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Friday, April 17, 2009

TV Watch: Your Viewing Options (2009 Edition)

We had a Betamax, back in the day. That the format would eventually go the way of the dodo didn't really stop us from hoarding large amounts of content on tape in the off chance we'd watch it again (though as kids, I believe we did quite a lot of that). Time shifting had begun, though, and just because you weren't there for the show - didn't mean you couldn't watch it.

Our VCR didn't even get hooked up at our last place and we had TiVo nearly on day one. Live television took a back seat as the thought of watching commercials became somewhat painful. We'd even watch shows a half hour late just so that we could fast forward if we wanted.

Now, it's 2009, and user owned TV is on a whole new level.

Still probably the king of hill, especially since nearly every cable and satellite provider on the planet offers some form of storing shows on your hard drive. We actually don't have one anyone more - we used to have the Mac hooked up via EyeTV, but our cable company went all digital and EyeTV doesn't know what channel is what anymore. Someday we'll probably cough up the goods for HD, though, unless the following choices continue to pan out...

Hands down the easiest way to catch up on a season of that show you meant to watch, rent a few discs off Netflix and you can avoid that whole annoying need to wait another week. I think we polished off the first season of Veronica Mars in about three weeks. Now that more shows are showing up on Blu-Ray, convenience and quality are cranked up another notch.

The other nice thing about Netflix is stumbling on shows you wouldn't normally have access to watch. Canadian and English spy shows Intelligence and Spooks (MI-5 in places), for instance.

And then there's Roku, of course, for those who really need to watch Quantum Leap without waiting for delivery.

Online Viewing
Hulu is quickly being accepted as the gold standard for watching shows online, although many networks offer a variety of ways to watch content for free from their websites. My experience with them, though, is pretty glass half empty. It's nice that you don't have to wait for anything, but the quality of the show is often marred by the network itself. I tried catching up on recent Dollhouse episodes and the dropped frames alone were a bit of a headache. I know a lot of people who swear by Hulu, but it's rapidly become a last resort for us.

Digital Downloads
iTunes, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live all allow you now to download shows for a price. A recent experiment to download a handful of shows to our PS3 was marred by the fact that the downloads seems to pause if the system menu wasn't all that was running. We do occasionally download from iTunes directly to the Mini, hooked up to the HDTV - but the problem there is that the Mini's PPC processor won't support iTunes new HD content.

Still, at least iTunes allows you to purchase a whole season at a discount. Cost is probably the biggest roadblock here - it doesn't really make much sense to pay $3 for a show in HD you are going to watch once. Plus, I can't speak for Xbox Live - but some of Sony's decisions about format make little sense. How is that one show is only available for SD purchase while another movie title has HD rental?

Until the powers that be come up with a subscription model for shows that make sense, the pay per episode concept is really going to be shelved for an as-we-need-it basis, right in behind Hulu.

It would be pretty dishonest to ignore torrenting as a distribution model. It's the elephant in the room for online distribution - and for good reason. With turnaround times often better than iTunes for availability, users can download decent to high quality shows, without commercials, with a speed that can get the content in often a couple of hours, or less, depending on the seeds out there. Once it's on your hard drive, there's no bandwidth concerns and you can use a variety of software to move the content to mobile devices if needed.

Which is the problem the legitimate outlets have - torrenting is just so convenient. Hulu comes to close to a promise of a free and easy outlet, potentially easier the torrenting (many people don't like to navigate the various BT portals, for instance) - but until compression catches up with the range of bandwidth out there - torrent still has it beat.

Not that I suggest anyone should do anything illegal - but it should be acknowledged that people are downloading this content not just because they're cheap, but because it offers fast quality content.

Now, if you'll forgive me, I need to figure out how to best catch up on this week's Fringe...


Unknown said...

I torrented most of BSG season 4 until I got a nasty cease and desist letter from the cable company. So then I tried to watch the finale through Hulu, but finally didn't want to wait another week for the final episode to post, so I dl'd it from iTunes.

The key to Hulu, I've found, is to not stop it. If you pause it and the buffer fills, then the video becomes really choppy. And I'm sorry, but if a G5 with 2 gigs of RAM can't handle your web-based video-streaming, then you need to streamline something (I'm looking at you, Silverlight.)

Josh said...

And it certainly should be noted that Hulu, I think, falls under the "your mileage may vary" category. However, I do find it odd that I can play Killzone 2 with basically no lag, but Dollhouse in SD seemed to fail me.

sterno said...

The TV production companies should start offering their own shows via torrent with commercials. Paying $3/episode for TV shows gets out of hand pretty quickly. However, I'd happily sit through commercials on a torrent just like I happily sit through commercials on Hulu.