Monday, February 12, 2007

Delivering Movies Over The Internet

by Count Olaf
NOTE: Though long and rambling, not a comprehensive study by any means

Is it really here yet?

I've been waiting for internet-delivered movies to come for some time. Mostly, I've been waiting for the convenience to come for some time. Oh, sure, there have been the Reals, GoogleVideos, YouTubes, etc.... that have been delivering video clips forever. And there were/are movie services that claimed you could download movies for a fee. I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew that nothing tickled my fancy quite yet.

Video On Demand blew up big a few years ago and when I finally got it with Comcast I thought my ship had come in. Tons of video content and full movies that you could get any time you wanted! But nothing was in HD and the widescreen versions were actually confined to letterbox within the 4:3 aspect ratio. HD is still coming along in the OnDemand world. Most of it is pay-per-view for new releases and things, so I'm still deterred. Sure there's a lot of content and I still find myself watching some things on occasion, but it still doesn't feel like it's all there.

Also, with Comcast you need the set-top box, cable connection, and television. Same kind of deal with satellite. You can't necessarily take your DISH or cable box in to the kitchen or bedroom to watch tv. So you need to opt for multiple installations or devices or pieces of equipment. And you'll need a DVD player for each one to catch up on your rentals and other sundry movie-watching. But even then you're confined to inside the house or garage. What if you're on a date and Gorman is up to bat?

It would seem as though Slingbox is the answer to all of my prayers. And it almost is as far as satellite/cable-delivered content is concerned. I mean, this thing is amazing! As long as you set it up right you can watch and control your TV from any device that has an internet connection. A problem....How do I watch my rented DVDs? Also, it's another piece of equipment.

Consolidating a few items into Windows Media Center Edition seemed like a great solution a few years back. So I have a computer that can do everything a computer does that is hooked up to my TV. It also plays my DVDs, records TV, plays pictures, all my music, etc... But, again, without a slingbox or ORB (also really, really cool) installed, I can't get access to it anywhere else besides sitting right there in front of the TV.

Without going into all other available options out there that I haven't tried, let me tell you what I stumbled upon last week. Well, really last month. I read an article stating that Netflix was getting into delivering movies on demand over the internet. The idea intrigued me but I was wondering what it would look like and how they would do it, what the costs would be, what the requirements would look like, etc...

Later on I signed in to my account from work to find a notice stating that the "Watch Now" service would be activated for all subscribers by June 2007....just keep checking back. OK. No biggie. Then last week I found an additional tab at the top of my Netflix menu:
The last tab was labeled "Watch Now". Hey, I was activated! I couldn't wait to get home and try it out. That night I fired up my laptop and headed for I scanned the meager selection of movies. I immediately noticed one thing: there was nothing I even remotely wanted to see. However, there was one pre-selected segment called "From your DVD queue" which contained 4 movies. Aha! So there were a few that I wanted to see. At least, a few that I had put in my queue.

As most married men know, getting your wife to "sign off" on technology can only mean good things. It doesn't even have to be a positive embrace, just as long as you don't get the evil eye whenever the subject is broached, you're usually good to go. While thinking about this I spotted a movie in the "classics" section starring Doris Day (The Thrill of It All). I don't know what the fascination is, but my wife is one of many enamored with all things Ms. Day. This had to be my shoo-in! My plan was to turn in early and spring the delivered movie on my wife whilst she sat amazed at her technology king! (not that I played a part in development or even discovery of watch now...those are merely facts)

The interface seemed easy enough: find movie you want to watch, click Play. So I got the site up, logged in and clicked Play. You're first taken to a screen which lets you know you need to install the Netflix Player. This is really a web browser plug-in as there is no external program that gets installed. It seemed harmless enough so I went for it. Unfortunately the installer never lets you know when it finishes. So after waiting around for a few minutes I went ahead and clicked Play again. The new player window opened up with simple controls: play, pause, a volume slider, and a full screen button. A few seconds later I was told I needed to upgrade my media player (which I found odd because I had the latest version of Windows Media Player). But I clicked OK and a few seconds later the "upgrade" was complete (I'm guessing this is another plugin and not a full-blown upgrade). Now, the moment of truth!

