Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hulu: The Best Streaming Video Site?

Hulu is the undisputed champion of free streaming music video sites. What if we remove the word 'free'? Is it still the best?

I watch a couple shows a week on it. I watched even more before but I eventually ran through the interesting parts of their anime library. I've also tried to limit the time I spend watching TV, even if the computer is functioning as my TV.

Hulu has a great selection of content. Their strength is the same sort of content you would find on both major and cable networks. The television-sourced content is top notch, but their movie selection is mostly tired and old. As I mentioned, they have a respectable selection of anime, mostly series but a few movies as well.

The video quality is pretty great, if you have the hardware for it. Much of the content is available in two quality settings, 360p and 480p. Some is only available in the lower quality 360p. If the original was wide screen then so is the Hulu version. [At least as far as I can tell.] The 360p version is watchable and most likely to run smoothly, the high resolution content is better than standard definition television but not as good as 720p HDTV. [The numbers really give it away.]

The bigger difference between the two formats is in the audio quality. The low resolution audio is terrible, it sounds flat and tinny. It's compressed so badly that quieter sounds are sometimes lost entirely. The high resolution sound is good, if not great. The story is all about the low resolution sound which is unlistenable.

The problem here is that the only way to get the high quality sound is with the high quality video. If your hardware, particularly your processor, isn't up to the task then you're stuck either watching a smooth, full screen 360p video with atrocious sound, a choppy, full screen 480p video with great sound, or a smooth, windowed 480p video with great sound. I'll return to this, but needless to say it's not the best list of options to choose from.

Moving on to the interface, Hulu's site is fairly easy to use. I don't find their search particularly useful but most of the categories are organized well enough that it doesn't matter. The default sort of each category is popularity of video. You can also sort by air date, date added, and user rating. The same sorting options exist for shows instead of videos. I prefer to view by show, as I'm normally seeking a particular series or episode of a series. Each show has a page that lists all of the videos, with indications of when they were added and whether it's a clip or an entire episode. For my purposes most clips are rubbish, though The Office often has good clips of original "webisode" content.

The player interface is the best among the free sites. This is especially true if you make an account, where you can set your preferences to default to the higher quality video. If you don't have an account or change this setting then you will always have to click the 480p button to get to the higher quality stream. You cannot make this change while a commercial is playing.

When the player is not in full screen mode there are a few other interesting buttons on the right side of the video. If you're happy to watch the video in place you can click the "lower lights" button that overlays a translucent black layer on top of the page, but does nothing to dim the rest of your screen. If you can't watch in full screen but you want to resize the video you can click "pop out" which will put a very similar interface on screen in a window with no other content in it. Lastly, there's the full screen button.

The full screen mode is decent, but conspicuously missing is the quality setting. If you enter full screen only to realize that you forgot to go to the higher quality video you must exit full screen to change quality. The same is true if you enter full screen but find the video to be choppy and want to watch at 360p. I'm not sure why this is so but it proves to be an annoyance. You can stop and start the video with the space bar, and escape will exit full screen. I don't know if there are any other keyboard controls, but it's better than nothing.

Playback is fairly simple and intuitive. There is a progress bar at the bottom of the video that disappears after a few seconds, except in the pop out window where a small progress bar is shown the entire time. It has dots on it that show when the commercials are. You can skip ahead or go back. There's some algorithm that tries to force a commercial if you skip past one, and you only have to sit through one even if you skip past two. In the lower left is a play/pause button. That's it.

Of course, this is an ad supported service. With a few exceptions every video you watch will have commercial breaks. You can pause the commercials but you cannot fast forward. Even if the commercial doesn't load it will make you sit through a 15 second notice that you're being a bad citizen. Occasionally you will be offered an alternative commercial scheme where you can watch a two minute ad then the entire video will be commercial free. Normally I take that offer, especially if it's the cool Honda ad. I'm not a Honda guy, nor a big Danica Patrick fan, but that ad is good. In general I find the ads on Hulu to be far more tolerable than the ones on television. The breaks are shorter and the mixing isn't so ridiculously loud. They're also often real ads, not the self-serving drivel like on ABC.com. Lastly, the ads played in line with the rest of the stream, so you don't have to click to continue. Overall it's a very television-like experience, but more pleasant because the ads are fewer and higher quality.

That brings me back to the original question: Is Hulu the best? My verdict is no. Hulu's service is limited to only a few devices and their media center capabilities are wanting. The well-documented fight they've had with Boxee hasn't helped. On my Macbook running a 480p video at full screen pushes the 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor to its limits, and at that it drops frames. Flash video doesn't seem to offload much if any of the rendering to the GPU, keeping it all on the processor. This is unacceptable when you pair it with the poor audio in the lower quality stream. The commercials are tolerable, if that were the only fault I might declare Hulu the winner on the strength of their catalog.

There is a respite for Hulu, though. They recently released a media-center friendly desktop application. The content navigation in this app mirrors the website -- though it's a little clunky, especially so with a remote. The playback is better, adding some fast forwarding capabilities and showing a scene preview if you use the progress bar to skip around. The scene preview is a little slow. The real killer feature is the "medium" video quality setting. It seems to play a little smoother than the 480p stream from in-browser and the sound quality seems better than 360p.

The short take is that Hulu is a great DVR alternative with a good selection, but they take second place in the online streaming contest.

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