Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Buy Once, Watch Everywhere - Movies in the Cloud

The cloud. You've probably heard it mentioned a lot recently. What is it? Well, I first heard of it in a computing context, where it refers to processing occuring, or files and applications hosted, on remote machines. So, for example, rather than having my documents on my local machine and editing them using a word processor running on my laptop, I upload them to Google Docs (or some other cloud-based hosting service) and edit them from that location, using a web service rather than Word or whatever. It saves local processing - in theory you can do quite demanding things on thin-client, low-spec PCs - and it means you can work or otherwise access your files from other machines - your work PC, an Internet cafe, etc, etc. Sounds great and works well in practise.

So, what happens when we apply this to media? Well, services such as Google Docs and Dropbox are not really setup for media sharing. For a start, storage in the cloud has to be paid for - Docs gives you around 1Gb free and Dropbox gives you double that. You can purchase extra storage, but you're effectively renting it - paying $256 per annum for 1Tb on Docs and $200 for 100Gb on Dropbox. Clearly, it's cheaper to buy a memory stick or passport external hard drive. Both services also limit the file types that can be stored and file sizes. Playback is tricky as these services weren't really designed to stream content, but you can obtain a number of apps for mobile devices which will do this - more or less successfully. Of course, you'll also have to make allowances for your network connection and given the UK's lack of decent wifi provision and patchy 3G service, your ability to stream any content on the go will be severly curtailed. So, essentially, you can upload media to cloud storage and stream it if you are on your home wifi network or in a place where there is a similarly robust connection - a 5-star hotel perhaps, or your office.  Not ideal.

Rather than uploading your own content to those services which are primarily designed to allow you to manipulate documents and photos, you could use one of the many services which are explicitly designed to stream media to your PC or mobile device. I've talked about Qriocity Music Unlimited and Spotify before - services which allow you to stream music to your PC, mobile or home cinema setup. Both services allow you to sync your own music collection, rather than go to the trouble of actually uploading it (although, as mentioned before, I cannot get Qriocity Music Sync to work on Windows 7 64bit). You still have the network restrictions obviously, but these solutions are custom-designed to give you the best experience possible given your connection.

When it comes to movies, the bit rates involved in streaming video reduce the practicality of delivery from the cloud. I personally have only been able to use my Android phone to stream video in a few locations in central London. Working on the south coast, for example, I often struggled to get any kind of 3G connection, less the kind of consistent link necessary to stream even a brief video from Youtube. Where cloud-based storage of film content has relevance is in the services being readied by content owners to stream purchased content to households with multiple screens, used by a group of family members.

Hollywood studios are finally waking up to the fact that consumers really, really do not like DRM - in particular, they hate the way that it restricts the portability of legally-purchased content. Persuading consumers that they should shun torrents has been made very difficult by the sorts of restrictions which mean that a film or music track downloaded on one device is restricted to playback on that device alone, or can only be moved a fixed amount of times under extremely prescriptive circumstances. In a shared or family home, where use of a TV and STB or bluray player in the lounge might be restricted to certain times of the day, content purchased on these machines should be playable on any device in any room in the home. Expanding this concept, it would be an even more enticing proposition if the content was viewable outside the home - so that, for example, a children's film purchased on a net TV could be taken to a relatives home.

Where content is purchased for rental, there will still be time restrictions on viewing. Where the cloud storage and delivery proposition is more compelling is in cases of outright purchase. Content owners have struggled to convince consumers on outright purchase of digital content - especially film. Rental of such content currently outweighs purchase by a margin of 4-to-1. The issues holding back purchase have included these very issues - the resrictions of DRM, the intangibility of the product itself, poor perception of price value compared to physical media, concerns over storage. It is these issues which cloud storage and delivery is designed to resolve.

At this point I should probably stop referring to "the cloud" in this context, as it is not often used. The models and services which are emerging to describe cloud storage and delivery of video media are becoming associated with terms such as "TV Everywhere", "Ultra Violet" and "Studio All Access" - branded solutions offered by ComCast, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem and Disney, respectively. Each of these offer the kind of remote hosting and access described above. Comcast's solution allows cable TV subscribers the ability to access programs from their package online through a web portal, with plans to spread access to other devices, allowing access throughout the home and beyond. Ultraviolet offers a solution for purchased content from a number of sources - from VoD services to packaged DVDs purchased at retail. Such content comes with a code which allows the content to be accessed remotely from a number of registered devices. Content purchased outright is stored remotely in a kind of "digital locker" or "shelf" where the user can build his own library of content, freeing up shelf space at home.

This is also the kind of service being developed by a number of traditional VoD and PPV download services. Acetrax, who run movie portals on a number of connected TVs and bluray players allow users to register their home devices and access the same content on any of them. DivX also use this model - allowing downloaded content to be played via an access code enetered into any DivX registered device.

