Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and Amazon Prime are common names abroad, but India lacks a quality video streaming service with good content and good pricing that's also easy to use. It's no surprise that piracy is so rampant - for most people it's simply the most convenient way to watch TV shows and movies.
Lukup hopes to change that with officially licensed content. You'll have to buy the hardware, called Lukup Player, and then pay for whatever you want to watch. Some of the content is package-based, so you can subscribe for fixed amounts each month. There's also pay-per-view content which you can pick and choose from a la carte. Lukup is considering an ad-supported scheme for the future, but even for paid content, prices are still quite reasonable.
We were curious about both the company and its product, especially the concept of a handheld touchscreen controller, and so we got one in for review. There are two models, the Lukup Player S and Lukup Player X. The primary difference between the two is that the X supports multi-screen sharing while the S does not. We received the former for review.
Look and feel
Despite it being colourful and oddly shaped, the first thing that struck us about the Lukup box was that its plastic felt quite cheap, and that the parts didn't fit together very well. The orange, grey and peach combination is definitely not unobtrusive and the device is sure to be noticed no matter where you place it - this might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective.
On the back of the base unit, you'll find a variety of connectors. There's a LAN port, power inlet, HDMI in and out ports, and DIN-style breakouts for component AV in and out (which look like S-Video but are not). The inputs allow you to string the Lukup player in between your TV and DTH set-top box. HDMI cables are not included but component cables are - and since they have the breakouts on one end you'll have to be sure you don't misplace them. A USB port on the side lets you plug in pen drives for media playback, or charge the handheld.
The handheld unit has a magnet that keeps it upright when placed on the base, but there is no docking mechanism. If you want to charge it, you'll have to plug in a USB cable. Annoyingly its charging port is on the bottom, which means it can't stand upright if a cable is plugged in - we would have liked to have had charging contacts on the base unit itself.
You'll be spending much more time interacting with the handheld than with the base. Our initial excitement about Lukup's multi-screen concept quickly turned to disappointment. The handheld feels even cheaper than the base unit - the plastic is of low quality, edges are sharp, and construction is just atrocious. The power button is loose and there are gaps between the body and the rear panel (which popped off at one point).
There are five touch-sensitive buttons below the screen - the large Lukup logo selects whatever is highlighted on screen. It's flanked by Menu, Back, Up and Down buttons. An IR emitter on the top is used to control your set-top box. The touchscreen itself is the biggest letdown. It's ridiculously grainy despite a decent 320x480-pixel resolution and is also totally washed out. Touch response is sluggish at best, with swipes often registering as taps and vice versa. The unit sometimes refused to come on and had to be cajoled with multiple taps.
Setup and usability
The handheld first presented us with a list of shows and movies, but tapping them didn't make anything happen. We found that we had to tap the Lukup logo beneath the screen to go to the main menu. We were asked to create a profile with a picture password. There are 12 photos of animals and you choose one as your password. The photos are shown in random order each time you sign in, but there's no limit to how many wrong answers anyone can try, which defeats the entire purpose.
The Lukup Player's user experience is not smooth at all, and we encountered numerous issues during our five-day test period. Bear in mind that there is no manual, no user guide and no instructions beyond a tiny leaflet that only explains what needs to be plugged in where.
For starters, it is not clear at all how the handheld unit and base unit relate to each other. We booted the device (which took an astounding 8-10 minutes each time) and saw a fairly attractive interface on the TV screen, with large movie posters in the background and tiles highlighting other content along the bottom. The tiles were a mix of movies, recipes and shows from Lukup's library: we were shown Baja Fish Tacos, Frozen Margarita, Bodyguard, and Hollandaise Sauce (and these didn't ever change based on our usage patterns). Beneath those tiles is a menu bar offering Movies, Music, Shows, Sports and Lifestyle.
However, there was no clear way to select any of those options. The handheld is not just a remote, and it has its own icon-based menu from which you can select shows and perform functions. It was only after a support call that we discovered how this works. The very last menu icon is labelled 'TV', and clicking it does nothing but clear all the icons off the handheld's screen. The blank purple background made us think something had gone wrong, but it turns out we're supposed to swipe it to move the selection around on the TV screen, as if it is a trackpad. Even then, when selecting a show from the list on the TV screen, descriptions and action buttons appeared on the handheld (though swiping on these screens translated to cursor movement on the TV, not scrolling on the handheld). Secondary screens are supposed to show supplementary information when it makes sense to do so, but Lukup's implementation kept forcing us to shift focus back and forth between the two.
In all other cases, the handheld is meant to be used like a smartphone except that selecting things from menus results in stuff happening on the TV screen - you can also launch content by going through the Guide menu on the handheld. Seeing how this duplication and confusion of purpose stymied us, it seems unlikely that users will be able to figure it out on their own.
It gets even less intuitive. You cannot simply tap a movie or show in the menu to pay for it. You'll only see an error message saying it needs a subscription. You have to somehow know that long-pressing brings up a menu of options, one of which is to purchase the show. At this point, you have to type in your password using the handheld's sluggish touchscreen.
Once that is done, content will start playing on the TV. The handheld's screen stays brightly lit (which is annoying when you're trying to watch a movie) and displays only a small slider with a Pause button on one side and Stop button on the other. That's it. You have no playback controls beyond this. If for any reason you exit this screen to browse through the menu, there is no way back. You cannot even stop the video unless you pull the power plug out of the back of the base unit. When we checked with a Lukup representative if we were doing something horribly wrong, he said it was a known issue and would be rectified with a software update.
