Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Channel 4 on Demand - first impressions

Tomorrow sees the official launch of Channel 4's UK on demand broadband TV offering, 4oD, which they've been previewing to newsletter subscribers over the past week or so. I received my preview invite last Friday. Four days on and I've finally got around to installing the client following a couple of abortive attempts, first on my Mac (4oD is PC only), then using Firefox (4oD requires Internet Explorer 5.5 or above).

The download and installation of the 4oD programme itself (basically a shell for Flash-heavy IE pages) didn't take long, although the compulsory installation of .NET framework 2.0 did. It then refused to recognise my up-to-date copy of Windows Media Player 10 and I had to download WMP 11 in order to get it working (followed by a mandatory DRM update, natch).

Once up and running, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a relatively clean and simple interface, running in a full-screen (but re-sizable) window. The 'homepage' offers five primary navigation options (TV, Film, Schedule, Recommendations and A to Z) plus one giant wallpaper promo (currently Mr Gordon Ramsey) and four smaller promos which expand and start playing video on rollover in a rather attractive fashion. The schedule strip along the bottom of the homepage, offering a view of last night's prime time, is less successful, falling below the fold at a 1024 x 768 screen res and bumping up against the bottom of the screen on rollover.

So, what of the content offer? Unsurprisingly, quite a bit of the schedule is labelled as "Not currently available for download" although there are an impressive 128 programmes listed in the A-Z. It's perhaps indicative of the on-demand world that the schedule proves to be one of the weaker element of the 4oD proposition. Whilst it's helpful that the schedule is colour coded to let you know at a glance which programmes are and aren't available, it's still feels frustrating to be reminded that you can't watch The Simpsons, The Channel 4 News or Without a Trace, but you can watch Hollyoaks and 8 Out of 10 Cats...

A more fruitful way of browsing for content is via the genres and recommendations. There are currently seven TV genres (Comedy, Docs, Drama, Entertainment, Food & Health, Homes, Music) and three film genres (Comedy, Crime & Thriller, Drama), augmented with a 'Popular' list. The 4oD Recommends section currently includes a selection of Merchant Ivory films and U2 to you - the palindromatically titled U2 season.

In terms of pricing, there appears to be two main prices points: 99p to 'rent' a TV programme and £1.99 to 'rent' a film or 'own' a TV programme (although this isn't an option for many programmes). There's also a smattering of free content, grouped under the heading 'Free for All', which is mostly teaser episodes for longer series.

Once downloaded, you have 1 month to watch a programme and 48 hours to finish it once you've started watching. It is also possible to pre-book content up to 2 weeks in advance. Download times aren't too bad, especially if you're used to BitTorrent. A 24 minute episode of Trigger Happy TV (166.52MB) took 45 mins to download on my 8MB connection. The playback window offers three choices of image size (Regular, Large and Fullscreen). The image quality is pretty good when viewed as Regular or Large but inevitably starts to pixelate in Fullscreen mode (the clips are encoded at 576 x 432 pixels, 1Mbps).

Unsurprisingly for a still wet-behind-the-ears beta there are one or two rough edges which will hopefully be ironed out over the coming weeks. The search engine doesn't seem to be indexing films at the moment and the text sometimes spills out of the playback frame to name two minor quibbles.

Infinitely more frustrating are the things which are a great deal harder to change, such as the across the board Microsoft dependency, determined by the use of the Kontiki P2P client and the Microsoft Plays For Sure DRM package (both also employed by the recently rebranded Sky Anytime). The inability to transfer content to portable devices is also likely to prove annoying for seasoned BitTorrenters.

Not that these issues are unique to Channel 4. The challenge of how to assuage the anxieties of nervous rights holders whilst simultaneously meeting the growing expectations of digital consumers is going to continue to exercise the whole spectrum of digital media providers for some time to come.


Anonymous said...

I have to say I am not to sure this pay per rent model will work. For a number of reasons
1. You can't put the rented programme on your video I-Pod and carry it with you
2. Why am I really going to pay for something that I can record on my hard disk freeview recorder
3. I can't currently plug my PC into my TV
4. The BBC are hopefully going to provide their content free.
This is an interesting experiment but it comes down to whether they are able to sort out the rights to get the TV programmes onto I-Pod. Only then will subscription model work. Otherwise it's a poor version of bit torrent and doomed to make little money.

Dan said...

Very useful, Dan, ta.

Anonymous said...

You had an out of date .NET? I could have pwned you. Now stop winging: at least its better than the BBC's limpid offering.

Graham said...

Nice review Dan. Not sure this proposition will have mass appeal when most techies already use to PVRs or bittorrent. That said, its an encouraging glimpse into the future until they figure out how to get advertising revenue with this service. Lets see how ITV approach it.

Anonymous said...

The BBC doesnlt have an offering - limpid or otherwise - yet.

Anonymous said...

A fair assessment of the service. But my opinion of the picture quality is that it is rubbish.
I can't see where this fits? Do people really want to watch TV on their PCs?

I thought it would have been something that would have linked in with a Media Centre PC linked to a TV/Large Flat Panel etc. When viewed like the resolution is just not good enough.