BBC iPlayer To Finally Launch

BBC iPlayer Finally LaunchedThis morning, BBC boss Mark Thompson announced that the corporation’s long-awaited iPlayer on-demand TV service would launch, as an open public beta, on 27 July this year.

Unveiling details of the peer-to-peer download service, Thompson predicted that the iPlayer (nee iMP) would be “at least as big a redefinition of broadcast TV as colour TV was 40 years ago.”
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Sky Anytime on TV Preview: Sky VOD

When is a 300Gb hard disc not a 300Gb hard disc? When it’s in a Sky box. The fruit of Sky’s much discussed drive partitioning was revealed today, with the announcement of a March launch for Sky Anytime on TV.

Sky Anytime on TV is a push video service that will populate users’ Sky HD (and some Sky+) PVRs with shows from the Sky network, plus Artsworld, National Geographic, Disney and the Biography and History channels. In a one-to-one briefing today, we got to sample the Anytime on TV service, not to be confused with Sky Anytime on PC or the yet to surface Sky Anytime on Mobile. For brevity, we’re going to call Sky Anytime on TV, SAoTV.

SAoTV consists of around 20 to 25 programmes, ranging from half-hour comedies to full length movies, chosen to represent the best of the weeks programming. In the wee hours of every night, a number of assets (between 1 to 6 hours of TV) will be pushed to the Sky box. At launch, every subscriber will receive identical content, although personalisation of SAoTV is ‘on the road map’, according to a spokesman.

Where it’s available, HD subscribers will receive their SAoTV content in High Definition and (in the first phase at least) all content is free from adverts, with the exception of an intro promo hat can be fast-forwarded through, like any Sky recording.

The SAoTV service enjoys its own instant access button – the red key – whose previous occupant (HD Channels) now receives its own menu entry. It’s presented in a similar way to the Planner screen, with the addition of a live video preview window showing a trailer of the highlighted show and some promotional text.

As new shows arrive nightly, older programmes are bumped down the SAoTV listings. Each programme has a clear expiration date, doing a Cinderella-style pumpkin vanishing act at midnight, seven days after its first appearance. If you want to keep a show permanently, you simply hit the Record button any time during that week to add it to your Planner.

The SAoTV service will initially be free and contain only programmes that have been previously broadcast, although Sky hasn’t ruled out charging for content or including exclusive previews in the future.

Sky Anytime on TV will be available to all HD subscribers, as well as owners of the most recent Sky+ boxes (those with partitioned hard drives): currently around 1 million households. Anyone who bought a Sky+ box within the last year should be able to use the service, although Sky will be writing to each subscriber to alert them.

Sky is also rolling out the Anytime brand to cover its Sky by broadband and Sky by mobile services.

Our take? The Sky Anytime on TV services is largely a win-win situation. Sky gets to promote high profile, expensive acquisitions like Lost, 24 and blockbuster movies – and we get to watch them free from adverts and without having to remember to set the timer (or rely on the occasionally erratic Series Link). Of course, it would be nice to see a wider range of channels on board (negotiations are on-going, but don’t expect to see the terrestrial broadcasters any time soon).

However, there will always be the argument that grown-up TV viewers should be free to populate their own hard drive as they see fit – which makes the timing of Sky Anytime on TV all the smarter. HD and Sky+ subscribers have had nearly a year to get to accustomed to their truncated storage space, making the Anytime service seem like less of an intrusion and more of a bonus.

Microsoft Vista – Made by Web 2.0?

Vista - Made by Web 2.0?Bill Gates launched Vista this morning by emphasizing the role of the general public in its conception. “We’ve got over 5 million beta testers to thank,” he told a packed audience at the British Library in London. “They’ve helped to make sure that Vista is the highest quality product we’ve ever released. And then we picked 50 families and talked to them about how they used computing in their daily lives, generating over 800 changes in the final version.”

This isn’t the monolithic Microsoft of old, laying down the law and strong-arming others to follow its digital lead. Instead, Gates pointed out that Office 2007 (also launched today) “redefines collaboration in the workplace. It embraces the XML standard and that’s a big deal.” He went on to say that “the strength of Windows has always been the ecosystem around it, consisting of hardware, solutions and software partners. We’ve always had ten times as many applications for Windows as for other operating systems, and that’s allowed us to see software at low prices.”