Throughout our time with the Lukup Player, we encountered ridiculous problems. Content is poorly labelled and organised - for instance, there is no way to see all purchased media in one place; we had to browse through the entire catalog which seems not to have any order. There isn't even a way to sort movies by name, year, genre, or any other attribute - you literally have to scroll through the whole list to find something you might like.
Local media just would not play off a USB pen drive - even simple MP3 files stuttered. The Power button in the menu never did anything. It wasn't possible to tell which content was pay-per-view and which was subscription-based. There was no indication of how many times we could watch a movie we'd paid for, or what the time frame for doing so is (after a second support call we were told we could watch pay-per-view content any number of times for three days).
The handheld unit's screen stays on all the time and there is no brightness control or light sensor. This means the 650mAh battery will run out within a few hours of use - maybe not even long enough to get through a movie or a few shows back-to-back. Lukup rates it at 4 hours which is not good enough for a controller that you aren't even watching video on. The on-screen indicator seemed poorly calibrated; even with it showing around half the capacity left, warning messages started popping up. Sometimes the messages just kept on coming back and there was no way to permanently dismiss them - this is another bug the team says it is aware of.
And these are all still basic features. Forget about things like optional subtitles and contextual information. Forget about local media on PCs, network drives and DLNA devices. Other media players such as the WDTV series might not offer their own content, but they make the Lukup Player feel like something out of the dark ages when it comes to basic usability.
Tapping the Help entry in the Settings menu makes a box pop up asking if we actually do want help, after which nothing visible happens - it turns out that this option only resets the tips that pop up the first time you use any function.
The Lukup Website has very little useful information; only a few pictures that make the device look a lot slicker than it is. For instance, Android and iOS devices are shown with Lukup icons, but there is no iOS app yet - Lukup promises it's coming soon as well as one for Windows Phone.
There were very few things that did work well. Network setup required no intervention; the Lukup Player only needed to be plugged in. Wi-Fi also worked as soon as the password was typed in. The TV Remote function controlled the basic functions of a Tata Sky set-top box well enough, though the IR emitter needed to be pointed directly at it.
Once we got going with a few purchased movies, things improved. Lukup tells us that all videos are streamed at 720p, but that the bitrate will vary depending on the quality of a user's Internet connection. This is fair enough, though again we wish the company would just say so up front. We tested the Lukup Player with a domestic 2Mbps plan, which is the absolute minimum advisable connection speed. You'd do a lot better with a faster connection of course.
We found 20 and 34 movies in the Bollywood and Hollywood sections respectively. This by far is not enough to keep viewers satisfied for very long, but hopefully the library will be expanded over time. On the positive side, there were a handful of old classics and quite a few modern ones too. Prices ranged from Rs. 65 to Rs. 100 with a few package deals thrown in, which is pretty good.
We randomly selected three movies. In testing, movies took a minute or so to buffer, with no indication of when they would actually start playing other than a spinning icon on screen. The crude progress bar on the handheld unit's screen did not indicate how much of the movie had loaded, and so of course when we tried forcing it to start playing we encountered stutters part way through. We were able to pause and resume movies without much trouble, but skipping around to different parts on the timeline resulted in freezes that we could not recover from.
Given a fast enough connection, buffering shouldn't be a problem for users. However, no amount of bandwidth will fix the Lukup Player's UI problems - and we cannot be the only ones who would like to skip parts of some movies or repeat parts of others. It would also have been nice to have been able to see how much data the Lukup Player was consuming and set thresholds.
Long-tapping a movie or show title in the list brings up a list of actions. You can Like a show on Facebook, add it to a playlist, or set a reminder. These features worked, but again the user interface was very cumbersome.
One of Lukup's main features is the ability to stream multiple shows to different screens. If you have a smart TV or receiver which supports Wi-Fi Direct, it should show up in a list of target screens on the handheld. You would then be able to stream from the base unit to that secondary screen via Wi-Fi, while watching another show using the connected primary screen. Bluetooth headsets can also apparently be added as targets to stream to. Lukup said its product doesn't use DLNA, so it is unclear exactly which devices can be recognised as stream targets.
If you want to watch content on your smartphone or tablet, it will use its own Internet connection and not stream from the base unit. The promised iOS app was not available at the time of conducting this review, but we did spend some time with the Android version. This worked more predictably and had a much more functional and attractive interface than the device itself. We were able to select media and play it without any hassles.
Lukup's website also shows the handheld being used as a touchscreen game controller, but we found no information about games or their pricing - this is also apparently coming in a future update.
Our experience with the Lukup Player was largely negative. We cannot imagine that any buyer would be satisfied - even tech-savvy enthusiasts would give up after a few minutes, so we struggle to understand what a casual user would make of this product.
It is surprising and disappointing that the company would even release such a bug-ridden product. We also find Lukup's communication about the device's capabilities sorely inadequate. Content pricing appears to be the sole redeeming factor for Lukup's venture, but the initial outlay of Rs. 12,000 for the device itself is far too expensive. We hope the company can take its assets and continue working to improve the hardware and software it offers. For example, it should be possible to use the streaming service on Android devices (and other platforms in the future) without buying the Lukup Player, which is a far more attractive proposition than incurring the cost of the hardware and dealing with all its idiosyncrasies.
Meanwhile, the market for legitimate media streaming services is still wide open for anyone to come in and capture, because the Lukup Player is not going to wean anyone off piracy - if anything, it will send users flying back to their BitTorrent clients.
Price: Rs. 12,000
Ratings (out of 5):