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Will Matrixstream do for IPTV what Vonage did for VOIP?

Voice over IP is so last year. Now companies are looking at delivering television and movies to your home over the Internet. And MatrixStream has hardware and software they hope will make it happen. This posting isn’t a review, really: I don’t have the hardware product, and the software product is still in beta and is rather lacking in available content. Consider this more of a “preview”…or maybe a “watch this space for future developments” type of posting.

Delivering video over the Internet really isn’t a “new” thing. But trying to deliver subscriber TV (think cable television) over the Internet *is* new. There are a bunch of challenges to making it happen.

Firstly, there is the matter of bandwidth: HDTV requires something on the order of 10 Mbps if you want to watch it in “real time”. You can get around this by downloading the video before you want to watch it, or by using novel forms of compression to try to squeeze a bit more out of your not-so-uber 1.5 Mbps ADSL. MatrixStream claims to provide live TV content over any Internet connection of 1.5 Mbps or better. They are a little less clear in their documentation regarding exactly what quality of TV you’ll get at 1.5 Mbps. Live “plain old TV quality” can stream at that rate, true- I saw this with the MatrixStream IMX player. I’m pretty sure, though, that you won’t get live HDTV over a 1.5 Mbps link and, from the sample streams they had available via Movie99 (you can download and try out the client and current selection of content if you like ), my belief seems to be born out. So…don’t expect live HDTV quality TV over your 1.5 Mbps network connection. I was able to get a couple of the channels at HDTV 720p, but the playback was a bit choppy at times- not really bad, but not as good as my HDTV DVR. And I have 3 Mbps ADSL, a PC with 2 GB of RAM and a 256 MB ATI X800 video card- not exactly a low end config. Netting it out, I’d say MatrixStream’s PC client provides better quality streaming over my available Internet bandwidth than (for example) Windows Media Player, but I’m not sure it is quite as good as my dedicated digital cable set top box.

Secondly, there is the matter of content: television and cable providers are all set up for delivery via traditional satellite and cable…they aren’t really ready yet to deliver their content over the Internet. Movie99 (see link above) is sort of the “sample” provider that MatrixStream points folks to. Their list of available (for free) content is …well, to put it politely, ecclectic. If you want to watch the Japanese version of Iron Chef, or Vatican TV, or a the Australian Christian Channel, you are in business. But don’t expect network TV- this is really a tech demo.

What about the set top box? I don’t have one, so I took a look at their demonstration video. Its a Windows Media video showing a TV screen and the MatrixStream set top box, as someone goes flips through a few programs. If you want to watch it, I suggest you right click the above link and save it to your hard drive, then play it back from there. Calling a look at this video a “review” is sort of like saying watching an Ebert and Roeper review is like actually seeing a movie…but its what I have to work with. Eyeballing the video, the playback quality looks similar to what I saw with their PC client on my home computer. You can see the same occasional bit of “choppyness” with the HD playback of the concert scene (which can be found on Movie99) . One thing I’m not sure about regarding the MatrixStream set to box: it has a hard drive, but is it set up to do timeshifting and series recording like a DVR or Tivo? Or is that hard drive just for stream caching or minimal “pay per view” video on demand recording? I’d think the latter, which is a shame.

Netting it out, it looks like MatrixStream has a good set of technology. They support a broad range of streaming codecs, notably AVC (also known as MPEG4 Part 10, or ITU-T H.264) and Windows Media 9. If they can find content partners comparable to those available through major cable providers, I can see people choosing either the MatrixStream PC or set top client as an alternative to getting an HD DVR like my Motorola DCT6400. My DCT occasionally has some playback artifacting itself: the MatrixStream PC player was a bit worse in this regard when I tried it, but its a beta product- the “hiccupy” playback could be something that will be corrected.

Now that I know about MatrixStream, I’ll be watching them to see how their product progresses. The set top box is supposedly going to be available to consumers during the first half of 2006.

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