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How to get the best from youtube: The web's video library

01 Oct 2009

YouTube isn’t the only site online where you can share or find online video, but it remains the most popular,  with more than 10 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute. That means it tends to have the widest range of content, and a large range of ease-of-use features most other sites don’t replicate. (It also has the financial backing of Google, which purchased the site from its founders in 2006 for a cool $US1.65 billion.)

There’s an enormous variety of content on YouTube, ranging from music video clips to amateur footage of  kittens freaking out at the site of a printer. Much of this has been shot by enthusiasts using simple digital  cameras and uploaded to the site with minimal or no editing. While many of these clips will be seen by only a handful of people, the site has created some genuine celebrities. For instance, Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle’s global fame came about largely because clips of her audition were posted on YouTube, rather  than through conventional TV broadcasts.

Running YouTube is expensive (because of the computer storage space and Internet bandwidth required), so Google has been experimenting with various forms of advertising to help fund the site. That means its  long-term future is uncertain, but for now it remains the Web’s main online destination for video content.


To watch videos on YouTube, all you need is a Web browser and an Internet connection (preferably  broadband). YouTube uses Adobe’s Flash technology to render videos on-screen. It’s quite likely that you  already have the Flash plug-in for your browser: if you don’t, you can download and install it for free at  www.adobe.com  From YouTube’s main page (www.youtube.com), you can search for videos through the  search box at the top of the screen. As you type, YouTube’s suggestions feature will come up with similar  options often searched for by other users, which you can click on to save time. Once you’ve hit Search, YouTube will produce a list of results. Click on the link for any video you like and it will start playing on screen  after a short delay.

As well as the Play/Pause button, you’ll notice some other elements on the YouTube screen, including a  volume control, an elapsed time indicator and an ‘HD’ button (if the video is also available in a high-defi nition  version). Clicking on the fullscreen button (a pair of rectangles in the bottom right corner of the video) will  enlarge the video to fill your PC screen, though the image will often be very boxy and pixelated. You can  return to the regular view by hitting the Esc key on your keyboard.

To the right of the video, you’ll see information about it, including who uploaded it (and in many cases created  it as well). When the video finishes playing, YouTube will offer links to other videos on similar topics in the  main window. You can find more of these in the ‘Related Videos’ links on the right – it’s dangerously easy to  start off watching one clip and end up spending hours on the site.

Underneath each video, there are also comments offered by YouTube members. While these are occasionally  helpful, more often than not they descend into juvenile name-calling. Be very wary of clicking on any links in  the comments – they’re often used by spammers and malware developers.

Each video has its own unique Web address on the YouTube site, making it easy to share with others. You  can also click on the ‘Send Video’ link for an easy way to email links to friends, or share them via social networking sites like Facebook.

If all that information on-screen seems a little overwhelming, YouTube also offers what it calls ‘XL view’, a  simplified interface which makes videos larger, removes comments and has a dark rather than light  background. If all you want to do is watch clips, this is definitely easier on the eye. Access it at www.youtube.com/xl


You can view all the content on YouTube simply by visiting the site. However, setting up a YouTube account  can make regular video viewing easier. (This is also essential if you want to upload your own video content.)  Just click on the signup link near the top of the page, choose an account name, enter an email address and  some location and personal details, and the process is largely done.

For a video viewer, the most useful feature of having an account is subscriptions. If there’s a particular  contributor you like – whether it’s your Aunt Jan’s home fruit-pickling videos or clips from Top Gear – click on the Subscribe button and you’ll get automatic notifications whenever a new video is uploaded by that  creator.


YouTube is designed for watching videos while connected, but what if you want to save a video on your local  hard drive for viewing later? In a handful of cases – where the video creator allows it – you’ll see a  ‘Download’ button underneath the video. Simply click on this and you’ll be able to download the video as an  mp4 file, which will play on your PC or iPod.

Most videos don’t have that option, but a mini-industry of YouTube video downloading software has sprung  up. In practice, we’d advise against downloading most of these programs, as many come from questionable  sources.

A simple way to download any video from YouTube is to use www.vixy.net, an online service. Simply copy the address of your chosen video from your browser, go to the Vixy site, paste in the address, choose what  kind of file you want to save it as and click ‘Start’. The process can take a while, especially with larger files,  but will finish with an mp4 file which you can save to your hard drive. (Note that downloading videos may be a  violation of copyright, and you shouldn’t distribute those downloaded files to other people via the Internet.)


If you want to place your own videos on the site, you’ll need to set up an account (as discussed above). If  you’re simply planning to film something on your digital camera, you won’t need to do anything more complicated than copy it across to your computer, as YouTube can automatically convert most video formats  (and will let you know if you can’t handle yours).

Make sure you’re signed into YouTube and click on the Account link, and you’ll see an Upload button in the top right corner. Click on this and then on ‘Upload video on the next screen’, and you can choose the file you  want to upload. Uploading will begin immediately, while you fill out a screen with basic details of your video.  Note that uploading videos is a slow process – partly because YouTube’s servers are located overseas and  partly because most New Zealand broadband connections offer much slower upload speeds than download  speeds.

It’s worth spending some time giving your video an appropriate title, description and tags, and categorising it correctly, as this will increase the chances of interested viewers finding it. You can optionally choose to  restrict video viewing to a group of friends (who must also be registered with YouTube), but in practice putting  anything on YouTube that you’re not prepared for the world to see is probably unwise.


In theory, you should only upload video to YouTube that you’ve created yourself. In practice, you’ll quickly  notice that the site is filled with extracts from TV shows, music clips and other copyright material, which users  have  converted into digital formats and uploaded to the site. While some of this is authorised (many TV  networks maintain their own YouTube ‘channel’ with extracts from past and upcoming shows), much of  it isn’t.

Copyright owners vary in whether or not they police people putting up content. Some view it as useful extra  publicity and don’t intervene; others actively monitor YouTube and demand that copyrighted content is removed. If you do convert and post TV shows or other material, don’t be surprised if it is summarily removed  by YouTube. Repeat offenders can have their accounts suspended. YouTube also bans material featuring X-rated, illegal or offensive activity.


Video content doesn’t tend to work well over dial-up, and often results in jerky playback with long pauses. If  you don’t have a broadband connection and want to watch videos, there is a simple workaround. Once you’ve  located the video you want to watch, immediately press the pause button, then go away and make a cup of  tea. YouTube continues to download the video in the background (when it’s fully loaded, the progress bar under the video will be entirely red). You can then click on Play and watch the entire video without  interruption. (Another option is to use the downloading system mentioned above, although this doesn’t always  work as well on slower connections.)