Uh-oh—when your DVR lost power during the season finale of Heroes, you thought you’d have to wait for the DVD release to find out if Sylar blew up New York after all.
But you didn’t need to worry; the Internet could have saved you when your television catastrophe struck—and you didn’t have to download episodes illegally or buy them from the iTunes Store. To catch up on the breakthrough drama, all you had to do was head over to NBC.com, where you could have streamed video of that final episode (along with every episode from the first season).
This past season, many television networks—not just NBC—finally began to embrace the Web fully. All the major ones offer streaming episodes on their Web sites. But that’s not the only place you can find free video to stream to your Mac—many sites offer content, both live and on demand. While the selection, quality, and viewing experience won’t yet replace your living-room TV set, if you’re seeking some video entertainment to fill your leisure time, all you need is a Mac, an Internet connection, and a browser pointed in the right direction.
Behind the streams
The streaming Internet video revolution led by YouTube owes a debt to the emergence of Flash video. Flash creates relatively small files of a quality good enough so that they look and sound similar to what you get on a TV screen—and the ubiquitous Flash plug-in for browsers makes operating systems and browser capability a non-issue. Flash video also provides more content control and better protection than other downloadable file formats.
Although Flash is important, other formats are finding their way to the streaming world—or, as in the case of RealVideo, they’re reemerging. CBS and many live streaming sites, such as BBC News, are using RealVideo. ABC, Fox, and the CW all use a new technology delivered by Move Video. Move’s player is capable of HD quality—1,280-by-720-pixel resolution. ABC recently added HD streams of four shows (one episode each) to its player. Except for Lost , however, the shows didn’t look quite as good as they do with the HD reception I get from my over-the-air antenna at home.
I watched a lot of shows in my research (for scientific reasons, of course) and Flash did the best job overall. It worked well in Safari and Firefox without requiring any extra downloads, and its playback tended to be the smoothest, though not the most detailed. That honor went to Move’s player on ABC.com: it offered the crispest detail, and worked well with computers that met its minimum specs—16MB of VRAM being the most important. Videos streamed in RealVideo often looked blocky and stuttered for a few seconds before clearing up. Windows Media streams were a big headache—many didn’t even play on a Mac (for tips on improving playback, see “Get Better Reception”).
When it comes to traditional video entertainment such as TV shows and movies, your best bets are network sites, aggregate on-demand sites, and live streams.
Network Sites Faced with the prospect of Napster-style piracy, the major networks are trying to get ahead of the curve. This past TV season, they all offered streams of some portion of their fall lineup. The content varies, but the focus seems to be on new shows and those for which they’re trying to build a following (see “What’s Streaming on the Web” for details). Which site you’ll like best really has to do with what shows you watch. In my case, I kept coming back to NBC since I watch a lot of its shows, and NBC offers every episode for most of the previous seasons of the shows it currently streams. CBS’s catalog seemed the least consistent; while it has episodes from almost every show on the network ( How I Met Your Mother, all three CSI shows, and the like), the selection is pretty random—one episode from early in the season and another from later, with large gaps in between.
With the big networks, you can watch an entire episode, rewind it, skip ahead, and pause it. ABC, NBC, and CBS let you watch in a full-screen mode that takes over your entire display; Fox and the CW don’t have the same option, but do offer a bigger version than the default. That has its advantages, since it keeps the video size from stretching beyond its native resolution. On a 24-inch monitor, a full-screen version of NBC’s stream looks pretty blocky when viewed from two feet away. ABC’s looks better, but still seems ungainly on a large monitor. Both NBC’s and ABC’s full-screen modes look sharp on a 15-inch MacBook Pro (read about my results in “Getting the Picture”).
Streams are free on all the network sites, but, just as with regular TV broadcasts, they include ads—usually 30-second embedded ads. NBC, for example, breaks its episodes into multiple parts, often with an ad before each one. Although you’ll find that annoying if you’re used to purchasing ad-free shows from the iTunes Store, it seems a small price to pay for the convenience of watching free shows whenever you want to. You can’t fast-forward past the ads, but there’s no reason you can’t check your e-mail during the break. If you’re watching in full-screen mode, you can switch to a smaller size without losing your place in the video, except for a momentary skip when you change sizes.
