Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Legal Video Guide, aka Hulu versus Cable's Free On Demand versus Everything Else

Trying to keep from pirating tv shows and movies can seem daunting. Worst of all, it's time-consuming - most of us want what we want right now, don't we?

In fact, the many options out there these days make it all relatively simple and do-able. Living with an internet connection and the basic tier of cable service is actually pretty easy. I will go through at least 6 legal ways to "watch your stories" through digital providers, so this will be a segregated entry. My review of an Ingmar Bergman flick will have to wait til next week.

Hulu is a great way to watch tv. It's easy to use, and has a huge selection of shows and movies. It also has a great array of features, like continuous play and embed. You can even email a link that points to a clip whose timing you select yourself.

For movies, Hulu is much better when your computer connects to a larger screen. Their site will force you to watch 3-5 commercials per tv episode and more or less for certain films. Not as much fun, but it's still free, right?

Better yet, Hulu will occasionally bless you with the option to watch one long commercial in place of several smaller ones. This little lotto ticket makes it wise to stick around and wait for the video to load. Hulu can also point you toward a limited number of external sites - for example, it lists "Macgyver" as a show to watch, but redirects you to CBS' video page. Best of all, Hulu plays smoothly on many browsers, and doesn't require any downloads to function properly.

There are lots of little problems with Hulu, however. You search the TV section, then select a genre - and it pulls in results from their movies too. It's actually hard/impossible to exclude film results from the tv episodes you're looking for.

Further, finding something new or unknown may force you to click on many different pages. And, finally, as with all of the network websites, any interruption in your connection will freeze the streaming video instantly.

Hulu also requires you to access the far right and left of each page, with no memory of page position as it automatically plays the next episode; this can be a problem sometimes. Hulu has yet another issue it took me months to notice and resolve - on continuous play, videos won't load if you've moved the Hulu window to the far left of the screen. You'll have to move the browser window so that the far left of the page is visible, or else you'll see a "loading" screen for eternity.

And for those of you with updated web programs, using anything like Firefox's "turn a tab into a window" feature (by accident or on purpose) will make the whole page reload; this interrupts the action, restarts the whole thing, and forces you to watch those pesky commercials all over again. This is extremely annoying when you mistakenly drag and drop the Hulu tab into its own window.

Hulu's popularity has also worked against it somewhat. Realizing that their precious (and nutso) Nielsen ratings may be affected, many stations now offer a very limited number of episodes. Also, many networks (USA and FOX, especially) have instituted an 8-day delay in the airing of shows. This is particularly confusing, because this happens when a one-day-old show is legally available through other means.

IMdb is a solid alternative to Hulu. Its basic interface isn't as good as others, but it adopts the interface of whatever site it connects to. It connects to Hulu and a few other sites as well.

When it streams a video via Hulu, you're given all the options you would get through that site. Unlike Hulu, however, it connects directly to external URLs - in the case of CBS, it will play an episode without redirecting you to CBS.

With even a basic membership, Netflix has a great selection of films and programs, offering many things you can't see outside of DVD rental. By this, I'm specifically referring to my (possibly-pathetic) love of "Columbo," tv's most unassuming and brilliant detective. One particular joy is their extensive list of Hitchcock movies for "instant viewing."

Unfortunately, Netflix's online offering has an array of problems. For one thing, it only works on the Apple computers with newer Pentium features. It doesn't work on Firefox, and required IE on every computer that I used. It also showed many loading problems with the few shows and movies that I tried to see.

Network websites are a fairly mixed bag. They offer a good number of tv shows for viewing, but never films. They also frequently force you to download and install something in order to use their services; this has caused a variety of problems in browsers that I've used.

It's also an especially annoying method because a lot of "clicking" is required, and their proprietary video players have far fewer features than Hulu does. On the flipside, many networks will upload new episodes to their own sites first; this may annoy some Hulu-philes (my own term).

