Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand
[REVIEW] — Late last year Adobe released an upgrade to their ubiquitous Flash software that enabled higher quality video. In response, overall video streaming quality on the web has improved as various video services have upgraded their offerings. Amazon is the latest to make the leap, turning their unsuccessful and Windows-only Unbox digital media download service into a streaming digital media service. Amazon Video On Demand finally brings their large digital library of movies and television series to Apple Macs, removes the requirement for a separate software download, and offers compelling competition to Apple’s iTunes.
Downloads have not disappeared. Amazon Video On Demand offers both streaming in your browser and downloads to the Unbox software. However, the streaming service is meant to reduce or even eliminate the need for downloads. Digital media purchases remain in the Amazon cloud, available from anywhere you have access to the site and a sufficient internet connection.
I tested the new service with “Superman Returns”, a movie I purchased on Unbox over a year ago. The movie was only available for purchase for a short time. After I first downloaded the movie, I had subsequently removed all videos from my computer. When I tried to download “Superman Returns” later, I discovered that the draconian movie studio requirements prevented a second download. I was stuck with a purchase I could not watch.
Now that my video purchases are in the cloud, I was surprised and delighted to see I again have access to “Superman Returns.” Previous Unbox purchases show up in “Your Video Library” along with new purchases, ready and waiting to be streamed.
Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand “Your Video Library”. Well, My Video Library.
Video starts playing immediately. Video quality depends on the speed of your internet connection and network congestion. Apparently there is no buffering, though this could potentially improve the video quality at the expense of immediate access. Over my 12 mbps cable modem connection from Cox Communications and then over wireless, video quality started out poor, but improved quickly as the connection and streaming seemed to “take.” A “Connection” status button on the video menu bar notes kbit/sec and the video quality, up to mbps speeds and 480p (DVD quality.) The quality can fluctuate, but after minor stuttering early in the movie, the streaming stabilized until I was lost in the movie. If this quality can be maintained during network congestion in my local area and as more people begin to use the service, then Amazon Video On Demand may very well be considered a success.
The video menu bar has your standard video controls including play, pause, skip back, skip forward, and volume control. Video can be popped out of the video library page or launched into full screen. A download button allows you to archive the purchase and play locally from your computer, but, again, I think streaming success may make this unnecessary. While the button is also available on a Mac, the download is sent to your registered PC (you control the destination in your Amazon account settings) and Unbox installation. Unbox software is still unavailable for Mac or Linux computers, and you cannot transfer video to iPods.
Credit: Screenshot of Amazon Video On Demand playing “Superman Returns”. Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is that you do to me, Brandon Routh? I mean, Superman?
Amazon Video On Demand is fast, easy, and a much better experience than using the clunky Unbox download and player software. I have long desired to make a complete switch from PC to Mac, but a few remaining services I could not get on a Mac have delayed the change; my Macbook Pro sits side-by-side with my desktop PC. With my videos in the cloud, that final switch is coming soon.
How does the experience stack up against iTunes? ITunes remains the high bar against which all other digital media services will be compared. I have slowly begun to purchase more music from Amazon because everything there is DRM-free, but doing so does require a download of Amazon software that sends your purchases to iTunes. When it comes to video, Amazon potentially has the upper-hand (I would like to play with the service longer before I come to any firm conclusions.) All you need is a browser and an Amazon account. Amazon’s ease of purchase and the instant play capabilities of Video On Demand mean you can get started watching video right away, with little to none of the delay required for Unbox or iTunes downloads. Hard drive space is no longer a barrier to owning as many movies and television shows as you want. I had better watch my wallet…
Unfortunately, NBC Universal and their popular television series may be the deciding factor for some people between Amazon Video On Demand and iTunes, though this might to some extent be offset by Disney/ABC television series available only on iTunes. There is NO question that I will be watching the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica using Amazon’s service. Frankly, I have never understood why NBC Universal decided to settle for no further iTunes sales even while developing Hulu.com and propping up the offerings on Amazon. I still hope they will return to iTunes but this is no longer required for me to continue purchasing and watching my favorite NBC series.
With a movie library much larger than iTunes, similar television offerings, NBC Universal TV series, availability through most any browser with Flash on most any computer, a smooth transition for your previous Unbox purchases, and a beta of a service that will stream video to Sony BRAVIA televisions, Amazon Video On Demand is pretty fantastic so far. High definition video on demand will make or break all competing digital media services, a battleground I suspect all players will enter in a big way in just a few months. Amazon Video On Demand could be particularly successful internationally where many countries have far superior internet speeds to what we suffer through here in the United States. Verizon FiOS Internet customers in the United States might also be big winners, the lucky jerks.
We might see as early as next Tuesday how Apple plans to respond. I predict that I will make use of both services for some time to come. For there to be a clear winner between Amazon, Apple, and the other competitors, they will have to add new features including extras and high definition as quickly as possible, while maintaining and improving the quality of both the video and the experience. So far, I like what I see with Amazon Video On Demand.