First Look: Orb Offers Easy Media Streaming

If you've got a big collection of digital music and video, you know that bringing it with you when you roam can be a hassle. Large media files can quickly overload a notebook's hard drive and they certainly won't fit on most cell phones or PDAs.

That's where Orb Networks comes in. The Web-based service streams music, video, and photos from your Windows XP PC to other Web-connected devices, including any notebook, many PDAs (generally including PocketPCs, but not Palms), and Microsoft Smartphone cell phones. If your home PC has a TV tuner, you can even watch live television on your portable device.

I tested the service--which recently changed from charging a $10 monthly fee to offering free accounts--using both a notebook and a Nokia 6620 cell phone. I found that it worked remarkably well for such a new technology.

Orbing Your Content

To access your content, you first download and install the Orb application on the PC that will be hosting your files. From your mobile device, you can then sign into your account on the Orb Web site and access your files through a Spartan, but clear folder system. In addition to showing the media files on your own PC, Orb shows you content (some free, some paid) from providers such as Audible and Beatport. The company plans to make money by selling customers content.

Orb uses the processing power of your host Windows PC to scale your content so the service can transport it over the network you're using and fits it on your portable device's screen.

The problem that Orb can't solve: Video quality on the service is largely dependent on the bandwidth of the network you're using. However, watching a video on a notebook connected to a Wi-Fi G network was a pretty good experience--the picture might hang or hiccup occasionally, but not enough to ruin the show.

Watching a video on the Nokia cell phone, which used the Cingular network in San Francisco, proved frustrating. The picture would freeze frequently, and when the signal dropped entirely, I would have to reconnect to Orb and start my video again. Of course, those kinds of problems aren't unique to Orb. They're common with many services that stream video to your cell phone over today's inadequate wireless networks.

A Few Glitches

I did find some odd glitches with the Orb service itself: A few audio files refused to play, even though they were in a supported format. And I couldn't watch live TV from one test machine because it had two tuners and Orb couldn't figure out which one to use. A company spokesperson said the latter problem should be solved by an upcoming software update.

I wouldn't bother using Orb over a cell phone network, unless you're fortunate enough to live in an area with a very fast, reliable system. But if you have access to a good Wi-Fi network and some time to kill, it's a great way to turn your notebook into a television, show photos, or listen to your own music.

Orb Networks


Innovative media streaming service is sometimes hamstrung by inadequate networks
List: Free service
www.orb.com

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