Will geo-dodging go mainstream?
By Adam TURNER
How popular will services such as Unblock-Us become for accessing geo-blocked services like Hulu?
Of course there's a difference between popular and mainstream. I'd say geo-dodging has been popular for a few years, via VPNs or new DNS-based services such as Unblock-Us. But when I say "mainstream" I mean your average person on the street. Perhaps someone who has recently embraced the idea of online video and is starting to bump up against those frustrating warnings that content isn't available in their country. As with file-sharing, they're likely to turn to their tech-savvy friends for answers.
Even with a little help from your friends, I couldn't see geo-dodging going mainstream until it became "green button" simple as they say at Xerox (you push the green button and it just works). Until then most people will put it in the too hard basket, which is what content providers are relying on. Bypassing geo-blocking is still far from green button simple for your average person -- particularly as the geo-blocking workarounds keep changing. How simple it is depends on the content you want to enjoy, the gadget you want to enjoy it on and the geo-dodging technique you want to use.
Running a VPN such as WiTopia on a media centre, which can be easily switched on and off from the System Tray, is one of the easiest ways to tap into services like Hulu and Netflix. But your average person doesn't want a computer in their lounge room. The next option is a set-top box which can work with a geo-dodging service. D-Link's Boxee Box is a real winner here because it has a built-in VPN client. Alternatively you might look to a box which lets you change its DNS settings to use with Unblock-Us, maybe an Apple TV or an internet-enabled Blu-ray player. They're cheaper than a Boxee Box, but the trade-off is that you've got access to less content. It's also more difficult to disable geo-blocking on these boxes when you want to access local services. Like I said last week, the results with Netflix can be hit and miss.
It's a handy trick for people prepared to make the effort, but I can't see geo-dodging appealing to the masses for a while. What's your preferred method of bypassing the Great Content Wall of America?
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Netflix in Australia - your mileage may vary
By Adam TURNER
Combining Netflix with Unblock-US is likely to disappoint unless you tweak the video quality.
Accessing Netflix from Australia isn't that hard, although it can be a little fiddly and time-consuming to get it up and running. DNS-based geo-dodging services such as Unblock-US try to make the process as smooth as possible on a range of devices, but it's disappointing to go to all that trouble only to discover the picture quality isn't worth the effort.
Tested in a desktop browser, on the Apple TV and on the PlayStation 3, the combination of Netflix and Unblock-US can be very disappointing at first. It's particularly frustrating when you've seen the picture quality these devices can offer when hooked up to local services. Feedback from other users suggests that the results of combining Netflix and Unblock-US can be hit and miss. Some say the picture is excellent, others say it's temperamental. That's pretty disappointing considering you're actually paying for the privilege and there are free options which would offer better results.
In theory a DNS-based geo-dodging service such as Unblock-US shouldn't be the cause of poor picture quality. Unblock-US shouldn't face the bandwidth restrictions you can encounter with Virtual Private Networks. Switching to a fast and reliable VPN-based service such a WiTopia doesn't see an improvement in the Netflix picture quality.
What does improve the picture quality is dipping into the Netflix video settings, via the website. Netflix introduced the option to "manage video quality" last year, designed to assist users with slow data speeds and low monthly usage limits. Three options are available; Good, Better and Best. Netflix doesn't bring this to your attention, instead it chooses one for you.
When you go to the menu the first time no video quality option seems to be selected, but it's clear that Netflix doesn't automatically default to Best. Even if your download speeds are fast enough to get decent SD or even HD performance via Apple's movie rental service, you might find that Netflix has knobbled your video quality. Dipping into the settings and forcing Netflix to run at Best can dramatically improve the picture quality, although the playback isn't always completely smooth. To be honest, even at Best settings Netflix doesn't look quite as good as what you'll get from Apple.
The combination of Netflix and Unblock-US might be the holy grail of online entertainment for some people but, as with most things on the internet, your mileage may vary.
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WD TV Live early adopters miss out on ABC's iView
By Adam TURNER
The ABC's Catch Up TV service is only coming to current WD TV Live models.
Western Digital's move to add the ABC's iView to the WD TV Live media player was an exciting step for Australian online video fans. This tiny set-top box was already one of Australia's most impressive Swiss Army Knife media players, alongside D-Link's more expensive Boxee Box.
For many WD TV Live owners iView would be the icing on the cake, letting them enjoy the ABC's online catch up service on their TV without the need to shell out for a new television, Blu-ray player or other lounge room gadget. Unfortunately earlier adopters have been left in the lurch.
