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Eye on Demand | September 26, 2017

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PBS Review

PBS Review

Review Overview

Quality of Video Stream
7
User Interface
7
Content on Offer
7
Device Availability
7
Airplay and iOS
7
7

Good All-rounder

PBS, the American Public Broadcasting Service, tends to divide opinions more than any other US television network. Those more attuned to the commercial side of American TV often mock the channel’s content, whilst its devoted fans place the PBS as the one of the countries most respected and trusted national institutions. In any event, it certainly has possibly the widest platform support of any OTA American catch-up service.

It could be argued at times that PBS is America’s answer to the BBC, which it is in many ways. But there are also vast differences to be considered. While the BBC is Britain’s national public broadcaster, it is phenomenally larger than PBS, in size, revenue generated, content produced and its impact on British society. Not to mention the BBC runs in a commercial free environment.

PBS are still responsible however for some world recognized content, including Sesame Street, PBS NewsHour, Masterpiece, and Frontline, not to mention local versions of British or other foreign productions, such as the Antiques Road Show, and direct imports like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. Content is varied and often well acclaimed, even when considering the budget available, which is acquired mainly through sponsorship or donations. It is worth mentioning that the quantity of content is considerably greater than other US OTA commercial network catch-up libraries, at least regarding free television services.

Quality Button

If content may seem impressive, PBS don’t compromise too much with video quality either, offering up to 2500kbps HD streams for most content (platform depending), although commercials are often lower. Exact bitrates vary depending on bandwidth starting from a very low 400kbps, however providing your Internet connection is not terribly bad, the higher end bitrate should kick-in, offering streams without noticeable pixelation or artifacts on most newer programming. In fact, video quality is so much higher than ITV Player for instance, it may be worth waiting for an ITV programme to air on PBS to avoid the blurriness.

Device availability is one of the best in the US OTA catch-up markets. Whilst many American television networks offer a reasonable web portal and iOS or other smart phone app, getting that video across to your main TV without resorting to Hulu Plus is not always that easy. PBS may not have the platform availability of Hulu Plus, Netflix or the BBC iPlayer for that matter, but it is one of the best free networks in the US in this regard.

 

  • PBS Video online

    For the greatest range of PBS online material, head as usual, to the network’s web based platform. As so often in these cases, licensing issues have forced the largest range of content to remain on a computer’s browser, which is possibly the least attractive place to actually watch TV. If you manage to connect your computer or laptop to your main TV, you at least can watch in the comfort of your armchair, if lacking the usual sofa-friendly interface.

    The website has recently performed a major facelift, with the previous dated look gone and replaced with a far more functional and attractive design. Previous omissions such as a watchlist or resume features are now a thing of the past, as both are finally fully supported. In fact, if you sign in, your watchlist and position in an unfinished programme from other compatible devices will be carried across to this platform.

    Although there is the handy watchlist now available, you may not even need to access it since your previously watched shows are listed right on the Home page, perfect for returning to a previously unfinished programme.

    As is always the case with PBS, you have to set a US zipcode to provide you with a list of local TV stations that offer PBS channels. This may seem a little odd to people outside of America, but despite it’s differences, UK viewers could think of it as being a bit like ITV’s postcode requirement, where selected programming may differ, depending on the postcode/zipcode used – only a tad more complicated.

    Video quality is both manually or dynamically selected, peaking at a 720p HD stream. Although PBS advertise a bitrate of 2500kbps, my own tests averaged at 1950kbps*, although in all fairness, the picture quality was still very good.

    Platform Pros:

    • Generally speaking, the greatest range of content available.
    • Manual or automatic bitrate selection.
    • Watchlist and Resume feature.
    • Cross-platform compatible with selected other platforms.

    Platform Cons:

    • Not a very sofa-friendly UI.
    • No offline downloads.

    (Accessing PBS from outside of the US may require a good VPN or DNS service)

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

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  • If you happen across the US iOS app store, grab yourself the PBS iOS app as it is well worth the effort. It may be due for a minor update soon, but even without that this app is a solid performer.

    The iPad app splits options between the left-hand and top menu panes, with an easy to find Log-in field, something some other PBS platforms still lack. This allows you to not only create favourites, but also provides a watchlist for previously viewed material and a full resume function. What is a bit disappointing though is that there is no cross-platform support between other devices. Whilst the ATV and Web platforms will keep a unified watchlist, the iOS version remains separate. Unfortunately, and to my great surprise, the iPhone app had problems logging me in, which appears to be a bug of some sorts.

    PBS iPhoneThat said, both do offer very similar features otherwise, with the iPhone being more practical on the move, and the iPad having the greater UI benefits. Although certain reports suggest the iPad app offers more available content than the smaller iPhone version.

    Video quality is excellent on the tiny screens, and just as good when airplayed over to your main TV, as long as you use the iPad version. PBS offer full AirPlay support, which means easy access from the video screen and multitasking. You can switch off the iOS device to save power, or even use it for other purposes while the video will play back via your Apple TV. The problem is, only the iPad offers HD streams, which my own tests averaged 2100kbps*.

    The iPhone on the other hand had a much lower stream of 600kbps, absolutely fine for the smaller screen, but disappointing when airplaying to the main television.

    Platform Pros:

    • Excellent and well designed UI.
    • Full AirPlay support, including multitasking.
    • Resume and watchlist features.
    • Log-in ability for iPad.
    • Excellent video quality on iPad.
    • Easy search function.