From the speakers came the opening salvo and I saw the old Universal logo appear. It was working! But the logo stood still! The sound kept going and the screen went black! Now a still picture appeared and the sound kept going! I was getting crystal clear sound thanks to my high-speed internet connection, but the picture was jumpy to say the least: One frame every 3 seconds. This simply would not do. Now, my laptop is 5 years old. It's a P3 1.2gHz with 512mb RAM. Come to find out these are the minimum specs for Netflix's watch now service. Full screen and windowed mode were the same. My trial was a bust! It wasn't until 4 days later (yesterday) that I remembered my TV has a much newer computer connected to it.

So last night I went through the installation machinations on my Media Center and lo & behold - it works! Like a champ! Flawless! Full screen mode is comparable to satellite TV service and the sound is clear. Mind you, this is only with a movie from 1963, but I can see the potential. And Netflix is literally adding new titles every day. I now see that Sherrybaby, Amadeus, The Matrix and others are all available. Netflix first removed the chore of going to the video store and now it's removing the chore of going to the mailbox. I can get fatter at a more rapid rate!!

But this still isn't the end-all. I'm still tied to my media center, though I am no longer tied to the postal service. Theoretically with a beefier laptop I can have ubiquitous entertainment (netflix combined with aforementioned media extenders)! But is that even really what I want? Am I just dissatisfied for dissatisfaction's sake? Do we need more ways to get entertainment?

Lost in a sea of gadgetry and convenience the answer is probably No on all counts, but it sure is fun to see what they will come up with next!

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Blogger jaydro said...

Nice post, Count.

I know back in the early '80's I used to dream of the day when I could tell my interactive cable connection that I wanted to see a particular episode of Mission: Impossible for a nominal fee of $1 or 50 cents. That seemed like a great dream--I didn't even conceive of having the ability of full playback control the way the inDemand PPVs are now (and that's really just a refinement of a system that was in place in the '80's using banks of VCRs at some cable operators, and the selection is still limited), but I don't care because everything (99% except for some sporting events) I watch is recorded on my TiVo. Sometimes I think I'd like to expand from my dual 120GB drives, but that would only lead to me deleting more stuff--most of what I record ends up deleted after I haven't watched it for so long. I finally watched that Masterpiece Theatre version of Dr. Zhivago after it had been sitting around for over two years on the drives! I've probably got some unopened movie DVDs, too. I have a desire for more and more entertainment, but, yeah, sometimes I just need to get away from it because I can't possibly take it all in anyway.

I used to live with multiple TVs, but since going with DirecTV and TiVo (and curse them for not continuing with new TiVos!) I've got just my one old 1999-vintage Sony. The whole HD thing has me stuck because I don't want to ever have any kind of relationship with Time Warner Cable ever again, DirecTV won't support their HD-TiVo with their new HD channels, and FiOS isn't available here yet (and I'm not sure the HD TiVo Series 3 would work with it!). *sigh*

Meanwhile I spend way too much time downloading Australian V8 Supercar Races and burning the avi's to DVDs that I play on my Lite-On DVD player. That's as close as I get to instant gratification, aka the technology I've been geeking out on lately.

2/13/2007 02:51:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I have to confess, I'm OK with an HDTV and a DVD player for the time being. Obviously I'd prefer to watch HD movies, but I'm content until some kind of standard HD medium is established.

I've never had much use for a DVR, since the only TV I watch are sporting events, which I can't stand watching if they're not live (occasional classic games aside), and then the Daily Show/Colbert hour at night.

So I guess I've never felt constrained by the lack of options.

2/13/2007 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

I, too, am waiting for an HD standard to be established. Or a definitive inexpensive high quality player that plays both formats impeccably.

And the felt constraint is definitely a false one. It seems like the more options they give, the more I want to consolidate. This one does 3 things but not the 4th and 5th...while this other thing does options 1, 2 and 4 really well... It's the continued dissatisfaction that convenience can tend to provide.

I realize that...but it's also fun to play technology. What can I say? I'm an IT guy...

But jaydro's got it bad. ;-)

2/13/2007 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Brian, the great thing about a TiVo (or DVR, I guess) and sports is the ability to not have to watch it live and also not have to wait for it to be over to start watching it. Even while watching live sports I'll often wander around within the 30-minute live buffer. Of course, doing that makes it impossible to use stuff like's GameDay live stats, because it's always live.... :-/

I'll just say that when I first heard about TiVo and ReplayTV back in 2000 I didn't think much of them until a friend got a TiVo in the summer of 2001. After he demonstrated it to me, I bought one a few days later. It has totally changed the way I look at TV, so much so that not having a TiVo or some kind of good DVR is a deal-breaker for me and HDTV.

