Amazon Fire TV. Apple TV. Roku. Chromecast. If the large — and growing — selection of set-top boxes vying for a spot beneath your television has you feeling overwhelmed, you’re not the only one. In 2016, the average household had about three hooked up to their living room TV.
There’s validity in a multi-device approach, particularly if you’re invested in an ecosystem that isn’t likely to expand beyond first-party hardware (e.g., iTunes) anytime soon. But the trouble is, those devices rarely play nicely together. Your Roku Streaming Stick+ has no clue what your Amazon Fire TV Cube’s up to, and the same goes for your Xbox One, PS4, Apple TV, Comcast Xfinity X1, and Chromecast. The best you can hope for is that Netflix picks up wherever you left off last time.
That’s where Control Center comes in. It’s a new $99 box from Caavo, the folks who launched a $400 limited-run streaming device last year designed to unify fragmented entertainment apps and services. Using a potent combination of machine learning, deep linking, APIs, HDMI-CEC, IP Control, Bluetooth, and IR, Control Center promises to not only put a living room’s worth of electronics at your command but to make them cooperate like never before.
At least, that’s the sales pitch.
Compared to the high-end first-generation Caavo (which Caavo now refers to as the “Caavo Classic”), Control Center is decidedly nondescript. Whereas the former was intended to stand out — and very much did, thanks to spun metal pegs and premium covers made of bamboo, mahogany, and “exotic” zebrawood — the latter is a lot subtler. It’s meant to blend in.
Control Center an all-plastic, piano black affair that’s perfectly smooth to the touch. From the top down — other than an embossed, centered Caavo logo and an accent peg in the lower right corner — it’s as aesthetically neutral as they come, which seems appropriate for a device that’ll spend the bulk of its time hidden in an enclosure or locked away in a cabinet shelf. My only quibble? It’s a fingerprint magnet. A quick photograph session was all it took to cover the glossy top with oily smudges.
A power light on Control Center’s front indicates when it’s switched on (and when it’s receiving commands from the included remote control), but the back’s the meaty bit. It’s where you’ll find four HDMI inputs (down from the first-gen model’s eight) and a single HDMI output, plus Ethernet, IR, power, and USB ports.
I expect Control Center’s port selection will accommodate most setups well enough, but as a person who’s perennially running short of outlets and power strips, I would’ve liked to have seen a second (or even third) USB port for USB-powered devices like the Fire TV Stick and Chromecast. A second IR port would’ve been nice, too (for added flexibility in IR blaster placement), but that’s admittedly a nitpick.
You’ll spend more time handling Control Center’s battery-powered remote than Control Center itself, and luckily, it’s serviceable. Caavo said it referenced objects that were “warm and nice to hold” in designing the remote and that it chose a button layout corresponding with the on-TV overlay (except for the shiny Caavo button, which pulls up the box’s top-level menu). The remote’s 16 buttons aren’t too hard to get the hang of, and the oblong rubber “foot” near the top makes it easy to pick up off a table. But other elements are less successful.
The directional pad could do with some refinement — it’s almost impossible to click without hitting the selection button encircled by it — and the remote’s thick, angular design doesn’t fit as naturally in the hand as, say, Amazon’s ergonomic Fire TV remote. Gone is the Caavo Classic remote’s wood-back panel, which has been swapped for plastic in an apparent cost-saving measure. And there’s no backlighting to speak of — according to Caavo cofounder Andrew Einaudi, having backlit buttons encourages users to look away from the TV to see the buttons, which “feels broken.”
In the remote’s defense, it’s got a few features most others don’t. Capacitive keys prompt an on-screen pop-up describing their function when you linger on them. And by voicing a command at an Amazon Alexa-powered speaker (“Alexa, open Caavo, find my remote”) or Google Home (“OK Google, tell Caavo to find my remote”), or by firing up an Apple TV with the Caavo Assistant companion app installed, you can trigger the remote’s built-in speakers to emit a series of notes — couch cushions be damned.
If the Control Center remote doesn’t float your boat, you’re not precluded from using device remotes, of course. Game controllers and set-top controls will work just as they always have; Control Center automatically detects when you’re using them and pops up the corresponding device on your TV. It’s pretty nifty.
Caavo, at its core, is a universal remote, and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
The straightforward onboarding flow first prompts you to connect Control Center to the internet via a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection, and then to create a Caavo account by visiting a webpage and entering an on-screen PIN number. You’ll next be asked to specify your time zone and television manufacturer, and finally to commence with the (surprisingly breezy) task of configuring Control Center to work with your devices.