The concern has to be that the number of services being offered have limited or no interoperability - that your DivX-enabled DVD player may not be Ultra Violet capable and vice versa. It seems that content owners are still reluctant to embrace a true, open model - although Ultra Violet has a large number of members and the potential to succeed as a model for the controlled, managed method of access for hosted video content in the multi-screen home.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Scrapping physical media

Those of us of a certain age will probably get a bit misty-eyed when the subject of vinyl LPs comes up. I'd include myself in that luddite group. The convenience of downloading an album can't be argued with, but the experience of buying an album has been lost in the process. Buying a physical object, usually complete with gorgeous artwork and band photos and lyric sheets is something that a lot of us have grown up with - and it's difficult to value a digital download in the same way. This is at the root of the argument that digital downloads should be cheaper than their physical counterparts - in comparison, and ignoring the fact that an entire distribution and retailing channel has been removed, downloads just seem to be less substantial. So they should cost less, yes?

Of course there are advantages. Digital retailers will argue that they are making the investment to host all purchased content, to be made available to you at any time in the future (i.e. when you suffer a terminal hard drive crash). It's nice to know that it's possible to re-download content in the future, although the question of what happens in the case of the company going out of business must then be considered - something that is no doubt buried in the T&Cs that none of us ever read.

Then there's the additional convenience of portability. Digital downloads don't take up masses of shelf-space. It's easier to access with the click of a mouse or remote control and is harder to damage. You can move it to other devices (if there's no DRM to prevent this). Many of us have replaced large, cumbersome vinyl and CD collections with digital equivalents over the last decade - either buying downloads or ripping our physical media to hard disks. Where there was boxes of vinyl LPs or walls full of CDs there is now a single computer which can stream any track in our collection on demand - sometimes to any room in the home.

Until recently, it's been harder to do this with our movie collections. In fact, it's only been four years since I finished transferring an already-extensive VHS collection to DVD. Now I'm considering moving these titles and the ones I have on purchased DVD to a format which is easier to manage. Okay, I should probably add that I'm not typical - my collection is larger than most sane people would allow. Here it is:

The folders along the bottom shelves each contain 120 DVDs - containing my old VHS titles and things that have been DVRd from cable over the years. The bulk of this collection is in the guest room upstairs, which through laziness, often means that I'll watch something closer to hand online or on TV. I need to bring these films closer to the lounge.

I have made a start - a large collection of those 50-film public doman box sets has been transferred to a Western Digital 1Tb drive connected to our desktop PC, where any of them can be accessed by the PS3. I'd advise anyone using a PS3 to stream to use an alternative to Windows Media Server, as format support can be quite limited. I personally use PS3 Media Server - a light, Java-based server app, which seems to handle most formats, including DVD rips in VOB and ISO formats.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn't allow for the nicer things you can get when using a HTPC running a proper media centre application such as Windows Media Centre, Boxee or XBMC. The PS3 will just display the feature and extras as individual video titles in a named folder. The full PC-based media centre applications will display any networked movie content and obtain a film's poster, cast and synopsis information from services such as IMDB, making browsing your collection all the easier (especially when that collection is stupidly huge and contains titles you forgot you even had). Some media centre apps (and devices such as the O!Play STB) will allow you to access your ripped DVD in full, using the standard disc menus.

Of course, you have to actually get the content on to a NAS drive or PC hard drive in the first place. This is a long, boring, time-consuming process (dependent on how large your collection is). A fast DVD drive and PC will speed this process up but there no getting away from the fact that you will have to actually sit there and feed your collection, one-at-a-time into the drive. At least this should only be a one-off activity and adding discs as-and-when purchased in future should be less painful. Until someone introduces a cloud-based video service which allows you to sync your home video library (some way off - if ever!), manually building your own digital video library is the only solution.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cord cutting - dumping your pay TV

So, we upgraded from Virgin's XL broadband package to XXL (20Mb to 50Mb) and when we got our bill in our monthly charges had increased by £21 per month. Not what I was expecting. The price differential between these two is around £8 on the website - of course this is the quoted prices for new customers, existing customers like us will be on various retention deals which include discounts. On further inspection the increase was largely down to the removal of our discounts, which customer services told me could not be applied now that we had made the "big jump" to 50Mb (this is despite the recently announced news that existing XL BB customers are to be moved to 30Mb free of charge).

Obviously, we're not too impressed and decided to cut down on our bill by cancelling our TV service. One pricing quirk which this revealed is that Virgin charge less for 50Mb broadband on its own than they do when you have an additional TV service - which I couldn't find anyone at Virgin to explain the sense of. So... as of next month, we'll be back to Freeview. Of course, things have moved on a bit since the last time we ditched cable TV....