On Demand YouTube, Google Video, and many other Web sites got their reputations mostly through user-created content, but these sites also offer professional-quality clips and full shows. Each of the sites excels at one or two types of video. If you’re a Charlie Rose fan, Google Video is the place for you—a large back catalog of his shows is available there, free to stream. The French site Dailymotion features some great jazz videos from French and German TV in the 1940s and 1950s.
But how do you zero in on the kind of content you’re looking for? These sites have so many videos that browsing won’t do the trick. Searching can narrow things down. For example, go to Google Video and search on “Cary Grant.” You can then spend your afternoon enjoying His Girl Friday, now in the public domain. Try searching for your favorite actor, director, or genre—you’ll find many good selections. Use this hunt-and-peck method on each of the aggregate on-demand sites to find the ones that suit your tastes best.
What’s streaming on the web
|Site ||Technology ||Quality ||What’s on |
ABC ||Move Video ||Very good ||Select prime-time shows including Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Ugly Betty; previous two to five episodes || || |
BBC News ||Windows Media, RealVideo ||Very poor ||Headline news updated 24 hours a day || || |
CBS ||RealVideo ||Fair ||Select prime-time and daytime shows, including the CSI franchises, The Unit, and As the World Turns; select episodes || || |
Channelchooser ||Windows Media, RealVideo ||Poor ||Live streams of television stations, including movie classics, cartoons || || |
The CW ||Move Video ||Good ||Select prime-time shows such as Supernatural and Everybody Hates Chris; four to six episodes per show || || |
Dailymotion ||Flash video ||Fair to poor, depending on the source ||Some television shows, including many classics from the 1940s and 1950s || || |
Fox ||Move Video ||Good ||Select prime-time shows, such as Bones, Prison Break, and Hell’s Kitchen; some with all episodes, some with select episodes || || |
Google Video ||Flash video ||Fair to poor, depending on the source ||Some television shows such as Charlie Rose, public domain films || || |
Joost ||P2P software ||Very good to poor, depending on the source ||Shows from a variety of content providers, including Babylon 5 and The Ben Stiller Show and movies such as Dragonslayer || || |
MLB ||Windows Media ||Fair ||Live baseball games, highlights || || |
NBC ||Flash video ||Poor ||Select prime-time shows such as Friday Night Lights and The Office; all episodes || || |
NHL.com ||Windows Media ||Fair ||Live hockey games, highlights || || |
wwiTV ||Windows Media, RealVideo ||Poor ||Live streams of stations from around the world, including movie classics, cartoons |
Once you’ve found something you want to watch, you may be able to view it offline. Google Video now lets you download many of its videos to your desktop or transfer them to your iPod (this works only if the content owner enables the option). For other sites, you may be able to download the Flash video file with a Firefox add-on like DownloadHelper’s free
media download extension. Then, using software such as Techspansion’s free
iSquint, you can convert FLV files to MPEG-4 or H.264 and put them on your iPod. Stinkbot’s $15
TubeSock program accomplishes the same goal in one package. This option’s legality may be questionable, however, depending on who owns the copyright and what rights the owner has given the user.
A new entry in the on-demand video field has the potential to greatly enrich the selections available. Joost, a peer-to-peer application (currently in beta) from the creators of Skype, features programs from many providers, including Warner Bros., Comedy Central, and MTV. The software—currently Intel-only—provides an experience similar to what you get with a DVR. You browse through channel listings until you find a show you want to watch. Click on one to start watching, and you can fast-forward, rewind, and pause the content. You can watch in full screen or in a smaller window on your desktop; the shows include limited ads. Joost’s greatest promise lies in its potential to act as a repository for all your TV needs—if enough content providers sign on, you won’t have to go to seven different Web sites to watch your favorite shows. The beta is still buggy, however; and the interface, while slick and attractive, is not intuitive.
Live Streams If you want a more traditional TV-watching experience, you’ll find that on the Web, too. In some instances, it makes more sense to watch live instead of on demand—in the case of news and sports, for example.
Channelchooser and wwiTV (World Wide Internet TeleVision) are two of the better implementations of this type of video stream. You’ll find an apparent glut of viewing options in many categories—Sports, News, and Movies—from stations around the world. But even on these relatively straightforward sites, you run into dead feeds and links that send you to other sites instead of providing the stream itself. I found it especially difficult to watch movies and TV shows, since it’s very hard to figure out which channel you’re really watching—making it hard in turn to look up the program guide.
