Verizon FiOS Media Manager: Easy Setup, So-So Delivery

I’ve tested plenty of set-top boxes that let you view the contents of your computer on your TV. And no matter how easy the installation may be, it’s still a hassle. At some point, you’re forced to connect that box to your network, either with messy wires or a tricky wireless connection. But not with Verizon FiOS’s Media Manager, which offers an easy way to enjoy your computer-based photos, videos and music on your TV. Verizon does most of the work for you, leaving you with no installation hassles. Now, if only the performance of Media Manager could match that of competing set-top boxes, I’d really be in love.

verizon_media_manager_screenVerizon’s Media Manager is not new — it’s long been available to users of the company’s multi-room Home Media DVR, and then to users of any FiOS DVR. But this week, Verizon made the service available to all customers who have FiOS TV and FiOS Internet service. The company also rolled out remote DVR scheduling, which allows you to program your FiOS DVR from a Web-connected phone.

The remote scheduling features are pretty basic, and comparable to what you get from most of today’s DVRs. What you won’t find on most DVRs are features that can rival what the Media Manager software brings — especially when you’re renting a DVR from your cable company, not purchasing a premium model like a TiVo or a Moxi. To use Media Manager, you simply download it to your PC (sorry, Mac users, it’s Windows only for now) and let it run. I set it to scan my whole computer, and was pleasantly surprised with its speed: It found thousands of files in less than 10 minutes. I also liked how it warned me when incompatible files were located; rather than just adding them to the queue and then refusing to play them on my TV like some set-top boxes, the Media Manager app instead told me why it was skipping over them.

Once the scan is complete, you just leave the software running on your PC and head over to your TV. You need a Verizon router and FiOS Internet service, which allows for the most impressive part of the whole experience: no installation. You just turn on your TV, find the Media Manager icon in your cable box’s menu, and you’re in business. It will find your computer (as long as it’s connected to your home network) and all of the files that the Media Manager software located.

On your TV, your files are organized just as they are on your PC — you see the same folder structure and file names, which makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. The Media Manager menu itself is broken into categories for music, video and pictures. Overall, it’s very easy to use, though at times slow. To be fair, Verizon does warn you to expect delays, noting that some videos can take up to 15 seconds to begin playing.

Another annoyance: the way my Verizon FiOS DVR remote interacted — or more accurately, didn’t interact — with the Media Manager features. Since the remote has buttons for play, pause, fast-forward and rewind, I thought I could use those to control video playback. But these buttons did nothing when I pressed them; to stop the video, I had to hit “OK” on the remote, and then scroll through an on-screen menu to find “stop.” And I never found a way to fast-forward video content.

Video quality ranged from decent to very good. Some of my PC-based videos looked great — though not even true HD files looked like HD content when viewed on my TV. Others looked blocky and smeared, with audio that was sometimes out of sync with the video.

Photos looked consistently great, though, and music sounded good. Unfortunately, mixing the two is a challenge; when viewing photos, I could hear the TV audio in the background. If I wanted to have a song play instead, I needed to create a slideshow and add background music using my PC. And when listening to music, all I could see was a big blue screen with information about the song playing. Another oddity: The pause and play buttons on my remote worked to control the music, even though they didn’t do anything when video was playing.

These bugs aside, I’m impressed with Media Manager. Sure, I’d like the video playback to integrate better with my remote. And I’d like video to look stellar all the time. But most set-top boxes have similar hassles, plus the added annoyance of a tricky installation. Verizon Media Manager wins hands-down on that one. And if you’re already a FiOS customer, it’s free. The price for Verizon Internet and TV service is comparable to what you’d pay a cable company. (Verizon’s Internet service starts at $45 a month, while Comcast’s starts at $42; Verizon’s HD DVRs go for $15 a month, while Comcast’s SD DVRs start at $10 per month.) So, in effect, you’re getting a lot of extra features for not a lot of extra cash. You can’t beat that.