Sunday, November 30, 2008

Video On Demand?

In the download age, films can be streamed online. Netflix is among the companies promoting the option of online streaming -- you won't even have to wait for it to arrive in the mail! also offers you video rentals in their downloads. And they offer the option of purchasing. We decided to check out their "Video On Demand" feature.

The first thing to note is that forget about browsing. If you use their links, such as "classics," you'll get many films listed (over 700 in the case of "classics"); however, you will not get a full listing. As we browsed the classics, we kept wondering where ___ was or why they didn't include in ___? In some case, they did have a film for rental and/or purchase but you couldn't find it under categories, you had to search.

For example, Jane Fonda's Any Wednesday. Rarely on video (compared to other Fonda films -- and it was for that reason that Ava and C.I. didn't include it when they reviewed Fonda's comedies back in 2006) is available from Amazon. This 1966 sex comedy directed by Robert Ellis Miller (from the play by Muriel Resnick -- Sandy Dennis played Fonda's part on Broadway), stars Fonda, Jason Robards, Dean Jones (of Disney fame) and Rosemary Murphy. To find it, you have to search the movie downloads (we searched "Jane Fonda"). That's also how you will discover that Natalie Wood has films available and, curiously, you will find more Natalie Wood films by searching "Robert Redford" since This Property Condemned (which starred Wood and Redford in that billing order) does not turn out when searching "Natalie Wood."

You will largely find, in terms of older films, the ones rarely on video or the ones that didn't perform so well. So you will find Inside Daisy Clover, for example, but no Bob, Carol, Ted & Alice for Natalie Wood. Judy Garland's only real film available is For Me and My Gal (with Gene Kelly). Paul Newman's Hud may rank a keeper but the bulk of his offerings Amazon serves up are ones you wouldn't want to watch a two-minute clip. Time and again, you'll find more choices by searching a performer. (Steve McQueen has a number of films available though his biggest ones -- Bullet, The Getaway, The Great Escape -- are not among them.), if you use the search function, actually offers many more choices than does iTunes. In addition, they often have better prices.

For our exercise, we selected a film that iTunes offers for $9.99 but Amazon offered for $7.99, Alfred Hitchock's To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Payment was no problem and took place quickly on both computers. We used two Dell laptops. One, we used wireless on and, the other, we used dialup in parts. In parts?

To Catch A Thief

You can't stream on dialup. Or we couldn't. So we switched over to DSL. On wireless and DSL, when you purchase a video -- as opposed to renting it -- it immediately begins playing. When that happens, don't panic and wonder if you hit the wrong key, that's just how it works.

To download it, you'll need to click the button on left hand of the movie screen while the film plays. WHILE THE FILM PLAYS.

Please pay attention to that. The instructions tell you can wait until after. If you wait until the film goes off, you will have problems finding what to click on. Also true is you need to first download Amazon Unbox Video. This took seven minutes on DSL and four and a half on wireless.

On wireless, letting the film play through resulted in two times where the stream needed to buffer. That did not happen with DSL.

Here is the most important point for those purchasing who plan to download, start downloading immediately. You will not believe how long it takes. On DSL or wireless. On wireless, it took two hours to download the 107 minutes film. On DSL? We figured it would be a little shorter or a little quicker than on wireless. So, since it was already purchased, we decided to see if it would download on dial-up.

To readers with dial-up, forget it. 18 hours later, it is still downloading and currently says: "Ready to watch in 4 d[ays] 20 hr 23 min 28 sec." Now on wireless, our eyes bulged when it originally told us five days but the five days moved quickly on the ticker. (Again, two hours total to download it on wireless.)

Dial up readers should probably forget about Amazon. First, you will not be able to stream the video to begin with. Second, if you somehow manage to, it will take days to download.

Wireless and DSL users should keep in mind the download time. It is smart to start the download as soon as the video starts.

To Catch A Thief is in VistaVision and the stream is in widescreen so you get the entire effect (no pan and scan). The colors are rich. There were no special or bonus features with the purchase. You are supposedly allowed two downloads of the film. (We've downloaded once on each purchase.) In addition, you can watch the film at anytime on your computer. It goes into your Amazon video library. (No, we weren't aware we had one of those either.) Anytime you'd like to watch it streaming -- as long as Amazon's around -- you simply need to pull up the net and go to Amazon.

Most rentals were $9.99. Some were $14.99. A TV series -- such as I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, etc. -- was generally $1.99 an episode. Though not available for purchase, Howard Zinn's favorite Marlon Brando film (Burn) was available for rental. We easily spent two hours doing searches -- after being extremely disappointed with the results when we just checked by genre -- and movie buffs should probably allow for double that amount of time.

By starting the download as soon as you purchase the film (which is when it starts streaming), you can watch it and have it completely downloaded or nearly downloaded by the end of the film.

[Note: For this feature, we purchased To Catch a Thief twice. We did not get a free movie from Amazon, we did not have a coupon. Amazon did not ask us to use them nor did we speak to anyone at Amazon. Unlike at The New York Times, no freebies or perks were exchanged for this article.]
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