Was it really only 18 months ago that the idea of watching TV streamed over the internet to your PC seemed exotic?
The new TV landscape is about enjoying programmes however and wherever you want, whether on the big screen, your laptop in a hotel room, or on a portable media player - even on a mobile phone. But are you making the most of the opportunity? If the PC TV wave is passing you by, we're here to help you get up and ride it.
2008 will go down as the year internet TV went mainstream. Apple's iTunes Store proved we're willing to pay for premium TV content. BigPond's downloadable movies and TV, NineMSN's Catch-up TV, and ABC's iView showed there's potential in TV services that deliver programmes over the net.
Overseas, services such as the BBC's iPlayer captured the public imagination; a weekly average of 1.4 million viewers use the service. While Australia is a little behind the pace, we're catching up fast.
Internet services are only part of the modern TV arsenal. Media centres, streaming devices, portable players and mobile phones can all be used to ensure you never miss a TV show again - even if you're out of the country. Better still, turning a PC into a PVR and media server has never been easier.
We're going to show you how to have the perfect TV setup at home, away, and while you're travelling in between. Plus, we'll explain how to beat the roadblocks that are put in your path, such as bans on watching iView from abroad and watching TV recorded in Microsoft's proprietary formats on devices such as mobile phones and PSPs. You'll never have to leave your TV at home again.
TV in the Home
For most of us, the living room remains the main place where we watch TV; what's new is the way we watch it. The success of TiVo in the US has finally resulted in TiVo being launched in Australia, though uptake is slower than expected thus far. It's introduced us to a world where you no longer organise your life around the TV schedules, but select and record what you want to watch then do so at your leisure.
The personal video recorder (PVR) certainly has its advantages. It's significantly cheaper than, say, a media-centre PC, and is usually smaller and quieter. What's more, these are machines built for anyone to use. Using the Media Center features built into Vista isn't exactly brain surgery, but TiVo makes recording and viewing programmes virtually moron-proof.
However, there are good reasons to opt for a PC-based setup. The biggest is that, once you've recorded something on a TiVo or Foxtel IQ2 box it's pretty much trapped there; Foxtel's proprietary storage and encryption systems mean that, even were you to remove the hard disk and try to mount it on your PC, you wouldn't be able to drag off your programmes.
The only way to move your content from a Foxtel IQ2 box on to your PC is to copy it to a conventional DVD recorder, PC or standalone video-capture device. This involves a digital to analogue to digital conversion, and subsequent loss of quality, not to mention a long wait while your programmes copy across in real-time.
Foxtel; isn't alone in slapping on the handcuffs. With the exception of the Topfield TF5000, TF7100 and TF7000, which allow a direct transfer of MPEG2 video files over USB to PC/Mac or external hard drive, most standard and Freeview PVRs have no means of copying or archiving recordings.
This isn't a problem if you only want to watch recorded shows and films on your PVR, but it is if you want to archive them, store them on a central server, or watch them on another device in or outside the home. If that's the case a PC-based approach is the answer. You can use it as a gateway for all your digital content, which you then stream to wherever it's needed.
The perfect PC TV setup
First of all, you'll need a PC. You can buy a specific media-centre PC - either an all-in-one model that replaces the TV in smaller living rooms, such as Sony's VGC-LM18G or HP's TouchSmart IQ515, or a compact, low-noise unit that works alongside a regular HDTV.
A media-centre PC is a perfectly good choice, but often expensive. The cheaper alternative is to repurpose an existing PC or buy/build a new one as a media gateway. You can then sequester it somewhere out of the way where you still have an aerial socket or satellite cable, plus a network connection.
You'll need the former to take the incoming TV signal, and the latter to grab internet-based content and then stream your video where it's needed. Your PC will also need a TV tuner card (either DVB-T or DVB-S, depending on whether you want to hook up to a DVB-T Freeview signal or a DVB-S satellite one) and a version of Windows Vista that includes Media Center: Vista Home Premium or Ultimate. Alternatively, you could use Orb MyTV (which we'll discuss later).
The connection is a vital part of the picture. For home networking, most of us still rely on an 802.11g network. Theoretically, this supports the 8 to 10Mb/s of steady bandwidth you need to stream HD video, but in practice a busy 802.11g network struggles with even standard-definition pictures.
The newer 802.11 draft-n standard is much better. With a possible bandwidth of 74 to 300Mb/s, it should have plenty of overhead for multiple HD streams. If you opt for a dual-band router, you can stream your AV data on the 5.2GHz spectrum, avoiding interference from slower gadgets on your network, which can use the 2.4GHz spectrum.