    Platform Cons:

    • Log-in bug on iPhone
    • No offline downloads.
    • Content and feature fragmentation between iPhone and iPad.
    • No cross-platform support with Watchlist and Resume.
    • iPhone has much lower video quality even during AirPlay.

    (Accessing PBS from outside of the US may require a good VPN or DNS service)

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18174″]

  • It is so often the case that when reviewing a television service’s Roku channel, it wins the best platform award. Sadly not here.

    PBS’s Roku channel offers so much potential, but delivers so little. On the surface it seems almost ok, and to be honest, it isn’t terribly bad. But it’s more than just one thing that lets it down.

    First of all, there are only five categories to drill content down whilst browsing. You can either find selected material in Featured Programs, Local, Originals, Staff Picks or Expiring Soon. That’s it. No other categories exist, no genres, no A-Z listings, no All Programs, nothing. So many a first impression is the incredibly small range of programming available. It doesn’t go without saying that at the very least a basic genre listing (sorry Topics as PBS calls them) would work wonders here to help browse material, but instead we have to know exactly what we are after and type it in through the search function.

    This will bring up more available content not listed in the five categories above, but exactly what is available and what is missing on this platform is impossible to know for sure.

    Things do get worse when you realize there is no resume or watchlist features. Yeap, you will need a pencil and paper to jot down your last position in a programme if you have to finish it later, as the next time you start the show it will begin right at the opening sequence – that’s if you can find it again.

    Video is thankfully the usual high quality you can expect from PBS, with very good HD streams on selected shows. My own personal tests averaged around 2100kbps*, equal best with the iPad.

    All that said, the Roku channel was relatively new at the time of this publication, going live May the 8th. I have no doubt this channel will improve over time.

    Platform Pros:

    • As expected for a Roku channel, excellent sofa-friendly UI.
    • Great video quality.
    • Fast FFW and REW.

    Platform Cons:

    • No log-in features.
    • No resume or watchlist.
    • Poor browsing features.
    • No genres or A-Z.
    • Search feature requirements too exact.
    • The odd audio syncing issue.

    (Accessing PBS from outside of the US may require a good DNS service installed on your Router)

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18174″]

  • Best Choice StampPBS’s latest platform support goes to the Apple TV, marking the first true OTA catch-up app on the Cupertino puck, and if this new release is anything to go by, PBS is really starting to shine in the IPTV world.

    Although the basic layout is very much what would be expected in an Apple app, it does offer a range of features not found on every other platform.

    For a start, the app provides full cross-platform support with PBS’s website, as long as you log in. And this is something you will have to do right from the beginning if you want to access the 5000+ shows PBS has on offer. It is a slightly painful process, but once done, not only will the full range of programming become available, your watchlist and resume positions will carry themselves across from the web platform (or any other than uses the new cloud features). This effectively means you can start watching a programme on your laptop on a train, and continue exactly where you left off on your Apple TV.

    Video quality was the lowest on my tests for all platforms outside of the iPhone, with streams averaging 1620kbps*. That said, this could have been to do with the fact that the app just went live and possibly it will improve over the next few weeks when things settle down. In any case, I had no issues with the video quality on screen.

    Platform Pros:

    • Fantastic user interface.
    • Very good quality video, despite the lower bitrate.
    • Amazing selection of content.
    • Watchlist and Resume options.
    • Cross-platform support.

    Platform Cons:

    • Video quality could be improved.

    (Accessing PBS from outside of the US may require a good VPN or DNS service)

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18174″]

  • So often when I speak to Americans and PBS comes into topic, there may be a short gibe or snide remark on the type of content available, and although this is always down to personal taste, I find myself walking away quite impressed from this review. PBS offer an excellent library of locally made American productions and some fantastic foreign content (with an emphases on British) at excellent 720p HD quality streams.

    Although a great deal of PBS content is also available through other sources such as Hulu, it is still nice to be able to go to the original source and not always resort to sitting behind a pay-wall, something many other countries may take for granted, but is not so common in the US online television world.

    PBS also offer one of the best platform support of any American OTA television network. In fact, PBS puts the other US commercial networks to shame.

    Finally, PBS is financed through a combination of sponsorship (including advertising) and donations. Commercial breaks are not long, nor obtrusive and there is always an easy way to send a donation to help the service. If you enjoy PBS, I highly encourage donating, even if it is a small amount, as it all adds up. I wish other public service broadcasters around the world made donations so easily possible.

    Pros:

    • Fantastic range of content.
    • Very good platform support.
    • Excellent video quality.
    • Commercially sponsored but advertisements are unobtrusive and breaks are not overly long.
    • Where cross-platform support is available, it works great.

    Cons:

    • No offline downloads.
    • Fragmentation of features and content.
    • Roku channel needs a bit of work.

    Technical Details:

    • Variable bitrate ranging between 400-2500kbps.

    Log:

    18.06.2013: Review published. Score: 6.4 – Good All-Rounder

    20.06.2013: Updated with more technical details.

    20.11.2013: Major update adding ATV review. Score increased to 7.

    * Bitrate tests were based on multiple averages and are subject to both the geographical location and ISP bandwidth at the time.

     

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Comments

  1. Hideo

    Thanks for the review , i love pbs for me the best free us service , specialy science/nature side