The emergence of the iPlayer and the associated 'catchup' services from the UK's commercial broadcasting outlets has massively increased the free-to-view options for consumers. For me, however, I'm never going to watch video on a PC for longer than five minutes, so I need some sort of TV-based solution. Luckily, the PS3 has apps for iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD these days, giving us access to recent programmes from the various BBC, ITV and Channel 4 channels. I've noticed that a number of films are being carried on these services these days too.

In addition, as I discussed before, the PS3 has films from the PSN Video Store and the apps for Lovefilm and MUBI. It has browser-based access to services such as Blinkbox and Youtube XL, which are optimised for a sofa-based surfing experience. A number of independent film channels have launched on Youtube, including IndieMoviesOnline, which provide ad-supported access to hundreds of free movies (of varying quality, of course).

Given all this, why should anyone actually pay for TV anyway? There are a few things which would, had I bottomless pockets, have given me pause:

- Sports, specifically football. In the UK, Sky have got a heavy lock on football coverage - particularly on top-flight league football (Barclays Premiership). Then again, the BBC and commercial terrestrial channels provide some Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and Championship coverage - plus highlights of Premiership and other matches.
- High Definition - HD does look lovely. There is a real lack of HD streaming content available, largely due to restrictions in network bandwidth, but also through lack of legally available content from rights owners.
- Reliability - We have never had an issue with Cable TV in 5+ years. It just works, pretty much all the time. This is not the case with even the best fibre-based broadband.

But, having said all that, we have 50Mb broadband now. This is more than enough to handle HD quality streaming and, once services in the UK ramp up to meet the inevitable demand, the potential is there for a pay-TV beating proposition. Even now, the streaming and download options for film and TV content (and I mean on a purely legal basis) are compelling on a cost and quality basis.

IPTV and internet video is a growing movement and dedicated STBs such as Boxee, Roku and game consoles, plus the fact that any new TV you're likely to buy these days will incorporate a web portal and net connectivity, mean that it will only increase in popularity.

Here's a great video series on cord cutting from the excellent gigaOM website.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Streaming films via the PS3

There are a number of different ways you can watch streaming film content using a PS3 in the UK. You can use Sony's official video store on the Playstation Network, which has a decent selection of - in the main - new releases from the major Hollywood studios. You can buy or rent titles and watch titles as they are downloaded - effectively streaming them from Sony's servers. I can't tell you how well this system works as the prices - for me at least - are prohibitive. Rental titles are around £3.50 on standard definition and £1 more for high definition. Given that the file sizes for HD movies appear to be around the 1-2Gb mark, you're obviously not getting blu-ray quality. These prices are roughly comparable with what I can get from Virgin Media cable, where I believe the bitrates will be a tad higher. So, no deal. [NB: to be fair, I think there are also some budgets titles, but I have enough junk on DVD on my shelves - see later post!]

If, like me, you would prefer the option of a subscription service, there are two official apps on the PS3's Xross Media Bar under Videos - MUBI and Lovefilm - which provide this option. MUBI is a kind of online art house cinema, sponsored by the European Union's Media programme, concentrating on 'serious' cinema from around the world. There are a number of films from directors such as Lars von Trier, Jean-Luc Goddard and Hirokazu Kore-eda, as well as classic films from Charlie Chaplin, Carl Theodor Dreyer and F. W. Murnau. MUBI's titles can be rented a la carte at £2.99 each, or you can pay £9.99 for a monthly subscription. Titles can be watched on a PC or through the app on the PS3 and the quality is very good, with a decent bit rate and no stuttering (NB: I have a 50Mb broadband connection). Somewhat confusingly, Mubi list films which are not available to stream (for example, The Godfather) - the reason they do this is that they are not just a movie-watching site, but a movie community - with a number of tools for rating, commenting-on and recommending films to friends and other users. You will need to browse under "Watch Now" to get the list of titles available; also, be sure to select "entitlements", as this gives you the list of titles for which MUBI have secured streaming site for your country. Doing this in the UK gives you 530+ titles, of which some are short features - a reasonable selection. With MUBI it's more about quality than quantity as the range of films are drawn from the cream of current film festival and international art cinema favourites.

Lovefilm, at least on the face of it, gives you greater choice - with 2700+ feature films and 1700+ television programmes available to watch as part of the subscription service. A £9.99 monthly subscription gives you unlimited access and an unlimited number of disc rentals (at a one-at-a-time basis). I'm not personally that interested in the TV offering - especially as a number of the titles are available from other online sources - so let's focus on the films. Nearly three thousand films sounds like an overwhelming amount but most people will be able to cut that number down radically given some time browsing the selection (which I recommend you do on the website). For a start, a number of TV titles have erroneously found themselves in the feature section. Secondly, there is a large amount of what studio execs would refer to as "library content" - old, obscure and decidedly non-mainstream titles. Now, as someone who loves the more bizarre side of cinema, this need not be a bad thing, but even I struggled to build up a queue of greater than 100 titles I truly wanted to see. Still, one man's Norbert is another's Citizen Kane, so perhaps the sheer variety on offer should be applauded. As I mentioned, the PS3 interface is a little bit restricted (although this is a good thing if you're using a remote), so browsing this large number of titles is best done on the PC. One thing that is missing a Netflix-style instant queue, forcing you to note down titles to search for later on your PS3 (you can add titles to your rental queue - but that's just for the postal service). Quality is as good as MUBI and works seamlessly.

