Amazon Video On Demand Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (25,480)
  • Pros

    • Purchase or rental options
    • HD content over the web
    • Can view without Web connection
  • Cons

    • Compressed video
    • Quality varies based on source
    • Some ugly web interfaces

by Jerry Jackson

Amazon’s Video On Demand service lets you rent or buy movies without relying on — or waiting for — an actual physical disk to arrive. So much the better for those of us without an optical drive on our laptops, but is streaming video really ready to supplant DVD and Blu-ray movies on your notebook? We examined standard definition and high definition movies from Amazon’s streaming service to determine whether you can finally wave goodbye to disk-based movie watching on your notebook.

Amazon Video On Demand main screen

When you visit the Video On Demand section of Amazon.com and choose the “Watch Now” feature, you get instant access to your video on a Mac or PC through your web browser using Adobe Flash Player. The videos play back right in your computer’s web browser without requiring the download of large files or installation of video player software.

System Requirements
There are two ways to watch Amazon video content on your laptop: via your web browser or via the Unbox Video Player (a separate software download).

The system requirements for watching online through your web browser are as follows:

  • Computer Hardware: PCs: Intel Pentium 4 2.33GHz processor or equivalent. Macs: PowerPC G5 1.8GHz or faster or Intel Core Duo 1.33 GHz or faster.
  • Computer Hardware for HD: Most dual-core 2.00GHz Macs and PCs or faster.
  • Browser: Internet Explorer 6.0 or above, Firefox 1.5 or above, or Safari 2.0 or above
  • Browser Plug-ins: The most recent versions of JavaScript and Adobe Flash Player
  • Internet Connection: Broadband Internet connection with minimum recommended connection speed of 450 Kbits/sec.
  • Internet Connection for HD: Broadband Internet connection with minimum recommended connection speed of 3,500 Kbits/sec.

The system requirements for watching off-line using the Unbox Video Player include:

  • Computer Hardware: PCs: 1.5GHz processor or faster, at least 256MB of memory, and a DirectX 9.0 compliant Video (64 MB memory) and Sound Card. Macs: The Unbox Video Player is not available for Mac OS.
  • Computer Hardware for HD: Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista PCs with an Internet connection, 2.0 Ghz (dual-core) processor, 1024 MB memory, and DirectX 9-compliant video and sound card are required to install.
  • Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition Service Pack 2 (SP2), Windows XP Professional SP2, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition SP2, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2, or Windows Vista. The Amazon Unbox video player is not compatible with Apple/Macintosh operating systems.
  • Browser Plug-ins: The most recent versions of JavaScript and Adobe Flash Player
  • Internet Connection: Broadband Internet connection with minimum recommended connection speed of 450 Kbits/sec

Video Playback Quality
Much like Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, playback quality from Amazon Video On Demand varies from one movie or TV show to another, owing largely to each studio’s preferred compression software. That said, Amazon does add some interesting wrinkles that you won’t find on Netflix. First, the toolbar interface for controlling video playback isn’t consistent from one Amazon video to another. For example, while watching episodes of one of your favorite TV shows, the control interface might vanish in fullscreen mode after you stop moving your mouse around the screen. However, the control interface might stay on the screen during the entire episode for another program. Even after watching dozens of TV episodes on Amazon I can’t figure out why that happens.

Amazon Standard Definition content upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution:
Amazon Standard Definition content upscaled to 1920x1080 resolution

As with Netflix, compression artifacts are the only obvious issue with playback quality of the videos. Dark scenes or shadows often apear “blotchy” or “pixelated” even when watching HD content. One thing I can say in favor of Amazon is that upscaled standard definition content usually looks better from Amazon than what I see from the upscaled standard definition content from Netflix.

Amazon HD (720p) content upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution:
Amazon HD (720p) content upscaled to 1920x1080 resolution

Amazon’s Video On Demand service, formerly known as Amazon Unbox, is quickly becoming a popular source for online streaming of movies and TV shows because the library of titles available through Amazon is noticeably superior to what you’ll find through Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. Amazon is probably able to secure the rights to more new releases than Netflix because the pricing structure for Amazon is different. Rather than a low monthy fee like Netflix, Amazon requires you to pay for every video download either as a limited-time rental or outright purchase, though the latter option is considerably higher in price. Some TV shows or older films are available for free, but most standard definition movie rentals are $3.99. These same titles  are available for purchase at an average price of $14.99 for newer releases. High definition (720p) purchases — where they are available — usually cost a few dollars more. TV episodes are available for purchase only at $1.99 (480p) or $2.99 (720p) per episode.

Conclusion
Bottom line: Amazon is more expensive than Netflix, especially if you are a frequent downloader, but your extra cash gets you extra features: Wider movie selection, better upscaled video content, and the option to actually purchase a digital movie file, rather than rent. If I’m willing to pay a bit more I can use Amazon to download new releases almost as soon as they are available on DVD and Blu-ray. Amazon’s Unbox Player also lets me watch movies and TV when I’m on a plane without an internet connection. Despite these advantages, Amazon Video On Demand is in no position to displace conventional DVD or Bluy-Ray consumption is you’re a stickler for image quality, as the associated video compression just can’t compete with uncompressed, disk-based video. Amazon, like Netflix, asks you to trade convenience for video quality, and for frequent travelers that’s probably a worthwhile exchange.

Pros:

  • Purchase or rental options
  • HD content over the web
  • Can view without Web connection

Cons:

  • Compressed video
  • Quality varies based on source
  • Some ugly web interfaces


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