In practice, however, there's still a chance that it might struggle. The more PCs or other devices you have connected, the greater distance covered or the more walls you have between your source PC, your router, and playback devices, the less smooth your TV experience will be.
A wired ethernet connection is the obvious choice. It doesn't have to be Gigabit ethernet - even if your router supports it, it's unlikely that your current media playback devices will - but going Gigabit now will offer a degree of future-proofing.
However, installing cable through several rooms isn't always an option without some serious home refurbishment, so you may need to consider an alternative. The HomePlug AV Ethernet over Powerline standard offers a maximum 200Mb/s over the existing power cables in your home, and dual-adapter packs are now available for well below $300. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that to work well, the adapters all need to be on the same electrical circuit.
|Some Topfield players such as the TF7100 can copy video files to from external hard disk via USB.
|Media centre extenders work best over wired ethernet connections
The final part of the puzzle is the device you actually plug into your TV; usually a Windows Media Center Extender that can take the stream from a media-centre PC, decode it and play it back over S-Video, component or HDMI connection, depending on your screen.
Which you choose will probably depend on your network. If you've gone wireless, something such as the Linksys DMA 2100 Media Center Extender has the draft-n speeds required. That said, you can't go wrong with Microsoft's Xbox 360 console. If you're not using it over ethernet, plug in the appropriate draft-n bridge.
Of course, there's one major drawback to this approach - you have to leave a power-hungry PC on if you want to watch TV. The solution? A media-friendly NAS or Windows Home Server that can store the programmes recorded on your PC and ping them to a Media Center Extender for playback.
Oddly enough, Windows Home Servers don't play as well as you might expect with Vista's Media Center Extender, but there are ways of getting the backup features in WHS to watch and copy from the Recorded TV folder in Vista (see http://tinyurl.com/9hpztm for more details).
NAS devices with a UPnP media server also have their place, and apps such as SyncToy (http://tinyurl.com/2jx4sk) will synchronise the Recorded TV folders on your PC with the relevant video folders on your NAS or server.
Just two things to be aware of: first, some Media Center Extenders won't work hand-in-glove with a straight UPnP server that isn't running Vista or WHS; second, you may need to transcode files from the DVR-MS format used by Vista into a format the server and streamer can work with.
There are commercial packages that can do this and an excellent, if rather intimidating, free applet called DVRMSToolbox (http://tinyurl.com/42p9wn) that can do the job. We'll talk about this later.
Streaming on your TV
Wherever you store your programmes, your Vista machine will need to be switched on to record them. Instead of turning it off when you have recordings scheduled, put it to sleep. Of course, with a PC at one end and a Media Center Extender at the other, you're not limited to watching programmes you've recorded. You can also stream across any content you download from internet services such as iView or NineMSN Catchup.
These catchup programs require a downloadable player for PC or Mac (Now in the case of ABC content, HIRO for NineMSN). Then simply share the All Users | My Deliveries folder using Windows Media Player 11 and you're good to go. Pick Add to Library from the Library tab, then browse for and add the folder.
You can then go to Library | Media Sharing and check you're set up to share media files across the network. The DRM can cause snags on Xbox 360s and other Extenders - see http://tinyurl.com/79xvds for workarounds.
If you can't achieve smooth, TV-like playback, all is not lost. If you've gone down the wireless route, experiment with the position of your router and/or your PC or Extender. Even with a draft-n connection, you can improve throughput by plugging the PC or the Extender into a wired connection. Check you have no 802.11b devices - such as handheld games consoles - connecting while you're trying to watch TV.
If things are really bad, you can try "segmenting". Basically, you buy an additional router. Your primary router handles communications with internet traffic, your media PC and your Extender, and this communicates through an Ethernet link to another router that acts as a wireless hotspot for all the other devices in your home. This allows your media-centre PC and Extender to make the most of the available bandwidth.
Finally, whatever technology you use, check your router's QoS settings. Some can be programmed to prioritise traffic of a particular type (video, for example), or coming to and from a particular IP address (your media PC or Media Center Extender, for example). It's also worth checking that settings such as Dynamic Fragmentation (your router may use different terminology) aren't turned on.
And if all of this sounds like too much hassle, you can always eliminate the network altogether. Some USB hard disk and flash memory-based products can take files directly from a PC then play them back through S-Video, Component or HDMI connections to your TV. SanDisk killed off its innovative, flash-based TakeTV product, but look out for LaCie's LaCinema product line, or Western Digital's new WD TV Player (January 2009, page 66), a device that hooks up to your TV then streams files from a standard external hard disk.
