Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Laptop TV - The Unscientific Reviews

Following on from my previous posts, today I’ve decided to do a totally unscientific and random comparative test of some of the higher profile (longform) TV on over Broadband to your PC providers. I’ve not done services such as BT Vision or Tiscali that stream to your TV as that’s a different kind of service, and errr, I don’t have them at home or office.

So, the rules are I’m ignoring any outside knowledge I have about upcoming content deals or other business info. I’m acting as a straight Regular Joe consumer, and talking about my experience as a user, today the 16th July. I also have to put my hand up and say I have a low boredom threshold, but then so do many consumers.

This is a longer than usual post (but still amusing), so take this slowly ….

Sky Anytime:

Yay! It loaded from my desktop. Being a user of this service since its launch it’s the one I’m most familiar with. I’ve had times when I couldn’t get it to work, only to eventually bother to call up and find out that as they upgraded I needed to uninstall, and re-install. Not great, but at least the supporting website has now been upgraded, and it’s the most consumer and content focused of the bunch.

Today it’s asked me to upgrade after I finally remembered my password (which is hard to set up via their preferred route of iTV). Whilst that chugs along I have to say this is the most accomplished service as it’s less of a ‘marker of what we want to be doing’ but an actual useable service for current Sky subscribers.

Ok, it can’t tell I’m online so I’ve had to close the program and reload the upgrade again. Not smooth.

Jumping forward, the service loads quickly and is very accomplished. It’s a very visual interface, pretty instinctive to use and it’s showing me TV guide style pictures and reviews of quality content in premium movies, entertainment, sport and lifestyle. It feel’s ‘scheduled’ in terms of offering a broad, but not never-ending list of content, with top 10’s and recommended content.

I’ve got nothing saved in my library to watch, my previous downloads were all over 28 days old and had expired. I have a choice of much content, all covered by my current Sky Subscription, topped up by some ‘Box Office’ premieres. Today I’ve noticed ‘buy to own’ has become an option.

I’ve chosen to download a recent hit movie, You, Me & Dupree which I know from experience will download in 4 hours or so – and it’ll be with a high quality picture too, so I’ll be able to watch it tonight in bed. My only frustration is getting used to the navigation with the lack of a back button.

An accomplished service, and I do actually use Sky Anytime ‘for real’ rather than looking at it for work research.

Joost

This is the one from the founders of Skype and has been receiving massive publicity. I have no doubt it has a very technical accomplished back-end, but today I don’t care about that.

I’ve double-clicked on my desktop icon.. It’s tells me I ‘MUST UPGRADE’, but unfortunately doesn’t give me a link direct to the download page. The accompanying website is very much, ‘we’re this technical solution, take a look’. Fairly minimal mentions of content (ie, why I’ts worth downloading) so as a casual surfer I may not be excited enough to download the service. It is still a very Beta service to be fair, but this start does indicate that this is a technical solution rather that being a sexy content aggregator. For me, the technology is the means to an end, not the solution.

Now the interface is sexy, but I have to say it doesn’t feel instinctive. I feel like I want my laptop to have a touch-screen to make it work.

Its gone full screen and I’ve had to stop my other work on the laptop whilst it downloads/does something. It gives me a black screen and I’ve had to scramble around to try and make the menu bar ‘appear’ so that I can minimise the screen and type this. The sound is cutting in and out on some promo video that self launched. Clicked on ‘Joost suggests’ but ‘that channel is unavailable right now’.

The menu to choose shows isn’t at all instinctive, offers very small jpegs, and no real description of the content of a show. It has some recognisable brand names, but no big hit shows. The video stream keeps stopping and starting so I’ve decided to try and make the menu bar appear again so I can try and find the off button.

Joost has nice technology at work no doubt , but it still doesn’t work. As viewer it neither has the content or the functionality that makes me want to come back.

