The Spawn HD-720's promise is borderline unbelievable: It streams your Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii from any Windows PC, anywhere, in HD. And it actually works! (Sort of.) But the list of caveats is long—perhaps fatally so.
The way the Spawn HD-720 works is novel enough to bear repeating. In simple terms, it's like a Slingbox for games; an extra piece of hardware that streams your home media—in this case games rather than TV—to a client on a local or remote PC. On a technical level, the box is doing something fairly simple. Here's the what's happening:
• The box sits between your console and your TV, and so it can rip a video and audio signal while it's en route from one to the other.
• The box then streams the intercepted feed out through your broadband connection, where it can be accessed through the Spawn client. The client PC is simply streaming video, so if it's capable of playing smooth 720p video, there's no performance difference between a netbook and a full-on gaming PC.
• The Spawn box connects to your console as a controller (and in the case of the Xbox 360, actually requires a spare controller to be connected to authenticate). This controller interface is fed through the client, which allows remote players to control the console, either via keyboard or PC controller, connected via USB. You can purchase an adapter to connect multiple remote controllers, but the box doesn't ship with one. (I used an Xbox 360 controller connected via USB.) An IR transmitter has to be placed above the Xbox's IR sensor. I used duct tape. Here's what Spawn Labs' demo setup looked like from the rear, to give you an idea of how this who thing works:
So it really is like a Slingbox, in terms of how the video stream is being relayed to the internet. It's also relatively console-agnostic, meaning that you can expect a uniform experience across your Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii, though it can only be connected to one at a time.
You've probably already figured out what this kind of setup means in practical terms, but it's more than basic remote play. You can wake your console remotely, invite other players to play on your console even if they're in different locations, and easily record and share your gameplay with Spawn's capture software. And remote play isn't just about playing from your hotel room when you're on a business trip: you can play your console from your laptop in your bedroom when your TV is otherwise engaged, or use your console in the absence of any kind of display.
When we first tried the HD-720, it was a controlled demo, streamed over a local network. And it worked! In fact, latency was low enough to be considered playable in all but the twitchiest games, and the image quality—especially in 720p mode—was flawless. Compression artifacts were barely noticeable, and with a controller connected, it honestly felt like the client laptop had become an Xbox. It was a promising demo, but left one massive question hanging in the air: How will this thing work over a typical broadband connection?
In short, not terribly well. My home connection, through Earthlink's admittedly anemic DSL pipes, wasn't up to the task at all. That was expected, since the minimum recommended bandwidth for SD streaming is around 500Kbps upstream, but still disappointing, since most people don't have much better upstream bandwidth than I do. (My connected tested just below 500Kbps, rendering remote play from my house nearly impossible.) For full HD play, at high quality and with low latency, you need to be able to push "3 to 5Mbps" upstream. In my experience, your connection needs to test that fast to get the best performance, not just bear a 5Mbps claim from your ISP.
So, let's say you meet these minimum requirements. I set up the box on Matt's FIOS connection, which is rated at 15/5Mbps downstream/upstream, and easily cleared the 3Mbps upstream requirement in bandwidth tests. The experience was less than perfect:
As you can see at the start of the video, latency is acceptably low for some types of games, but too high for first-person shooters. It's not that much slower than playing over a local network, but the hit you take in image quality is fairly severe, and it's slow enough that you can't even think about playing online, over Xbox Live or PSN.
But! (And this is a big but) The only way to get acceptable play quality—on FIOS, remember—was to run in 480p. HD streaming, as you can see at around 4:00 in the video, never quite reached honest playability on servers that Spawn Labs hadn't set up themselves. SD play is satisfying enough on a small netbook screen, but stretch out a 480p image onto a larger monitor and it looks pretty terrible.
In other words, the HD-720 will only fully live up to its name if you have an unusually fast connection. And if you do, you'd better make sure it's not being utilized by anything else—torrents or other P2P, specifically—or else you'll see a significant degradation in video quality.
Granted, it's impressive that the concept works at all, and when it does, it feels pretty spectacular. I'm playing Matt's Xbox, from the office. That's pretty cool. But it feels like a tech demo.
There's a definite wow factor at work here, but as a consumer product—one that you're expected to spend $200 on—it's got some serious issues. I mentioned the high connection requirements, but that's just part of the picture. Here are a few of the other hangups I had:
• Setup woes: Setting up the Spawn Labs HD-720 should be easy, and setup wizard is as compete as you'd want it to be—when it works. Whenever I moved the box to a new location, I found myself having to run through the installation routine multiple times to get steps to work, and the bugs weren't always repeatable, or predictable. Since I've had the unit, I've seen a handful of software updates hit the box and the client, each time stamping out old bugs while seemingly introducing new ones.
