Monday, February 23, 2009

Watching TV and Movies Online

Why pay for Cable? With so many options for watching movies and shows through your computer, only a sucker would still shell out the big bucks to the Cable companies. Well... maybe not quite yet, but the online TV/film revolution is coming, and lucky for you I've had nothing better to do these past few weeks than watch a lot of movies and shows on the various online offerings.  

I've whittled the choices down to the four best and most popular: Hulu, Netflix, the Itunes music store, and Surf the Channel. I'll give you my thoughts on each, and also ranking them in four main categories:

1. Content: In other words, do they have a large library of programs worth watching? 

2. A/V Quality: How do the programs look and sound? 

3. Interface: How easy to use is the service? What's the format like? Does the search feature work, etc.

4. Pricing Structure: How much does it cost? And is it worth it?

Anyway, let's get to it:

Overview: Hulu is owned and run by NBC, but don't let that scare you away, since their library contains shows from most of the major networks. 

Content: If all you want is to watch current TV shows, Hulu can't be beat. Since it's owned by NBC, all of their shows are on there, but most of the biggest shows from their competitors are as well. Most new shows are updated the day after they originally aired, so as long as you don't mine waiting 24 hours after everybody else, it works. They also have a fairly respectable library of older TV shows, which grows everyday as they continue to add more and more content. 

Movies are another story, however, and at these point seem like more of an afterthought or "bonus feature" than anything else. Sure, there are some good movies on there, but you really have to search for them, and none of them are exactly Hollywood blockbusters. But if you really love old B movies like Smokey and the Bandit III or Any Which Way You Can, you'll enjoy Hulu's movie library.  
Score: 8 out of 10

A/V Quality: Not bad, not great. The shows and films look pretty good -- certainly good enough to watch -- but where's the HD? Ever since they first came online, they've had a tiny "HD Gallery" touting the power and quality of HD programs, but they have yet to follow through. As it is now, most of their shows and films can be played in 480P, but it doesn't really look like it. I can't tell a difference between their "high res" and their "low res" options. But both look pretty good, all things considered. Also, playback usually runs without a hitch without almost any lag or choppiness.
Score: 8 out of 10

Interface: Here's where Hulu gets a little annoying. First of all, their search feature is actually too powerful. Search for something like "Heroes" and you'll get 3,000 hits with that word in the title, description, or footnote somewhere way on the bottom of the screen. Also, it isn't very good about filtering between actual programs or just trailers or clips. And when you click on the tabs for films or TV, then do a search, it will always seem to search the entire site instead of just the section you want. 

Watching the programs is fine, though jumping around or fast-forwarding and rewinding can be annoying. First of all, you can't move through the progress bar in full screen without pausing the video or shrinking the screen. Also, because of the mandatory commercials (more on that below), you can't jump too far without being forced to stop and watch the ads. But none of these are deal breakers, but the entire thing could be streamlined and cleaned up.

Hulu does make it easy to share and embed clips on the web, which is pretty cool:

Score: 7 out of 10

Pricing: Hulu is completely free! You just have to sit though a few, very short ads during the programs. This isn't so bad, but it is kind of weird how each program has only one sponsor. So if you sit down to watch, say, an episode of Psych, be prepared to watch four commercials for the same product. 

But free is free. In my opinion, they all should be free. Kudos to Hulu for getting this one right.
Score: 10 out of 10

Overall score: 8 out of 10

Overview: Everybody has heard of Netflix, the website that pioneered renting movies online. They have since expanded into the realms of streaming to your TV and computer. 

Content: If you're a film-lover who wants to rent DVDs through the mail, Netflix is a godsend. Pretty much, if it's on DVD, it's in their library. That goes for TV shows on DVD as well as films. They also offer Blu Ray, but since I don't have a BR player, I can't speak for their selection. But I would go so far as to say that they have the best, and most complete selection of DVDs for rent in the civilized world.

Online-streaming content is another story, however, but it's still pretty good. I can't really figure out any rhyme or reason as to why some films are available for online-streaming and some aren't, but it's probably a rights issue. Their film selection is actually really good, with more and more popping up every day. Everytime I take a look at my DVD queue, I notice that there are a few more that are suddenly available to watch instantly on my computer. That's cool. TV isn't quite as good, and the content is pretty much restricted to what is already on DVD. In other words, there are no current episodes or seasons to be found. If you want to watch the entire run of Quantum Leap or Miami Vice, no problem, but you'll have to go elsewhere for last week's 24.
Score: 9 out of 10

A/V Quality: Honestly, the quality here is pretty much identical to Hulu, which is to say it looks pretty good. However, their streaming is a real system hog so there can be a lot of lag and choppiness, especially when you are in full screen and have too many programs running. It's watchable, but close your other programs and hope for the best. And, so far, there's no options or mentions of HD content.
Score: 6 out of 10

Interface: Using and searching and watching programs on Netflix is a breeze. The search feature is intuitive and powerful, allowing you to search by genre, format, director, actor, etc. It easily lets you know what can be viewed online and what is only available by DVD, and it even lets you set up two queues for both formats.

