TV on WP7 -- A review of SpbTV v2.0
Product Category: WP7 software
Manufacturer: Spb SoftwareHouse
Where to Buy: WP7 Marketplace
Price: Free! (for now...)
System Requirements: Available for Android, Mac, PC, Windows Mobile, Symbian, etc. Version reviewed is V2.0 for Windows Phone 7
Specifications: Requires approx. 0.7mb on the device. Requires access to location information and a data service (either via cell phone or WiFi)
- It's free!;
- Over 150 channels of programming available, from all over the globe.
- Slow and requires constant buffering;
- Sound and action aren't in sync;
- Most of the channels are community access, religious, or news.
Summary: When I first heard about Spb coming out with a TV app for Windows Phone 7, I was intrigued since I have become quite enamored of non-North American news sites where I find provide a much broader perspective on world events. I was looking forward to streaming video material from beyond my backyard, right at my phone. Unfortunately, I don't think Spb has quite got the hang of WP7 just yet. Let me explain.
As mentioned above (and is the case with almost ALL WP7 apps) SpbTV is downloaded and installed on your phone via the WP7 Marketplace. It doesn't take too long to get onto the phone, since it's fairly small (700K), and installation happens fairly quickly. From there, you exit the Marketplace and return to your apps menu and scroll down to find SpbTV.
Starting SpbTV seems to take a while (almost 20 secs or more on my LG Quantum) but I suspect this is due to it needing to make a data connection with the internet video streaming service(s). Just a word of warning -- this is a data intensive application, so I would recommend you use your home wi-fi or have an unlimited data plan (if those things still exist!).
Unfortunately, the first thing you see is a 'logon' screen, which asks for your name, gender, birthday and email address. I suspect this is a way for Spb to collect marketing contacts, but fortunately there is a 'Skip' button at the bottom which will take you directly into the app. I didn't check to see if this went away if I actually filled it in once.
Figure 1: A camera shot of the 'login' screen for SpbTV. I always just hit 'Skip' since I don't really need more marketing material from Spb.
Figure 2: Main screen of SpbTV. When SpbTV starts up, it returns to the last channel you were viewing when you left. The example shown here is for a live-streaming channel much like we're used to on regular TV -- with shows occurring at specific times. The schedule seems to be the current time where the station is located. (Screenshot courtesy of Spb)
Switching between channels is a simple matter of scrolling through the list at the bottom of the screen using left and right swipes. Unfortunately, the movement is not as fluid as with other parts of WP7 (such as the apps listing), since the SpbTV display keeps wanting to update the icons before proceeding, or as new ones are shown. What results is somewhat laggy and jerky motion, and no sense of the 'inertia' (swiping quickly to get it to move on it's own, then slowing down as it loses the initial kick) found in other lists.
As you scroll through the list at the bottom and various channels are highlighted, the video screen shows a capture of what's on at the moment and information about the channel is displayed below. The descriptions change, depending upon the type of video feed.
Figure 3: A shot of a typical News channel. (Screenshot courtesy of Spb).
The screenshot above is what Spb's documentation refers to this as a Pay-per-View chennel, but I prefer to think of it as 'episodic' TV, since you can select which programs or segments you want to watch. As shown here, each segment tends to be fairly small -- typically 3 minutes or less. On the comedy channels, for instance, there was one segment for a particular joke stream from one comic.
There are also channels where it only shows an overall description of the station's coverage. This is mostly in the case of 'community access' type of channels.
Figure 4: It is possible to expand the schedule to fill the entire screen, if you want to get an idea of what's on later in the day, or look for your favorite program! (Screenshot courtesy of Spb).
By tapping the list icon at the top left of the screen, SpbTV takes you to a list of all the available channels and allows you to add or remove them from the list. To remove access to a single channel, just tap the channel entry and the checkmark beside it will toggle on and off. Unfortunately, the + and - icons at the bottom are a bit misleading. All they do is check all or uncheck all of the stations. I couldn't find any way to create a list of 'favorite' channels to shorten having to go through the entire list.
Figure 5: Adding and removing channels from the available list. (Screenshot courtesy of Spb)
As far as the available channels are concerned, for North American viewers, there's not a lot of what I would call 'first tier' stations. You won't be watching the latest segment of 'Big Bang Theory' or 'House'. I can't speak for the European and Asian selections, but the North American channels available are definitely second or third-tier players -- mostly community access channels, 'oldies' rerun channels, and religious. There were a couple of comedy channels which looked a little more modern, but I think they may be straight off the internet.
Once you select a channel to watch, the screen flips into landscape mode automatically. (A little annoying, but I'm getting used to it from the YouTube app). As mentioned above, this, the prime function of SpbTV needs some work. The motion in the picture is jerky, the audio is way out of sync with the video, and every few seconds it has to stop to rebuffer the content. It's pretty much unwatchable, even when running on a home wi-fi network. I cringe to think what would happen on a GPRS connection. During my test of SpbTV over a week, I also had the app completely freeze up a number of times. I was able to get back to the main WP7 screen, but the frequency put me off using SpbTV with any regularity.
Figure 6: During a broadcast, when you tap the screen during the feed, this set of transparent icons is displayed. On the far left is Picture-In-Picture; middle is volume; and on the right is exit back to the Channel selector (main screen). (Screenshot courtesy of Spb)
Figure 7: Here's an example of the Picture in Picture capability, where you can preview/browse what's happening on other channels while watching the main program. (Screenshot courtesy of Spb)
Figure 8: Here's the on-screen volume control from the 'selection' screen shown earlier. While this does adjust the volume of the presentation, it seems to be within the limitation of the maximum volume the hardware buttons are currently set to. I'm pretty sure it doesn't override or extend beyond the volume already set. (Screenshot courtesy of Spb)
I'm very glad to see Spb working on the WP7 platform, but I'm afraid SpbTV just isn't up to the quality we've come to expect from this most venerable of Windows Mobile development houses. They need to look at other WP7 applications, such as the one from the TED foundation, to look at how to manage the video memory to avoid the constant buffering and bring the sound and video into sync. And list management/scrolling should be second nature by now. Even free, I'd give this one a pass for now.
Don Tolson is a Lead Solution Architect with Fujitsu Consulting in Canada, specializing in privacy and security in the mobility space. When not trolling eBay and other sites for the latest and greatest phones to play with, he can be found frequently working with clients to help them define their 'mobility' presence.
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