Rockpack: A Sleek YouTube-Powered Video Hub

How on earth have we become so addicted? To online video, I mean. According to comScore, Americans alone watched 41 billion videos in May 2013. This figure is remarkable on its own, but it seems even more so when you consider that the market-leader — or monopolizer, some may say — YouTube, is only eight years old.

Given the solidity of YouTube’s dominance, and the continuing growth of the online video market, it seems likely that Google‘s video goliath will continue to corner the market for some time to come. It is starting to show its age, though. We live in a world that is rapidly adopting online television as its favoured form of audiovisual entertainment, and although YouTube’s sprawling network provides diversity, it does not provide an ideal environment for the passive viewer. Equally, YouTube’s design has barely changed in years, with only a few Cosmic Panda-inspired tweaks providing some kind of refinement. Even the most hardcore YouTuber could hardly call the site, and its associated apps, pretty.

Rockpack, a new video-based iOS offering, is attempting to add a layer of its own polish on top of YouTube’s massive library of content. Within its stunning interface, Rockpack offers up YouTube’s content in a channel-focused way, as well as offering an independent, in-app video sharing network. Is a snazzy interface and a copycat network really enough to elevate Rockpack above its parent platform, though?

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The Design

Putting substance to one side for a moment, I have to say that Rockpack is certainly a triumph of style.

Entry into Rockpack always starts with the browsing view. It has the look of a website, with its navigation menu placed at the top, and the content below, although I think there is a degree of iTunes mimicry going on here. For instance, the channels are displayed in a grid, each with a surprisingly high definition preview image, just as albums are in Apple’s signature music player.

Channels are arranged neatly in a grid, making for easy browsing.

Channels are arranged neatly in a grid, making for easy browsing.

The theme of high-definition imagery only becomes more prominent once you enter a channel’s profile page. Filling the majority of the screen is the channel’s banner (similar to a Facebook cover photo), and scrolling down to view the array of videos produces a very tasty parallax effect — the banner image slowly blurs, the icons fade away, and the grid of individual video previews fills the screen. Serious eye-candy, here.

High definition imagery can be found throughout Rockpack.

High definition imagery can be found throughout Rockpack.

Even the styling of single video pages is handsome. At the centre of the screen is the video window, with elegant, white icons surrounding it. Below, is a sideways-swipeable menu of the other videos from the channel you are viewing.

Single videos are displayed beautifully, although you can go full screen too.

Single videos are displayed beautifully, although you can go full screen too.

The overall visual impression of Rockpack‘s interface has an air of smart TV about it, such is the beauty and simplicity on show, and it is certainly an improvement on the formulaic look of most video networks.

The Network

Don’t be fooled, though; Rockpack is very much a network. Of course, it can only ever be a peripheral to the video-hosting service on which it relies, but good content hosting and good usability do not always arrive in the same package (the pre-redesign version of Flickr springs to mind).

Obviously, the social aspect of the Rockpack network is not in the uploading of videos. The emphasis, instead, is on curation. As a Rockpack user, you can create any number of your own channels, and you can add videos to them from anywhere within Rockpack, by tapping the near-omnipresent + icons.

These + buttons allow you to add any video to your curated channels.

These + buttons allow you to add any video to your curated channels.

If your preference is for a more passive approach to online viewing, you can also subscribe to the channels of both original content creators and Rockmelt curators. The videos from these channels then appear within your timeline-like Feed.

As you watch a video, Rockpack also offers the option to favourite the clip — your favourites appear on your public Rockpack profile — or share it via some of the more mainstream sources of social interaction, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Content Library

As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, the diversity of content, which is YouTube’s strength, also has the side-effect of variable quality. It is clear that the developers of Rockpack have noticed this, and have opted for a more restricted, but higher quality gallery of content.

Within the Sport section, for instance, can be found the official Wimbledon channel, and the Technology subsection displays Robert Scoble’s channel prominently. Channels like these are not the only ones available, it’s just that they tend to frequent the top of their respective sections. The apparent cherry-picking of these better known video publishers, who usually provide a good standard of content and a certain level of regularity with their uploads, seems to be a conscious nudge to encourage Rockpack users to use the app like an on-demand TV service.

Should you wish to break out of this walled garden, perhaps to visit old friends like the LOLcats or Gangnam Style-rs, Rockpack does provide a search function, which covers the entirety of YouTube’s catalogue. Thankfully, the search results are not limited to channels, with individual videos on offer, too.

Thankfully, both videos and channels are offers in Rockpack's slick search.

Thankfully, both videos and channels are offers in Rockpack’s slick search.

As a slick way of providing online entertainment, I think Rockpack‘s system works well. Its weighting towards top-end video publishing, rather than guerrilla iPhone videography, will not necessarily suit the archetypical YouTube user, but for those who favour more traditional video content, it provides a straightforward method of accessing TV-quality entertainment.

Conclusion

Rockpack is one of the more unusual apps I’ve reviewed in that it truly is a hybrid. On the surface, it appears to be an extraordinarily well-made YouTube client, but closer inspection leads me to believe that it is more of a handheld, YouTube-derived TiVo.

Judging it from this perspective, then, I would have to say that Rockpack works magnificently. The design, throughout, is superb, and the layout makes for rapid navigation. The in-app network, though pleasant in theory, seems to be an irrelevance — the strength of this app is its likeness to a media centre, not its indistinctive social options.

In summary, then, if you are looking for a way to experience the great programming YouTube has to offer, without the need to sift through millions of Charlie Bit My Finger parodies, Rockpack is probably the best way to do it on your iPad.


Summary

A handheld version of what Google TV could have been – easy, beautifully wrapped access to great YouTube content.

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