Vista - Made by Web 2.0?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Vista ecosystem opens up a whole new environmental niche, in the form of miniature applications called Gadgets, a selection of which were unveiled (at great length) by Windows marketeers. Although superficially very similar to Apple’s desktop Widgets, the Gadgets on show were heavily branded by partners ranging from BetFair to Universal Music, and seemed to integrate worryingly easily with Microsoft’s software. If you block out a meeting in Milan, for instance, the EasyJet Gadget could pop up to suggest suitable flights.

It remains to be seen whether Gadget developers have consumer – rather than corporate – interests uppermost in their minds. Bill gushed: “I’m excited to see what people are going to do with Vista”. Any bets that malware Gadgets are just around the corner?

3 X-Series Review (89%)

3 X-Series Review (89%)The first time Nokia told me that they no longer sold mobile phones, but multimedia computers, I scoffed. How can anything that you speak on while moving be anything but a mobile phone? You talk, you walk. Anything else is a handy extra, a camera to snap while you’re at a gig or a site to browse for train times when you’re in a hurry.

But when I picked up the X-Series Nokia N73 phone from 3, everything became clear. Because it’s simply not accurate to call this device a mobile phone any longer. The N73 is, in essence, a powerful 3G handset that uses a variety of technologies to perform a variety of tasks using a variety of services. And if that sounds woolly and imprecise, welcome to the 21st century.

The hardware
Let’s start with the hardware – arguably the least interesting aspect of the package. The N73 is part of Nokia’s multimedia N-series, and so boasts a pin-sharp 2.4-inch screen, 3.2MP camera, media players, stereo Bluetooth, office software and more. It’s simple to use, less bulky than the photo-mad N93 (home to an optical zoom) but more than capable of dealing with everyday photos, files, songs and videos.

It lacks the Wi-Fi aerial of the business-focused N80 – but then it really doesn’t need it, thanks to 3’s innovative X-Series web pricing. This offers all-you-can-surf web access via 3G for a price of £5 a month on top of any 12-month or longer contract. That represents stunning value for money when compared to traditional networks, and is still a few quid less than T-Mobile’s generous £7.50 Web ‘n’ Walk monthly cost.

3 X-Series Review (89%)Using Skype On The X-Series
Above and beyond that, the hot news is the packages that the N73 comes pre-loaded with: Skype, Yahoo Go!, Mobile Mail, MSN Messenger and, for another £5 per month, Sling and Orb. The revolutionary package is, of course, Skype. The world’s most popular VOIP application earns one-touch access from the home screen and has been well optimised for the mobile platform. You can sign in with your normal Skype name to see your usual contact list, or create an account there and then. My phone had to download an update (less than a minute) and then plough through a variety of disclaimers and permissions – basically absolving 3 of any responsibility for you trying to call the emergency services.

Refreshing and adding contacts is all very easy and making a call is utterly intuitive: simply select a contact and hit the dial key. Voice calls sounded compressed but comprehensible. The usual Skype delays on the line are more pronounced than with a PC, but you do feel the benefit of a genuinely well-engineered speaker and microphone instead of the usual cheapo VOIP headsets. The current version works only with other Skype accounts, although 3 promises the ability to Skype Out (calls to any real phone number, globally, charged at pennies a minute) in 2007.

Incoming calls don’t specify which contact is calling, relying instead on a generic ‘Skype Service calling’ message. And Skype chat doesn’t work either, although your contact does receive a message encouraging them to call instead. Running Skype on your computer and phone simultaneously doesn’t cause any problems either – both devices will ring and you can simply answer whichever you choose. If you do want to IM, the pre-loaded MSN and Yahoo Messenger software seem to work fine.

Slingbox – TV on your X-series
So why would you upgrade from the Silver package (£5/month extra) to the Gold (£10/month?). The key offering here is the Slingbox, which you can buy at a discounted price of £99 (it’s usually about £150). This connects to your TV or set-top box and fires video over your domestic broadband service to the X-Series handset (or a laptop) running the SlingPlayer software. Unlike other mobile TV services, this is actually streaming your very own telly signals, so if you’ve got a Sky box, for instance, you’ll be able to watch exactly what’s showing on your TV at home, be it BBC One, Premiership footie or a ‘specialist’ subscription channel.

