A new pay-TV receiver from Fanhattan tries to solve three problems vexing TV viewers: clunky program guides, a proliferation of often similar Internet video services and overly complex remote controls.
The new receiver, dubbed Fan TV, uses its own image-rich menus in place of the grid of channels and time slots on conventional pay-TV guides. It combines broadcast and cable networks with Netflix, Apple's iTunes and numerous other online video sources. And it's much sleeker than conventional set-top boxes.
In short, this polished, Zen-like device from the San Mateo company is a potential breakthrough in function and design.
You can't get it just yet. The device isn't expected to hit the market until later this year. No price has been announced, either, but Fanhattan Chief Executive Gilles BianRosa pledged that it "will be a lot less expensive than what you're paying your cable company to rent that set-top box every month."
There's a significant catch: Fanhattan plans to sell the device only in partnership with pay-TV operators. And at this point, it hasn't announced any such partners.
BianRosa unveiled the device at the D11 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, but I had the chance to see a demonstration earlier this month in Los Angeles.
Fan TV is not only more stylish than the typical cable or satellite receiver, it's considerably more compact, taking up about as much space as a large brownie. The remote, which is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, is a button-free touch pad.
Inside the Fan TV hood, though, is a stripped-down computer that tunes in programming through a broadband Internet connection, wirelessly or via an ethernet connection.
From the Fan TV home screen, users start by picking a type of programming to explore — movies or live TV — and then browsing through movies or TV episodes grouped in several different ways.
The groupings include genre, lists of favorite channels or programs and lists of videos that are popular on Fan TV or with one's Facebook friends. Once you've selected a title, Fan TV displays a plot synopsis, stills from the video and links to related titles and more information about the cast and key crew members.
Users still will be able to browse live TV offerings by scrolling through thumbnail pictures and descriptions of each channel's current offerings.
But the idea behind the guide, as with Fanhattan's website, is to break out of the confines of the TV grid and make it easier for people to find something they'd like to watch, whatever channel or online service might offer it.
For example, if users click on a link to "The Walking Dead," Fan TV will display links not just to episodes that are airing at the moment or in the near future on pay-TV, but also to four different places online where users can watch episodes from the first two seasons and three sources where they can find episodes from Season 3.
Clicking on any of those links, in turn, launches a player from that site for the user to watch and, if necessary, pay for the episode.
By the way, the Fan TV remote is one of those forehead-smacking leaps in simplification that makes you wonder why every other company isn't doing things this way.
By sliding a thumb left or right, up or down across the surface of the remote, users navigate through the menus Fan TV displays on the TV screen. Tapping the surface selects an item or operates the on-screen playback controls. Sliding two fingers up or down raises or lowers the volume.
For years, cable operators resisted efforts by consumer-electronics companies to replace program guides with ones built into TV sets or retail set-top boxes. They particularly disliked the idea of guides that would offer alternatives to their own video-on-demand services.
That resistance, BianRosa said, is giving way to the realization that consumers will go elsewhere for their entertainment if their cable operators make it too hard for them to find something they want to watch.
The cable companies also started to see online on-demand services as complements to their own programming, not competitors, BianRosa said, because there's a limited amount of overlap between what's on live TV and what's available online.
That may be true, but there's also a limited number of hours that people are willing to spend in front of a TV set. Every hour spent watching "Arrested Development" on Netflix is an hour not spent watching advertiser-supported channels, pay-per-view movies or other cable programming whose value depends on the size of its audience.
One other unusual feature of Fan TV is that when users record a program, it's stored in an online locker — a virtual DVR.
That approach is similar to Cablevision's controversial network-based DVR. Hollywood studios argued that Cablevision's approach violated copyright law, but the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.