Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Amazon Video On Demand Trial

I like to shop at Amazon. I'm a big fan of their reviews, and I often consult them even when I won't make the purchase from that site. Still, I've been doing most of my holiday shopping there for the last four or five years. I live in the land of malls otherwise knows as North Jersey, and I know better to go anywhere near a mall at any convenient hour in the month or two approaching Christmas. So, I sit at home or work and I review, compare, and buy my presents online. That's not what this article is about.

When I bought my last salvo of presents recently I purchased an $8 copy of Miracle On 34th Street for my aunt. With this purchase I was given a $5 credit to use on Amazon's Video On Demand service. Not bad. Since I like to review streaming video services, I figured that I am obligated to use this credit for just that.

My first impression was that there was a tiny catalog to choose from. Amazon is great at pushing traffic in profitable directions, as such the landing page after you successfully redeem your credit is a list of television series that are available to watch. There is not a clearly defined navigation off of this - not that the links aren't there, they just blend in too well with Amazon's standard navigation - so I considered this to be the choices I had. I selected Battlestar Galactica from a relatively unimpressive lot.

A quick run down of Battlestar Galactica. I'm unfamiliar with the series but I'd heard good things for quite some time. I decided to start with series, rather than the miniseries, which seems like it was a mistake. Then the two episodes I watched weren't in the proper order [my fault, see below] so I was a bit lost. The series seemed interesting and I was able to figure out the general idea. I'm not sure if I can get past the grating sound of the actors proclaiming "frack" instead of "fuck." It's a perfect example of how TV censorship is dumb. Now that I've got that out of my system, back to Amazon...

Starting the first episode was fairly easy. I clicked through, purchased the video, and it played. The video quality is pretty good. So good, in fact, that I didn't realize that I'd selected the standard definition version of the episode. No matter, this was entirely passable for a computer screen. I think if I were to watch it on my TV I'd be annoyed by the visible distortion from compression. Gradients seemed to be the worst victims of this, the result is a fairly high contrast picture. The trade off here is that the video runs very smoothly. I didn't notice any dropped frames and panning scenes seemed very smooth.

I was most impressed with the resources this required. Something tells me that Amazon's service would be great for people with slower PCs, at least comparably. Even though it uses a Flash-based player, it didn't tax my system the same way that Hulu and most other Flash video services do. Even when I watched the second video in HD the experience was better than most streaming services I've used. Netflix is the only other service the comes to mind, but they use Silverlight.

The next video I made a point to watch in HD. Their HD videos allow you to choose from 480p and 720p. To get 720p you have to use the pop out interface, but from there I couldn't find a way to make the video full screen. Why didn't the interface on the pop out have a button for full screen? Perhaps if the player detected a faster connection it would allow me to watch 720p without the pop out, but I don't see why because I didn't have any problems watching the 720p version when I did. The picture quality is, of course, even better. For my laptop's screen I didn't think it was so terribly much better that it justified the price difference. The previous problems with noticeable compression disappear. Everything is crisp and the colors are good. The picture quality of 480p is on par with DVD, and 720p lives up to the HD moniker.

Of course, I was again too quick to judge their navigation and I clicked on season two thinking it was episode two. This was quite annoying once I realized what I'd done. As a user, I internalize this and feel dumb. As a UI designer, I realize that this is at least as much of a failing on Amazon's part as it is mine. Their UI works great for other parts of their store, but I think they're both trying too hard to retain consistency between Video On Demand and the rest of Amazon, or they're not trying hard enough. I think a large part of my confusion came from my expectations of how Amazon navigation works, my past experiences with their navigation, and my past experiences with competitor's streaming interfaces. Overall I was very disappointed with this aspect of the service.

Once I took a few seconds to acquaint myself I was able to navigate a bit better. I checked out the rest of their selection. I'm not overly impressed by it. Since this isn't a subscription service that isn't a huge ordeal, though. When I did find something to watch, like Battlestar Galactica, I was impressed with the completeness of the offering. The worst thing about Netflix and Hulu is that they often fail to secure entire series for streaming. If I'm going to watch something via streaming I'd like to be able to finish, and if I'm forced to start with DVDs then I normally finish that way. If I wanted to it seems I could watch all of this series via Video On Demand, which is comforting and I'm sure makes it easier to part with money.

Which brings us to the last issue with Amazon's VOD: money. There's not a lot of free content on this service. Instead you're purchasing videos, either individually or in a bundled package. The SD video I watched was $1.99 and the HD one was $2.99. I could have purchased an entire season in SD for $17.99 or in HD for $44.99. That ads up very quickly. By contrast, a month of Netflix at my current service level is only $24.99. During that time I could surely watch a season of a show if I want, and I've done that a few times. Hulu is even cheaper. I just have to be willing to sit through some commercials. It seems that Amazon is trying to compete against Apple and DVDs. They may have a decent shot at Apple, but I think there's still a lot of value in DVDs that VOD isn't matching. The sense of ownership, portability, and permanence in DVDs is missing and I'm not convinced that they've done anything to top that.

Overall, I think that Amazon's Video On Demand is a competent player, but they're overpriced right now and they still have some navigation issues to deal with. I'd like to see an expanded catalog and perhaps a subscription offering or ad-supported content. Shy of that I'll probably stick with other services.

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