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BBC mobile TV: Real-world test

We've been testing the BBC's new live TV service for mobile phones, using a Nokia N96. Is it worth bothering with?

Last week we reported that the BBC began streaming live TV to mobile phones in the UK. BBCs One, Two, Three and Four, and BBC Radios One to Seven, plus others, are now available for over-Wi-Fi streaming to various handsets, including the Nokia N96, and we've been trying it out over the weekend.

The short version

It's alright.

The long version

Let's talk plus points first. Playback was a one-click operation from the BBC Mobile Live page, and TV was just 14 seconds behind what was being shown via terrestrial broadcast. BBC Three and Four seemed to regularly have programmes unavailable for live viewing (probably due to licensing constraints), but with the exception of BBC News bulletins (you'll want the BBC News channel for that), most shows seemed available on BBC One and Two.

The video streams themselves were encoded at a resolution of 176x144-pixels -- that's very roughly half the resolution of a typical YouTube clip. Visual quality was low, but watchable as long as on-screen motion was kept to a minimum (watching the football was about as enjoyable as being on the business end of a Wayne Rooney shin-breaker). And while voices were clear enough, anything with music or heavy sound effects was almost comical, thanks to narrow audio bandwidth.

Video was encoded in the H.264 format, played back within the N96's RealPlayer, and used about 50MB of data for every hour of streaming.

On a technical level this is actually all fairly impressive, as streaming live video is more complicated than streaming a static video file, a la YouTube, particularly to mobiles with limited processing ponypower. But the general consensus at Crave was along the lines of, "Hey that's cool, but I can't see when I'd want to use it. So what's the point?"

The point

It's almost obvious, at least at the moment: BBC News. Very little on-screen motion, no sound effects, audio almost exclusively comprising voices. And news is the one thing most appropriate to be watched live.

The next steps would be availability over 3G, improved sound quality and streams of varying quality: high bit rate for Wi-Fi streaming, the current low bit rate for 3G streaming. Oh, and support for more devices would be smashing.

To get started, point your phone's Web browser towards bbc.co.uk/mobile/live, or if you're just interested in radio, hit up bbc.co.uk/mobile/live/radio.

Update: The BBC has contacted us with the following extra information. "The BBC iPlayer, including live TV and radio, is now available on some mobile handsets and has been for some time. The BBC has been running a public beta to test live TV/radio, on a limited number of Wi-Fi-enabled handsets, via the mobile homepage since last September.

"The purpose is to test uptake and quality and assess how we might be able to stream live services to an increasing number of mobile devices in the future, but we are some way off this becoming a full BBC service.

"We are looking at a selection of Wi-Fi-enabled handsets from HTC, Motorola, Palm, Samsung and Sony Ericsson. The iPhone doesn't support streaming and the G1 doesn't have a media player, which is why these are not featured devices."