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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The Web connection

Where Joost tries to distinguish itself is in its social-networking features. A widget menu in the player lets you access your profile, do instant messaging (using your Jabber or Gmail account; you can choose to show yourself as available, or to show what you're watching), invite friends to Joost, rate a show, or enter a chat for the Joost channel you're watching. On day one, though, the channel didn't work for WCSN.com or Warner Brothers TV's Sci-Fi Fix channel; on day two, I got the chat channel to work for WBTV, but I was quite alone in there.

If Joost gains enough users to reach a critical mass -- and if someone else happens to be watching what I am, when I am, perhaps it could be fun to reminisce about how campy the V: The Series pilot was compared with the original miniseries, or how much we miss Babylon 5, or how funny an episode of CBS's current show How I Met Your Mother is.

You can invite friends to the Joost service, but so far I have not found a way to share a specific video with a friend via an e-mail invite. That's an odd omission for a site that's building itself from the ground up to capitalize on social networking. How many YouTube videos are shared via e-mail every day? (Sure, in Joost you can click on the 'i' (info) icon, and then copy the link to an e-mail -- but that's such an ungainly approach.)

You can create your own channels by dragging shows to the channel bar while you're exploring Joost's content. You also can search for new content, even as you continue to watch something else. Nifty tricks. And if you want to build your own channel, maybe this hook alone will bring you in to the service. I can see the novelty wearing off fast, though. Users will maintain their interest in their customized channel only if Joost carries enough fresh programming on an ongoing basis.

The disappointment and euphoria of streaming

One of the reasons I'm being hard on Joost is because I see the promise in an aggregate site for streaming television content. I can see the promise in an on-demand archive of television content. I look forward to seeing how the Web connectivity for Joost pans out. Not to mention seeing how Joost's catalog -- and reliability -- grow over time.

I was impressed by the breadth of Joost's selection at the time of this public beta launch. It was fun to find some old favorites on the WBTV channel, for example, and to search on gymnastics and find WCSN's 2006 World Championships women's team coverage for free (WCSN's own site charges for access).

But I was also frustrated by the lack of depth -- for the most part, I felt like I was surfing random highlights of TV series (oh, wait -- some CBS content actually was mashed-up highlights), with a smattering of episodes here and there that studios have deemed their "experiments." And these episodes are presented equally as haphazardly: Babylon 5, at least, I know, but looking through the content in the How I Met Your Mother channel, for instance, I had no idea when the episodes were from, what year they were from, or what order they were in. I felt as if I were groping my way through the dark.

The bigger picture for online video streaming

While I watched Joost, one big "but" came to my mind: I have a choice as to where I get my TV. Streaming TV via my PC must compete with cable broadcasts, with DVDs, and with my DVR -- which, incidentally, looks better at its lowest possible quality than Joost does.

Joost's image quality is no worse than that of other streaming services, perhaps (and at least this service works for the most part, unlike the time I tried to watch a stream of Veronica Mars on The CW). Yet watching Joost full-screen for any length of time is tiring to the eyes. No, you won't go blind while watching it, and yes, it's free. But the image quality does give me pause.

Beyond the convenience of on-demand video for the specific selection of titles Joost provides, well, what does online streaming really offer? If I'm willing to subject my eyes to inferior TV image quality, tell me: Why should I spend big bucks on a high-definition TV set, let alone a high-definition disc player and a whole new library of discs to replace my hundreds of DVDs? I'd rather pay a fee to a service that both aggregates enough content to warrant my signing up and provides a superior viewing experience.

At this point, I see streaming as providing a limited service -- useful for occasions when I miss episode X of show Y and need to catch up, for instance. Streaming is also filling a void, as in the example of the excellent WCSN, a site that delivers targeted, niche sports coverage that no one else on television, cable, or the Internet is doing (gymnastics coverage in a small window is better than nothing at all).

Get the image quality up, improve the reliability, and bolster the title selection, though, and the potential for Internet-based streaming TV is only as limited as the constraints of the service provider's imagination.