iPhone Streaming Showdown: Qik vs UStream – UPDATED

In my “AT&T, The Bars Are a Lie” post I mentioned that I had been testing two iPhone Streaming applications. I have been looking for a way to live broadcast my son’s high school band performances for those parents unable to attend.  When UStream and Qik finally arrived on the iPhone, I was looking for an excuse to play. In the end, I was actually surprised at the differences between the two apps. I should say upfront that my expectations started low. I just don’t think live video streaming, over a cell network, is ready for prime-time. But who am I to pass up the perfect excuse to play with new toys.

First of all, this is not a studio test. I went to a random shopping center, where I was sure I would not be hassled by security, and tried streaming about 45 seconds of live video. I tried to capture the green trees, the blue sky, fast panning, quick light changes and various ambient sounds, cars etc., while I talked.

The goal was to find a clear winner based on:

  • Sound Quality – Clarity and Accuracy
  • Video Quality – Color & Compression Quality
  • Smooth Playback – No Starting & Stopping

Obviously, like with any media, choices will be made depending on the content being broadcast. If one application has better audio, but a lousy picture, you still may choose it if you are broadcasting a concert. If you are broadcasting something visual you may be willing to sacrifice the audio side of things. Let’s take a look, starting with UStream…

UStream

The UStream application for iPhone is actually called UStream Live Broadcaster (AppStore).

UStream has one feature that I think really stands above the Qik app – Channels. In my one UStream account I can create multiple ‘channels’. That’s nice because, if I do use this for the band, I can have a channel for just the band videos while keeping my other videos separate. I find that feature alone almost strong enough to give UStream the nod, for my needs. You can set the application to record using any one of your channels by default, or have it ask on each launch.

Once you pick a channel the broadcaster loads the camera ready to stream. From this main window you are able to select where to record, to the phone or ‘live’ through the UStream web site; manage your videos, both local and remote; and enter the application Options screen. The settings available in the options screen allow uploading to Facebook & YouTube, or tweeting when you go live. There are also quality settings for both local and live recordings. Low Quality is 176 x 144 while high quality is 320 x 240.

Once you hit the ‘Go Live’ button you’re on the air. My original tests recorded fine, but in my tests for this post I saw some issues. I tried to get similar clips from the two apps, but my first attempts with the UStream app failed. The app recorded my 45 second clip as two separate videos – missing a large chunk while it stopped and started capturing. On my third try, I was able to capture the clip below.

My first impression was “what the hell happened to the color channels”? I am not sure why the video seems so odd at the beginning but it settles down quickly. So how did it hold up against my wish list?

The sound of my voice seems clear enough, but obviously compressed. Almost no ambient noise, such as the cars, is audible. That could be a good a thing, but there is not much dynamic range here.

Video quality was good enough, with the exception of the odd color channel issue at the start. Colors seemed fair, and the compression was not so pixelated that it was unusable. If what I was broadcasting required a clear picture, without the blocks, this is passable.

Playback was disappointing. The video stops in multiple places, while the audio continues. I suppose with this clip, if you did not know any better, you might think I was just standing still. If a marching band was parading by however, you would notice them freeze in place – not something most of the bands I have seen do.

All together, considering I am in a parking lot using 3G on a cell phone, and broadcasting streaming live video to the web, not so bad. Still, lets look at the Qik app now…

Qik

The Qik application is called Qik Live (AppStore) (The new Qik App is called Qik Video Camera Pro (AppStore) that runs $2.99. This post was based on the old app).

The Qik site does not offer the wonderful channel feature of UStream. For some users, that is enough to stop looking. Still, the Qik app has some great interface features.

Once the application launches you see the camera with a few overlaid bits of information along with buttons for managing you video gallery, starting and stopping recording, and accessing the settings. The settings offer you the ability to share GPS info, and choose between two quality settings – Max Quality or Min Delay. I’m really not sure about the difference, since in the few test shots I did I saw no difference. In the recording window you can easily see if chat is enabled, the audio is muted, or the stream is public. That’s nice. To change any of those you simply touch the camera area to gain access to six options: Mute Audio, Turn Chat Off, Set to Private, Edit Video Details – which is the title and description, Share Video – to many of the major social networks, and Send By Email. The recording quality is displayed in the upper left as 320 x 240. By far my favorite feature is the camera standby mode. If the application is dormant for a short period of time the camera is turned off – I assume to save battery.

Unlike UStream, Qik had no issues recording, and the upload seemed so fast that I found myself checking to see if the videos made it online. Below is the Qik clip.

The Qik recording was very different than the Ustream clip. I immediately noticed the audio difference. Where the UStream clip seems compressed and flat, the Qik clip seemed to have more high end, and the cars were clearly audible in the background. My voice, however well toned, suffered from a swish sound. That sound bothered me a lot. If what I was broadcasting required clear vocals, that would bug me.

Again, the video quality was good enough, but in this case the video started clear, with no color shifts. Colors seemed fair, but not as rich. The compression, on the other hand, was obvious. The sky at times was very blocky. I felt like I was watching an episode of Cops. This is a tough call, clear audio but swishy sounding and pixelated video.

Playback was smooth. Very smooth. No starts and stops, unlike the UStream app.

Conclusion

When I first started looking at these I chose UStream, and I was able to broadcast a concert with no issue. I really expected UStream to be a clear winner. For this post however, during multiple test shots, I never had an issue with Qik. UStream was a pain on almost every clip. I used the samples included here mainly because this UStream clip actually recorded correctly. Issues, like I mentioned before, where UStream split the recording were common. At first I thought it might be a signal issue, but it never happened with Qik. In one UStream clip the audio was lost for about 3 seconds, replaced by a wonderful screeching sound.

UStream Broadcaster does have some nice features. I love the channel idea, the audio had fewer artifacts, and the video looked good enough. Still, the color issues in the above clip, the screeching issues I mentioned, and the stop/start issues with the both the video playback and recording killed it for me. I also wish the audio had more range.

The Qik app had very smooth video playback, and recording. On the downside, the video compression was more pronounced to me, and while the audio tones were nice, the audio clipping drives me nuts.

Before finishing this post, I decided to get some other opinions on these clips. I asked my family, and Mike, to take a look.

My family preferred Qik citing clearer audio and smoother playback.

Mike replied:

Qik – The winner in this test. I really expected Ustream to win. Qik’s video suffers from over compression, exaggerated shutter roll and the audio seriously clips ‘s’ sounds. But, overall, the audio was clear and the video continued to play.

Ustream – The sound was actually worse overall. The stuttering and freezing video killed it for me. But the poor audio (at least in these tests) just reinforced my decision. The video played like a series of photos updated erratically. There was little artifacting in the stills and the color seemed richer. My recollection was that the audio was significantly better than Qik, but not this time. It had herky-jerky moments along with the video and suffered from clipping as well.

On some of the other test clips, not featured here, he noted:

The shutter roll on Qik makes me queasy. It should be noted that the Qik website reformats for iPhone and plays the video. Ustream does neither. Considering that both are getting content from mobile devices, you’d expect both to play nicely without Flash.

Great point on mobile playback. Playback from Qik was available via the iPhone browser. UStream playback is limited to their UStream Viewing Application which appears to allow access to only their Featured or Popular streams.

Which app do I prefer? Qik, but for the school, the channel feature in UStream may still be a deciding factor.

The bottom line is… it will depend on content, which is too bad. I wish these two apps could learn from each other and combine their strengths. Qik needs better compression, although perhaps that’s why it never stuttered. UStream needs to broadcast and stream more predictably, and have a better mobile viewing experience. If UStream fixed that, then they would win hands down. The audio and video are good enough and the channels feature is very appealing.

Overall, I’m happy with the results. To be able to stand in a parking lot, and stream live internet video is just amazing. This is a cell phone people. Wow.

If you have had a different experience, comment below. Either way, we live in an amazing time.

(NOTE: WordPress 2.9.1 does natively support Qik URLs, but it does not support UStream URLs. I was able to simply paste the video URL from Qik and the video was available, displayed at 425 x 319. The Ustream video required embed code that defaulted to 320 x 260. To maintain consistency with both of the test videos, I embedded both and reset the default code on the UStream clip to 425 x 319.)

UPDATE

The Qil Live app originally mentioned in this post has been replaced by Qik Video Camera Pro (AppStore). The link in the article was changed to reflect the new app, but I have not tested the new version yet.

5 Responses to “iPhone Streaming Showdown: Qik vs UStream – UPDATED”

  1. Thanks very much for the review. I have been looking at Qik and Ustream for streaming video and I thought that UStream would be the best. I’m trying to use the app to stream live when I’m cycling but it seems that the IPhone just wants to go to standby mode after one minute of video. Do you have any feedback that would help me solve this problem? I was hoping to stream the 2010 Whistler GranFondo bike race I will be in this September. Wish me luck!

  2. Razz says:

    Hey James, thanks for stopping by. Great idea to stream while riding, and Whistler… wonderful place. The only thing I can think of would be to change the Auto-Lock setting (under Settings –> General) to “Never”. Be aware though, streaming for a long period does kill the battery quickly. I would look at a Mophie Juice Pack maybe. Oh yeah, GOOD LUCK!

    Razz

  3. Great in-depth review. I had Qik on my phone as soon as I could jaillbreak. But then one day I had to reboot and when I went to look for it POOF! it was gone! Even you’re link only turns up a dead end in the AppStore, too. So sad. Any ideas?

  4. Razz says:

    Hey there Christopher, The Qik app mentioned in the post was the original Qik iPhone app. It has been replaced by the Qik Video Camera Pro. I have not tested the latest version and it now runs $2.99 in the AppStore. The current version has a 4 star rating off 390 reviews, while the app has an overall average rating of 3.5 based on 5337 reviews.

  5. [...] live truck to stream live video. Now, all you need is a smart phone and a program such as UStream or Qik. If your camera is confiscated or stolen, the video you had already streamed could have been [...]

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