However, it’s worth noting that the Slingbox can be a real pig to set up. If you have a complex broadband set-up with multiple routers, you’d better be good at port forwarding and hacking your router configuration or you’ll soon be pulling your hair out. If you can get it to work, video quality is pretty good; detailed enough to read the info bar on Sky broadcasts for instance. Sound is below average and can be quite harsh and glitchy. Unfortunately, you’re limited to portrait format display, leaving massive empty bands above and below the images – why no landscape option to make full use of that great screen?

Menus give access to your home device’s basic features (power, channel and volume, menu etc). I was disappointed that I couldn’t access recorded shows on my Sky HD box because the SlingPlayer lacks virtual red/green/yellow/blue buttons. This would be a key selling point, widening the video service from live TV to my entire hard drive. Note that the Slingbox is happy to sling (resized, compressed) HD signals out to your phone.

3 X-Series Review (89%)Accessing your PC using OrbPC
Supposedly, you need to sign up to the Gold service to use PC-away-from-home service Orb, although I’ve been using Orb on a Wi-Fi phone for some time and can’t see why normal web access to Orb wouldn’t work perfectly well. If this is a driver for you, check out the Silver package first. Orb allows you to view (read-only) the contents of various folders on your PC’s hard drive, giving access to your photos, videos and MP3 tunes, for example, and even files in your My Documents folder. It’s great for finding those essential business documents or staging impromptu holiday slideshows, without taking up memory space in the phone itself. The interface is a little flaky but normally gets there in the end.

On top of all this, of course, you’ve got full, free web access. The browser from 3 modifies pages to look ‘better’ on the Nokia’s small screen. This devastates design but (usually) improves legibility. You’ll either love or hate this but it’s well worth trying before you buy given that you’ll be using that interface an awful lot.

Overall, this is a really interesting device. The web access alone represents tremendous value and the pre-loaded, generally hassle-free applications only make it more attractive. However, there’s no denying that as it stands the X-Series is a tremendously geeky offering. Skype sounds better than it sounds, if you get my drift, although it’ll soon pay off if you regularly call abroad. Slingbox is fun but sluggish and over-complicated to set up – and battery life is bound to suffer.

Make no mistake, the X-Series is the future. Whether we’re ready to take the giant leap forward that it represents yet is another question entirely…

Score: 89%

3 X-series

OverBoard Pro-Sports Waterproof MP3 Case Review (65%)

OverBoard Pro-Sports Waterproof MP3 Case Review (65%)Waterproof gadgets aren’t just for the lounging by the pool in the summer. Despite its rather alarming name (“Stop the ferry! iPod overboard!”), this case promises to protect your tunes from the worst the winter weather can throw at you, as well as providing full waterproofing to a depth of six metres for summertime use.

The £15 case is made from padded vinyl, with a clear window to let you see what your player is up to. It’s been designed for market-leading Apples, and an 8th-gen 80Gb iPod does indeed slide in extremely snugly. A close fit is important to avoid excessive motion, which can damage miniature hard drives. However, if you’re planning to use the OverBoard for vigorous jogging or skiing, a totally solid state player such as a Nano will always be more resilient than a hard drive unit.

Despite being designed for full-size iPods, which have the headphone socket on the top right corner, the internal headphone jack is centrally mounted, so there’s a degree of awkwardness in marrying the plugs. Once it’s in, though, it feels quite secure and shows no sign of working itself loose.

The most important part of any waterproof case is the seal and this has a familiar self-tightening sliding design. You need to pull both switches outwards to open the seal. Unfortunately, the seal lacks a safety interlock of any kind and the pressure needed to release it is worryingly light. I would definitely be concerned about accidentally opening the unit while mucking about in a swimming pool or snorkelling in the surf. The seal proved effective in basic waterproofing, although a very small amount of water did find it way into the seal. This could leak into the case when you subsequently open the seal.

OverBoard Pro-Sports Waterproof MP3 Case Review (65%)The case comes with a small eyelet for a lanyard (supplied) and a large Velcro armband. This is tougher and more comfortable than the standard Apple armband, for example, and closes very firmly – a quality piece of kit. Assuming you want to read your iPod’s display and have the headphone jack upward, that means the seal faces downward – another potential concern if the seal were to accidentally open while you’re running.