There’s no need to specify which boxes, receivers, and dongles are plugged in. Caavo detects all of them automatically (including your TV), and a clever picture-in-picture view with accompanying instructions obviates the need to switch inputs.
Here’s a full list of devices Control Center officially supports:
- DISH (all Hopper, Joey, and Wally receivers)
- DirecTV (all network-connected devices)
- XFINITY (X1 devices)
- FireTV (all models)
- Roku (all models)
- Nvidia Shield TV
- Apple TV with Siri Voice remote (Generation 4 or newer)
I didn’t encounter any major hiccups during setup, but some devices took longer to get up and running than others.
The Fire TV, for example, requires a companion app for deep linking functionality. (In brief, deep linking allows Caavo’s software to launch particular apps or pieces of content without having to relaunch a device’s home page or a specific channel.) Thanks to a clever bit of artificial intelligence and Bluetooth, it’s all done automatically — Caavo fires up the Fire TV, navigates to the Caavo Companion’s Amazon Appstore listing, installs it, and launches it. All you have to do is select an IP address and enter a code.
After the last box is configured and Control Center completes a firmware upgrade, you’ll be greeted by the Caavo home screen. It’s split into five sections: Search, Devices, Apps, Watch, and Settings.
The Devices menu is more or less a glorified input switcher, with a rectangular grid layout of every streaming, gaming, and set-top box on tap. (In my testing, switching between devices took about five to 10 seconds.) The Apps screen, as you might expect, lists in order of priority services (e.g., Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, HBO Go) available across your devices; selecting one boots up the appropriate box and launches the corresponding app or service. (Caavo creates associations between devices and apps at setup time, but you can override those defaults in the Settings menu.)
Personally, I found the Watch to be the most convenient way to fire up a stream. If you choose to connect apps to your Caavo account during setup, it’s where you’ll find a list of TV shows, movies, and miniseries you’ve recently watched on any of the services populating the aforementioned Apps screen, including local apps like Plex. And if you subscribe to Dish, Xfinity, or DirecTV, it’s also where you’ll see recordings from your DVR. (One minor annoyance: If you power off your DVR or put it in a location where Caavo can’t control it, your watchlist won’t be kept up to date.)
By far the coolest way to navigate Caavo’s menus, though, is Search. It’s sort of like the universal search offered by Apple TV and Roku devices, but much more powerful — pecking out a TV show or movie title, network, director, actor, or theme surfaces results most likely to fit the bill, along with plot summaries, genres, release years, runtimes, related programming, and results from the web. (Movie geeks might find its brevity a bit disappointing — cast lists and trivia are nowhere to be found, and neither are aggregated review scores from Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB.) From there, you can jump-start streams on the service of your choice (including those from which you’ve previously purchased content), or save them to a list for later.
If you don’t spy anything compelling right away, several categories on the left-hand side of the screen will help you narrow down your search a little. There’s Live and Upcoming, which source your pay TV provider’s guide for up-to-date listings (with the exception of guides from internet-only offerings like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, which aren’t yet supported); Streaming, which searches across online services; and Web, which surfaces results in Control Center’s lightweight web browser. If you’ve paired a Plex media server account with Caavo, you’ll see an additional tab with Plex-specific content.
Control Center’s remote has a built-in microphone that’s surprisingly great at picking up voice commands. With a press and hold of the microphone button, you’re off to the races: Saying a command like “Watch Top Gun” or “‘Search for The Incredibles” kicks off a search in seconds flat. It’s lightning fast.
Caavo’s speech recognition engine supports more than search requests. In addition to muting or pausing an ongoing stream, you can switch to a channel number on a plugged-in cable or satellite box (“Watch Channel 42”; “Watch HBO”), find an app (“Search for Netflix”) or source device (“Search for Roku”), or perform a search on a specific set-top box (“Search for Suits on Roku”).
It’s worth noting that Caavo doesn’t support the voice features of native boxes; the remote can’t tap into Siri on the Apple TV or the Google Assistant on Android TV devices. For domain-specific commands, you’ll have to stick to original device remotes.
Control Center’s other nifty voice trick is integration with Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. The Caavo skill on both acts like a hands-free remote, letting you perform all of the above-mentioned voice commands without having to rely on the remote.
My Google Home speaker’s within earshot of my living room, and it quickly became my preferred way of interacting with Control Center. A “power on” intent (“OK, Google, tell Caavo to turn on the TV”) and voice search (Play “Stranger Things“) got me 90 percent of the way to playback, but not quite there — Control Center lacks a selection command.
Improvements and changes
The Caavo Classic lost points with reviewers by omitting support for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and audio features like Dolby Atmos, which Caavo chalked up to a limitation of the Caavo Classic’s chipset.