It's also possible to go the other way. The Archos 605 WiFi and Archos TV+ can record direct from a satellite or DVB-T source then copy files to your desktop, NAS or home server over USB. Bear in mind, though, that this involves a digital to analogue to digital conversion, and so a minor quality drop.
|Shows downloaded from iView or other catchup services can be streamed to a media extender.
TV away from home
The next big change brought about by new TV technology isn't to do with when you watch programmes, but where you watch them. The industry buzzword for this is placeshifting; taking the TV content coming into the home and accessing it from anywhere with a high-speed data connection.
We'll see how this works on specific mobile devices later, but most of us already have a portable player with a decent-sized screen that can do the job. Any laptop or Windows netbook should suffice.
First, you need to get your TV stream online, and the easiest way to do that is through hardware with a device such as Sling Media's Slingbox Pro. While the Slingbox isn't officially launched in Australia, you can obtain the UK version from www.expansys.com.au. The US and UK versions are available through other channels, such as by import or on eBay, but be sure to obtain a version without a TV tuner if you get the US version, as the tuner won't work here.
You take the unit, plug it into your home AV setup and/or aerial socket, then connect it to your router or home network, and you're all but set up to stream content to anywhere with a decent internet connection. The devices come with remote-control PC software that allows you to flick your satellite box to the right channel as if you were sitting on the sofa with the zapper in hand.
The Slingbox Pro has an integrated Freeview TV tuner, whereas other versions need to connect to an existing PVR, Foxtel or Freeview box. If you only have one, this can result in some peculiar scraps over control between you and someone at home when you're halfway around the world.
The Slingbox Pro can also be hooked up to an additional piece of AV equipment, giving you access to a PVR or DVD player, while several devices can be controlled with the plug-in infrared transceiver. You can download and install both of the player applications on to your notebook over the web.
Picture quality depends on two factors. First, you need a fast, steady upload speed on your home connection: 256Kb/s is the minimum, 512Kb/s or above is better.
Second, you need a decent downstream connection at your "away" location; you need 256Kb/s before you get something watchable. Interestingly, neither player seems particularly dependent on the power of the notebook. You can get a great, smooth picture on an Intel Atom netbook!
The Slingbox certainly wins points for convenience. Having the ability to access recordings on a PVR as well as Freeview broadcasts shouldn't be underestimated, and if you have an "away" location you visit regularly, like a working week bolthole or a holiday home abroad then, provided you have a broadband link in both locations, you can enjoy all your usual viewing, either on a notebook or using a SlingCatcher playback device that plugs into your "away" TV set.
As a bonus, the SlingCatcher also functions as a media player for regular video files, which it will play back from a USB hard disk. Keep a portable archive of your favourite films and programmes on an external hard disk or high-capacity flash drive, and your movie collection comes with you.
If you don't want to pay for dedicated hardware, you can use the free software packages Orb MyTV and WebGuide in conjunction with a TV-tuner equipped PC (although you'll need a system running Media Center to use the latter). This will give you the option of streaming recorded TV and other video content to a laptop elsewhere, although this will mean leaving a PC on at home while you're away. If that isn't feasible, a version of WebGuide is available for Windows Home Server.
It has long been possible to watch a broadcast TV signal on your PC using a USB TV tuner module. The DVB-T standard that's used in Australia is also used throughout Europe and in parts of Asia, South America and Africa, and you should receive a signal in most of those countries.
The US and Japan are out of the question, as they use competing standards (ATSC in the case of the US). You'll either need to track down a dual- or multi-standard USB tuner - which is harder than you might think - or buy a separate US tuner for use when you're in the US.
The downside of using a TV tuner abroad, however, is that you're stuck with whatever TV is available in your destination, which isn't much use if you're in New York but don't want to miss the new series of Top Gear. The solution is to use a catch-up service, such as iView or NineMSN Catchup instead. Here you come across another hurdle: these services are blocked to people from outside Australia.
Luckily, there are workarounds. One is to connect using a proxy address located within Australia. Note down the IP address you're using at your location, using a website such as http://whatismyip.com.
Find a site that provides Australian proxy addresses (Google lists several providers), sign up and get a port. You can set up your proxy address using Tools | Options | Advanced Settings in Firefox or Tools | Internet Options | Connections | LAN Settings in Internet Explorer.
