By Dustin Sklavos
When I started this series a few weeks ago, I admit I came in with some preconceived notions. First, let’s call it like it is: cable companies have good reason to be terrified of streaming video services. Outside of sports programming, internet access — particularly on your television — goes a long way towards rendering the cable box obsolete. I’ve been a Netflix customer for years now and I’ve almost never felt any great loss at not being able to watch television. Sure, I’d like to be able to catch Dexter when it runs the first time and not have the fourth season’s ending spoiled for me on the front page of IMDb, but I can always either have Netflix send me the discs when it comes out or just buy the season.
The question at this point was, for me at least, just how good these services were at replacing a cable television subscription. Netflix was a known quantity, but had Hulu improved, was Amazon’s streaming service as good as their MP3 service, and did iTunes 10 make much of a difference? Let’s see how the services stack up.
THE LOSERS: ITUNES 10 AND AMAZON VIDEO ON DEMAND
The apparent lack of desire by Apple to improve iTunes 10 at all on the PC was expected but still disappointing. Apple seemingly doesn’t realize the majority of their customers are using Windows PCs, so the programmers assigned to the Windows version of iTunes 10 could be charitably described as incompetent. This is some of the worst quality software I’ve seen since I owned a Creative sound card and had to use their drivers. Apple may have a massive selection in the iTunes store, but their walled garden approach forces you to use bloated, buggy software.
That might be worth putting up with if there were good deals to be had, but the pricing in the iTunes store is insane. Physical media may become the next vinyl, destined only to show up on the shelves of collectors, but it’s still consistently cheaper than buying video off of iTunes and often by a healthy margin. Streaming video still hasn’t caught up to the quality you can get from a Blu-ray, either, and with Blu-ray players starting to float around the $100 mark and sales pushing the drives for computers down to $60 or less, there’s a case to be made for just making that investment instead of being stuck in iTunes hell.
Given the generally dire state of iTunes on Windows and the ridiculous pricing, you’d think there would be an opening in the market for Amazon to offer a better alternative. Their MP3 download service is pretty underrated, offering DRM-free tracks still at that coveted 99-cent price tag. Unfortunately, the quality of Amazon’s Video on Demand screws the pooch. Prices are better than iTunes and the service can be used entirely in a Flash-equipped browser, offering some level of platform agnosticism.
It just barely works. Audio synchronization issues marred my experience with it, and the downloadable Unbox client is buggy and intrusive. I hate any non-antiviral software that just assumes you want it to load when Windows starts. Whether or not I have 12GB of RAM is irrelevant (by the way, heads up folks, memory prices are through the floor right now), I don’t want software loading up when I boot my machine that I haven’t given explicit permission to do so.
I’m fine with iTunes being terrible; Steve Jobs can stand in front of his press conference and espouse how much Apple loves their customers while foisting buggy, bloated software (iTunes PC, iOS 4 update crippling anything that isn’t an iPhone 4) on them and people will buy it. But Amazon had a chance to fill a niche that Hulu and Netflix don’t, and they dropped the ball in a major way with badly-coded software. They offer what amounts to internet pay-per-view of new releases things Netflix has to wait for — but it’s barely watchable.
YOUR NEW CABLE SERVICE PROVIDERS: HULU AND NETFLIX
It’s the future, folks, drink it in. If you don’t care about sports programming, Hulu Plus and Netflix are viable alternative to cable television. Costing less than $30 a month combined, these two make it tough to justify shelling out that $60+ a month for cable. I use a media center PC, but a $60 Roku box is enough to get you rolling with both of these services, plus Amazon’s Unbox if they ever fix it. While it’s true you can’t channel surf, there’s an unholy amount of content at your fingertips.
We’ll start with Netflix. The by-mail service isn’t a direct replacement for going to the video store, but with Movie Gallery going out of business and Blockbuster declaring bankruptcy, there aren’t a whole lot of alternatives. On that front, Netflix’s selection is good, but it suffers the same problem the streaming service has: there’s too much delay for new releases. This is the Achilles’ heel of Netflix, and unfortunately it doesn’t look to be getting fixed any time soon.
The flipside is that Netflix’s streaming service has been growing by leaps and bounds and shows no sign of stopping. It’s not enough to have major catalog titles like The Godfather trilogy available, Netflix even encroaches on Hulu’s turf a little by offering several major television series for streaming. The amount of Battlestar Galactica I’ve watched over the past two weeks easily justifies the $13 a month (Blu-ray rental costs an extra $3) subscription fee. Video quality is manageable if not excellent, although the HD streams of Battlestar have looked pretty good and definitely better than DVD. Bottom line here: if you’re a movie buff, Netflix has you covered in a big way.
For the television-watching populace, Hulu Plus covers the other base. Hulu’s free service forces you to sit through less commercial interruptions than watching anything on cable and their catalog of television shows is impressive. When you get to Hulu Plus, the television coverage becomes downright massive, and virtually guarantees most of the shows you want to watch will be readily available. Hulu Plus also doesn’t suffer the “new release window” problem that Netflix does; shows go up on Hulu in short order after initial broadcast. At $9.99 a month, Hulu Plus should be a gimme.
If there’s one thing the cable television and internet service companies can’t stand, it’s competition. Content to rest on their laurels and take taxpayer money to (maybe) upgrade their networks, these lumbering behemoths have kept jacking up prices for cable television service (Comcast) and trying to place bandwidth caps on users (Time Warner) because they — like another dinosaur trying to find some way to avoid getting struck by the meteor of progress, the RIAA — know that pretty much everything is going to go online at some point.
Look at Google Voice and Skype. Ask yourself why you’d really want to pay for a land line between those. Sure, you’ve got your cell phone (and you’re getting screwed by the oligopoly for that, too: I challenge you to find one carrier that no one complains about), but when your minutes are up VoIP is there to take over.
And music? Seriously? There’s always Pandora (which is awesome), along with a legion of other streaming audio services. Amazon MP3 has you covered, too. If you’ve got a smartphone, you can probably connect it to your stereo in your car and enjoy streaming music on the road.
Now, between Hulu Plus and Netflix, and Amazon if they can ever get their act together, your entertainment dollar is better spent online. An internet connection at home is basically vital for our survival at this point, and these services make the most of it. Apple’s walled garden is really at odds with what the internet represents and the way entertainment reaches the masses, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t eventually go the way of America Online. As far as I’m concerned, Netflix and Hulu Plus are together the best investments for your entertainment dollar today.