I would suggest that they go back and try:

a/ Not to try and change a laptop/PC into a TV, when it’s a PC- and you want to use it as a PC too (maybe a choice of interafaces/defaults depending on how/where you are watching).

b/ Put more of a disclaimer that it’s a Beta service when its so flakey

c/ Consider that they need to be act more as a platform and entertainment provider, like Sky Digital, rather than a technology service .

Veoh

Unlike the other services, this one is fairly aimed at the US market, and that clarity of (achievable) purpose is fairly indicative of well thought through functionality throughout the service.

Double clicking on my desktop icon I get an iTunes style box with my ‘playlist’ (empty though). D’oh! Clicking on the tabs (I like - navigation I’m used to from the rest of the world) I can chose from channels or search. ‘Channels’ brings up some US Networks and the kind of channels you expect across any EPG.

No pictures or channel description, in fact this whole design is very Powerpoint circa 1999.

That said, the channels are fairly obvious ‘Fox’, ‘Cycle Network’ etc and the service is fast and clear to use, if lacking in info. I’d say a strong start (but a start) rather than a false start. The show menu is a little confusing, but the player is just like a Quicktime or Windows Media Player one. Instinctive and it loads quickly, but with VHS type pixely pictures. Ok for a You Tube experience, but maybe less good for a movie.

Ok, I don’t seem to be allowed to view any of the decent content as a non-US viewer but this looks like it might develop into something useable, at least for the US audience. It does simple things, simply, but it works.

Babelgum

Another double click on my desktop - another request to update software. It seems a lot of these services are very much in development and will update every week or two. These early launches may have been done to appease investors and impress potential distributors, but they are also putting their brands out to the public with products that are nowhere near ‘ready’.

As the content pick on this service is ‘Jesus Children of America’ lets leave that to one side and assume it’ll get better.

The service looks and feels really similar to Joost, but slightly more instinctive as it pops up with what looks like a remote control in one corner, and this control widget is there from the start - you know what you are meant to look at and use. Again, the service starts full screen and takes you away from what you are doing whilst it then loads whatever it needs to load. The screen seemingly randomly resizes to a window, but content loads noticeably quicker than Joost.

Hand on my heart I don’t think I can further review this Beta fairly. I clicked on buttons, but the interface gave no recognisable response. I pushed another button – 20 seconds later something happened. I did do a search, which was quick, and the video loaded quickly in a VHS style resolution not best suited to a full laptop screen, but watch-able without any stuttering.

Again, I’m sure the service will get a lot better, but it feels a year or more away from something you’d recommend. Again, maybe more of a disclaimer on such a first stage Beta would be useful, especially as people are used to such fully formed Beta’s from the likes of Google and others.

BBC iPlayer

404 Page Unauthorised”.

Hmm, guess I’ll have to wait till later in the month to talk about the BBC iPlayer, although I may well be worth its own special appraisal. I have watched shows on the BBC website before , clicking onto links and happily watched episodes of shows I liked. I know iPlayer is a new and sparkly technology, but the simplicity of going to a freely available web page and just clicking is where I think we need to be striving towards.

ITV.com

Hmm, clicked in the address on my Firefox browser and clicked on a banner for a ‘preview of our new website’.

It doesn’t recognise my flash player, but I downloaded all the software last time I came to this site. I’ll sort it out.

Ok, restarted firefox and this time the ITV site shows me a white page for ages whilst it ‘loads ads’. Sometimes I hate the net. Again it tells me it can’t detect the right software, but I click on a nice picture of Coronation Street which promises a preview of next week’s hit show.

Ahh, it won’t play. Strange as I watched a clip on this self same laptop last week.

5 minutes later: I had a little think, and decided to actually read all the bumpf on the webpage. Restart the experiment with a copy of IE7 that I keep for emergencies like this. D’oh again!

Ok, I clicked on the ‘play preview of next week’s show’ type of JPEG. The video loaded in about 20 seconds, but it goes straight into an ad break. Cool if I’m expecting it, but the player tells me its playing a 10 second clip, then a 30 second one, then a 30 second one (which doesn’t load properly) and I’m wondering when the show might start, or if its working properly. I’m not able to detach the player, it just launches my Windows Media player but nothing else happens within the player. I give up on that, but click on ‘watch live ITV’. Loads fast, looks good enough, goes full screen effortlessly when the content grabbed me enough to do so.