If neither of those ring a bell, here’s a quick primer:
HDR comprises a number of competing specifications, including Dolby’s proprietary Dolby Vision format and HDR10. Put simply, it takes advantage of the greatly expanded color depth and brightness supported by newer, premium TVs to produce more natural, vibrant pictures. Whereas the average flatscreen produces about 300 to 700 nits (one nit is equivalent to a candela, or the intensity of a candle), HDR-capable displays can drive up to 4,000. And they max out at 12-bit color instead of the traditional 8-bit — the difference between 68.7 billion colors and 16 million.
As for Dolby Atmos, it’s a standard that expands on 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups to create more “immersive” experiences. It can technically take advantage of up to 34 speakers (the recommended maximum is 12), but specially designed Dolby Atmos systems like Onkyo’s SKH-410 and Sony’s SSCSE (and aftermarket modules) mimic its multidirectional effects by directing sound upward, which rebounds it off of the ceiling.
The Apple TV, Roku Ultra, Roku Streaming Stick+, and Nvidia Shield are just a sampling of the devices that support both Dolby Atmos and HDR. Unfortunately, I’m not in possession of any of them, nor do I have an HDR-capable television.
I was, however, able to test Control Center’s other headlining feature: curated watchlists. They live within the Watch tab in the main menu under two categories, “For Your Consideration” and “Crowd Surfing.” Caavo says they’re also available in the Caavo TV & Movies Guides app for iOS (with an Android version to come in the next few weeks).
To fill out the former, Caavo partnered with publications like Popular Mechanics, Esquire, Country Living, Road & Track, and Elle to brainstorm such lists as “The 11 Most Stylish TV Shows of the ’90s,” “15 Dreamy Bedrooms From Classic Movies We Love,” “The 10 Best Plane Movies of All Time,” and “45+ of the All-Time Best Halloween Movies for Kids.” And it teamed up with “tastemakers” like Trisha Hershberger, Alonzo Bodden, and Terence Blanchard for bespoke TV and movie recommendations.
The playlists in “Crowd Surfing” are crowdsourced. It’s where members of the Caavo community — including anyone with a Control Center or Caavo Classic — can submit their own cross-genre compilations. Topping the list at publication time are “Pumpkin Spiced Scares,” “Things are about to get weird,” and “Cool Cop Shows.”
“We created this feature to make it easier to browse recommendations across services,” Einaudi said in a phone interview with VentureBeat. “These are influencers and individuals in the Caavo community who are creating and sharing playlists [that are] completely unbiased … We’ve really built up a user base of what we call the ‘entertainment-obsessed’ — a community of people watching and recommending TV together.”
That objectivity sets Caavo’s recommendations apart from competitors, he maintained, many of whom have “a horse in the race.”
“The premium content industry is spending in the neighborhood of $5 billion, [which I estimate] will climb to $9 billion next year,” Caavo chief technology officer Ashish Aggarwal said. “The number of choices will be enormous.”
It’s certainly true that there’s a wealth of choice in entertainment these days, but I’m not convinced the playlists offer much more than the myriad curation efforts long underway. There’s FilmStruck, Mubi, and the Criterion Collection, to name a few, plus niche streaming services like Shudder, Hayu, Crunchyroll, and Spuul. Caavo has the advantage of platform agnosticism, but whether folks will shell out the $20 a year (or $2 a month) for a Control Center Service Plan they’re locked behind remains to be seen.
Then again, they just might. That same plan enables universal search, voice control, deep linking, and voice assistant control. Without it, Control Center’s basically a glorified universal remote.
“Caavo should not have existed in the first place; nobody likes an extra device. The landscape is changing, but not fast enough” Aggarwal told me. “Control Center is way to tame the beast [for] people overwhelmed by the streaming world.”
Control Center more or less accomplishes that goal, and does so a lot more elegantly than a few of the universal remotes I’ve tried. But it remains something of a niche product, and as a sometime movie watcher who lives in a small apartment with a circa-2014 Samsung Smart TV, I’m definitely not in the target demographic.
That said, Caavo’s investors think there’s a market for it. Since 2015, the San Francisco startup’s raised $32.5 million from Time Warner Investments and Lauder Partners (along with existing investors DCM Ventures, Greylock Partners, Sky, Hearst, and Silicon Valley Bank), according to Crunchbase.
I share in their sentiment. Folks with 4K HDR-capable screens, Dolby Atmos surround sound setups, and TV subscriptions will find real utility in its ability to switch seamlessly between screens, as might families with kids, parents, or grandparents who can’t be bothered to learn the quirks of IR-based solutions.
I’m just not one of those folks.