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Caavo’s $100 box doesn’t quite pull off streaming-TV unification

Control Center’s price is reasonable and its ambitions are laudable. But smashing through the walled gardens of video giants isn’t easy.

Caavo’s $100 box doesn’t quite pull off streaming-TV unification
[Photo: Caavo]

Earlier this year, a startup named Caavo released a wildly impractical device for taming home entertainment setups.

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Caavo’s original $400 TV box could route up to eight HDMI devices through a single input, letting you access them all through one remote and menu system. It enabled scenarios that would otherwise be difficult to impossible, like controlling an Apple TV with an Amazon Echo, or simultaneously searching across streaming devices and cable boxes. But it was flawed and expensive for what it tried to do.

Now, Caavo is back with a $100 device called Control Center. It only has four HDMI inputs instead of eight, and it lacks its predecessor’s fancy wood paneling and fabric-covered HDMI cables, but it performs many of the same functions and even introduces some new features, such as HDR video support. It’s also much smaller. (It does, however, incur a new $2 per month service fee.)

For Caavo, the problem is no longer the hardware, but the software. Like the previous Caavo, Control Center doesn’t yet integrate deeply with enough streaming apps, defeating the purpose of using it in the first place. With a bit more work, Caavo could be a great way to navigate all your video content–even on just one input–but it’s not ready to fill that role yet.

[Photo: Caavo]

Plugs and plays

Setting up Caavo is fairly easy. When you plug a new device into one of Control Center’s HDMI slots, it detects the device automatically and by name. You’ll then see a miniature window where you can make sure Caavo’s own remote is controlling the new device. You still need a phone or computer to tell Caavo which streaming services you’re subscribed to–a minor annoyance–but doing so will allow Caavo to jump into those apps on your behalf.

Once everything’s set up, the Caavo remote acts like a universal controller, with buttons for home, back, menu, and playback that work with most cable boxes, streaming devices, and game consoles. For traditional TV service, there’s also a button that brings up a virtual number pad for jumping to specific channels.

The key remote feature, though, is its silver “Caavo” button, which brings up Caavo’s own menu system. From here, you can search across devices and streaming services, switch inputs, jump directly to certain apps, and browse for things to watch. When you make a selection, Caavo automatically switches to the appropriate input, opens the appropriate app, then finds and launches whatever you’ve chosen.

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This is only possible because Caavo is controlling all the inputs and knows what’s available on each of them. It then simulates button presses–and in some cases, uses computer vision techniques to recognize what’s on the screen–to navigate around. A garden-variety universal remote such as a Logitech Harmony won’t be able to do that.

[Photo: Caavo]

New box, new tricks

Despite costing a quarter the price of the old Caavo, Control Center is actually more capable aside from its smaller number of HDMI inputs. The new box supports not just 4K video, but 4K HDR, and input latency has been cut in half to 30ms. That’s still a noticeable amount of lag for console gaming, but it’s borderline acceptable now.

The bigger change is on the software side. Within Caavo’s Watch menu, you can now create or browse playlists of movies and TV shows. These include user-generated playlists (from folks who’ve opted to share the lists publicly) and professionally curated ones. The website Decider, for instance, has a list of all the newest movies on Netflix, while Complex has a ranked list of Harry Potter films. A few “tastemakers,” such as comedian Alonzo Bodden and Nascar driver Toni Breidinger, also have lists of favorite movies and shows.

Caavo offers video playlists which aren’t limited to a particular streaming service’s offerings. [Image: courtesy of Caavo]
The playlist concept is unlike anything you’ll find on the home screen of an Apple TV or Roku, and the reason it works so well with Caavo is that it’s device- and service-agnostic. If a movie is on both Amazon Prime and Netflix, Caavo will take you to whichever one you already subscribe to. And if a Roku owner decides to make a public playlist, you can still check it out on a Fire TV.

Still, I ran into a couple of snags that made the playlist feature less enjoyable than it could be. In some cases, Caavo had incorrect information on which content was available on streaming services, so I’d make a selection only to find that I couldn’t actually watch it. And once you do start watching something, there’s no option to auto-play the next item from the list. My dreams of building a set-it-and-forget-it ’80s action movie marathon were quickly dashed.

[Photo: Caavo]

Work to be done

Despite all of its neat ideas, Caavo is still more useful in theory than it is in practice, and that’s largely because it doesn’t work with enough streaming apps. Currently, Caavo integrates with 17 apps: Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, DirecTV Now, HBO Go, HBO Now, Hulu, NBC, Netflix, PlayStation Vue, Plex, Showtime, Showtime Anytime, Sling TV, Starz, TBS, TNT, and YouTube. That’s a tiny fraction of all the streaming TV apps available today.

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Even among the apps that Caavo does work with, support can be quite limited. For live TV services such as Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, Caavo is just a glorified app launcher, since you can’t directly launch channels, access on-demand video, or see your DVR queue. Caavo’s search function also can’t understand searches within specific services, so you can’t say “comedy movies on Netflix” or “sci-fi films on Amazon Prime.” And because Caavo’s remote only works with its own search function, you can’t access the often-superior search capabilities of devices like Apple TV and Fire TV.

In fairness to Caavo, the company says it’s working on a lot of these things, including support for more apps in the near future and the ability to launch live TV streaming channels through the Caavo menu. It also wants to improve its support for smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. (You can control Caavo with these devices today, but setup is cumbersome and launching a video can require multiple voice commands.)

On some level, it’s a bit ridiculous that Caavo–or anyone, for that matter–is going through all this trouble. Of course modern TV devices should let users create their own playlists and watchlists that work with any streaming service, because not everyone has the patience to jump through a half-dozen apps every evening. Of course you should be able to search across all streaming services and devices, because your smart TV should be smart enough to do that for you. Of course your choice of voice assistant–whether it’s from Google, Apple, Amazon, or someone else–shouldn’t dictate whose entertainment devices you’re supposed to buy.

The reality, though, is that TV has come to represent everything we now expect about the tech platform wars, with different companies walling off consumers from one another’s services, and no single solution for wading through an ever-increasing amount of content.

You shouldn’t need a $100 HDMI passthrough box to fix these problems, just like you shouldn’t have needed the original $400 Caavo to do the same. But if the Caavo Control Center can bring all its promised features and app support to fruition, you just might want one–eventually.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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