This works, but there are risks in using a proxy server. Because all your data is going through someone else's system, you should avoid doing anything risky or sensitive while connected, or you may expose private data and passwords, or find yourself on the receiving end of a hefty chunk of spam.
Watch what you want to watch, then uncheck "Use a proxy server" in IE, or check Direct Connection to Internet in Firefox. Proxy servers can also be hit and miss. If used regularly, the catch-up service may ban the proxy IP, putting you back at square one.
A safer and more reliable option is to pay for a VPN connection to an Australian server - a Google search will deliver a range of appropriate companies. You connect through the VPN to Australia and, as far as iView or NineMSN are concerned, you're using the service within Australia. Or use a more consumer-friendly remote service such as GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com) and use your own home system as, effectively, a proxy server. You log in to the PC at home, use its IP address, and you'll be watching ABC in no time.
Similar techniques can be used to watch US-only content from Hulu websites. Please note, however, that this is legally iffy - although far less dubious and risky than downloading the same programmes from a P2P site.
|Slingbox walkthrough: click to enlarge
TV on the move
Finally, we arrive at the most exciting strand of the internet TV era: mobile devices. This has always been one of the key promises of 3G mobile phone networks and portable media players, but in Australia, it's taking a long while to take off because of a combination of technology, regulation and phone costs.
Luckily, that's changing. Catch-up services are being updated to work with phones and media players, and broadcast services - already available in Asia, the US and parts of Europe - will inevitably make their way over here. It's unlikely that watching TV on a mobile phone will ever replace the big-screen experience in the home, but anyone who commutes or travels regularly will understand why it's good to catch up with the news or a big game on the go.
All online viewable and downloadable television is theoretically viewable on any mobile phone, though only the iPhone and Nokia N96 make it simple.The N96 service is designed for downloading over a Wi-Fi connection rather than streaming on the move, although the latter is supported on some 3G networks.
In practice, the N96 client will also run on other devices running the Symbian S60 mobile phone OS, including the N82, 6220, E71 and E90. However, the phone needs to have Nokia Web Runtime preinstalled, and you need a hacked installation script to get it to work.
The N96 is better designed to handle WMV formats - used by a lot of downloadable video and TV content - and the way it handles media streaming makes it impossible for users to inadvertently switch from Wi-Fi to 3G without realising - a costly mistake. But if you can find the hacked installer and keep an eye on your connection, there's no reason not to give it a go.
Part of the trouble with mobile TV is getting the right format. In Europe, DVB-H - related to DVB-T, used for our digital TV - is the official broadcast standard designed specifically to stream digital television to mobile devices. It's in active use in Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria.
In Australia, DVB-H is the default standard, but it's proved slow to get off the ground. At the moment TV signals use a spectrum close to that used by DVB-H and trials during the Commonwealth Games in 2006 showed some issues with signal degradation. Once television switches from analogue to digital between 2010 and 2013, it will free up the analogue TV spectrum for wider DVB-H use.
But DVB-H isn't the only mobile TV standard - Qualcomm's MediaFLO in the US and less well known formats such as A-VSB (advanced-vestigial sideband), MBMS and MPH (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld) are also making in-roads.
The US company Qualcomm recently won the UK's 1452 to 1492MHz L-Band spectrum, and is believed to be reserving it for services based on its own MediaFLO TV mobile broadcast system, which is popular with mobile carriers in the US and there are signs it may compete for portions of the spectrum here too.
While DVB-H is a broadcast content delivery platform, it's complemented by DRM and interactive features carried over 3G networks, and most services overseas charge for using the service. This is the only thing preveznting you from picking up and using the signal in whichever DVB-supporting area you find yourself - as in the early days of DVB-T, few nations have managed a true nationwide rollout - but it's enough.
Maybe this is why DVB-H has yet to really take off anywhere outside of Italy. In April, Nokia's own head of internet services told a Helsinki conference that "we have seen that there are multiple segments who are not interested in broadcasting, but rather in downloads". In other words, streaming and download services such as iView might make DVB-H and rival systems virtually redundant.
Still, these aren't the only means of receiving TV content on your mobile phone. Anyone with a Slingbox can download SlingPlayer Mobile, providing they have a supported Windows Mobile, Palm or Symbian smartphone, and stream their TV signal over a 3G connection with a minimum 120Kb/s download speed.
Orb's MyTV Web media server will work with the iPhone using a dedicated applet, and many web-enabled smartphones using nothing more than the built-in browser. WebGuide offers a similar service. It just goes to show how flexible the PC-based approach can be.
