Free TV on Your PC: Joost Test DriveKicking the tires on Joost IPTV, plus 14 other sites to try.
Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
Judging by the e-mail I've received, many of you find Internet TV and IPTV intriguing. Cool, because I'd like to tell you about Joost and give you a list of other sites to try.
But first, the question that readers asked most often: "Is Internet TV the same as when I connect my cable TV to my video adapter and watch TV on my PC?" The answer: You're getting a better deal that way unless you want content not available from cable. For instance, some Internet TV and IPTV services have wonderful drivel--like episodes of Rubber Chicken or Metalocalypse--that you may not get on cable.
The other popular question was: "Am I watching live TV or recorded video?" Most likely it's recorded, though on some sites you'll see live feeds.
I talked with Backspace CTO Joseph Lea. He said that it comes down to linear versus nonlinear content. Linear is real-time and playing continuously, just as if you were watching the TV in your living room. For instance, I watched a CNN broadcast on the little TV in my office and saw the same show a few seconds later on Backspace via the Internet.
Nonlinear is archived content; for example, the Comedy Central show that I watched on Joost might be two weeks old.
Joseph also said that no major studios allow their linear content--from channels you see on satellite and cable--to be distributed over the public Internet. Some sites like Backspace can provide that content because they deliver it over what's known as a "Walled Garden IP Network," for subscribers only. To see how it works, go to Backspace and click on Free Test Drive.
It's easy to feel confused--you might also find live feeds of, say, CNN on many sites. But they're probably illegal; most likely these channels are submitted by site visitors. Once the content owner discovers them, the feeds are cut off.
Got it? Okay, now we can move on to Joost--which is nonlinear.
Dig This: Here's a great bar trick for you.
The Juice on Joost
The PR people are working overtime at Joost, a new IPTV service that's still in beta. Heavy, "the leading online brand and the leader for 18-to-34-year-old guys" is showcasing original programming on Joost. Warner Bros. Television is also moving exclusive content to Joost, no doubt for the same 18-to-34-year-old guys. Plus, Joost just picked up $45 million in financing (maybe they could spot me $50 until payday).
But the real deal, for someone who's not in that very special 18-to-34-year-old segment, is it can be a lot of trouble to get Joost to work properly. A company rep gave me an explanation--and a doozy of a work-around. The problem, she said, is that the date on an ActiveX file might be incorrect, and that throws Joost for a loop. A Joost user [thanks, Hal] wrote a utility to fix the problem. I ran it, and after some fiddling, Joost worked fine.
Watching Joost Could Be Fun
Joost is loaded with channels I'm apt to watch. For instance, I just found an independent movie channel called IndieFlix Premier Hits. Off The Fences Docs--a channel loaded with nature documentaries about sharks, diving, and so on--kept me entertained while my wife was out. And the Silent Movies channel, with Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton, was cool.
But there's also lots of twaddle, all perfect for those 18-to-34-year-old guys, including Hot and Wet 2004: Strip Trivia (a dopey, contrived tease), Porsche 911 Turbo (essentially advertising), and lots and lots of cartoons.
There's also not-very-revolutionary programming that you'll likely recognize, limited selections from MTV, VH1, Comedy Central (nope, no Daily Show), and National Geographic. It's the same stuff available on basic cable.
Dig This: Were you bedazzled by that brilliant Colour Changing Card Trick last week? I have another; it's the Psychological Card Trick.
How's It Look?
The interface is full screen, though you can reduce it. There's a list of channels on the left (New on Joost, Most Popular, Staff Picks) plus a longer list of categories (called genres), including documentary, comedy, music, sports and games, and others. There are small pictures on the right that correspond to channels in each category; just click an image to get to the channel. You can add or remove anything from the channel guide that doesn't interest you.
Clicking My Channels at the bottom of the category list brings you to your favorites. Each of these channels has three icons that let you watch what's currently playing, get more info, or see other shows on the channel.
Just Two Problems: Jitters and Lockups
The video feed is erratic. When I started playing with Joost a while back and was still excited by the new technology, I was willing to put up with an occasional stutter. But recently every show I've watched has been jittery, with nanosecond pauses that make most of the content unwatchable. Twice a channel's title appeared, and Joost stopped cold. (I can hear the company rep reaching for the phone.)
I could blame the problems on my Internet connection, but I doubt that's the issue: I have cable, and Charter Communications supplies a reliable, very stable, 3-megabits-per-second connection. It could be a problem with my PC (though I'd expect a few hiccoughs, not to this degree), or perhaps it's due to the tangle of cables under my desk. But I think I'll blame Joost.
Yes, I know... Joost is in beta. I don't expect it to work perfectly--but the moment the testing period is over, expect my tolerance to evaporate.
Want a second opinion? PC World writer Mark Sullivan also tried out the service; here's what he had to say.
Dig This: Wondering to do with your old PCs? Play dominos! [Thanks, Carl.]
Even More TV on Your PC
Here's a stack of other IPTV and Internet TV sites. Rather than describing them for you, I thought it'd be fun for you to try them yourself. Let me know what you think.