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Streaming Media Servers

Apple, Macromedia, Microsoft and RealNetworks all accepted our comparison challenge. The results were remarkably close. Find out why entries from Apple and Microsoft just edged out the other two.

Mac shops can feel confident choosing Darwin Streaming Server, the no-cost, open-source version of QuickTime Streaming Server (QTSS). In fact, this choice is safe for almost any environment except for one dominated by low-end PCs. In our quality tests, QuickTime playback on Windows required more horsepower than the other products tested.

Apple earned its first-place score because of its excellent stream stability, strong but simple management and price (it's free without add-ons). Of all the products tested, only Darwin Streaming Server managed never to drop a session or rebuffer in midstream. We ran a test simulating a poor broadband connection where the network dropped 2 percent of all packets. Our stream played back with almost the same performance as our tests conducted with no packet loss.


Apple Darwin Streaming Server
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Although Darwin's stability was unbeatable, our testers couldn't say the same for the image quality. Choppy playback, especially at the higher bit rates, gave QuickTime a low score on our quality survey. Unlike rebuffering, choppy playback does not pause for a few seconds but instead appears to have a low frame rate. At first we thought this was a deficiency in the streaming technology of QuickTime for Windows, as all the other products handled playback fine. So we tested the stream on a 1-GHz PowerBook, and it played at levels similar to the other participants. On a dual 3-GHz Xeon, the video played back with a decent frame rate. Apple recently released an update to QuickTime that touts improved H.264 playback, but it came out after our tests.

Apple's approach to server and media file management is simpler than that of any other vendor. The server has very few options to set. Playlist creation is elegant and intuitive, using HTML and JavaScript. Only Apple offers Web-based playlist creation. A list of our media files appeared in a left-hand column, and we just dragged the desired files into a right-hand column to create the playlist. We could also assign weights to make certain files play more often than others in random mode. Movies also can be played sequentially.

Streams can be user name/password protected, using a text file found in the media file's directory. We would have preferred integration with external directory systems, though. As with all the streaming servers, logging information is extensive but reporting is limited. Real-time information is available for throughput, total bytes and connections served, and stats on currently connected users. You can see connected users' IP addresses, bit rates, packet loss, time connected and what file they're watching.

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