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Video everywhere

How to find films and clips on the web and watch them on your PC, TV or mobile device.

This article appears in the October 06 issue of PC Advisor, which is available now in all good newsagents.

Apple says it has sold more than 30 million videos through iTunes since October 2005. That’s impressive. But YouTube, currently the most popular site for sharing amateur video, claims to serve up 100 million viewings per day. That’s stupefying.

These days, everything from Hollywood films and TV programmes, to clips from ordinary users, is available within your browser. Even mobile phones are getting in on the act, with news, sport and lots of short video segments just a dial away. But while video options are proliferating at an astonishing pace, problems persist: format incompatibility across platforms, licence restrictions on content and a limited selection of good videos.

Video options range from TV programmes and short films from sources such as iTunes or Google Video, to movies on BT Vision and LoveFilm. These services enable you to watch films on a laptop, PC or mobile player, without illegally ripping a DVD. And you never have to leave home to get the film or return it.

The challenge is finding material worth watching, and of a picture quality that is better than the content you’ve recorded using your Media Center PC or PVR (personal video recorder).

Web of film

LoveFilm offers temporary downloads of films and videos – the digital equivalent of rental. Most cost between £2.50 and £3.50 – although a few are as little as £1 – for five to seven days’ viewing, after which time DRM (digital rights management) kicks in and prevents further use of the file.

BT Vision, meanwhile, provides permanent downloads for a higher fee, generally around £8-£17. This includes two digital copies of the film – the full-size copy for PC viewing and a smaller one for a mobile device – and a backup DVD delivered to your home within a few days. The service is limited in its selection, but it plans a wider offering soon.

With broadband, you can start watching a film soon after it begins downloading, although copying the whole thing to your PC may take an hour or three to complete. To be safe, wait 10-15 minutes to begin viewing.

Generally speaking, video download sites have yet to prove themselves with respect to image quality – although things are clearly improving in that area. And you may have to watch the film with the service’s own player and be restricted to viewing it on the PC you download to.

Despite these reservations, video on demand is coming. Many industry experts believe online services will become the primary form of video delivery, with music – if not full-blown Hollywood movies – set to be embedded in the next version of Windows Media Player.

Online, on the air

Already, TV companies are making recent and archival TV shows available via their own websites (try www.bbc.co.uk, for example), as well as on sites such as iTunes, AOL’s In2TV and Google Video.

Each site may offer only a few shows from one or two studios, but a growing body of content is viewable for free, with the
revenue coming from commercials. As a trial in the US, ABC released free downloads of a few popular shows, such as Desperate Housewives and Lost, the day after they aired, with adverts. Google Video, too, is experimenting with commercial-supported video.

AOL’s In2TV presents many old US Warner Brothers shows, such as Max Headroom and The People’s Court, with new adverts.
Increasingly, we are seeing well-produced, original web content. For example, both CBS’ Innertube (www.cbs.com/innertube) and MTV Overdrive (www.mtv.com/overdrive) offer clips from broadcast shows. These feature online-only reality, talk and magazine shows. Unfortunately, this is yet to make the transition across the pond, but such impressive innovations are likely to be available in the UK soon.

Mixed media

Most free programmes play as Flash Video (.flv) files on the website, with no easy downloads for offline viewing. You can’t watch content from all sites with one viewer. Blinkx.tv and Yahoo both offer improving web-wide video search, but neither has the equivalent of a comprehensive programme guide that makes both commercial and sharing sites searchable in one place. HD (high-definition) content is some way off being made widely available, as it takes up many times more bandwidth than existing broadband speeds can cope with.

Unless your PC is connected to your TV, getting web content in your living room is tricky – even for US customers, who can enjoy TiVo’s TiVoCast (www.tivo.com) and Akimbo (www.akimbo.com), which download videos from partner sites to a TV set-top box.

Most commercial content providers currently avoid distributing their libraries via RSS (RDF site summary) feeds and P2P (peer-to-peer) sharing, presumably as a result of concerns about file trading. However, Warner Brothers’ agreement with BitTorrent to use its technology to sell and distribute movies and television programmes suggests that Hollywood’s hesitancy may be lessening.

Video on the go

Mobile video devices come in two categories: lightweight players such as Apple’s iPod, Creative’s Zen and the Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable), on to which you download content from your PC or the web; and video-capable mobile phones that pull in prepackaged clips of news, sport and other short content. You’ll find a wider selection of material and slightly better video quality with the players, but phones offer more up-to-date content.

Prepped to play

The iPod and PSP are popular devices and thus enjoy the broadest support from developers and content providers. In addition to the iTunes Store and the 250 films on PSP-compatible 2.5in UMDs (Universal Media Discs), inexpensive programs such as Nullriver’s $10 (about £5) MoviePod and $15 (£8) PSPWare (www.nullriver.com) provide drag-and-drop batch conversion of common video files into clips compatible with iPods or PSPs. These are automatically downloaded to the players.

