By Jay Garmon
Hulu is the banner-carrier for legally watching television for free on the Internet, but some have argued you get what you pay for. Is Hulu really ready to change TV forever, or is it still not ready for prime time? We break it down in this review.
Hulu is a streaming video service directly supported by the four major US televison networks that offers free, on-demand TV content over the Web. Put simply, Hulu lets you watch most of the ABC, NBC, Fox and (by linking to CBS.com) CBS programs that you didn't or couldn't record with your DVR -- and Hulu does this free of charge. It's designed to be a Tivo-killer, but on the TV networks' terms. The catch? Hulu shows contain commercials that you can't skip, though fewer ads than you'd see during the regular on-air broadcast.
If you have a modern browser and decent Web connection, you can watch almost any recent primetime comedy or drama from the convenience of your PC. Moreover, Hulu doesn't charge any of the subscriptions or download fees associated with Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes' online video services. Like those competitors, Hulu also offers a selection of full-length movies, but its severely limited selection of films is mostly an afterthought. Hulu's focus is squarely on TV shows.
So, about those TV shows. The general rule with Hulu is that the last five episodes of any TV show currently in first-run broadcast is available. This is not remotely the same as the full seasons available on Hulu's competitors. Hulu can get you caught up on recent episodes, but you can't rewatch a full series. Unless, that is, the series is no longer on the air. If you really have a hankering for the complete run of Alf or the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, Hulu is here for you.
Think of it like this: If there's a show you or any of your friends is likely to buy on DVD or Blu-ray, it isn't on Hulu. As we mentioned, Hulu is free on-demand Web TV on the television networks' terms, so they aren't going to offer much of anything that competes with their traditional DVD revenue stream. This is the same reason why only a few hundred movies are available of Hulu; the service isn't allowed to directly compete with DVD sales. While Amazon, Netflix and iTunes' online services get DVD-equivalent offerings slightly later than brick-and-mortar stores, Hulu doesn't really get these titles at all.
Moreover, all of Hulu's content is interspersed with commercials, even the short clips and trailers that are themselves commercials for Hulu's full-length content. While you can skip ahead to any point in a Hulu video, if you jump past any of the commercials (clearly marked by dots on the video timeline), you'll have to watch a commercial before the video resumes playback.
That said, there are thousands upon thousands of shows to be seen on Hulu, but the service is specifically designed not to compete with your personal DVD library. Even the extra bells and whistles Hulu offers -- a desktop application to view outside the browser, embeddable widgets that let you post Hulu videos to your blog or Facebook page, "subscription" options that alert you when new episodes of your favorite shows are available -- can't make up for lack of selection.
Hulu defines standard-definition content, which is its default playback resolution, as 360p. Hulu's self-described high-resolution content is rendered in 480p. A limited selection of content is available in Hulu's HD Gallery at 720p. We generally could not discern any appreciable difference between standard and hi-res Hulu content. You can see a comparison of standard (360p, on the left) and hi-res (480p, on the right) below.
Like all streaming services, Hulu is at the mercy of your connection speed and reliability. We had no trouble watching Hulu over our home broadband service, but public Wi-Fi isn't going to handle the Hulu load very well. Unlike with Netflix and Amazon, we didn't notice any appreciable compression artifacts in our videos, probably because Hulu handles all video compression itself, rather than letting outside sources compress the video files.
Hulu's complete system requirements are listed here, but the main points are as follows:
The Hulu Desktop application requires:
If you don't watch live sports or news programs, Hulu is a great, low-budget subsititute for a DVR or maybe even your cable television service. You can get almost everything the major TV networks (and the cable channels they own) show in primetime, provided you seek it out within a month of its original air date. If you missed the last couple episodes of your favorite show, Hulu is without a doubt the best place to catch up. But Hulu really isn't competition for the fee-based servcies that also offer online video. If anything, Hulu is a complement to Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. Use Hulu to watch the current programs that haven't been released on DVD yet; use the others to watch the DVD-equivalent content you want to view on your PC.
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