Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and a vast array of other media repositories bring videos to our notebooks whenever we’re in the mood for entertainment, but that content is scattered across these and more sites. ZeeVee looks to end that with Zinc, a free Internet video browser designed to centralize your favorite online and desktop media. Although Zinc excels at bringing together a wide range of online video content, its compatibility with desktop media is lacking.
Users can choose either to download the standalone Zinc application or install it as a FireFox 3 extension. After we downloaded and installed the extension, the ZeeVee logo appeared as an icon to the right of the navigation bar. When clicked, it launched a fully functional version of Zinc. It makes little difference which version you use; the standalone app essentially runs in a tweaked version of FireFox. Non–PC users may want to take a look at Zinc’s main competitor, Boxee, which runs on Ubuntu Linux and Mac OS X. ZeeVee says that a Mac version should be available soon.
Zinc features a simple interface that, while similar to Boxee, looks less polished. Upon launching Zinc (no login required, unlike Boxee), we were greeted by a list of available content providers in the main area of the window (pulled from ABC, CNN, CW, Netflix, YouTube, and others). A pane on the left side of the screen has links for Favorites, New, History, Applications, Local Content, Zv HDTV, Settings, and Help. Clicking one of those links loads its respective content (such as a list of content providers, or thumbnails of content you’ve viewed) in the main viewing area. When a program is selected, information about that episode (such as plot, air date, length, and rating) appears on the right.
Finding content in Zinc is a snap. The latest episode of TV shows are wisely positioned at the top of the list of available programming, and movies are sorted by genre. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can search by name in a box above the main viewing area. You can navigate Zinc using your mouse, the arrow keys on your notebook; or by using a media center remote or an iPhone or iPod touch, provided it’s loaded with any one of the 35 to 40 applications in the iTunes App Store that transforms the Apple device into a remote control.
Users can mark shows as favorites, which appear in Zinc’s Favorites folder. Whenever a new episode of a favorited show is available, it automatically appears in the New section. Unfortunately, there’s no alert when new content appears, so you have to actively check for fresh content. History displays everything that you’ve previously viewed, while Applications launches media-centric programs directly from Zinc for playing back content. It comes pre-populated with Windows Media Center and Windows Media Player, but also includes links for downloading iTunes 8 and Miro 2.0.
Under the Settings heading we could add or remove media folders that are monitored for local media, add or remove applications, tweak settings (so that iTunes can fetch missing thumbnails, or automatically display full-screen video for select content), and more. Unfortunately, changes and settings made within the extension and the desktop application don’t sync, but ZeeVee is looking into making that a feature in a future version of the software. Zv HDTV provides users a tutorial on how to hook up their PCs to a TV or large monitor.
When we selected the Fox channel to check out episodes of Family Guy and Fringe, the shows played back smoothly on our Gateway P-7808u FX notebook. When we output video and audio to a 32-inch Samsung HDTV via HDMI, colors were rich and bright, and the audio was crisp. Unlike our experience with Boxee, however, videos did not always automatically resize to fill the window; we had to expand them manually a few times.
There were also some inconsistencies, which were more the fault of the content providers than anything. While watching Fringe via Fox’s site, advertisements would appear to the right of the viewer in standard screen size, which would be reduced to small images in the lower right-hand corner of the interface when in full-screen mode. However, when watching the same show via Hulu, the ads didn’t appear at all. To be fair, the advertisements weren’t always present, and when they were, they didn’t spoil the experience, but it should be noted that competitor Boxee currently doesn’t display ads at all in the application itself.
Zinc let us play content protected with DRM. We bought Spoonfed Hybrid’s “Boys in Zinc” music video through iTunes and it played back flawlessly within Zinc. A purchased South Park episode also played back smoothly, without any hiccups. The application can play MP4, AVI, MPEG, MPG, Quicktime and WMV videos that live in your hard drive. Unfortunately, Zinc drops the ball by not enabling users to view photos or play music files, something that Boxee does quite well through the inclusion of sources such as Flickr and Pandora.
Where Boxee incorporates elements of social networking to help users discover new shows, Zinc offers no such options. There’s no fast way to send video links to friends as you can with Boxee’s Recommendations, but you can always mouse over the top of the interface to reveal the address bar, and copy and paste the URL into an e-mail. It’s not a deal breaker, but in an era where community is such a vital element of the online experience, a social networking feature would have been nice to have.
The idea behind ZeeVee Zinc isn’t rocket science; it simply pulls content from a number of online-video content providers, as well as video from your desktop, and does it well. However, Boxee does it better. Zinc would be much improved with Linux compatibility, desktop photo and music playback, wider video codec compatibilty, and ways to connect with other users directly through the application. But even without those features (which Boxee offers), Zinc is a very capable one-stop video destination.