Online, Google Video has downloadable iPod and PSP versions of the free clips on its site. You’ll find it easy to receive RSS video feeds for your iPod or PSP at FireAnt (www.fireant.tv), Videora (www.videora.com) and, soon, Democracy Player (www.getdemocracy.com). Each can find, download, convert and sync RSS feeds to iPods and PSPs, as well as PCs.

Similarly, Palm Desktop, which is bundled with all Palm OS devices, includes the QuickInstall application, which offers drag-and-drop conversion of many video formats for playback on the handheld. The open-source Core Pocket Media Player (www.tcpmp.com) is a bit finicky, but lets Palm, Windows Mobile and other devices play a wide range of popular files.

Windows Media devices have less downloadable video available than iPods and PSPs. But you can use Windows Media Player 10.0 or 11.0 to convert several video formats into files compatible with the increasingly interesting Portable Media Center players from Creative and others. Devices cost from £200 or so for a 20GB player.

TV fans have several options. If you own a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, you can use WMP (Windows Media Player) 10.0 or 11.0 to transfer stored video from the PC to compatible devices. Some services, such as SlingPlayer Mobile (www.slingmedia.com), which launches in the UK soon, let you use a newer Windows Mobile device on a 3G phone network to remotely watch and control
your TV and digital recorder via the £180 Slingbox TV-streaming device. Orb.com offers similar features for devices with WMP.

Call for video

While handhelds let you easily watch video anywhere, you usually have to load the player before you leave home. New mobile phones and networks will let you receive clips anywhere with a fast 3G network. Typically you can view music videos, sport and news highlights and film trailers. Most channels aren’t live, but are updated regularly.

But just because you can see video on your mobile, doesn’t mean you’d want to. Navigating menus and waiting for the media players to load and the content to buffer can take up to 30 seconds. The clips are often highly compressed files at 176x144-pixel resolution and 15fps (frames per second), playing on just part of the phone’s screen. Even good images are so tiny it’s not fun to look at them for long, while most content is less than three minutes long; anything longer may rebuffer every minute.

Your video, on the web
Of all the web and mobile video developments, YouTube and the dozens of easy-to-use, free sharing sites similar to it are among the most interesting right now. Their core features are similar; but they differ in popularity, support for mobile devices and ability to control who can view clips.

Typically such sites let you upload Mpeg, QuickTime and Windows Media formats, then convert to Flash Video for hosting and playback. Most give HTML links to embed your video in a web page, or you can email the link to friends and family. None is terrifically easy to upload clips to.

YouTube is by far the most frequented sharing site, but popularity has its down side: the 35,000 clips added each day make it easy for your opus to get lost in the jungle.

Other services are worth a look. Google Video generates downloadable iPod and PSP versions of free content. Services such as Eyespot.com offer delivery to mobile phones. If you’re creating longer pieces, try Ourmedia.com, which doesn’t limit file size or length.

On some sites you can send clips from your phone via MMS to your video account, while Abazab.com and Umundo.com will let you send phone video this way to MySpace and My Yahoo. Jumpcut.com’s simple editing makes it the most attractive.

Once your video is posted, controlling who sees it is difficult – just ask Paris Hilton. For privacy, send clips to a site that supports private groups where you specify who can see your video. But privacy features can be defeated.

No site stands far above the rest, and many are still offered as beta services, but this will change as new features debut and sites work out how to pay for all the technology and bandwidth they’re giving away. Sites such as VideoEgg.com get revenue from licensing their uploading technology to AOL, while Revver and others insert adverts into submitted videos.

Video sharing has become so popular that Microsoft is getting into the game. Its YouTube-style project, code-named Warhol, is scheduled to go live by the end of the year, although no details are currently available.

Regardless of coming changes, one thing will remain constant: on the net, a thin line separates professional and amateur content. You could be the next web-video idol.

Broadcast TV on phones?

Existing mobile phone video content is underwhelming, but two (incompatible) technologies will let more carriers provide multiple live TV channels. DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld) and FLO (Forward Link Only) will both beam live video to your phone. Each requires an overlay network on top of a 3G (third-generation) network.

Current 3G nets are unicast and clog up when there’s big demand for popular content. DVB-H and FLO will let 3G networks multicast, so a single transmitter will reach many receivers. Expect to see such services offered in the next year or so. And you may hear talk of firms using WiMax, otherwise known as 802.16 – a wireless broadband standard with longer range than 802.11 Wi-Fi – on handheld devices.

Being protective

Having bought your chosen video online, what you can do with it varies depending on where you got it from. Most sites that have copyrighted content, such as commercial movies, prohibit reselling or redistributing the video file and use DRM (digital rights
management) schemes to back that up.

You can use the videos you buy from iTunes on up to five authorised PCs or iPods, but Google Video’s copy-protected content – which includes most of its good commercial videos – plays only in its viewer application, or on a PC with a live internet connection. Neither site lets you burn video to DVD for living-room playback.

A leading US download site, Cinema-Now.com, prohibits customers from burning films to DVDs that play on living-room players, with the exception of a group of adult titles. Movie studios are observing the success of this limited offering to determine whether to allow such disc burning for mainstream films.

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