Free TV on Your PC

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This week you're going to learn about Internet TV--and waste lots of time trying to use your PC to watch programming that's already on the television in your living room.

Next week, I'll turn you on to even more time-wasting possibilities.

Hey Honey, What's on the PC?

Late-night comedian Conan O'Brien was right on target when he put our social video and IPTV craze into perspective by saying...well, watch his video and hear it from him.

Seriously, are you watching TV on your PC? Wait a minute--you're saying you don't know about the dozens of IPTV and Internet sites that let you watch I Love Lucy reruns online?

Better than that, viewing TV online gives you the perfect excuse to buy a big monitor. No, I'm serious. Our Test Center just looked at 30-inch monitors; read the results in "Top 30-Inch LCD Monitors" (click on Full Review by each listing for more details).

With my dual-monitor setup, a 30-incher would be too much, so I'm sticking with my 23-inch ViewSonic vp2330wb. It's a heck of a lot cheaper than any of the mine-is-bigger-than-yours monitors, and movies and Internet TV look terrific on it.

Dig This: Check out "High Power Job," a video about an occupation that makes me grateful I'm a writer.

IPTV or Internet TV?

In the simplest terms, IPTV (Internet Protocol-based TV) is a collection of proprietary TV systems delivered to you by way of IP-based channels on the Internet and supported by industry heavies like Microsoft. It may be free or you may have to pay for it; you watch it using a viewer supplied by the IPTV company, such as Joost or Zattoo.

PC World Contributing Editor Dan Tynan gives you a more in-depth explanation of the advantages of IPTV in "TV Your Way." If you want your eyes to glaze over, try reading Robin Good's treatise on the differences.

The opposite of IPTV's closed-network approach is Internet TV because the content you view is over the public Internet. One problem is that it's slower than IPTV and relies on the technology of viewers such as Microsoft's Windows Media Player and RealNetworks' RealPlayer.

Who's Who in Internet TV

I've started compiling a laundry list of Internet TV sites to try out. I had the list when I started this newsletter, but I ended up trying just two mainstream sites: Joost and MyTVPal. I thought I'd whiz through the other sites over the weekend.

Wrong. If I'd known what I was getting into when I promised you a list, I'd have run like hell. So consider yourself lucky that I tried at least some of these sites for you.

Watching TV on these sites was a painful, arduous task. To begin with, I needed a viewer for most of them. Some viewers were stand-alone applications; others ran within a browser, but needed an ActiveX applet. This required a time-consuming process of downloading and installing programs, or worse, pesky ActiveX applets--and ActiveX often takes more clicks to download and install than a regular program.

I think I spent another hour clicking on Zone Alarm Security Alerts to let the programs install, load, and do God-know-what to my system.

Once I installed the viewers they required, some sites let me watch a few minutes of TV (those Chinese language sitcoms looked as dumb as ours) before crashing my browser.

I promise you'll have an opportunity to kill half a day either watching TV or trying to figure out how to work some of those absurdly complicated TV viewers--and just so you can watch shows that for the most part are available on ordinary TV.

Dig This: The Human Slinky held my attention for the full five minutes. (But what in the world the act is doing at a Sea World Amusement Park is beyond me.) BTW, it appears they've taken a cue, so to speak, from Mummenschanz.

MyTVPal

If you're interested in watching TV on your PC right away, I recommend you stick with MyTVPal. That's because Joost and Zattoo are both still in beta and you need to know someone to get an invitation.

MyTVPal has a wide selection of shows, some of which might even be worth watching. Categories include Animated Shorts, the ever-fascinating Archeological Channel, Music Videos, Internet radio, and a long list of stations from Argentina, Aruba, Australia, and, well, I got tired of scrolling. From the pull-down menu, I switched to a list of 80 channels in the United States, which gave me plenty of opportunity to see ads because there are just ten stations per screen. Many were local channels, like community-based city council meetings; there were also plenty of shopping stations, just like those you probably ignore on cable. One possible bright note was a Webcast from an NBC affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska--until I discovered it was from December 3, 2006.

I thought movies would be fun, but they weren't. Choosing a movie is a guessing game, because the description is valueless: "Ch. 14008 Feature Film Channel 8." I had no luck searching for Spiderman 3 (ha!), but among the titles I did find on the movie channels were a 1955 drama called The Big Bluff, a Mack Sennett short, and Beyond Bengal--a 1934 jungle exploitation flick that the IMDB database calls "The record of an expedition deep into the Malayan jungle." Whoa.

MyTVPal's viewer is mercifully easy to install and use, though its menu isn't transparent, so I can't watch anything while strolling through the listings.

Dig This: You know how I like magic, right? Well here's a brilliant bit with just the correct amount of misdirection.

Tune in again next week when I take Joost for a test-watch.

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

This story, "Free TV on Your PC" was originally published by PCWorld.

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