Review of Talfazat Box

September 3, 2009 by · 27 Comments 

By Adil James, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Farmington–September 2–I recently had the opportunity to review the Talfazat (http://www.talfazat.com) television box supplied by Neulion–one of the advertisers we are proud to have in this newspaper.

Bottom line:  For $30 per month, this is a reliable way to get 24 channels of Arabic television into your home, even if for example you live in the middle of an apartment complex and have no ability to put out a satellite dish.

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I received the Talfazat box late last week and tested it extensively, testing the bandwidth usage of the box, testing the picture quality and resolution, refresh rate, testing the robustness of the system by intentionally bringing it to the breaking point–and the short answer after this testing is that the Talfazat box will not halt or buffer, despite mistreatment–despite some rumors to the contrary about other IPTV sources.

Talfazat in Arabic means “televisions,” more and more of which are displaying signals through means unimagined twenty years ago.  The newest means is IPTV.  Just as VOIP revolutionized and is revolutionizing home telephones, so too is IPTV in the beginning stages of revolutionizing home television.  One key difference is price.  Where VOIP providers charge a flat fee that is perhaps one fifth of a standard telephone monthly bill, IPTV providers are much closer in price to their satellite and cable competitors.

When you get the box, it is about the size of a thick hardback book, but lighter—see above.  It has a power switch on the front, and another power switch on the back.  The box has an HDMI out, Component out, S-Video out, it has at least two USB ports; it also comes with all the cables you need to connect to your TV and internet (except HDMI) and a remote. It comes with a component cable, a special adapter cable to plug component cables into your box, audio right-left channel cables, and more, plus a LAN/ethernet cable.

Setup

Setup is super easy, and the directions are also simple, colorful, and easy to follow.  Without cracking the directions book I was able to install the Talfazat box and begin watching television.

Channels—Live TV

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Note—Mr. Alyas Ali of Talfazat explained to me that in Canada more channels are available than in the US—Canadians have about 10 additional channels available.

The box supplies 24 continuous live stream channels, including Al Jazeera in English.  Most of the other live channels are state broadcasts from the Arab world, except for Al Jazeera Arabic.

Here are the channels I found.

Future TV Al Rai TV
Mehwar Al Aan TV
Sama Dubai Alsumaria TV
Infinity TV Bahrain TV
Arab Woman Channel Program Baghdadia
ZMTV Hannibal TV
Sudan TV Emirates
Tele Liban Palestine TV
Abu Dhabi Bahrain
Al Jazeera (Arabic) Al Jazeera (English)
Arabic News Al Alam
MICFM Panorama
   

The channels are numbered 2 thru 74, with of course many blank channels between 2 and 74.

I can’t comment on the actual programs because I neither speak Arabic nor am familiar with Arabic television.  But AlJazeera in English is interesting, with very high quality stories and not biased as some would have you believe.

There is a program guide that shows programming data about 28 hours in advance—you push a button on the remote and can see what’s currently on (showing six channels on the screen at a time).  You can see up to 28 hours in advance what will be on.

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Channel Quality

Unfortunately I am not in a position to review the quality of the live TV streams made available by Talfazat—I might understand a few words of Arabic but if I try to force myself to watch these Arabic channels I will probably fall asleep.  I did watch Al Jazeera in English—which for some of TMO’s readers might be by itself worth the price of admission to the Talfazat world.

Video On Demand

There is also video on demand, which gives you access to back episodes of perhaps 100 total different TV shows–some individual shows have as many as perhaps 50 different episodes available.

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There are 7 categories under “Video on Demand.”  They are:  Comedy, Drama, Lifestyle, Music, Religious, Talk Show, and Ramadan 2009.  Under each category a varying number of shows are listed (under Comedy there are perhaps 30 shows, under Religion or Ramadan there are only a few).  Once you select a show, you will see the available number of episodes for that show, which again varies.  For some shows perhaps 50 episodes are available.  For other shows, only a few episodes are available.  You select the episode you want with your remote, and after a few minutes it should begin to play.