The section for user comments, ratings, related films, and other recommendations is probably the best I've seen on the internet, with suggestions that actually seem to make sense. I've found a lot of films by just surfing through the suggestions and related films tabs. The only real problem I've noticed is that the screen ratio format listings are for the DVDs only, so there is no way to know if the streaming content is in full or widescreen until you actually start to view it. That's lame. Why are any of these films not in their original aspect ratio? 
Score: 9 out of 10

Pricing: Online streaming is free with any Netflix subscription, so you could sign up for only $5 a month. You have to pay a lot more than that if you want more DVDs out for longer periods of time however. As far as online DVD rentals are concerned, Netflix is cheap and well worth whichever plan you decide is right for you, but at this point, watching programs online is more of a bonus than anything else, and probably not worth paying for on its own. If you have a Netflix account already, you'd be insane not to take advantage of this service. But as it stands now, it's not worth it by itself.
Score: 6 out of 10

Overall score: 7 out of 10

Overview: The iTunes Music store is the online depot for content that you can download to view and hear on itunes or on your ipod. Do you have a Mac or an MP3 player? Then you already know what itunes is. 

Content: Pretty good. Their selection of current TV shows is right up there with Hulu, if no even more expansive, though their catalogue of anything older than a few years ago is sorely lacking. Movie selection is really good as well, with most things available for rent or purchase. 
Score: 9 out of 10

A/V Quality: Programs purchased from the iTunes store look and sound great. And they actually have a lot of HD content! The HD programs are limited to just TV at this point, but they look fantastic. In my opinion, HD should be the norm at this point, and iTunes definitely delivers, more than doubling their HD content than they first had just a few months ago.
Score: 10 out of 10

Interface: Itunes is a great, easy to use program. The music store itself is really buggy and goes down a lot and gives the occasional error when you try to download something, but most of these are fixed with a simple program restart. But it can still be really annoying when all you want to do is download a song or TV show. Also, nothing is streamed, so downloads can take a while and take up a lot of space, especially for the HD stuff. So be aware if you set up an entire season to download automatically each week in HD. It'll eat up your memory faster than you think.
Score: 7 out of 10

Pricing: Way, way, way overpriced. Seriously, I have to pay for TV now? Sure, the selection is great and the programs look fantastic, but I still have to pay for every episode? And entire seasons cost almost as much as they would on DVD. Why is there no option for a monthly subscription fee for all of their TV or movie content? Also, who is buying movies on itunes? Renting may, though I've never done it, but purchasing them? And they're not even in HD?

Get with the program, iTunes. Lower your prices or at least have them make more sense for loyal customers. I would be perfectly willing to watch ads in my shows if they were free, or even cheaper. 
Score: 4 out of 10

Overall: 7 out of 10

Overview: Surf the Channel is a website that just provides links to TV shows and movies. That's all. No more, no less. The website claims its perfectly legal, but I'm not sure how. I guess because they don't host the content, just link to it, and maybe it's all on servers in different countries. I dunno. 

Content: How about every TV show and movie ever made? Ok, it's not quite that all-encompassing, but it's close. Chances are good if it's somewhere online, it's going to be found on this website. And everything is online. 
Score: 10 out of 10

A/V Quality: Because the programs aren't hosted on one website, they vary in quality. But one thing is consistent: It all looks awful. The bit rates are low, the picture looks like crap, and a lot of them have weird, Asian subtitles covering much of the screen. They're watchable, I guess, but most have the same quality as a youtube video. 
Score: 3 out of 10

Interface: There's no bells and whistles here, folks. Just search for a program then pick the link you hope will work. Most won't, and those that do won't look good. A lot of trial and error is involved, since you'll be following dead links most of the time. I also wouldn't recommend using this site without a good pop-up blocker and virus program running. I wouldn't trust most of these websites not to be malicious in some way.
Score: 4 out of 10

Pricing: It's all completely free, and you definitely get what you pay for. But unlike Hulu, there are no ads to support the site or to keep the production levels in check. But, you know, it's free. If you've absolutely looked everywhere else and can't find that missing episode to Car 54 Where Are You? you may as well look here. I bet they've got it.

Overall: 5 out of 10

Overall Winner: Hulu


aak said...

I find the fact that Hulu forces you to watch repetitive ads the most infuriating. I would not mind it half as much if the ads were even only slightly different.

Still, you're right, Hulu wins.

Have you tried Boxee? It's an interface program that works with Netflix streams, abc's and cbs's versions of hulu, and maybe even hulu itself. I downloaded it a while ago but haven't had time to fully play with it. (It's also got some kind of social component, but I ignored it.)

Phoebe said...

Nice overview. It's true that TV viewing options are better than movies for now, but hopefully that will change on Hulu and elsewhere.

For a new way to choose what to watch, you might like to try Jinni ( - we're a new service with search and recommendations powered by the Movie Genome.