Mobile Foxtel, available on 3 and TelstraNext 3G, Optus and Vodafone's streaming TV, cost around $10-20 per month, depending on the type and number of channels you select. Using these services allows you to watch selected programmes on a reasonably wide range of internet-enabled phones. For Mobile Foxtel, however, watching TV isn't the killer feature of the service - Remote Record is.
The Foxtel Mobile applet provides a mobile version of the standard Foxtel EPG, and using this Foxtel IQ or Foxtel IQ2 owners can select programmes for recording from anywhere where they can get a signal. If you don't have a supported phone you can still do this in a rather more clunky manner using the medium of txt. Send a message stating the programme title, channel, date and time to the relevant Foxtel number and Foxtel will tell your box when and what to record.
|Select ABC Now software and download programs if you want to watch them on-the-go
The smartphone isn't the only mobile device on which to watch TV; you may want to simply download or record your TV programme then transfer that content to a dedicated portable media player, such as the Archos 605 WiFi, the Sony Walkman E and S series, and the Creative Zen.
Unfortunately, none of the catchup services available for Australian TV has simplified their procedure for mobile devices as yet, so getting programs onto your phone or portable media player can mean scaling and formatting the video file before you can drag it into Windows Media Player for syncing, or drag it straight on to your device. Be prepared for even scaled and formatted files to take up a sizable chunk of space, too. An hour of Top Gear for a Sony S-Series Walkman takes up around 270MB of space, for example. While that's small, it doesn't take long to fill up the memory of a mobile phone.
Those with a Sony PSP handheld games machine may soon have other options. The PSP will work with LocationFree over a Wi-Fi connection, or download material from a PlayStation 3 console with the just-launched PlayTV add-on.
Sony and Foxtel also plan to launch a portal in the next few months similar to the UK service GoView, for Sky cable subscribers, which offers subscription-based packages of sports or entertainment content. If the UK service is anything to go by, you can expect TV series one or more seasons behind what's on Foxtel, as well as movies on-demand.
For iPod owners, there's also the option of downloading programmes, an entire series or movies from the iTunes store, albeit for a mildly outrageous price.
If the above doesn't cover your media player, you can still transfer recordings manually if you use a Vista machine to record or store your TV. The difficulty is that Vista stores recorded TV in a non-standard container format, DVR-MS, while some manufacturers' media-centre systems are shipping with the new Freeview-compliant Windows Media Center TV Pack, which uses yet another new format, WTV.
Don't be put off. There are ways of converting DVR-MS files to make them more media-player friendly. The commercial packages Nero 9 and Pinnacle Mobile Media Converter will do the job with minimum fuss, as will the Shareware app MyTV ToGo. However, there's a slightly frightening free toolkit that can handle whole folders of DVR-MS files in a single hit.
Using a supplied Mencoder encoder, DVRMSToolbox will convert the files to XviD/DivX, WMV and H.264 file formats, and you can then drag the files over to your player of choice. You can also synchronise DVR-MS files with media players using Windows Media Player II. WMP will convert the file, but it doesn't always know where to put it.
|Hiro,used for NineMSN's catch-up TV service
The trick when transcoding any media file is to balance quality and file size to achieve a watchable programme that will fit within the confines of your media player. Experiment on a minute-long sample clip - you'll find some in the Public\Recorded TV folder of your Windows Vista PC - and try first of all to output at high-quality settings at the native resolution of the screen on your device (often 320 x 240).
If that file size, multiplied by the 60-minute length of an average programme, seems too large, reduce the quality settings to medium and check to see whether the output is watchable.
If the file size is still too large, some applications will allow you to degrade the quality of the audio or switch from stereo sound to mono, or you can always take a drop in resolution and see how your media player scales it up. Only you can tell whether it's better to take four programmes at less than satisfactory quality or three programmes at high quality away on your trip.
In most cases, copying your converted file to your media player of choice using Windows Explorer works perfectly well, but the iPod and PSP can be a little tetchy. For iPod users, one option is to convert the programme to an iPod-friendly H.264 or MPEG4 format, add it to the iTunes video library, then get iTunes to handle the video downscale and transfer to your iPod.
There's also a freeware application called iPodifier that can handle Media Center files, including DVR-MS. PSP owners, meanwhile, should download the free PSP Media Manager application(http://www.playstation.com/mediamanager/en).
It's possible to copy and rename files according to Sony's systems manually, but letting Media Manager do the work takes the hassle out of the job. Just remember that you'll need to convert them to an MPEG4 format beforehand.
|Many current mobile phones are able to watch Foxtel through the Bigpond network