2/13/2007 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Yeah, I know I've heard enough people talk about how revolutionary it is that I actually do believe that it is revolutionary.

But, I just don't watch a lot of TV, and don't really feel like watching a lot more. I have a theory that any good TV show is doomed - either it goes on too long and ruins everything (Seinfeld, The Simpsons), starts out OK before running out of ideas (X-Files) or it gets cancelled way too soon. Better to have not loved at all, I say.

Plus, I don't have room for any more stuff, hardware-wise.

2/13/2007 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

Theory shenanigans! You can fit ANY show - good or bad - into those categories. Not one has had a perfect run (though, for my money, Cheers came closest on the length and wealth of ideas).

Admit it! You're too busy out watching a gazillion movies to feed the idiot box like the rest of us. You exit the house frequently and have a life outside of the internet!

It's time to come clean....

2/13/2007 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Fair enough, but even if I didn't watch any TV shows, I could probably easily fill up my TiVo with movies from TCM, Fox Movie Channel, Sundance Channel, and IFC. But maybe you don't get those channels and are doing DVD rentals instead. I always thought I'd do more DVD renting, but after my favorite store went out of business about a year after I got my DVD player, it seems like other places are inconvenient or lack selection, and lately when I want something, I want it now, so NetFlix doesn't grab me.

BTW, Count, a while back I'd heard that NetFlix was going to do what you were talking about through stand-alone (non-DirecTV) TiVos, but I haven't heard about it lately....

2/13/2007 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

You can fit ANY show - good or bad - into those categories.

Well, yeah, that's my point - every show fits into those categories. That's why I don't watch much TV. Even keeping up with the Daily Show and Colbert wears on me at times.

Admit it! You're too busy out watching a gazillion movies to feed the idiot box like the rest of us.

Probably so. I think movies just appeal to me more. If it's a choice between catching up on Lost and watching a movie, I'll go with the movie.

2/13/2007 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

I see they've added "Once Upon A Time In America" and "Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil" to the watch now for every "The Triple B Collection: Day of the Warrior" they seem to add another I might watch.

2/13/2007 04:45:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I could probably easily fill up my TiVo with movies from TCM, Fox Movie Channel, Sundance Channel, and IFC. But maybe you don't get those channels and are doing DVD rentals instead.

Actually, I do get all those except Sundance, and I used to like them. But alas, they're not in HD, and I've been quickly conditioned to ignore almost everything that they show now because of it.

HDNet Movies, and to a much lesser extent Universal HD, helps fill that void somewhat. HDNM especially has a decent selection - just in the past couple months I've watched Coppola's Dracula, The Natural ... and I know a couple others that I'm forgetting now.

But mostly, if I want to watch something, DVD baby. Now that I've finally signed up for Blockbuster, I find I don't mind waiting a few days for something to arrive. Provided it works when I get it, of course.

2/13/2007 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

But alas, they're not in HD
Duh, yeah, right, forgot, sorry. You mentioned DVDs, so.... I know on a smaller non-HD screen a good DirecTV channel can look as good as an average DVD, but when you go over 40 inches, plus throw in DVDs' progressive scan and 16:9 advantage (heck, I even use 16:9 mode on my 4:3 set to get the most out of DVDs)....

2/13/2007 11:22:00 PM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

I may have found a step forward in my desire for all things HD:

Of course, I need something slightly less than $1200

2/14/2007 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

But there's no LightScribe logo, so I'm assuming it won't burn LightScribe labels. I love LightScribe.... (I'm only teasing because the reviewer said it would do anything you could throw at it. ;-) )

2/14/2007 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Yeah, well I've been getting internet-delivered movies for years... ahem...

Throwing out the tv has to be one of the best decisions I've made. Whatever I need I get through the net.

The TiVo format has been starting to make its rounds here in Scandinavia (it's called Boxer, or something, though), and I recommended my parents getting it when they asked about dvd-recorders, but another format to learn for an over 60s couple? They just learned how to operate the dvd..

2/15/2007 03:51:00 PM  

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