Amazon’s Video on Demand

November 2008

These days a programming guide seems so quaint — programs starting on the hour, little capsule summaries, tuning in your TV. It’s history. Everything is going in the direction of movies on demand. We like this — being able to watch what we want to watch, when we want to watch it. Instant gratification.

This trend toward instant gratification got a big boost earlier this fall with the arrival of Amazon’s Video on Demand. It’s almost scary: you skim through the menus, pick something you like, and then a single click starts it playing and charges your credit card via your regular Amazon account. It’s too easy.

The selection is vast. There are over 15,000 movies available for rent or purchase and 1,200 TV seasons (as opposed to episodes). The rental price is typically 99 cents–$3.99, and purchase is $9.99 and up. There’s a small selection of free offerings, which are convenient if you just want to play around and try the service.

As far as I know, no other movies-on-demand service has a selection as broad as this.

Amazon’s service also has all of the familiar features you’ve come to expect on Amazon, including customer reviews and ratings, and listings of similar titles.

If you choose to rent a movie, you can either download it or stream it. Once you rent it, you have seven days to watch it. If you start streaming it, then you can’t later decide to download it. If you download it, you have the option of putting it on two computers/TiVo devices as well as on a portable device (but not an iPhone). Unfortunately, if you have a Macintosh, your options are limited to streaming.

If you start streaming and then quit, it will remember where you were the next time you come back. Your movie rentals and purchases are stored in your Video Library.

But who wants to watch a movie on their computer screen? I do, given my 24-inch iMac. However, the site also helpfully explains how it’s possible to connect your computer to your TV. Other options the site explains include the use of a TiVo, Sony BRAVIA Internet Video Link, Xbox 230, and Windows Media Center TVs. And of course if you have an Apple TV device, you can wirelessly stream from your Mac to your TV.

The minimum requirements include an Internet connection of 450 Kbps or faster for streaming movies, and a PC with 2.33 GHz Pentium 4 or faster, and Mac users need a PowerPC G5 running at least 1.8 GHz or a 1.33 GHz Intel Core Duo computer or faster.

The movies use a Flash plugin in your web browser (replacing Amazon’s old Unbox service, which used PC-only software and was encumbered by digital rights management). You can choose to watch them full screen, and the streaming quality is good, depending on the speed of your Internet connection.

For free movies and TV episodes, Hulu still remains a top choice, with minimally intrusive advertising. Also, IMDb, which has long been a top resource for information about movies and TV programs, has also recently begun offering full-length streaming movies and TV episodes.

IMDb has some 6,000 free offerings, mostly via a deal with Hulu. But they also have content from CBS, Sony, and independent filmmakers. Check out the Watch Now link in the black menu band near the top for a selection of freebies. Or click on the big gold Watch It button as you’re browsing IMDb.

Amazon’s major competitor in video on demand is likely Netflix, which offers streaming of movies and TV programs as a bonus with most of their membership plans. Of their over-100,000 titles, only about 12,000 movies and TV episodes are available via streaming — a smaller selection than Amazon. But the streaming quality is reportedly good, and you can watch as often as you want.

Apple’s iTunes lags behind in terms of selection, but it matches Amazon’s ease of use and purchasing. To use this service, you’ll need to download the free iTunes player, which works with both Mac and PC.

These services are just the beginning. In your future is a huge display that you can use either as a TV or computer monitor and a connection to a trove of any movie or TV program, everything you want, when you want it. Instant gratification.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen