to scroll, let go of the button, tilt to reposition the cursor, then repeat. The concept alone is clumsy enough, and the finicky nature of the cursor only makes it worse.
Punching below its weight
Another major downside—and I’m not sure how much of this is hardware vs. software—is how slow Mohu Channels can be. Every time you return to the channel guide, it spends a few seconds refreshing itself and preventing you from doing anything else while you wait.
Navigating through apps or the Play Store feels equally sluggish. On several occasions, I hit the back button and failed to get an immediate response, so I hit it again. This in turn triggered a double-tap when the system caught up to my commands, sending me back out to the channel guide and triggering that long refresh all over again. I might have pulled out a few hairs in the process.
The saving grace of non-TV Android should be the ability to run all kinds of apps that you can’t normally get on other set-top boxes. For instance, I was able to watch full episodes from NBC, CBS, Conan O’Brien, and Comedy Central through their respective apps, which is something I wouldn’t be able to do on a Roku or Fire TV (at least not without workarounds).
But even the flexibility of Mohu’s software turns out to be a mixed blessing. Some apps that are table-stakes on other media streamers, such as Crackle and MLB.TV, wouldn’t work at all on Mohu Channels.
Mohu Channels has a web browser as well, but this is less useful than you might think. Sites like NBC, for instance, don’t allow streaming from mobile devices, which is funny because Mohu Channels includes a link to NBC.com towards the bottom of its program guide. Hulu is also out of the question, as is any site that relies on Adobe Flash for video playback. Using a web browser on your TV continues to be a dubious proposition, and Mohu Channels does little to change that.
Better options elsewhere
If you’re dead-set on having one input for all your video needs, Mohu Channels isn’t the only option. You could combine an Xbox One ($350) with a $35 TV tuner to get a full programming guide, streaming apps, and high-end gaming in a much slicker package. Or, you could get a TiVo Roamio OTA ($50), which provides DVR capabilities and streaming apps for $15 per month. Don’t want another subscription fee? Tablo ($220 plus an external hard drive) can record broadcast shows and stream live channels to all kinds of devices over your local network. Mohu Channels is cheaper than these alternatives, but the downsides are significant.
For most users, the best and most cost-effective solution is to keep over-the-air and streaming sources separate. Just plug your antenna directly into the TV, and take your pick of sub-$100 media streamers—Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, or Fire TV, for example—all of which do a better job at streaming video than Mohu Channels. You won’t have everything on a single input, and you’ll have to juggle a couple of remotes, but the net number of headaches will be far fewer.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.