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Tue 3 Apr 2007 04:00 AM

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IPTV stands for Internet Protocol Television, or TV on the internet. It’s not new, but free consumer services Babelgum and Joost are. The Windows team gets busy exploring these full-screen services to assess whether they’re worth your time...

|~||~||~|Joost and Babelgum, both of them recently-announced IPTV companies, aim to change the face of both traditional TV and the emerging internet TV medium. Do they have the products to do it however? That’s what our team decided to find out…
The idea is that when a broadband internet user is using Joost or Babelgum, they can determine what you want to see and when. In other words, it’s not ‘pushed’ to you in the form of content being broadcast at fixed times to multiple viewers. So you don’t have to watch it or miss it; you’re in control of what you watch and when you watch it. It is, to use a marketing buzz phrase, on-demand personalised TV.

If you’re thinking that this sounds like standards-based streaming video, it’s not quite. For a start it’s full screen – not small screen, low-resolution stuff that battles with accompanying text to be seen. It therefore has the promise to be the next TV broadcast model, but only providing it gets enough different and exciting content and gets its revenue streams right. The truth is, it’s not at that stage yet.

Both Babelgum and Joost programs are still in Beta mode and both employ P2P (peer-to-peer) and streaming technology. Therefore the more registered users are online, the faster the download speeds – ingenious, and this method of utilising broadband links’ largely unused uplink capacity is largely the same principle as Kazaa and BitTorrent.

Joost – just the ticket ?
Signing up for Joost is a case of filling out a form on joost.com. Once your application has been authenticated – which may take a few days – it’s then easy enough to get things moving.

You’ll receive a password by e-mail, after which the next step is to hit www.joost.com/betatest to download the latest version of Joost for your operating system. It currently runs on Windows XP, Mac OS X and Vista, with a Linux version
under development. The software is a 10Mbyte download.||**|||~||~||~|When we first tried to download Joost, it quickly compared our system to that required so that it would run trouble-free, flashing up the results for us to see. It showed that, for example, whilst our rig exceeded the CPU and virtual memory requirements and was running the correct Windows XP and DirectX versions, because our PC was short on RAM – 504Mbytes compared to the 512Mbytes needed - it did not run.

Prepare to pay
It is important to realise that if you have an upper limit on your monthly internet usage, as many users of lower-end broadband packages in this region do, or you simply pay for internet usage as you go (i.e. you pay per megabyte you download instead of a flat fee), then one hour of viewing is equals to 320Mbytes downloaded and 105Mbytes uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gbyte cap in just ten hours. Food for thought for sure. Another warning concerns the fact that Joost continues to run in the background after you close the main window, meaning that if you pay
for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit the
Joost client completely when you are finished watching.
Connecting to Joost from our office initially proved problematic due to our proxy firewall being set-up to block media content - from wav files to streaming movies (again this is down to those pesky ISP-led monthly data capacities, so your employer might do the same). However once we had strong-armed our IT team into letting its policies slide, we had no problems connecting to Joost.

Content wise, what you see at present is likely not the final set of offerings (it seems in fact the programs have been added more to test the technology during this app’s Beta trial). That said, the content is up there – if not better than – Babelgum’s. There are, for instance, some documentaries such as Discovery Channel specials and various music videos to watch. At the time of going to press, Joost had just signed up with the Viacom empire too, which includes Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks, the Comedy Channel, MTV, and Nickelodeon. Under this deal, Viacom will offer a full range of brands and programming for free on Joost. A great next step deal.

JumpTV has also partnered with Joost and its first plans are to feature Arabic-language comedy, drama, and news programmes from some leading Middle East broadcasters, to be followed later by further ethnic broadcasts.

Going back in time
The user interface is designed to look like that of a standard TV - it comprises the main controls, such as a channel chooser and a link to My Joost, from where you can personalise your content. From here you can make menu items invisible at the press of a button and switch to full screen or window mode.

Performance wise, within seconds of booting up we were watching full-screen TV. Switching channels was
virtually instantaneous – just a couple of seconds, and other than the odd bit of network ‘jitter’, we didn’t experience any noticeable lag or audio/video syncing problems

All about Babelgum
Getting started with Babelgum isn’t as easy a start-up process as Joost’s. It was originally when you could simply register to be a beta tester, but following a huge initial sign-up registrations are currently limited. (Your best bet is to click onto www.babelgum.com, apply to receive e-mail updates, and that way you’ll find out when the next round of admissions kicks off.)

Once you’ve been invited by the team and given a password, just go to www.babelgum.com and sign-in. From here you download the Babelgum installation .exe file, which takes just a few minutes and is free, and then you’ll be prompted to enter your beta key. Almost instantaneously, a full screen internet TV is displayed.

While the display quality is not on a par with traditional TV broadcasts it is more than acceptable and being full-screen also very viewable. To access the nine English channels available you use the channel selector that appears at the top left hand corner every time your cursor is moved (this resembles the black button interface of Creative’s Zen Neeon audio player).

Channels include on average about six programmes each and span topics as diverse as English language videos, movie trailers, short films, Associated Press news clips, entertainment news, sport clips and programmes, and animations.

Programmes themselves range from film trailers to hour-long documentaries. While the content is quite dated – we noticed news and sport was at least a month old – Babelgum it still in Beta stage so we reckon Babelgum is, like Joost, more concerned with getting the technology right.

Babelgum can be viewed in a window or in full-screen mode, with mouse movements causing a pop-up to appear that you can use to change channels and adjusting the volume. You can also view channel content, display a programme’s synopsis and transfer what you’re watching to your favourites list for playing in the future.

A slider showing the length of the programme is also displayed but while you can pause and restart the video at the same point as you stopped it, we could not find a way of rewinding or fast-forwarding - a function that DVD addicts will probably miss.

Overall, we found Babelgum’s display clarity slightly inferior to Joost’s but still perfectly useable and on the whole very impressive - particularly when run on a really graphically powerful rig.

It’s interesting to note that the speed of your internet connection – whether direct from the source or supplied over a network – and the amount of pressure on your current bandwidth (from other family members or colleagues say) combine to have a noticeable affect on IPTV performance. In short, stay after work and you’ll enjoy the smoothest programmes. And if you use a wireless internet connection, IPTV will struggle.||**||

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