The original version of the WD TV Live, the one with built-in Ethernet but not built-in wi-fi, won't get a firmware update to add iView. Nor will the old WD TV HD. According to Western Digital's local PR team, only these two current wi-fi-enabled models will get a taste of iView goodness;
WD TV Live (model: WDBGXT0000NBK-AESN)
WD TV Live Hub (model: WDBACA0010BBK-AESN)
In Western Digital's defence, the models which missed out are a few years old. But the company still could have made the situation clearer when announcing that iView was coming. According to reports from readers, some retailers don't realise that the new firmware update offers iView. Even Western Digital's own tech support line is telling some callers that the WD TV Live does not support online video.
There's clearly been a communications breakdown, but the official word from Western Digital's Australian PR team is that iView is available on those two players now if you do a firmware update.
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Is the digital switchover time to switch off?
By Adam TURNER
Is Australia's digital switchover the perfect excuse for us to simply ditch terrestrial TV?
Despite all the talk of a glorious digital future, Australian digital television has turned out to mostly be more of the same. Filling those extra channels has simply meant screening more rubbish. Rubbish which the networks refuse to even start on time and then butcher with intrusive ads and over-the-top promos.
Fans of high-def content have particularly been betrayed by the free-to-air broadcasters who decided that, rather than screening sport in high-def, it makes more sense to run repeats of Gilligan's Island on their HD channels. It's a move that will certainly help Foxtel win over extra subscribers.
I think it's fair to say that many Australians are watching less live television, partly due to the contempt the networks have for viewers and partly because there are so many alternatives at hand. Between optical discs, BitTorrent and the growing range of legit online alternatives, there's very little reason to watch live television these days. A friend of mine bought a new Sony Bravia last year and hasn't even bothered to plug an aerial cable in the back.
I know I'd happily give up live television ahead of any of the other services which are pumped into my home. For now the only thing keeping me with traditional television is the superior picture quality compared to some online services, but that is changing. For starters I'd say the free-to-air digital picture quality has deteriorated in the last few years. Even the Foxtel picture often looks disappointing on some channels, although high-def AFL looks pretty good.
These days a decent BitTorrent or iTunes download often looks better than standard-def digital TV. Movies look far better on DVD/Blu-ray than they do on free-to-air or pay TV. Meanwhile Australia's Catch Up TV services are improving their picture quality. They tend to look better via Smart TV than via a browser and are starting to rival standard-def free-to-air. Unfortunately you get less content via Smart TV than a browser, but that will change with time.
Right now TV broadcasters should be looking to newspapers for a glimpse of the devastation which lies ahead. Viewers will start to switch off if they're not treated with a little respect.
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Oh MOG, you had me at hello
By Adam TURNER
Compatible with Sonos and Airplay, plus unmetered on Telstra's Next G, MOG could be the subscription music service you've been waiting for.
It's been a dramatic 12 months for Australian music lovers and right now we're spoilt for choice when it comes to streaming music services. I've tried a few in recent times including Rdio, Songl and Spotify, but I think MOG might be the one that wins me over.
There's no one perfect streaming music service. It all depends on how you want to listen to your music. Some people care about a desktop app, while others are more interested in browser-based access. Caching music on mobile or desktop devices is critical to some people, but not others. A mobile app is important to some music lovers, perhaps with multi-platform support, while others are more interested in multi-room audio systems such as Sonos. Then there's the whole concept of music discovery, which excites some people more than others.
I've been using Rdio for almost six months, on my iPhone, my MacBook Pro and via a Sonos system. Spotify is slick, but it didn't offer enough to lure me away. The two key features which kept me with Rdio were browser-based access and offline caching on mobile devices. But as a Telstra Next G mobile customer, I think MOG's unmetered streaming could seal the deal.
I don't use Telstra for my home internet access, but having upgraded to a 200GB monthly allowance I'm not too worried about the impact of streaming music. It's when I get away from home that I fret about streaming music over Telstra's Next G mobile broadband network. Unmetered MOG access over Next G seems almost too good to be true. I even checked with Telstra to confirm that unmetered access applies when I tether my MacBook to my iPhone, not just when I use the iPhone app. There's also mobile caching, but it's not really necessary when you've got unmetered Next G access.
The icing on the cake is built-in Airplay access in the iOS app and Mac desktop client, letting me stream music directly to speakers around my home without the need for workarounds such as the impressive AirFoil. Unfortunately the built-in Airplay features only support one speaker at a time, but like most new subscription music services MOG is also compatible with the amazing Sonos system.
For me one of the few shortcomings of MOG is that the desktop client won't let me tap into my local music library, so if I want to listen to something that's not available in MOG I need to switch back to iTunes. The inability to replicate your iTunes library in MOG is also frustrating.
You need to do some research before deciding on the best subscription music service for you, but if you're a Telstra mobile customer then MOG should be at the top of your shortlist.
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