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Twonky Beam browser and Twonky Video tested: Smart TV Tuesday

The ‘smart TV’ revolution of has turned TVs, Blu-ray players and digital TV boxes into connected devices capable of streaming video from the Web.

It’s made it possible to watch high definition video on a screen where you can really appreciate it, and to share the hilarious cat video you’ve just found with friends and family, without everyone craning around your phone or tablet.

One drawback to this is that Smart TV devices aren’t always that smart compared to a PC or mobile: online video might be restricted to YouTube or you have to swap between apps for different video sources.

Twonky Beam on Android 3.2

Twonky is a company that found fame with software for home media sharing between PCs, games consoles, network storage and media streamers. The key is the DLNA and UPnP media networking protocols, which are supposed to make it easy to share video across local networks, although they’re not all that reliable, as manufacturers often implement the technology in different ways. Many smart TVs also support DLNA and UPnP, and Twonky software is well-regarded for making them work.

More recently, mobile devices have been given their own Twonky software, and Twonky Beam and Twonky Video are two new additions to the Twonky family, available on both iOS and Android. They’re both aimed at finding online video and sending it to your smart TV, but take different approaches.

Twonky Beam

Twonky Beam ICS

Twonky Beam is a browser wrapped in a media sender, which plucks video, audio and photos from a web page on your smartphone or tablet and fire it across your home network to your smart TV or media streamer. When you start Beam, it gives a list of compatible players on your network, and as you browse, compatible media is highlighted with the Twonky Beam icon. Tapping a tagged video, audio or photo will send it to your TV or playback device.

You can create bookmarks of particular sites and videos, and create a homepage of video sites – by default it includes the likes of Vimeo, YouTube, TED, NASA, Funny Or Die, Fox News and The Daily Show, not all of which will work on certain devices, or outside of the USA. As you browse, it’s possible to queue up videos in a playlist, although you can’t save playlists.

The Ice Cream Sandwich version of Twonky Beam for Android (above) is quite different and nicer-looking than the older version (top), using swipe to hide the bookmark and playback controls off-screen, either side of the browser window.

Twonky Video

Twonky Video channel view

Twonky Video is a video search engine where you create your own video channels via search terms which plug into YouTube, DailyMotion and Vimeo. It comes with two popular and featured channels, but it’s easy to create your own.

These channels are playlists of videos, presented as lists of thumbnails. Once you start playing, they will continue playing until they run out of content or hit a playback or access issue – at which point they’ll either skip to the next video or crash at either the streaming or receiving device. You can select any video in a channel by just tapping the thumbnail.

You can watch on your mobile device or hit the Beam button to watch on the big screen, and share your videos and playlists with your friends or followers on Facebook and Twitter. You can’t watch on both screens at the same time, though (hence the boring screen shot below).

One notable annoyance is that the search and channels views are all in portrait view, and obviously designed for a phone rather than a tablet, while the video playback view is landscape. Either one orientation for all, or both please.

Twonky Video channel view

Both apps let you browse, play, work or talk on your mobile device while they’re playing to your TV in the background. 

There’s also a MyTwonky website where you can collect video and audio sources, including your own media collection, and share them via Facebook and Twitter. It also lets you send video you’ve found to TwonkyBeam and Twonky Video, and edit the playlists and bookmarks you’ve created.

Both TwonkyBeam and Twonky Video are compatible with some Samsung and Sony smart TVs, Denon, Philips, Roku and Sonos music players, and Zyxel and Apple TV media streamers. Twonky maintains a list of Beam-compatible devices, with more detail in its forums.

The problems with both apps are the same as with any online video: quality and reliability. There’s no way to fine-tune your search to only HD (or even standard definition) videos, so you’re likely to be squinting at a cloud of pixels, and even supposedly HD video didn’t look that good thrown onto a 46in screen through our Apple TV.

Playback support depends on both your browsing and playback devices. It’s unsurprising we had trouble streaming via the format-limited Apple TV, but we also found differences in both quality and format support between a Samsung Galaxy running Android 3.2 and an Asus Transformer TF101 running Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0).

There’s also no support for Flash video, so it’s surprising that some of the standard front-page content in Twonky Beam is Flash-based video like The Daily Show.

Twonky Beam and Twonky Video: Verdict

If you like consuming web video and collecting links to videos during your day, but want to enjoy your collections on a bigger screen, these apps both have potential. It’s certainly good to see something that can break out of the walled gardens of Apple TV and many smart TV devices, and give media streamers access to a much greater range of content.

There are some cheap media streamers out there (Apple TV is only £99), and the software is free as well, so there’s no risk in trying them out. At best, they demonstrate how much you can do with multiple screens and devices, but they also show that home media playback and sharing remain Wild West territory where there are no guarantees that anything will work well out of the box, or how well it will work if it does.