Simple, effective, it work, it has the content (even if I do hate Corrie) and it has the well known and trusted brand.

One minute later:

Ohh, Windows Media Player has now started playing with the ‘detached’ content, but I do have to resize the player and the video before I continue.

4oD

I’m getting a bit frustrated with all this double-clicking on my desktop for an entertaining experience.

Ok, I get a full screen page that is nicely laid out and this feels like a content service. I look around and work out that some content is paid for, some not. With my previous experiences, including early use of paid for music download sites I decide not to part with cash.

I have a choice to stream or download. Now that’s impressive. That’s an instant gratification when I’m watching on the laptop in my bedroom, or allows me a catch-up when I’m sitting on a train. Brownie points for the Channel 4 team.

I click on stream, and am asked for my password. Why do these websites never remember it - this isn’t my bank account and I have too many passwords to remember.

I get a pop up, it states it’s playing ads and at the bottom of the pop up box it tells me which episode I’m about to watch. Someone has really thought about this service, and I’m impressed. It even gives me an option to ‘book’ all the episodes in the series I chose to view.

Click to watch full-screen, which is on the wrong side of blurry but the video plays smoothly. I’m assuming that quality of video on downloaded shows would be higher.

I make a mental note to start using 4oD.

Five

I went to the five web page but decided not to pay £2.40 for an episode of CSI that seems to be in constant re-run on Five and other channels.

The page looks nice and well thought out, the limited content is quality programming but I’m not tempted to pay for what I see as ‘free’ content. Perhaps they should look at the ad-funded model for current programming.

BFI

I thought the British Film Institute deserved a quick mention. You can download some free, but mainly paid for content. A simple site, but it gives access to a treasure trove of amazing content that is normally next to impossible to access, except for say a bi-annual showing at one cinema in London.

Finally!! A summary:

So, a mammoth effort of crashed browsers (Narrowstep), software downloads, labyrinthine libraries and flakey software.

I ask myself why the viewers want to watch TV (on a PC); for me that means to watch in a room where I don’t have multi-channel; it’s to watch when I’m away from home (and don’t necessarily have access to the internet). One ‘need’ would suggest a streaming service, the other a download one.

I would suggest that it’s a hard sell and hard even to communicate to people ‘go here for Show z’ to download, ‘but go here for show z to stream’. That issue for the newcomers is compounded by the question of advertising and marketing a new and unknown service brand, letting your (potential) audience you’re here. Surely the sites that offer more options in one place will win out?

The next major issue: Unbelievable as it may seem, there is actually a finite amount of content, and a more finite amount of content people can be bothered to look up and watch. Ultimately, as it’s about content not technology Sky, Channel 4 and presumably the BBC will win out in the UK with their massive libraries.

So, from the point of usability, simplicity of sell and access to content, the existing TV content brands win out at this stage of the battle. I doff my hat to the BFI and other specific niche content providers that will find an audience, but they are playing a different game from the corporate mammoths.

Round 1 to the TV stations, for the newbies I say take lessons from 75 years of expertise in TV and in what it is to be a ‘channel’ or distribution platform; with its self promotion (promo’s, junctions, zone’s, dayparting etc); ease of use (scheduling/offering a refined menu); what the audience wants to watch, expects, and is used to in the wider world and apply that to your ‘new paradigm’ before the bell rings to start Round 2 of this battle.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why did you leave Narrowstep out of your review?

Vladski said...

I did namecheck Narrowstep, but I had to draw a line somewhere. They tend to sell themselves as a 'white-label'/provisioning solution providing services to other broadcasters, rather than being a 'destination'/brand in their own right.

If I'm wrong, then I stand corrected.

The website did also crash my browser/computer twice so it made it hard to review.

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