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Streaming Media Servers

To download or to stream? That's the question when it comes to distributing online media. Downloaded files guarantee users receive every frame and pixel of data, but they also quickly clog up storage media. Streaming media lets users store small bits of data on their hard disks and fast forward before the whole video downloads, saving bandwidth. And unlike progressive downloads, streamed files can be logged to show a user's bandwidth and viewing time.

Four vendors compete in the streaming server market: Apple Computer, Macromedia (now part of Adobe Systems), Microsoft and RealNetworks. A 2004 Frost & Sullivan survey had Apple, RealNetworks and Microsoft with a 99 percent combined market share (Microsoft, 38.2 percent; Apple, 36.8 percent; and RealNetworks, 24.9 percent). Separately, Macromedia claimed to have a 98 percent installed base before Adobe acquired the company in December 2005. We invited all four to submit their products for comparison, and all four accepted our challenge.


We tested only streaming video--not other features of each vendor's technology. Apple's QuickTime Player, for example, supports 3-D panoramic images, and RealNetworks' RealPlayer supports online music download stores. We didn't factor these nonstreaming capabilities into our evaluation. Nor did we evaluate the quality of progressive downloads (go here to see our comparative features chart.)

When all was done, Apple's Darwin Streaming Server won our Editor's Choice award for its hassle-free operation and ease of use. However, if you're an all-Microsoft server shop and have a Windows 2003 Server licensed and available, Windows Media Server should work fine for you. And you can't beat the price (free) for Apple's and Microsoft's offerings. All four products are decent, separated by mere tenths of a point on our report card.

Streaming Media Server Features

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Apple squeaked into first place for its excellent stream stability, easy management user interface and price, but our testers ranked its video quality the lowest. Microsoft came in a close second. Macromedia offers excellent picture quality and a wide range of flexibility through Flash applets--as long as you're willing to do the Flash programming. RealNetworks' Helix Mobile Server has the best feature set but didn't score high on picture quality. Real can also stream QuickTime and Windows Media files in addition to those in its native format.

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