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A Device Sold Before Its Time

What if you were offered magical powers — but at a price?

What if you could fly — but each flight would take a week off your life? What if you could read minds — but you’d lose a few memories of your own every time? What if you could turn invisible at will — but it gave you horrible psoriasis?

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Source: Monsoon Multimedia

Those aren’t exactly the tradeoffs you get with the new Vulkano set-top TV box, but they’re close.

The Vulkano is like a combination TiVo and Slingbox. That is, like a TiVo, it can record TV shows automatically to a memory card (the $280 model) or a hard drive ($380), ready for playback any time. And like a Slingbox, it lets you watch those recordings, or even live TV, when you’re away from home: on a Mac, PC, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phone or BlackBerry. Never again will you have to pay $17 to watch some hotel-room movie; you can watch the TV you’ve already paid for at home.

On the face of it, this all sounds great. There are no monthly fees. The video quality is surprisingly good when you’re away from home. The box itself is about the size and shape of a computer keyboard — a plastic silver sliver. It doesn’t stack well with other home entertainment gear, especially because the external hard drive dangles awkwardly with no place to go. But at least the thing is slim, sculpted and good-looking.

Unfortunately, the Vulkano box is nowhere near ready for prime time. It’s riddled with bugs, problems, limitations and absurd design flaws.

Now, Monsoon Multimedia is a small company. It would seem heartless to itemize the Vulkano’s failings in a national newspaper — if it weren’t that the company asked me to review it. You would think that such a request implied a certain confidence in the product’s readiness for consumers.

“Some pieces definitely need some work,” said a product manager. “We’re addressing them as quickly as we can and knocking them down.”

Well, that’s good to know. Maybe I can help it along by supplying a to-do list of what needs to be fixed.

1. THE SETUP The box connects to your home network over Wi-Fi or with a cable. But to complete the setup, you have to make some adjustments to your network router. Specifically, you’re supposed to — ready? — turn on port forwarding so that T.C.P./I.P. traffic from ports 49177 and 57123 go to the box’s I.P. address. Oh, is that all?

It’s insane to expect average consumers to know what that means or how to do it.

Especially because there’s no user guide. Not in the box, not on a CD, not on the Web site.

2. THE TV GUIDE Central to the Vulkano’s mission is the TV guide (which the not-so-user-friendly company calls the E.P.G., short for Electronic Programming Guide). It takes 35 seconds to appear on the screen — also known as an eternity.

The first time you open the E.P.G., you see a channel grid of your cable company’s lineup; you can use the arrow keys on the small, nonilluminated remote to choose a show for recording.

But my review unit displayed a bug: if you exit that E.P.G. screen and later reopen it, you can’t scroll or highlight anything on the grid. If you want to program a new recording, you actually have to reboot the Vulkano box.

More problems: there’s no way to auto-record a show every week. Names of shows and channel titles longer than a word or two are chopped off in the channel grid, and there’s no way to see the rest of them. There’s no way to scroll the grid a screen at a time, either — only one painful line at a time.

3. RECORDING PROBLEMS If you try to schedule a recording for a time when you’d already scheduled one, a message lets you know about the conflict. Great. But your only option is to cancel the new show. You have no option to cancel the previously scheduled show and record the new one instead. (It’s stuff like this that makes the TiVo look good.)

4. VIDEO FORMAT PROBLEMS Each time you schedule a recording, you have to specify which gadget you’ll later use to watch it: iPod Touch/iPhone, iPad, Droid, Mac, PC, TV and so on.

Sounds reasonable, right? After all, a full-TV-size recording takes up a lot more disk space than one intended for your cellphone’s tiny screen.

Unfortunately, if you make the wrong choice here, you may be out of luck later. For example, if you indicate that you’ll want to watch a particular show on your computer or the TV screen, you won’t be able to watch that show on your cellphone at all. (Why can’t the box just convert the format at the time you request the viewing later?)

Why now?

Actually, it gets better (meaning worse). When the “Which format?” dialog box appears, you can’t accept the current settings with one button press. You have to arrow-key your way all the way through all of the fields — start time, stop time, format, quality and so on — all the way to the Record This Show button. Nine button presses. Every time. It’s nuts.

5. PLAYBACK PROBLEMS When you’re playing back a show on the TV, you can rewind or fast-forward — but only at one dog-slow speed. There’s no way to zoom faster, no way to jump to the tick marks on the scroll bar, and of course there’s no way to skip over commercials.

And some shows won’t play at all. The company’s tech rep says he gets this problem sometimes, too. “Some of ’em play, some of ’em won’t,” he said.

6. REMOTE-PLAYBACK PROBLEMS The whole joy of the Vulkano box is supposed to be its ability to let you watch your recorded shows from the road — on your phone or maybe on the upstairs computer. But you can’t actually watch what’s on the box, streaming it over the network or the Internet. You have to copy the show to your phone or computer before you can play it.

On a Mac or PC or iPad on your home network, the transfer takes five or 10 minutes for a one-hour show. But copying that show to your phone takes 45 minutes or more, depending on your connection speed. Come on. Really? (It’s stuff like this that makes the Slingbox look good.)

And while we’re talking about head-banging limitations, it turns out that the Vulkano’s processor can either record a show or send out a live TV picture, but not both. In other words, if you’re on the road somewhere, you can’t watch live TV while the box is recording. You’re shut out of your own system.

Now, the company cheerfully admits to every single one of these problems, and says that every single one will be fixed in the coming months. It also plans to add other Internet-viewing options like Amazon and Netflix movies; right now, the Internet Applications menu lists, bizarrely, only one item — YouTube.

Well, that’s fine; when that work is done, the Vulkano might be worth a look.

For now, though, it’s a train wreck. The real question isn’t, How could a box like this have so many problems? Every new product goes through a shaky stage on its way to commercial readiness.

No, the real question is, Why is the company selling it at this point?

If you shell out $380 for a gadget, you have the right to know when you’re being recruited as a paying beta tester. Put another way, you deserve to know that your new powers of TV time- and place-shifting come at a substantial price.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.