By Dustin Sklavos
It's funny, after having reviewed Netflix and iTunes I feel like I've experienced the two poles of quality which online video can vacillate between. On the one pole is Netflix's streaming service, with a selection like a video store without a new release wall, and an extremely enticing price tag. On the other is iTunes, with a vast selection and an Apple tax more or less levied on every single piece of media. At some point we have to find a middle ground, right?
As it turns out, Amazon's Video On Demand service may be just that. Amazon's MP3 download service has the unfortunate distinction of feeling like an also-ran against iTunes despite having generally better prices and no DRM. The Video On Demand service may have the same shades: prices are often better than iTunes, but the selection seems to be a bit weaker. How does it ultimately fare?
I got lucky testing Amazon's Video On Demand (henceforth "Amazon VOD"), as it's oddly enough the only service that carries the Upright Citizens Brigade movie "Wild Girls Gone." For those of you that have tastes that lean further away from the esoteric, big name movies like "Iron Man 2" are also available for rental prices competitive with pay per view services available from cable providers. This is something Netflix can't really touch: I have to wait a month for "Splice" to become available just to rent the physical media on Netflix, but on Amazon it's readily available for streaming. Given the death of Blockbuster and my own distaste for Redbox ($1 a night may be fine, but keep in mind the "new releases only" nature of Redbox can be suffocating for smaller, more independent releases), Amazon's service turns out to be just about the only game in town that doesn't require you to run Apple's abysmal iTunes 10.
Amazon's selection is pretty vast and, when browsing prices, I found Amazon to consistently offer better deals than the iTunes store. In my review of the iTunes store I found the "Paranormal Activity" digital download selling for $19.99; Amazon charges half that, though they still don't have the digital rental available. Even the new "Iron Man 2" was only $14.99.
Amazon's other ace in the hole is that it, like Netflix, is more or less platform-agnostic due to being browser-based. Your Video On Demand library is kept in the same Amazon account you use for everything else, and is actually just a subsection of your main account page. Movies are also viewed within the browser, though unlike Netflix, there aren't Amazon clients for televisions or home gaming consoles. To be fair, though, iTunes is only supported through Apple TV, and Amazon will be part of Google TV and thus available through those set-top boxes.
It's unfortunate that the idea of Amazon VOD is somewhat removed from the reality of it. I'm a fan of their MP3 service, but internet video is substantially more complex than downloading a DRM-less MP3, and unfortunately the complication bears itself out.
Getting things started was easy enough, but the first and most immediate problem was Amazon's generally poor video quality. "Wild Girls Gone" looks like it was shot on digital video, so that's already an issue, but adding a layer of compression to stream it just exacerbated things. You could say that's just an issue with that movie in particular and I might agree, but I found other sample videos on the service to be of similarly middling quality. It's watchable, but it's not up to the same level as iTunes or Netflix.
From there it's been a series of technical problems. Like many people, I use Firefox as my primary browser, but the Flash integration for Amazon has been nothing but a series of headaches. On the media center, audio and video would unsynchronize, often with a noticeable delay of as much as a second. Switching to Internet Explorer 8 ameliorated the problem but didn't completely correct it. On my desktop it was even worse, where so much as looking at the "Iron Man 2" rental page for more than a few seconds would cause the browser to lock up completely. This isn't the first time I've had to deal with Flash locking up my browser, but it's staggeringly consistent with Amazon VOD. Netflix uses Silverlight to stream video, and as much as people like to bag on Microsoft alternatives to existing standards, Silverlight at least works well. I've never seen Netflix lock up a browser or Windows Media Center the way I've seen Amazon VOD do it.
During playback of the movie I also had my router drop connection, and that's where I ran into another problem. Between my unstable streaming connection and the audio and video desynchronizing, I figured it would be a good time to just try downloading the rental since there was a link to do so. Big mistake. Inexplicably, for rentals, the way you start watching it is the way you're stuck watching it. So if you started watching the movie streaming, you can't choose to download it later.
And downloading? It's not as clean as downloading DRM-free MP3s. For movies, you need to download the Amazon Unbox client. That client is Windows-only, which in many ways curtails the utility of the service. While it's true that the iTunes store requires iTunes, period, having to use the Amazon Unbox to watch movies offline isn't a real improvement. iTunes 10 is at least cross-platform, even if it sucks out loud. Even worse, while Unbox is at least a fairly lightweight client, the one video I downloaded to test it wouldn't play back. Instead, the program spit out an error message.
I suspect that for many users, Amazon VOD could very well go without a hitch. The prices are certainly right, and at least in the browser Amazon is platform-agnostic. This is a service I wanted to give a good review to, I wanted to be able to say "this is your alternative, this is your way to escape an iTunes-fuelled, Apple-controlled digital video hell." And I can't.
I can't give Amazon VOD a positive review because it barely works. Watching movies on Netflix and then watching them on Amazon VOD is a night and day difference. Video quality seems to be better on Netflix, and I haven't run into anywhere near as many problems using Netflix as I did with Amazon VOD. It's the fact that the plug-in is unstable, and that even the downloadable client spits out an error when I try to watch a downloaded video.
When I write these reviews, very little infuriates me more than seeing a product that has such serious technical problems that they impede even its most basic functions. I felt that way with Corel VideoStudio Pro X3, and again with iTunes 10, and now once more with Amazon VOD and the Unbox client. I recognize that coding applications like this is extremely complex and time-consuming, but it's inexcusable to release to the marketplace an application that barely works, to put a seal of approval on something that could wind up outright wasting someone's money. If I bought "Iron Man 2" off of Amazon VOD, I would be livid with the kinds of issues I've had. It's tough to beat the kind of DRM-based hell that Blu-ray discs can offer, but Amazon VOD (and iTunes 10, so we're clear) manages to achieve exactly that.
Amazon VOD has potential. The prices are right. But the technological back end is in shambles, and until they work the kinks out I have a hard time recommending it. I think it's still a better choice than iTunes 10, but that's like saying you'd rather drive a car with three wheels than one with two. Neither option is acceptable.
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