As a quick aside, can I just mention the social integration of these apps. Both MUBI and Lovefilm feature facebook integration (Lovefilm has twitter too) but neither service appears to work at present. In theory, watching films via MUBI and Lovefilm should automatically update FB and Twitter, alerting your friends to what you're watching (this is optional, for obvious reasons!).

Your final avenue to movies on the PS3, is through the web browser. This has been causing some problems, however, as the machine's slightly basic browser seems to run an implementation of flash which is either non-standard or is a few steps back from that used in most on-line video sites. Online forums are full of complaints of sites either not working at all or working intermittently as and when Sony release firmware updates. Several sites have made the effort to optimise for PS3 and ensure that the cranky browser works, chief amongst them - from a UK perspective - is Blinkbox. The site runs on a mixed premium a la carte (£2.99 per title) and free ad-supported basis, with 1200+ premium titles and a whopping 600+ free-to-view titles. The selection is very good, with good support from most of the major studios and a number of indies. Ads aren't too instrusive - you generally get 4 ad breaks throughout a feature and each break usually has two 30-second spots - less than you would get from a terrestrial commercial channel such as Film4. Quality is pretty good, perhaps not as good as MUBI and Lovefilm (at least on the PS3), which may be down to running through the hobbled browser. I've found over the last week or so that feeds occasionally encounter slight video stuttering, but it's not too intrusive and the PS3-optimised site is still in Beta.

One point worth mentioning regarding streaming to the PS3 is that each of the services I've mentioned do not stream all titles via both their websites and the PS3, as titles need to be licensed specifically for the latter. For example, titles on Blinkbox from Sony Pictures are not available for streaming on the Playstation. I have to wonder if this is a legacy of the relative newness of consoles, STBs and connected TVs and that future licensing deals for online streaming will incorporate all potential targets.

So, a decent range of titles - made available in a number of different ways and all legal and largely affordable. And a reason for film lovers to perhaps get rid of, or cut down, on expensive cable and satellite TV packages? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Music streaming to the lounge - Qriocity on PS3

Having had a play around with Spotify last year and been impressed, I was keen to try Sony's Qriocity Music Unlimited music streaming service which was added to the Playstation 3 at the turn of the year. While the service may seem steep at £9.99 per month, it's ad-free, allows you to sync your existing music library and play it back on a number of different devices. Most importantly for me, it allows me to music streaming service in the lounge, playing through the home cinema system and with a gorgeous HD GUI which can be easily controlled with the PS3 bluray remote.

Having spent an initial evening playing with the service and deciding that the range of music, interface, sound quality and ease-of-use may justify forking out for it (we're on a 30-day trial at the moment), I then popped upstairs and installed the Music Sync app on my desktop. This is where things started to go wrong. On install you're prompted to specify folders containing you music and the app minimises to the systray and starts to churn away. After a few minutes I decided to check the progress and was met with the message "Adding - Added 2 of 9014 songs". Okay, I thought, time to go make some coffee.

Coming back a few hours later the Music Sync app had progressed to 7 out of 9014 songs. Given that Spotify synced my entire library in under 10 minutes, this could be considered a little tardy, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and sleep on it.....

Next day, however, it was still stuck on 7 songs. Worse than that, you can't even shut the thing down with actually killing the process in Task Manager. Doing this causes it to scan the folders again and start re-adding files, which it'll gamely do until - oh, about a dozen or so, tops.

Getting in touch with Sony's support proved frustrating as they seem to be only barely acquainted with the application. Initially the asked me to try adding just a few tracks. After a few hours of this, this was the state of play:

Yep, 0 out 6 songs added. Subsequent exchanges with support have included them asking me to mail them a non-existent file from a non-existent directory and suggesting that the reason that 8900+ of my 9000+ tracks were not being added due to DRM and/or codec issues.

So, while I wait for them to sort it out I installed Songler on the netbook which is currently connected to out TV in the lounge. This handy little extension to Windows Media Centre works with Spotify, and Youtube to give you a nice GUI front end, which allows you to use a remote to search for and browse streaming music content from the comfort of the sofa. Kind of what Qriocity does, except for free. Oh, and apart from a couple of niggles, it works.