Since we recently purchased a Series 3 HD Tivo (which we'll talk about later, but it's great) I decided to try out Amazon's Unbox service. This video on demand service allows you to buy videos from a largish selection and have them downloaded to your Tivo via the internet. You can also download them to your laptop and watch them there.
This is not a bad service in theory, prices are on par with buying the DVD, and they provide with many downloads a portable device version. In theory, this is a sweet thing. In practice....well, let's look at the service and what I really like or dislike about it.
I really like being able to download programs directly to the Tivo. Christine and I recently started watching Arrested Development, which has an irregular rerun schedule on broadcast TV. Amazon Unbox was able to download the series to the Tivo easy-peasy, and the Tivo interface is a pretty terrific way to watch television.
I really like watching the programs on the Laptop. I spend a fair amount of time in hotels and such, so this is a cool feature.
The User Interface:
The website is simply awful. It makes you wonder if there is anyone on amazon's staff actually using the service. There are no easy indicators to figure out which have been downloaded to the Tivo or the Laptop. The transmission times are often opaque.
The laptop client application is decent, but fairly brittle. It is incredibly sensitive to the network status of the machine and I must have crashed it 20 or 30 times before I figured out what would crash it, or more importantly what kind of magic I had to do to keep it from failing.
At least the Laptop Client (and the Tivo) give and indicator of how the download is going. The Tivo actually is less informative than the Laptop, but that's okay.
The laptop experience when you are playing is really nice and pretty. I have a thinkpad x61s ultraportable, so having a non-dvd requiring way of playing programs is handy in keeping my bag light.
The portable connection:
I've never been able to make this work with the Archos 504. It just stalls. I'm going to try to give it overnight to transcode and transmit. If it is transcoding, then maybe it'll be on the device tomorrow morning and I'll report on that. That said, why isn't there some kind of indicator that this is happening in the UI? Very frustrating. Update: Don't know what the delay was, but it ended up working after some time. Patience is still a virtue that is elusive.
Getting it to work on the laptop:
The only trick here is to update Windows Media Player to the latest version, and just pick the express options. Make no mistake here, the DRM is really intrusive, it doesn't trust you and you have to accept that for things like Unbox and Netflix's instant watch, which I'll review some other time.
Finally some things that the internet needs to know and the website is -so- bad at telling you:
You can start watching the video once you have gotten past the halfway mark (The program, assumes consistent network speeds).
If you download a video from Unbox, play it (and thus collect the DRM license) while online, you can then watch it on a plane or offline.
If you download a video from Unbox, go offline, then attempt to play, it may fail. I'll be testing this soon.
It's very pretty actually. It's not HD or anything, but it looks nice. Takes up about a gigabyte per hour of content, os that's solid. The sound is decent, too. Fire renders without artifacts, sunlit scenes. The image to the right, if you click on it is a screen shot which is being re-saved as a high quality jpeg, so there is some transcoding artifacts, but the clouds are cleaner and sharper in the playback than you are seeing here. Go ahead and click on it to see some stuff and things.
Amazon's support is at best slow and polite and not very useful. This blog post will solve more problems in shorter time for the majority of users than thier FAQ or support will. I should be thanked for this, you know?
Overall, it's not bad, once you have it working. But if you own a Tivo, it's worth the trouble to have a program magically appear in your playlist.
Update: Read the comments, there's some very good clarification/information there.