Wireless video streaming sounds fun, but, in its current form, it's still a whole lot easier to wander down to Blockbuster if you want to rent a movie.

It seemed like a terrific idea at first. Get some of the latest wireless gear and see what could be done streaming video through the air. The target was to achieve three things: download a movie or two over the Internet, watch the flicks across a wireless home network, and view videos on a handheld device. Imagine watching South Park episodes on your Pocket PC, and streaming Hollywood's newest releases over a wireless connection to your TV. Sounds good?

Instead, the experience was mostly painful. What started as a romp with high-tech toys morphed into a three-week ordeal, involving hardware installation hiccups and wireless networking failures; and as expected, movie copyright protection hell.

That said, it is eventually possible to stream movie trailers and short videos to a wireless-enabled PDA. But in most respects, the hit-&-miss affair that is wireless digital video today remains a miss.

Rob Enderle, a technology analyst for the Enderle Group, wasn't surprised to hear about my wireless video hassles. "It's still in the - if you'll excuse the term - technoweenie phase," Enderle says. "It is probably better to wait."

I refused to accept the term, and also refused to wait. You live and learn.

The journey

The first step in my movie odyssey was to download video. I registered for free with Movielink, one of many Web-based rental services. Movielink offers over 800 movies in both Real Video and Windows Media Video 9 file formats. I installed the Movielink Manager applet on my PC and then paid $4 to rent Lost in Translation in WMV format. A UK version of Movielink is promised "soon".

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Unfortunately, I ran into a glitch while downloading the 543MB file: Movielink Manager erroneously reported that I had two instances of the film in my queue. To avoid paying twice, I consulted an online rep, who cleared out the transaction and advised me to repurchase the movie. I did so; and 45 minutes later, I had downloaded the file over my cable connection. I also downloaded two others: The Rundown (528MB) and The Last Samurai (787MB). The Rundown transferred well, but The Last Samurai download initially failed because of the pop-up blocker in my Google Toolbar.
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As expected, once I got past the download process, I ran into some use restrictions. After you download a movie from Movielink, you have up to 30 days to start watching it. If you fail to play the video within the rental period, the file is deleted. Once you start viewing a video, Movielink gives you 24 hours to view it as often as you like. But at the end of that time, the file becomes inaccessible unless you pony up $2 (or less) to purchase an additional 24 hours of viewing time. This may sound complicated - and it is. Welcome to the world of digital rights management 
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I downloaded all three movies to my Pentium 4 laptop. I was surprised by how good the movies looked on my laptop

Video everywhere?

Next I tried watching Lost in Translation on a second PC over a wireless network, but the Windows Media Player software flashed an error message and I couldn't play the movie - DRM at work again.

After that, I wanted to try watching Lost in Translation on my 36-inch Sony WEGA television. A new class of adaptors is supposed to make this possible, using 802.11g signals to stream video, audio, and images wirelessly from PC hard drives for playback on TVs and stereos. Alas, the adaptors were not available in time for me to test.

Enter Gateway, with its nifty $200 Connected DVD ADC320 Player. The unit looks and acts a lot like a standard DVD player, but it has exceptional network capabilities. A PC Card slot in the back of the chassis accepts an 802.11g network card, enabling the Connected DVD Player to hop onto your wireless network to find and play digital media.

Would it work? I plugged the Gateway-supplied Wi-Fi card into the Connected DVD Player, and the unit failed to see my network. I searched for firmware upgrades on the Web. I turned WEP security off, then on, then off again. I even tried a different PC Card and router. After a couple of hours on the horn with Gateway's techs, I received a second Gateway PC Card (which didn't work) and a Gateway 802.11g router (which did).

Thanks to the new Gateway router, I finally got the player working with my network. Using the player's remote control, I could select video stored on my PC. On my TV the video looked smooth, and its quality matched that produced on the PC's monitor. Gateway no longer operates in the UK.

Unfortunately, my attempts to play the Movielink movies failed. The Connected DVD Player's media server software supports only MPEG and AVI file formats, not the WMV format from Movielink. And even if the player could have handled WMV files, its lack of DRM support meant that the unit wouldn't have been able to unlock the scrambled content. The only way I could get the movies to play on the TV was to lug my notebook into the den and run S-Video and RCA stereo cables from the notebook to the TV. Picture quality on the TV screen was better than I had expected, though it was worse than that of DVDs, with some blurring.

Movies on the move

My attempts at Wi-Fi bliss on the (relatively) big screen had fallen short, but I still had high hopes for using my Wi-Fi network to stream video to a Pocket PC handheld (movie files are generally too big to store on a PDA). Of course, because of copyright protection, I knew I wouldn't be able to play the locked Movielink files on my Pocket PC, so I pursued other options.

I installed SnapStream Media's $70 ($60 as a download) Beyond TV 3 software on my TV tuner-equipped laptop. And things started well. I captured a South Park episode and a hockey game to disk using Beyond TV, a PC digital video recording package. Then I set the program's ShowSqueeze feature to compress the files overnight to a compact 320-x-240-pixel format, which would suit my Wi-Fi-ready Dell Axim X30 Pocket PC. Next morning, the new files appeared in the Beyond TV interface on my PC and played well in Media Player.

Things got ugly after that. The PDA couldn't find the Beyond TV interface. The program's documentation recommended that I open several ports on my router, but the video wouldn't play reliably. The South Park episode always froze after 15 to 20 seconds.

Could it be the router? To test this theory, using Pocket Internet Explorer, I called up PPCVidz, a site with streaming videos formatted for the Pocket PC. Within seconds I was streaming a news segment from MSNBC.com. A few more stylus taps, and my PDA was playing Avril Lavigne's Sk8r Boi music video. The video appeared crisp on the small screen at a 100kbps data rate. Sharper, 300kbps videos produced long pauses and intermittent lost connections.

Despite this successful test, every effort with Beyond TV failed. I wandered from room to room in my house in vain. But then I placed my notebook near the wireless router and tried to access the video on my PDA in the same room. Suddenly, South Park burst forth in all its animated glory. Kenny had never looked so good (even if he was dead).

Wireless world on hold

Despite our eventual, partial success, downloading films over the Web is best for notebook owners and geeks for the time being. A number of the rental sites are excellent, but downloadable movies bring on a host of restrictions regarding where, when, and how you can use the content. And even if you hook up your PC to your TV, the videos you get from the Web can't match the quality of those on DVD. Our advice? Don't get involved with anything that's in the technoweenie phase.