Online video streaming: not there yet

A test-drive of the new beta of Joost.com shows what works in viewing TV on the Web--and a lot that doesn't work.

Streaming video -- particularly television -- has received a lot of attention lately, what with sites such as Joost.com, MLB.com, and the soon-to-beta Hulu.com all talking it up. Even most TV networks offer some degree of streaming for select shows. But is streaming really the wave of the future for video downloads? I'm not convinced.

Until yesterday, Joost.com was in a private beta. Now that the service has transitioned to a public beta -- practically akin to a formal launch, in this era of ongoing, Google-esque beta periods -- I thought I'd give the service another try. My colleague Mark Sullivan did an early review of Joost while it was in its closed beta period. So did our columnist Steve Bass. Both observed problems with image quality -- and apparently many of those issues persist in this more fully developed beta version. In fact, my experiences did little to change my opinion of streaming video.

Joost is not the first site to stream television shows, but it is trying to go one step further than most services by aggregating streaming content in an interactive manner. Download a player, and between the download and the "Web 2.0"-powered controls in the background, Joost not only offers on-demand streaming downloads but tries to do so in a way that takes advantage of the PC's connectivity and provides reasons for you to watch TV on your PC.

Up front: The glitches

First, let's be clear about what didn't work well. Given that the service is still in beta -- and in its first day of public beta, no less -- I'm willing to cut it some slack. Just some.

I tried to download the player on its first day as a public beta, but I received a network error message. After I later downloaded the player and proceeded through the supereasy user-name sign-up, the system had trouble when I followed the verification e-mail's link to vet my account.

I can forgive glitches like this on a first day -- though I'm surprised that they weren't worked out by the public beta launch. I can forgive the fact that, occasionally, I'd click on a selection and find the page's graphics missing, or that I'd get a page that said a selection or an entire channel was inaccessible (I was annoyed, but okay, once again, it could be first-day jitters). I can forgive the fact that finding things on Joost's Web site was sometimes easier to browse at a glance than the far more visual presentation in the player interface (the Web site clearly tells you in what region content may be played; the player interface to Joost's site does not).

Yet on the second day, things hadn't improved much. The missing channel and program worked again on day two, but the Explorer hung repeatedly when I tried to search for a channel or program I had seen on day one. And I saw more jitter in images than I did the day before.

Speaking of image quality, I personally found the noticeably mixed image quality harder to swallow. Granted, the mini-window view, about the size of a YouTube window, was actually quite good -- vastly superior, even, to what you see on YouTube. When I expanded it to full-screen mode, however, that same image looked mediocre -- soft, with macroblocking artifacts and aliasing -- across all of the content I tried.

I found the advertising a mixed bag, too. I didn't mind some of the ads I encountered, specifically the quick, "brought to you by" things that preceded the start of a video. Just a flash -- that, I can deal with. But the other ads proved intrusive and repetitive.

At least, the advertising breaks I encountered were just one ad per break, typically a movie trailer. For example, about a third of the way through an episode of Babylon 5, a 40-something-minute drama, a commercial for the movie Good Luck Chuck popped up. Then another. And another. I saw three in all, before my viewing was interrupted; by the time I went back to the program, it was temporarily inaccessible.

More annoying still were the random pop-up ads that appeared on my screen. Some went away on their own, while others encouraged me to click on them to go to another site -- or to make them go away. Unfortunately, in the cases where I clicked the X to close the screen, I still ended up opening a new Web page with the ad. Argh. Double that frustration when I ended up at yet another Good Luck Chuck ad, this one the actual movie site.

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