Video Out: The Low-down on Download-and-play

Streaming media may seem like the end-all be-all of Internet media since it catches so much press coverage, but the "old way" of distributing media on the Net, downloading files and then playing them, is still alive and kicking. While it may not be the fastest option, download-and-play still has many features that make it entirely suitable for many purposes, and in some cases, a better solution that streaming.


What’s the Difference?

Before streaming media, all media on the Web was distributed as download-and-play media files. With this system, you would create media files and then post them on a server (a host computer connected to the Internet). Viewers then downloaded them from that server onto their own hard drives. Once downloading was complete, users could play the files, from their local drives.

In subsequent years, streaming media has become increasingly popular, often supplanting the download-and-play type of media distribution. It’s called streaming because the end-user can watch the "stream" of video as it plays from the server. Streaming media has the advantage of beginning playback quickly, making it popular in our "I want it now" world. The tradeoff for quick delivery is quality. Image quality can suffer depending on connection speed or the number of users currently accessing the server.

For a time, after streaming media arrived on the scene, many people generally avoided download-and-play media in favor of sites that boasted streaming media. A general perception that download-and-play media was out-of-date turned people prematurely away from this remarkably viable means of Internet video distribution.


Special Uses for Download-and-play

Even with the phenomenal popularity of streaming media, there are many well-suited applications for the download-and-play format. Users with slower modem connections have trouble viewing streaming files. They can, however, download a file and then play it back locally at the highest quality the host has provided. Download times will vary depending on connection speed, but once the file has been downloaded, playback is smooth and clear.

Another situation where down-load-and-play is more practical than streaming is when transferring full-screen full-motion video files. Even with today’s fastest connection and beefiest computer, there is not enough bandwidth to stream files this large.


Anyone can do it!

Streaming video requires a streaming server, a special type of Internet server that sends a video file as a stream of data to the user, upon request. While streaming servers have become extremely widespread, it is still a special requirement.

Download-and-play videos make it possible for people who do not have access to special media preparation software, or to special streaming media servers to present their videos to the virtually endless potential audience of Internet users. Download-and-play files can be stored on virtually any Internet server, and can be sent via many e-mail services. (There are even specialized e-mail services like "Whale Mail" (www.whalemail.com) that cater to people who need to send extra large files, many of them are free.)

Because of the compression used for streaming, you’ll have to shoot your video differently in order to stream it effectively (for tips on shooting to stream, see Take 5 in this issue). You should zoom in closer on people, so that they are more visible in the small window and lower frame-rate necessary for streamed video. You should avoid shooting complicated backgrounds, and minimize camera movements, avoiding pans tilts and zooms. You’ll need to avoid using transition effects and title text should be large and bold.

Download-and-play video is not subject to the same kind of constraints. You can post your finished video, with camera moves, transition effects and titles without worry. The only constraints on download-and-play video are in regard to the time it takes you to upload it, and the time it takes your viewer to download it.


Post it Notes

When you are ready to distribute your video via download-and-play, you will need to "upload" it from your computer to a server. The server you choose will depend on a variety of considerations: First, how large is your finished file? Your ISP (Internet Service Provider), the company you connect to the Internet through, may already include Web storage space in their access fees.

For many, hosting video at your ISP will be easy. If your monthly access fee includes Web space, you can simply upload your file to your user area (which might be an area on the ISP server identified by your username in the fashion, www.yourisp.com/~yourusername/). Many ISP’s include an "easy upload" page on their Web site, or you can use a "Web publishing" tool, included with your browser. In Internet Explorer use "Front Page Express" and in Netscape use "Netscape Composer.

Uploading your file, depending on the size of your file and the speed of your connection, can take quite a while. Know that a 56k (56,000 bits per second) connection is really a 33.6k (33,600 bits per second) connection, with the "downstream" (towards your computer) side doubled by data compression. What this means is that a 56k modem is no faster than a 33.6k modem when it comes to uploading. A good rule of thumb to use when timing an upload from a dial-up connection is seven or eight minutes per megabyte. If you have a very large video file, you may want to investigate the possibility of getting your file to the server by other means. Some alternatives to that long upload, might be to send your file on some form of removable media (Zip disk, CD-R or CD-RW) directly to your ISP. Another solution maybe to upload the file in fragments (using a utility such as WinZip or UUencode), which your ISP could then re-assemble (or your viewers could download the pieces and then re-assemble them on their hard drives).


Educating Your Viewers

Given the fact that streaming media has captured the attention and imagination of the masses, if you choose to use download-and-play as the means of distributing your video, you may have to educate your audience as to the advantages of waiting for the file to download.

The advantages are many: higher quality images, higher frame rate, and higher quality. These advantages are universal. Regardless of the viewer’s connection speed, the quality will be consistent when the downloaded clip is played back (no "skipping" or "stuttering" like with streaming media). With download-and-play video, once your the viewers have the file downloaded onto their local hard drives, they can watch your video over and over, and the quality will always be just as good as it was when you made it. The bottom line: your viewers will see exactly what you intended him them to see.

With streamed media, you never know what your viewer might see. Quality is dependent on the viewer’s connection speed, the amount of traffic at your streaming server and the overall speed of the Internet at the time the viewer is trying to view your video.

Of course, once they have downloaded your video, and they see the higher quality, they will be glad you disregarded the streaming media in favor of the download-and-play video. For video producers, the "old-fashioned" way may still be the best way for Internet video distribution.

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