A few episodes refuse to play, but if you have your heart set on any specific serial you should easily be able to find an episode that will work from that serial (pictured below see the show “La Youmal” with 9 available episodes to watch; Also pictured is a cartoon episode playing via video on demand).

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There are on the remote buttons for fast forward and rewind of video on demand shows, but they did not work well for me—being perhaps the only way I could (despite my tries) to make the Talfazat box seize up and start heavily buffering.  Therefore you will likely have to watch your shows start to finish unless Neulion fixes this feature—it is possible this was just my connection.

 

Settings

In addition to the live TV and video on demand features, there is also a “Settings” screen you can access from the home directory.  When you go there after a few moments you will see a readout of your network, showing ip addresses.

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Note—as far as I can see there is no benefit in tampering with the settings.

Spotlight

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Another screen at the Talfazat home page.  As yet this is unsupported by Talfazat, likely preserved for future use.

Performance Testing

Capture

Here is a screenshot of Tomato running on the wrt-54g after testing.  The test began with Youtube videos towards the left of the screen (where the three sharp peaks are at about 300 kbits per second about a quarter of the way from the left side of the screen), and ends on the right side of the screen. 

I have a DSL network connection that I tested before doing a quick bench test of the Talfazat box at an average speed of 2.22 Mbits per second downstream.  I came to this number by using Firefox’s Broadband Speed Test and Diagnostics add-on, running the download speed check five times and averaging the results.

From this starting point I then went to my Linksys wrt-54g router running Tomato and watched the bandwidth usage as I did tests of the Talfazat box and other computers on the network accessing Youtube, Boxee, and Veoh.

I turned on Youtube and began watching the District 9 original movie, and my bandwidth usage went to 322.27 kbits/sec, then up to about 410 kbits/sec, and hovered in that area.

I turned on Pandora via Boxee and listened to my music stations, where my bandwidth was again in the same region—about 327.15 kbits/sec.

Then I used Boxee to watch Youtube instead of watching Youtube directly via a browser, and my bandwidth was at about 375 kbits/sec.

Then the real testing began—I turned on CSI Miami via Boxee.  After some initial choppiness during the CBS advertisement, the CSI show began, clear as a bell but perhaps with a little bit of choppiness, bringing my bandwidth usage up to 556 kbits/sec.  It varied as high as 1054.69 kbits/sec.

Then I turned on the Talfazat box and tuned to Al Jazeera in English—bandwidth went up to 1510 kbits/sec (Boxee was still on); when I turned off Boxee my bandwidth went down to about 850 kbits/sec and stayed pretty steady at about that level.

I stress tested the Talfazat box by running online video at two other places on my network, using Boxee and Veoh to stream video from three sources at the same time–although the network traffic went up to over 2 Mbits per second, I never saw Talfazat buffer or hesitate.

Therefore Talfazat’s promises of not buffering, and of not requiring more than 1 Mbit / sec, appear completely justified.  It may be that the box needs a little bit of overhead on top of the 700 kbits/sec, so I wouldn’t recommend going below their recommended 1 Mbit / sec, yet in my test Talfazat seemed to want only 700 kbits/sec in order to work just fine, as usual.

Picture quality

Picture quality is slightly worse than a standard definition satellite signal’s image.

Things that could improve

While testing the box I disconnected it from the internet completely while watching a show—to see what would happen.  What happened was the screen went dark.  It would have been better if there had been a simple message—“are you sure you are connected to the internet?” or “lost internet connection.”

More about the box

So if you want affordable Arabic television or if you live in an  apartment and can’t access a spot from which you can put up a satellite dish, or if you just don’t want to pay the relatively exorbitant fees charged by Dish Network and DirectTV, support one of our favorite sponsors, Talfazat and try out their box.

Also consider Talfazat’s Subcontinent cousin, DesiTV—for Indian and Pakistani channels and movies.

 

I will be mailing my box back to Talfazat with heartfelt thanks for their having allowed me to review Neulion’s cutting edge product.  You should definitely consider Talfazat if you are looking for a new way to get Arabic TV.

