One fascinating detail almost got lost in the shuffle of last week’s Windows 7 launch. Microsoft flipped the switch on some partner deals that turned its ho-hum Internet TV feature into something worth watching – in every sense of the word. (Full disclosure: One of Microsoft’s primary TV network partners is CBS, which also happens to own ZDNet’s parent, CBS Interactive.) [Update: As several readers have noted in both comments and private e-mails, this feature is currently available only in the United States. I will confirm with Microsoft whether they have plans to make similar features available in other markets.]
The Internet TV icon was present in pre-release versions of Windows 7, but mostly it delivered short clips and promos. With the final release, the Internet TV icon includes full episodes of a surprising number of classic and current series from CBS, PBS, and other partners.
How does it work? See my screenshot gallery for a visual walk-through
On the CBS page, for example, you’ll find full episodes of the current series CSI:Miami, NUMB3RS, Accidentally On Purpose, and How I Met Your Mother. I also found all three seasons of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, in glorious black and white. I think I saw MacGyver there, too, but didn’t have the strength to click that link. If you’re a PBS fan, you can gorge yourself on Nova episodes.
Setting up Internet TV was a very quick two-step process. The first step install the Media Center application that downloads and displays listings. The second component is a Flash viewer (not Silverlight?) that gets installed when you first try to view a program from the Internet TV pane.
In my limited testing, the streaming quality was pretty good, but not great. On a laptop screen, the picture was easy to watch, with no noticeable glitches. On a 24-inch 1080p screen, the degradation in quality was noticeable. I suspect only a diehard fan who missed an episode of their favorite series would bother trying to watch these low-res signals on a 50-inch-plus HDTV screen. There’s no charge for any of the content. Each full episode includes a handful of short ads - far fewer than those found in a network broadcast. I couldn’t find any obvious fast-forward capability to zap through those ads.
I was able to set up Internet TV on PCs running Windows 7 with and without regular TV tunes. The Internet TV feature was not available on a Media Center extender, however, which isn’t surprising given the Flash-based player that powers the feature. I also couldn’t save the episodes for offline watching, although I’m sure there are workarounds for that.
The gold rush is on for Internet-based TV, with Hulu and Tivo and Apple all experimenting with different ways of signing partnership deals, delivering content, and charging viewers for the privilege. If Microsoft is smart, it will iterate the Internet TV feature quickly, adding content partners, improving picture and audio quality, and figuring out how to make the content portable.