The best TV on the Web

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The Aggregators

Aggregator sites showcase streaming television, drawing their content from multiple sources. Since aggregators focus on entertainment, their goal is to build a comprehensive entertainment experience.

Hulu — ranked by PC World staff as the number one product of 2008 — remains the gold standard among aggregator sites for finding and viewing free television on the Web.

Hulu makes locating and watching high-quality video extremely easy, and it has one of the best collections of current content and reruns around (its growing catalog numbers 3000-plus TV episodes). Only CBS and ABC content is missing here; and to counter that deficiency Hulu indexes video content from other sites, so you can find episodes of Lost, Star Trek, or How I Met Your Mother with a single click of an external link on Hulu.

Browse through shows by genre, title, or network, or plug a title or actor into the search engine. If full episodes are available, a TV icon will appear next to each such entry.

The video player, which dominates the Hulu experience, makes Hulu feel closer to a true television experience — especially in full-screen video mode. The player is neatly organized, with none of the clutter that abounds at countless other sites. Run your mouse over the video screen, and various controls become visible to the sides and at the bottom of the video screen. By default, the site shows video at 700 kbps (for 700p video, better than DVD), but it automatically reduces the transfer rate to 480 kbps (for 480p video), and may dip as low as 360 kbps (360p), if your bandwidth connection warrants it.

You can watch video full-screen or in a pop-out player (which puts the video player into its own self-contained window); the raise/lower lights function conveniently darkens the screen around the video you're watching within the browser. Social networking options let you embed, e-mail, or share a video.

Little touches such as predictive text search and the ability to create a viewing queue increase Hulu's comprehensiveness. Even the commercials are tolerable: Most of the ones I encountered lasted for about 15 seconds each, and the player dynamically tracked how much time remained until playback would resume. A Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode from season two, for example, had four commercial breaks plus one introductory "sponsored by" message (an unobtrusive banner ad from the chief sponsor appeared within the browser window throughout the playback). An episode of The Simpsons had just three commercial breaks, plus the intro sponsorship notice. Though I couldn't fast forward through the commercial breaks, I could skip past a break point to jump to the last third of the episode, for example.

Fancast, from Cable giant Comcast, debuted earlier this year. It admirably combines a bargeload of information about television shows with an enjoyable online video experience. Fancast, still in beta, seems to be dedicated to broadening on-demand video and helping site visitors find the shows they want, whether on the Web or delivered via TV (through Comcast's cable box-based on-demand service or through a cable channel).

Though the full-episode playback experience was pleasant — Fancast's layout and visual design make it fairly simple to navigate — finding full episodes of shows could be easier. The site has so much going on, with multiple paths to the same endpoints, and some of those paths are clearer than others.

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Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)

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