 

Note:  Since writing the above review I was told by Alyas Ali of Talfazat that the box is also capable of replaying any show from the last 24 hours (as long as it is green in the EPG guide pictured above).  This is like an automated Tivo function, very nice.  I have not yet tested this function and intend to add to this review once I have had a chance to try it.

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A New Kind of Television Dawns in the USA

July 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Adil James, MMNS

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As Tracy Thompson-West explains it, Talfazat and its sister stations, TV-Desi, and Kylin TV, were born from the union of NeuLion (whose specialty is in IPTV), and JumpTV (whose specialty was Arabic programming).  Ms. West is the Chief Executive of International Business for NeuLion, Inc. The marriage has led to the birth of several discrete and independent television networks, serving discrete niche markets–the Arabic, Chinese, and Desi markets.

Like NeuLion and JumpTV, Ms. West has an impressive resume, having worked for 20 years in the US and European satellite industry–where she had a hand in building Dish’s industry leading collection of international channels.

IPTV is still a mystery to most American consumers–in fact IPTV television providers in this country are far behind their counterparts in Europe.

Even the television services that are available via IPTV are not defined as such–Netflix, AT&T’s U-verse (still with fewer than 100,000 customers), and now JumpTV and its subsidiaries–usually refer to themselves as sources of television, alternatives to satellite and cable. 

In Europe however, the largest IPTV service provider (France’s Iliad) had over 1,000,000 customers as of January of 2008.  Its nine closest competitors, none of whom are American, all have more than 100,000 customers each.

The Talfazat box is simply a set top box (STB) that plugs into the internet and your television.  It uses proprietary technology developed by NeuLion to transfer video signals through the internet to your TV, and is controlled by an ordinary remote control.

talfazat logo shadow The technology is impressive.  NeuLion provides professional business-to-business display of major sports.  The pedigree as listed by Ms. West is simply unimpeachable–NFL, NHL, AHL.  If those guys trust NeuLion, you know their product is top-of-the-line. 

The box that you install in your home speaks over the internet with NeuLion’s servers and accesses the content you want to watch.  It needs a connection, according to Ms. West, of only one Mbs, and a 2 Mbs DSL connection nowadays is pretty standard.  With upcoming improvements in the internet network in the United States, especially for Fiber optics (like Verizon FIOS, for example), speeds ten times as fast will become very standard. 

Talfazat offers about 30 Arabic channels, including as far as I can tell all of the ones offered by Dish Network–with perhaps the exception of Dubai Sports.  The news channels are all available, including Al-Jazeera, Al-Jazeera English, and Al-Arabiya.

control Kylin offers, according to Ms. West, about 40 channels of Chinese language content.

TV-Desi is offered in several discrete packages, each tailored to a particular language group.  Their are Hindi, Bangla, and Pakistan-focused channels.  The channel list includes some news channels however some of the major Bollywood blockbuster movie websites are still missing, although Ms. West of JumpTV indicated to me that JumpTV was working in the direction of making those channels available in the future.

Potential future pitfalls with the technology include the increasing rumors and movements of internet service providers towards limiting bandwidth.  This controversy, frowned on by major net presences like Google, businesses that benefit and in fact need people to access the internet freely, is known by the name “net neutrality” and is increasingly coming up in legislative debates at the federal level–although until now it is unclear whether the movements toward bandwidth caps by ISPs AT&T and Comcast will later be widely implemented.

Asked about this potential problem, Mr. Alyas Ali of Talfazat explained that one of his Canadian customers, whose ISP is Rogers, faced bandwidth overages (which come into effect after 60 gigabits) and was charged for them.  Yet the total maximum fee charged by Rogers for those overages, even when added to his Talfazat bill, is still less than what he would have to pay for Bell ExpressVu Arabic channels.

The Roku box may be the most similar single service.  Roku offers access to Netflix.  You pay $99 and your payments to Roku are finished forever, but you get to enjoy Netflix instant views as long as you have a subscription.

There are free online IPTV sources, but the most professional services that provide IPTV are formed as walled gardens.  Explains Alyas Ali of Talfazat, “We want to provide a clean product that people are willing to pay for.”

