IPTV. What's all that about then? Well, it's only the next big thing coming to your desktop. The revolution won't be televised - it'll be streamed over the net.
Simply put, IPTV is television over the internet (hence the name - Internet Protocol TeleVision). Just think about your TV today. For the most part, it's standard definition, it comes over the air or through a cable. If you have digital TV - and many homes in the UK do now - it's coming through as ones and zeros. Why not have it come through as ones and zeros over your broadband line instead?
The idea of a unified delivery system for content to the home is not exactly radical. Many cable customers already receive internet, television and phone all through the same piece of cable into their house. The cable is divided into digital IP for internet service, analogue for phone and possibly either for the TV. Anything can be transmitted digitally with the right equipment - telephone goes over the net with Voice over IP, and TV can be digital. So why not just make the whole pipe into your house internet and then deliver everything over that?
This is the wider concept of IPTV - the long-term plan, if you like. The narrower concept of the phrase is that right now, there is an awful lot of TV-like programming available on the net for you to download to your PC and watch. Usually, the content is encoded either in hi-res for viewing on your PC screen, or at lower resolutions for transferring to portable devices like iPods or PSPs. Many people are suggesting that what has happened to music over the last few years, through the surge of digital content, is going to happen to video too. Now, it's easier and more convenient than ever to know what your friends are listening to, share tunes, discover new bands and buy into the non-mainstream. In a couple of years, that same model will certainly apply to video.
The basic point of this feature is to explain what IPTV is, how it works, and to give you the heads up on some cool programming you should probably be watching. But why?
Well, we all know that traditional TV can be a real pain. Subscribing to cable or satellite can be expensive, and the amount of decent TV shows on the box can be counted on one hand, despite the hundreds of channels. The fast drop in the price of production equipment like cameras and high-end computers, combined with an increasingly sophisticated geek community, means that there are a hell of a lot more interesting things for people like us to watch in the IPTV sphere than there are on TV. Not only is this stuff more authentic and interesting, it's also free, meaning that you can just grab lots of content and figure out what you like, rather than having to pay for a channel or rent a DVD. Maximum entertainment, minimum cost.
Everybody Loves RSS
The RSS protocol, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, has been a massive enabling technology for people who provide content. First of all, it pushes new updates from websites straight to your desktop, allowing you to know, for instance, the second bit-tech is updated.
The RSS model has been applied to audio in the form of podcasts. Podcasts are a form of internet radio, but are far more flexible than radio in that the content can be timeshifted to whenever you want to listen to it, since the 'radio' broadcast is just an MP3 file. Podcasts have taken off thanks to the introduction of iTunes, which integrates RSS with audio.
RSS is a crucial enabler for IPTV. Take the TV show model - new episodes of a show generally go out once or twice a week. Using RSS, rather than remembering to tune in at the same time every week and drop what you're doing, the latest episode of the show is pushed to you in MPEG format for you to watch wherever and whenever you want. Isn't that far more convenient?
So far, there is a limited market for commercial content producers that are doing this. However, as we mentioned, one day - all TV will be like this.
So what kind of software do you need to get up and running? Well, you have a couple of options. One is to manually subscribe to all the IPTV feeds you're interested in using a standard RSS reader. However, the best IPTV programmes make light work of allowing you to explore the world of programming and move it around between devices easily.
You can get IPTV feeds in a number of different formats. Most shows will have a number of different versions available, depending on your intended use.
XviD is commonly used for high-resolution versions of shows. The codec gives good compression and filesize for the quality, whilst not being so CPU intensive. Commercial TV shows like The Sopranos, Lost and 24 are often torrented by fans in XviD for the same reason. To play XviD IPTV shows, all you'll need is the XviD codec and Windows Media Player.
Using XviD video compression, 42 minute US TV shows like Lost and 24 can be compressed to under 350MB each.
The legality is interesting.
The other common formats are variations on H.264. This codec provides massive compression at the expense of processing power required to decode. Consequently, this tends to be used for smaller-sized content. It is the required codec for the iPod video, and is commonly used on the PSP too. H.264 content is generally smaller to download and, being comes in 320x240 resolution, quarter-VGA. To play it, you can use QuickTime or, if you hate that, BSPlayer.