And I found that many of the live video streams use Windows Media—which, on the Mac, sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. In general, the picture quality and browser compatibility aren’t nearly as good as what you get with Flash video. This was the case with both Windows Media Player and the Flip4Mac plug-in.
One good reason to watch live TV is real-time news, whether financial news or events across the globe. BBC News offers a constantly updated, two-minute headline news video as well as other on-demand news videos. The video quality is low—the stream I received was just 35 Kbps, even though I chose the high-bandwidth option, and only the Real stream would play—but the news source is top-notch. For financial news, Bloomberg offers a constant live feed of its television service, although I couldn’t get it to work properly in Safari or Firefox—the video played fine, but there was no audio.
For a sports fan, the promise of live broadcasts available on the Web is enticing. It opens up the option of watching your favorite team no matter where it’s playing or where you are. MLB.com has made that promise a reality—for a fee, of course. The MLB.TV Premium service costs $20 a month or $120 for the season and features 700-Kbps streams. The site also offers free highlights if you missed Baseball Tonight yesterday. NHL.com has a similar deal for hockey fanatics.
On the horizon
Streaming video should soon extend beyond television into the realm of modern films. Netflix currently offers its Windows users select movies for streaming as part of all its monthly subscription packages (its three-at-a-time unlimited rental plan includes 17 hours of streamed video per month, for example). The company hasn’t given a definitive timeline for bringing that service to the Mac, but says that its goal is to reach any screen you can watch movies on—including the Mac’s. Meanwhile, you can get the service on an Intel Mac if you install Windows and access it via Apple Boot Camp or Parallels Desktop. I tried the service on a Windows PC, and the quality and experience were good, so Mac users have something to look forward to.
ABC: The interface for ABC.com’s video section shares its look with iTunes’ CoverFlow.
Joost: The software’s controls look slick, and so does Gabe Kaplan in an old episode of Welcome Back, Kotter.
NBC: You can watch every episode of 30 Rock and other shows on the network’s Web site.
wwiTV: Live cartoons are just one of many options on the World Wide Internet TeleVision site.
Fox: You can view selected episodes of Fox shows by going to a MySpace.com page.
Get better reception
If the video you’re watching on your Mac isn’t clear, here are some ideas on how to improve your experience.
Go Small If the picture is jumpy or pixelated, try switching to a smaller size—the smaller file may be easier for your computer to process.
Buffer It Many on-demand streams will continue to download the video file after you click on the pause button. If you’re waiting too long for more video to download, click on pause and walk away for a few minutes. When you come back, you should have a decent amount of buffered video to watch as the rest comes down the pipe.
Plug In Many of these sites require that you download additional programs or browser plug-ins to receive the picture. Make sure that you have up-to-date versions of Real’s free
RealPlayer and Microsoft’s free
Windows Media Player, or Flip4Mac’s free
Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Older versions of these applications might not handle the stream properly or efficiently.
Download It If streaming isn’t working for you, just download the file to view later. Google Video and other sites allow downloads of some files, and the Web is full of tips on how to capture Flash video files.
Getting the picture
If you haven’t tried streaming video since the early part of the century, you may expect a blocky, pixelated picture and jumpy, out-of-sync audio. But today’s streaming video can be as good as television if you have the right stuff. Your Internet connection has something to do with it, but so does the horsepower inside your machine.
If you have a broadband connection, you should have enough bandwidth to get a good-quality stream. The higher-quality, higher-resolution streams can require up to 2,000 Kbps—beyond the scope of basic DSL—but most use between 250 and 750 Kbps. In practice, I found processor speed and video RAM more important for good video quality. I tried three different Macs over a 1.5-Mbps DSL connection: a 600MHz G3 iBook with 648MB of RAM and 8MB of video RAM; a 1.2GHz G4 iBook with 768MB of RAM and 16MB of VRAM; and a 2.4GHz MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM and 256MB of VRAM. Here’s how they performed.
iBook G3: Some audio, but poor video. iBook G4: Audio flowed, but video bumbled. MacBook Pro: Like watching a television—smooth video and synced audio.
iBook G3: Coughed and crashed—no video or audio. iBook G4: Grab the magnifying glass—video and audio were smooth when set to the smallest picture size but jumpy at normal size. MacBook Pro: Who needs cable? I could watch this all night.
[ Michael Gowan is a freelance technology writer. ]