Internet TV: One-Month-Later Observations
Just prior to leaving for CES, I told you how I was ’surviving’ up in the mountains in spite of not having access to traditional cable, IP, or satellite or terrestrial broadcast television. I’ve now got a LCD in the bedroom, which I’ll tell you more about in a day or a few, and I’ve used it to watch (among other things) the first few episodes of the new season of Lost, streamed off ABC.com. Instead of trying to wirelessly beam the audio and video around the house, I’ve instead gone the quick-and-dirty route; directly tethering one of my laptops (Dell Inspiron 700m, with 1.6 GHz Pentium M processor) to the display at a 1920×1200 pixel resolution setting.
ABC offers both standard- and high-definition stream options for Lost; I of course went with the HD variant. The first time you access the content (at least in Firefox), you’re prompted to download and install a fairly hefty several-hundred-MByte plugin called the Move Media Player (which Fox also uses). Google research suggests that ABC’s HD stream is using On2’s VP7 video codec, whose decode algorithm runs exclusively on the CPU since there’s no hardware acceleration support built into the PC’s graphics subsystem.
Granted, calling this material ‘HD’ is somewhat charitable, at least from an absolute sense; the quality is nothing like Lost on Blu-ray, for example, or presumably over ATSC. With that said, from a relative standpoint it’s much better than ABC’s Lost standard definition stream, which I also auditioned for comparison’s sake. And it’s quite acceptable, especially if I’m sitting at least a few feet away from the 28" widescreen display.
Two things particularly impress me about ABC’s achievement. First off, recall that I’m being fed by a 1.3 Mbps DSL downstream connection, a far cry from the 50 Mbps symmetrical fiber feed that I used to enjoy, or even from a 19.2 Mbps ATSC stream. This level of video quality over such a skinny broadband pipe is quite remarkable. Secondly, I viewed the content over the Move Media Player’s full-screen mode (again, remember, pushing a 1920×1200 pixel image per frame), completely rendered in software running on a modest-to-obsolete CPU by modern standards, with no discernable stutter.
By comparison, the ‘regular’ MOV version of Steal This Film Part 1, which I watched the other night, was unwatchable when I full-screen maximized QuickTime Player. Admittedly, it was aggressively per-frame upscaled in order to fill the target resolution, thereby in part explaining the significant frame drops…the HD-native version of Steal This Film Part 2 fared better. But similarly, when I attempted to watch the Flash-encoded (using On2 VP6, or H.264, I’m not sure which) episode 16 of Battlestar Galactica: Season 3 hosted on Hulu the other day, I quickly gave up, for two fundamental reasons. The full-screen quality was unimpressive, both in terms of frame drops and per-frame visible artifacts, and it also made no sense to watch Episode 16 without previously having access to the first 15 episodes. Why, Hulu, aren’t you hosting the entire season? Guess I’ll have to wait until March 25…
One other Lost-on-ABC observation, in closing: I was amused last Friday night to see that one of the embedded commercials was for a Sacramento, CA-based heating-and-air conditioning company. Granted, Sacramento is a two-hour drive away, but it’s one of the two closest large cities to me; I daresay my EDN counterparts on the Right Coast probably didn’t get served the same commercial. I ’spect I’ll also see commercials for Reno, NV casinos in the future. ABC’s being quite clever in (I assume) logging my originating IP address and subsequently serving me location-targeted advertising.