Networking issues aside (more on that later), there were basic problem with the box recognizing its internal controller adapter, connecting with Spawn's servers for updates, and remembering component/composite settings. It's new software, sure, but this was confusing to me, and I write about this kind of stuff for a living. To a more casual user, it would be a dealbreaker.
• Tenuous client software: Games are supposed to be launched through a web interface, which downloads a session file, which is opened by the Spawn client. This begins a session, which takes anywhere from 15-30 seconds in my experience, depending on the speed on your connection. The experience is a few steps away from seamless, and crashes often require you to restart the client software—and sometimes the box itself, which you can do remotely—to reinitiate a connection.
• Crashes: The client was somewhat prone to crashing in its first few versions, though now, on version 1.04, it's more reliable.
• Inconsistent image quality: The manner in which the HD-720 manages bandwidth changes is somewhat jarring. The routine goes something like this: Game starts to show bizarre artefacting; game stutters; stream resets. With two connections in the equation (server and client) I found this happening more than I'd have liked, and often to the point that anything more than a few minutes of gameplay was frustrating.
• Conceptual limitations: As mentioned before, the console requires you to dedicate a controller to passing along the control interface to your computer. In other words, to use a single controller remotely, you need two plugged controllers, both with USB adapters. There are also some larger conceptual problems at play here. Obviously, you can't switch game discs remotely, so you're really accessing a single game, plus whatever you've downloaded in full to your console, remotely.
• It's PC-only: Spawn's software is essentially a video streaming client, based in part on the cross-platform VLC media player. I mean, it's more complicated than that, obviously, but it's not rendering anything in 3D. So why just PC support? Part of what's interesting about this concept is that it effectively eliminates minimum hardware requirements for gaming, since your Xbox is still doing all of the work. The product is still brand new, but a Mac client seems to make sense here.
• There's no HDMI or Wi-Fi: This is actually a pretty big deal, especially for HD consoles like the Xbox and PS3. I had to borrow an Xbox component adapter from a friend to even test the console, since my late-model Xbox didn't ship with one. This also means that whatever TV you're leaving your console connected to will need to run through component cables. And you need an extra set to run from the Spawn to the TV. The only other option is composite cables, which obviously limit your resolution. Lack of Wi-Fi is only an issue if you use your Xbox with a wireless adapter, since the Spawn is tied by cable to your console, so it's sort of stuck—possibly out of range of an Ethernet cable.
• Connectivity issues: Getting the HD-720 set up on the server side is reasonably easy. For remote play, you need to be able to forward two ports to the box, the local IP of which is listed in the client utility. I was able to do this on a Linksys router without issue, but despite port testing tools indicating that forwarding was working properly, I couldn't get a remote connection going on an off-brand router. I also had issues connecting to the server from some locations for reasons that were unclear to me: Connecting to a server from our office, my home, and my girlfriend's place worked fine—each with different, though in no way unusual network configurations. Connecting from an Airport Express, though, netted inconsistent results, and a three coffee shop tests left me with a 1/3 success rate. There is basically no way to troubleshoot this, except to appeal to Spawn Labs' tech support.
And then there's the big question: Will you actually use it? I can't answer for you, but I'll answer for me: Not as much as I'd thought. To have access to your Xbox away from home, it turns out, is to have access to a single game, a range of Arcade titles and demos, and to not be able to depend on your connection—unless it is seriously fast, and stable—not degrading the gaming experience to the point that it's just not worth the trouble. The best sell for the box, as I see it, is as a local gaming device: It's nice to have your Xbox at your fingertips on, say, your work PC. And again, the local play experience is plenty acceptable, in SD or HD. But that's a narrow purpose for a product that costs $200, or in other words, as much as your console.
The Spawn Labs HD-720 is such an obviously compelling concept, which makes the fact that it's just too young, too rough around the edges, and too dependent on external variables that much harder to accept. But trust me: That's the case. Unless you're fully aware of the caveats, and feel completely and utterly certain of your internet connection's speed, your tolerance for the software's growing pains, and your actual desire to play your Xbox from your PC (by the way, who are you?), it's a no-go.
It's very cool, to the point that people won't believe you when you show it in action
It works well over a local connection
HD bandwidth requirements are too high for most broadband connections
Image quality at lower bandwidths is poor, and latency is high
It doesn't work with HDMI, and requires redundant controllers
Glitchy software, connectivity issues, Windows-only compatibility
It costs as much as a second console