The good news is that the Apple clickwheel works perfectly well through the plastic window, and the screen is clearly visible – you could easily watch downloaded video clips while bobbing on a lilo. Sound quality is not noticeably affected by the intervening jacks. Even with an 80Gb iPod (the heaviest Apple currently available) inside, the case floats in fresh water.


The OverBoard has clearly had some thought go into it. It’s well padded, easy to use the player inside and has an excellent armband. But the seal system is neither secure enough nor convincingly impenetrable for the most active users. The warning on the package that ‘contents should be insured separately’ seems like very sensible advice.

A good solution for casual use near snow, rain, water and dust, then, but athletes and divers should definitely spend a little more on protection.

Score: 65%

Casio Z1000 Review: First 10MP Consumer Compact (88%)

Casio Z1000 Review: First 10MP Consumer Compact (88%)Just how much resolution do you need? Ten million pixels is a lot of information by any conventional measure, especially since most consumers rarely print out images larger than traditional 10x15cm enprints. That requires no more than the three megapixel sensors found on today’s very cheapest cameras, and now even high-end cameraphones.

Ten megapixels lets you produce sharp prints at up to A2 poster in size or, more likely, crop in to tiny details and still end up with a printable image. But with great power often come great problems: huge file sizes, noisy images and irritating processing delays. Impressively, the Z1000 suffers from only the first of these (if you don’t think 4Mb per shot is huge, wait until you run out of memory cards halfway through a holiday).

It’s a looker, too, housed in a smooth all-metal case that hardly hints at the power inside. In front is a 3x lens that is its weakest point: there’s some distortion and softness at wideangle. Focusing is also haphazard, although the Exilim has a fine range of features to make up for it, from a decent manual focus mode to a 6cm macro for close-ups.

Casio Z1000 Review: First 10MP Consumer Compact (88%)Around the back, a bright 2.8-inch widescreen LCD monopolises the available space. Only 2.5-inches is available for framing – the remainder is taken up by a fantastic vertical menu strip for instantly tweaking image size, quality, metering and more. Creative features are eclectic rather than comprehensive: a continuous flash mode shoots three flash shots in a second, and there are more pre-programmed scene modes than even the most bored teenager could wade through.

Notable among these is a High Sensitivity mode for shooting at up to ISO 3200 (but beware of dreadful noise here) and a brace of digital effects, Illustration and Pastel, that apply fun Photoshop-style art filters in camera.

The Z1000 handles very well, with virtually no shutter lag or processing delays. Images don’t appear to have been rushed, though, demonstrating a confident control over colour and exposure, and plenty of fine detail. As long as you don’t expect the three-dimensional clarity of a 10MP SLR like the Nikon D200, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Casio Z1000 Review: First 10MP Consumer Compact (88%)Verdict
In digital photography, it’s rarely a case of how much resolution you need, but how much resolution you want. The Z1000 will fulfil your desire to extract the maximum detail from your subjects, without penalising you with a slow, ugly or stupid camera. Casio has taken a double digital lead in the compact market – but don’t expect it to last too long.

Rating: 88%

Spec sheet
Sensor 10.1 megapixels, 1/1.8-inch
Focal length (35mm equivalent) 38-114mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8-5.4
Shutter speed 4s – 1/2000 sec
Memory SD, 8Mb internal
ISO range 50, 100, 200, 400, (800, 1600, 3200)
Exposure modes Auto, 31 Best Shot
Metering modes Multi-zone, centre-weighted, spot
Focusing modes Auto (multi-zone, spot, free), manual, presets, Auto Macro, 6cm macro
Flash modes Auto, on, off, red-eye, slow synch (Night Portrait), flash power, Soft Flash
Drive modes Single, continuous (1.2 to 3fps), continuous flash (3fps), continuous zoom, self-timer
LCD monitor 2.8-inch colour LCD, 230,400 pixels
Weight 160g with battery and card
Power supply Lithium ion rechargeable, NP-40
Battery life 360 shots, CIPA standard
Transfer USB 2.0 Full Speed, video, PictBridge


Sony HDR-HC3: Hands On With HC1 Successor

Sony HDR-HC3 Hands On With Their First HDD CamcorderThe HC3 has a tough act to follow – its own big brother, the HC1. Last year’s HC1 brought High Definition recording within the budget of almost any home movie-maker for the first time, and did it with assurance and style. Luckily, Sony hasn’t rested on its laurels, and the HC3 feels very much like a replacement for the HC1 rather than a mere upgrade.

