August 29, 2007

My Amazon Unbox Review

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:

Details:

You can start watching the video once you have gotten past the halfway mark (The program, assumes consistent network speeds).

Offline operation:

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.

Quality/Storage:

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.

Support:

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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

A couple questinos and comments --

"I must have crashed it 20 or 30 times before I figured out what would crash it"
- So...what was it?

"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."
- There is no transcoding. Curious what the issue is here.

"You can start watching the video once you have gotten past the halfway mark (The program, assumes consistent network speeds)."
- You can start playing as soon as the pprogram will be able to play through without buffering. It's not mechanically set to 50% of runtime. If you have 5 mbps it will start in a couple minutes

"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."
- You don't have to play it. The license is delivered with the file.

Chris DiBona said...

The crashes were caused by a variety of problems, changing the nature of the network connection, disconnected a non-discovered pmp, etc..

As to the rest, I think the delay was due to the number of video files on the pmp, the amazon unbox seems to want to catalog the device, which is -really- annoying. I have pictures and video files going back 8 years on the device and it wanted to find all of them. I use the PMP as a portable backup of my home files, you see.

Thanks for the clarification on the drm/buffering delay.

Anonymous said...

Unbox works well if you're not paying actual money for stuff. Otherwise it fucking sucks.

I don't have one-click turned on. I have it explicitly turned off. But if you click the button, you're bought a movie. Tough luck.

Meant to rent a movie instead of buying it? Too bad. Even if you have downloaded it and not watched it, it is amazon.com policy to NOT permit refunds.

You cannot cancel orders.
Downloads are supposed to start "in 15 minutes". No. They don't. They take up to 24-48 hours to appear on the Tivo. I've rented about 4-6 movies and they've all been slow.

Want to redownload a movie? I can't figure out how. Amazon won't let you re download a movie that you haven't seen. For instance, downloaded a movie but never got around to watching it. So I still have my 24 hour period to watch it. But I can't find a way to all it to download. Unbox says, "You've already downloaded this movie."

In short, it fucking sucks and will never replace rentals.

Anonymous said...

I know this article is over 2 years old but i'm hoping i can get the word out somewhere. I would not recommend Amazon Unbox to anyone. If you change machines OR redo windows, you have to redownload the movies even if they are backed up. In this redownloading, they've got the "blackout window" that won't let you redownload until this window is lifted. I paid full price to purchase "I am legend" (both editions, alternate ending and theater), Elizabeth, the Orphanage, and American Gangster. They won't let me download it. I have the movie right here backed up on my hard drive, it won't let me play that either because its a different machine and even though i called them and they reset my user licenses, i had to redownload everything (it took about 2 weeks solid on my internet connection). I can not recommend this to anyone. i've lost a lot of time and money due to Unbox. I can't believe that there's not more bad about this service.