Of the "Network websites," Adult Swim has an extra perk - it will frequently premiere an episode on Fridays, before they've even aired. As with Hulu, the most popular works are now offered in a limited capacity - starting with the fourth season, new episodes of The Venture Brothers are not web-viewable until the afternoon after they've aired.

Comedy Central shows deserve a special mention, as they're now also offered widely on the CC (or their own personal) website. Programs appear shortly after they've aired, and this is a huge boon to fans of "The Daily Show," as years of footage have been made available. The interface is not as convenient or feature-laden as Hulu; this may be awkward for some, as Hulu also carries new "TDS" episodes now.

"South Park" episodes are acquired easily through their own website, New episodes are available 3-4 hours after their East Coast premiere time. Again, features are minimal (no continuous play, significant loading time and commercials, plus much "clicking" is needed to get what you want).

Youtube is the mother of all video services, and it has a massive selection. Anyone who's used it in the last few years, though, knows that they are often hit with "cease-and-desist" orders; the owners now delete brief clips as well as footage that hasn't aired in ages. This means you're operating in semi-legal territory: it might not be right, but it's up there for the whole world to see. Why not just watch while it's available.

Youtube has a very smooth playlist system that will play everything, full-screen, with few glitches and no need to reach for your mouse. This requires accepting a diminished video quality, however. The most unavoidable problem with these features comes when you watch more than one playlist video through a full-screen feature.

If you exit full-screen mode, the page will reload, so you'll have to load and watch from the start. This slightly offsets one of the nicest benefits of youtube - that problems with your internet will not result in a freeze of video playback. In fact, the show/movie is not truly "streamed" - it has been downloaded into your browser's temporary folder. This matters most when your connection dies before acquiring the last few seconds of a show.

With Hulu and network systems, you need to experience more loading and commercials to see the last minute that you missed. With youtube, you'll get to watch what you've already acquired. Your skittish wireless connection is a minimal factor in this instance.

For a time, I was having significant problems with Hulu's service - for some reason, videos simply wouldn't load when they should have. My final solution was to watch the same videos on Yahoo's TV section. The system did load - videos streamed from Hulu, no less - with no excessive delays. It has a different method of navigation that some will find easier to use.

Truth be told, however, I haven't touched it at all since my internet connection improved. It's a nice alternative, but one you can easily skip. For those viewing through a company firewall, "Hulu" may be blocked while Yahoo is not. But you really shouldn't be watching too many videos at work.

So we come to the end of the list: free on demand channels that are offered through your cable tv provider. When I was busy with work last year, I kept the same cable package, despite the fact that I never used it. I was a real moron, because I was paying over $100/month for internet service and NY1's weather forecasts.

I dropped myself down to the most basic cable package - network tv, NY1, and NYC's three PBS channels. It took me a month to realize that I still had access to most of the on demand ("od") channels offered by Time Warner Cable. I still had "free movies od," "primetime od," "cutting edge od," "entertainment od," and many others.

Looking through them, I can see a selection of films from Sundance Channel, TCM, ABC, CBS, USA, MTV (ugh), Comedy Central, and many, many others. It's an AV orgy, really. Foreign and classic films, recent shows, animated and live-action - from month to month, you're offered just about everything, including old favorites and new discoveries.

By and large, the tv shows on "primetime od" force you to see the same amount of commercials as provided by normal tv viewing (it increased lately). Movies are ad-free, though. The system is prone to occasional "digitizing" and "freezing," like any glitches in your standard cable provider.

Also, the fast forward and rewind features are slow and difficult to manuever - any effort to skip a commercial may lose you a half minute of show. Still, this system will provide new episodes of tv shows the day after they've aired - even when Hulu or network websites are on a 1-week+ delay. It also, naturally, plays on your tv screen - a big improvement over watching things on your monitor/laptop.

For those of you who are looking for more legal viewing options, I hope this has helped in some ways. I have many more tricks up my sleeve, of course, but I like to reserve those for conversations in person. Hopefully, this has pointed you toward something that you really wanted to see...

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