In the most recent Shop Talk column, I mentioned the primary cloud movie services that I dislike. This week, my focus will turn to those I recommend and believe are stable. I will also discuss the advantages of cloud media storage for movies and television programs, the advantages and disadvantages of physical media, what to do with your physical media if you do decide to move into the cloud and offer a couple of suggestions for quick cloud seeding.
Shop Talk: The Cloud
Vudu and Amazon
By David Mumpower
July 13, 2012
What I will mention here is that I have accidentally created a schism in my media library. The first step we took toward the cloud was to rid ourselves of our television box sets and acquire those same licenses through Amazon. We chose to do this because Amazon began to offer incentives to entice early adopters.
When the Amazon service started in 2006, it was much less convenient. Users were required to download Unbox software and the digital rights management restrictions were draconian. Still, there were innumerable deals in place that allowed me to attain rights to several television series I wanted to be able to access from my laptop. I bit the bullet and purchased several licenses. I immediately regretted this because I found the Unbox software counter-intuitive and generally inconvenient. For a couple of years, I stayed out of the marketplace altogether.
Roughly four years ago, Amazon Video became a more practical endeavor when the service was enabled for TiVo. The consumer gained the ability to purchase a file from Amazon then transfer it directly to TiVo for easy perusal. Long time readers are aware of my passion for TiVo as a product. Even in the TV Smart Apps era, we still have three TiVos that are a fundamental part of our viewer behavior. Given this organic means of transferring our television programs from DVDs to online access, we gleefully chose to convert.
My wife and I do not do anything half-heartedly. Once we determined to populate our Amazon Video account with television files, we went all in. This is not hyperbole. Our television library is so vast that we occasionally have troubles loading it through smart apps. Amazon has told me they have to redesign their software specifically for power users such as myself to alleviate this concern. As of this moment, we own over 800 full television seasons with innumerable stray episodes thrown in for good measure. This makes me something of an expert on the subject of Amazon Video.
My evaluation is that Amazon Video is not quite as fully formed as their cloud music service. As such, there are still growing pains aggravations a user may experience from time to time. On the whole, however, Amazon is impeccable. It is a site I frequent every day and I enjoy the ability to search for a television series/season and have instantaneous direct access to the file. From there, I can manipulate it to watch on site or download to a TiVo. If I skip the middleman, I can also stream files directly from my television as each of my sets has smart apps enabled. In other words, no matter where I am, I have 800 seasons of television available at the touch of a finger. All I require is an Internet connection. This is the beauty of the cloud.
There is beauty beyond television, of course. For instance, I am an Alfred Hitchcock super-fan. To Catch a Thief is my all-time favorite movie, while Rear Window and North by Northwest are all in my top 10. And I say that as someone who has watched north of 10,000 movies over the years. All three of these along with Notorious are perfect movies. Thanks to the magic of the cloud, I am now always three clicks away from watching any of them whenever I want. Cloud server functionality enables this. Similarly, if I want to remember a line of precise dialogue from any of Hitchcock’s movies, all I have to do is click the appropriate file. I have constant, immediate access.
Movies and television shows have always been my comfort food. I once owned over 1,000 meticulously indexed VHS tapes - ask your grandparents, kids - worth of such programming. Later, I possessed a DVD library that would have made for a fine episode of Hoarders. What the cloud affords me is the ability to indulge my previously mentioned packrat tendencies without blocking several closets with junk.
After the sudden move created by the fire, there is also a practical aspect to this. The next time I move, the only physical media I will be forced to re-locate myself are books…and I’m working on my wife about this subject. She has not divested herself of the novels she owns yet, but she has started to choose e-books over physical ones, all things being equal. Given her passion for literature, the storage space we have saved is enough to add a full gym. And a swimming pool. And a tennis court. The woman loooooves her books.
Her Kindle is 6”, which makes it smaller than any single hard cover book in her collection. I know that I’ve mentioned this before but it’s a huge deal in this household. This represents a less heralded aspect of moving to the cloud that matters in a person’s daily life. Evaluate how much storage room is required to host your current media content and you will appreciate the elegance of cloud hosting.
When I originally chose a service for hosting our movies, I gravitated toward Amazon since I had previously stored so many television shows there. To my frustration, Amazon is behind the curve with movies, though. Amazon television programming can be purchased in 1080p, which forward proofs the user’s personal library. Movies function differently. While a user can rent titles in HD, ownership is only possible in standard definition. I have to believe that at some point Amazon will allow upgrade options for current content license owners. Until this policy is implemented, I do not recommend movie purchases through the Amazon service.
Vudu is the movie cloud host of choice in my estimation. There are several reasons for this, old and new. The explanation for why I originally populated my Vudu library was that they were the first service to sell titles in HD. In fact, there are tiers on this service that enable the user to determine the level of digital quality they prefer. SD at 480p is the cheapest while their HD tier is 720p. Their top of the line streaming is HDX, which is a 1080p delivery system. In other words, Vudu matches Blu-Ray output quality without the need for physical media.
There are other aspects of the service that appeal to me as well. For example, Vudu has been providing 3D streaming titles for a while now. To this moment, they are still the only online service that offers such functionality. I would add that 3D streaming is not as high in quality as 3D Blu-Rays. I do not want to get into the technical explanation for this because…I don’t know it.
I can state with confidence, however, that when my wife and I watch Tangled on Vudu, it does not dazzle the way that the disc does. In fact, we continue to maintain a small library of 3D discs for exactly this reason. In addition, Vudu recently raised the prices of 3D titles from $16.99-$21.99 to $29.99-$34.99, presumably in response to pressure from content owners. And the same clueless idiots also removed 3D rental as an option for almost all titles in existence.
In other words, Vudu was much better with 3D at the end of 2011 than it is in the middle of 2012, which is not how technology should work. This is an excellent example of how corporate meddling messes up viewing habits although the Viacom/DirecTV and AMC/Dish squabbles are probably all the demonstration you need. At this point, the hosting of content on the Internet is still a wild frontier in the eyes of many studio execs, and so the rules in play are mercurial.
Some of Vudu’s 2012 changes are quite positive, though. As an example, Vudu recently became the first mainstream streaming service to play Ultraviolet content in HD. This is the part where you should pay particular attention. Here is what it means to you as a potential user. If you have purchased a disc with an Ultraviolet code, you should go to UVVU.com and set up an account. Then, go to the appropriate internet location listed with your code and enter that number in the accompanying input field. Ultraviolet.Flixster.com works for most titles. Once you have done so, you now own a permanent license of this particular movie. Next, set up a Vudu account if you do not already have one and link it to your Ultraviolet account. Voila! You now have the ability to stream your movie whenever you want and since there are also Vudu apps for smartphones and tablets, you have portable, effectively constant access.
Given the above, the key is to start building your library as soon as possible. Why should you pay money for premium television programming when you already possess a catalog of your favorite movie and television titles, after all? You want to seed your cloud with as much content as you can and the sooner the better. This is where Vudu and Ultraviolet shine. And this is where we will continue in the next column.