Hulu Review: Not Too Shabby

hulu.jpgThis post has been sitting in my drafts for about a month now. I was lucky enough to get in on the private beta of Hulu.com not too long after they started testing. Waiting so long to write this has actually been somewhat helpful. I’ve talked with a few people about their use of Hulu (now that it is open to the public) and got some interesting insights. What exactly is Hulu.com? It is a site created by News Corp. and NBC as an answer to internet video. This past winter, NBC left iTunes as a digital distributor of its TV content, and their alternative was Hulu. At the time, Hulu hadn’t launched yet and there was a lot of skepticism on whether this non-existent internet video site put together by companies that really don’t seem to know technology was going to work out, or just fail miserably. From what I read, signs were pointing to the latter. I had my doubts as well. How were broadcast companies going surpass the likes of Apple’s iTunes or YouTube when every time you look at them, they’re flailing blindly when it comes to technology. Well, now that Hulu is open to the world, it looks like what they put together isn’t that shabby.

The first thing you notice when you pull up Hulu.com is the slick clean interface. It is easy to navigate and easy to find shows to watch. Content is the next thing you notice. They’ve got a lot of stuff up there. Not only do you have content from NBC and News Corp. (Fox), also included is Sony, MGM, and many of their sub-brands like Sci-Fi, Bravo, USA, etc. There is definitely not a lack of things to watch. I do have some questions on why they chop up seasons or chose what shows and seasons get posted. Like for the show 24 (which I don’t watch), they start with Season 1 Episodes 1-5, then they jump to season 6. From what I know about that show, you need to follow it pretty closely from episode to episode, so jumping over 5 seasons doesn’t really make sense to me. Another example of this is the show Chuck, why are you starting with episode 5? How tough would it be to start at the beginning? That show hasn’t even been on that long! Maybe this is something they’re working on. I don’t know how things work inside the TV biz, but if I get hooked on 24 and don’t have the shows in between, where do you think I might get them (*cough* P2P *cough*)? Another thing that is somewhat random about the content selection in Hulu is when exactly a new show comes to the site. From what I have seen it is kind of random when a show that aired last night on NBC can be watched on Hulu. That, along with having irregular partial seasons makes it kind of tough to get into a TV series. Maybe that’s what they’re going for with Hulu. Doing that doesn’t make it that much different from standard TV, but maybe that’s what they’re going for. “We’ll hook ’em with Hulu and then they’ll have to come back to NBC to watch the next show in the series… mwah ha ha ha ha!”

hulu_screen.jpgSo, content selection aside, the player interface is pretty nice. It is a flash video player so it should be cross platform. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve read it even works on Linux. The interface is intuitive and has some nice features. It does full-screen, pop-up, or in-browser viewing modes and has a little “lower lights” button that dims the rest of the page if you decided to watch it in the standard window. They even allow embedding of the video into your own website ala YouTube. In fact before the private beta was over, you could access pretty much ever video on the site from openhulu.com which was a collection of every video embedded. The video quality is pretty good. It’s better than your typical YouTube video. There is a little fuzziness or graininess at full-screen, but all in all, the quality is pretty high.

There are commercials in Hulu videos (you knew there would be). There is typically an intro “brought to you by” commercial for a few seconds when you start a video, and depending on the show, there are a couple commercials dropped throughout the video. You can skip around the show, but cannot skip a commercial break. They tell you how long a break will be with a counter at the top of the video window (letting you know how long you have to visit the kitchen). I think it definitely less obtrusive than a regular TV commercial. It sure takes up less time in a typical TV episode vs. watching it on broadcast TV.

Overall, Hulu is much better than I expected. There are still some things that get me though. The content isn’t portable. It is essentially streaming to me over the internet as I watch it. With iTunes, I could take the shows with me on an iPod or on a laptop if I didn’t have an internet connection. Hulu ties me to my internet connected computer screen. I think that is probably the biggest thing that prevents this from really taking off right now. It’s a paradigm switch to go from comfy living room setup to sitting at a computer desk, or even huddling around a laptop. I’m one of the rare people who have a computer controlling my TV, and I still haven’t pulled up Hulu on the big screen yet. I think that the reason I haven’t done that yet is there isn’t a slick remote-controllable interface for it yet. Navigating the web on a TV is tough. For this to become really on-demand TV it needs to be easy. We need some sort of Hulu set-top-box or something. So, Hulu is good… but there is definitely room for improvement. At the very least, the networks are finally seeing that people want their shows on their schedule, online, and in a convenient way. Hulu does fit that need. But how far does it go? I think most people download content illegally because it is available and easier to do it that way. Once getting legitimate content becomes easier, the need to download it illegally disappears. I think people would even be willing to pay for that content (the way iTunes does it). So I think Hulu does some of these things, but also fails at some of them, and convenience is a fine line. This effort by NBC and News Corp. is definitely a step in the right direction, and is way better than what I (and many) were expecting, but they still have a little further to go.

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