For a start, the HC3 is 30% smaller and lighter than its predecessor, giving it the size and heft of a traditional MiniDV palmcorder. It shares the 2.7-inch touchscreen of the SR90, as well as a generous 123,000-pixel wide viewfinder if you need to save power. Like the HC1, it records 1080i High Def footage onto MiniDV tapes in the HDV format, although the HC3 has a brand new 1/3-inch 2MP CMOS sensor that Sony suggests will match the 3MP chip in the HC1. We didn’t have the opportunity to see full quality footage from the HC3 on a HD display.

Sony HDR-HC3 Hands On With Their First HDD CamcorderChanges to the imaging pipeline have enabled Sony to offer a couple of new features in the HC3. The first is the ability to capture up to three 2MP still photos while filming (the images buffer until you stop recording). The second is Smooth Slow capture, where the capture rate increases from 50 to 200 fields per second for three seconds. Audio recording and the Super SteadyShot audio are disabled while you shoot. You can then play back this footage at a normal frame rate, giving 12 seconds of smooth slow motion footage.

The HC3 has an HDMI output (no cable supplied) and should manage around 105 minutes of recording using the supplied battery. Like the SR90, the HC3 has a flash unit rather than a video light, but a hot-shoe for accessories. But some of the HC1’s more advanced features are missing: manual shutter speeds, zoom ring and external microphone input among them.

The HC3 seems to be a worthy successor to the HC1: smaller, lighter and cheaper (£1,000). Our only concerns would be that the reduction in size of the CMOS sensor has affected image quality and that Sony is dumbing down its High Def offering for a mass audience. Despite these worries, the HC3 will almost certainly spearhead the assault of HD into the mainstream and that can be no bad thing.

Sony DCR-SR90: Hands On With Their First HDD Camcorder

Sony DCR-SR90: Hands On With Their First HDD CamcorderJust when you thought Sony couldn’t add any more formats to its camcorder range (the electronics giant already carries MiniDV, MicroMV, Hi8, Digital 8 and DVD models), along comes a new hard disc camcorder (the DCR-SR90) and a re-vamped Hi Def pro-sumer shooter (HDR-HC3). We caught up with both at an exclusive hands- on presentation in London. Details of the Sony HDR-HC3 will follow tomorrow.

Sony DCR-SR90
The SR90 is going head-to-head with JVC’s well-established Everio range of hard disc camcorders, with which it shares many things in common. A 30Gb disc can store around seven hours of top quality MPEG-2 footage, although not, as yet, in High Defintion. The Sony’s 9Mbps maximum bit-rate just pips JVC’s 8.5Mbps, although we wouldn’t expect that to affect video quality noticeably. Both have hard drive drop protection and traditional palmcorder designs, although the SR90 is heavier and chunkier than JVC’s Everios – and even many of Sony’s MiniDV models.

Build quality is good, and is reflected in a specification that includes a Carl Zeiss T* 10x zoom, which zips between extremes silently and quickly, and a 3.3 megapixel CCD sensor (against the Everio’s 2MP chip). Although it’s a pity Sony opted for a photo flash rather than a video LED, there is at least a hot-shoe for adding a decent external light.

Sony DCR-SR90: Hands On With Their First HDD CamcorderThe interface is generally very good, with a 2.7-inch folding touchscreen ported straight from Sony’s MiniDV range, giving access to a good range of creative features, including true 16:9 recording.

Sony has also borrowed from its DVD camcorders, nicking a built-in microphone that encodes audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (although we didn’t get a chance to test this properly). Super SteadyShot is one of the industry’s better digital image stabilisers, and there are some digital effects on offer, too.

Sony DCR-SR90: Hands On With Their First HDD CamcorderPlayback features include basic editing tools that let you move scenes around but not cut or join them. Ease of use is emphasized with a One Touch DVD burn button for Windows computers with a DVD writer – just plug in via USB, slip in a disc and away you go.

Utilising the strengths of its traditional camcorders has helped Sony avoid the SR90 feeling like a ‘me too’ product. It might be priced a little higher (£850) than similar Everios but it offers a little more, too – if not yet the High Def recording that would have made it a must-have. A solid hard drive debut then, and it’s great to finally have some competition for JVC.