Similar services exist from other providers.  AT&T has launched their U-Verse plan, which offers roughly the same channels you would expect from Dish Network.  Unfortunately AT&T has done a really awful job of marketing U-Verse.  Nobody knows that it exists.  If people know about U-Verse, most of them think that it is actually AT&T’s satellite service through its partner (was Dish Network, now DirecTV). 

If you find out about U-Verse, you may not want to buy it because AT&T has priced it at the same level as Dish Network–which is already the most expensive satellite network and fast losing market share as a result.  What could they have been thinking? And on top of that AT&T is maintaining a partnership with their own competitor, DirecTV.

The wild web, however, has much to offer if you can winnow the wheat from the chaff.  Despite its many nonsense or bad-spirited or generally poor quality channels, many fun and interesting videos are available on Youtube.  Services providing free IPTV include Joost, Hulu, Justin.TV, ChannelChooser, and WWITV.  Of these, Hulu may be the most professional, although the focus of Hulu is more on mainstream American shows.  And it is possible to construct an imitation of the walled gardens but without losing the wild and free content–either by connecting a PC running Boxee (and thus indirectly also Hulu) or by hacking an AppleTV box to run Boxee (and thus Hulu).  Surely other hacks will emerge as time passes, but for now the $200 AppleTV (which you buy once and never again pay for) in connection with Boxee is the most cost effective means of accessing free IPTV content.

The price structure of Talfazat and her sisters is middle of the road–but by comparison with other services that are available it is at a fair market rate.  For $30 a month, you can have 30 Arabic channels piped into your house.  Compared to Dish Network this is pennies.  Compared to the freely available content via satellite perhaps it is a little bit expensive–but perhaps the difference in price is made up for in ease of access and professionalism of the end product.

Considering that the price for Dish Network’s foreign content is simply outrageous (on average you would have to pay about $15 for only one foreign channel on Dish), NeuLion is in a strong position to secure customers escaping from long contracts, or sometimes mediocre customer service, and perhaps will recapture some of the former pirates who have been chased away from Dish Network recently by its increasingly aggressive anti-piracy encryption.

DirecTV, Ms. West explained, has just cancelled all its Arabic channels–perhaps a concession to Dish Network, which in fact provides a very decent array of international programming.

The Indian channels available in a standard package from TV-Desi are rather minimal, only roughly four or five from each package–yet if you are from a foreign country and you have access to the four channels you used to watch at home that might be more than enough–especially when TV-Desi is poised to expand into other channels.

Another competitive point emphasized by Ms. West is the ease of installation.  The box is mailed to you, you unpack it, plug in an ethernet cord, a power cord, and turn it on, and you are in business.  Unlike a satellite or cable install, which might require you to stay home from work when “a satellite guy or a cable guy has to come into your house” and install it.

Talfazat and her sisters offer limited American channels–about 30 of the JV American channels including Fox News and Discovery, for a nominal fee.  They plan to expand their coverage in this area, as they do in their ethnic channel repertoire.

Customer service through Talfazat seems excellent.  In a brief call to explore the available service, I encountered excellent, knowledgeable and friendly customer service from an Arabic-speaking customer service representative.  This is a level of niche marketing that, even with some effort, Dish Network or your local cable company will be unlikely to find a willingness to compete with.

As far as quality of the picture, Talfazat is excellent.  Ms. West claims there is no buffering  if a customer has a pipe of 1 Mbs.  The box is HD-ready, although regional programming in HD is slim-to-none.  What looks like an S-Video jack in the back of the Talfazat box is actually a plug for a dongle that can accept HD-ready HDMI or component plugs to connect to your television. 

NeuLion did not discuss the potential impact of the higher quality picture on bandwidth, but presumably that will push them beyond their current 1Mbs. 

Presumably NeuLion are experts at providing HD content, since their expertise has been developed through years of servicing the sports leagues which thrive in large part based on their HD filming.

But the brilliance of the NeuLion team is not only in the quality and availability of their product, it is also in their clever marketing to an available niche, at a marketable price, through friendly customer service.

Note:  Talfazat is a valued advertiser in this newspaper.

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