Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hulu Plus: Where’s the Beef?

Hulu-Inbound-for-iPad-XboxYou know Hulu, right? That Web site that lets you stream TV shows over the Internet?

Well, as of a couple months ago, they've decided to both expand their offerings and make more money via a service called Hulu Plus. At the moment, it’s still in an “invite only” mode that prohibits just anyone from signing up, but in theory when launched the service is going to offer all of the normal Hulu stuff in high-definition, and also original content, and also it will stream to just about every device on Earth. In time, Hulu will replicate the Netflix streaming model – as much content as you can to every device that is capable of it.

In the meantime, though, the Hulu Plus previews leaves some things to be desired. It lives up to the letter of its promise, but it hasn’t yet reached its full potential. Read on for the details.

The Content

da37fe8221d4a516I’m going to get this out of the way first: if you’re interested in streaming movies, Hulu is not where you want to be. Among the paltry selection I spied at least one movie that had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Nuff said.

Television has always been Hulu’s bread and butter, and here the situation is slightly less bleak. The content from the regular Hulu is here, and typically augmented with more episodes than the “rolling five” to which regular Hulu users are given access. All episodes from the current seasons of some shows are here – called Season Pass – and you can also find the complete back catalogues of a few series, including cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the television equivalent of brain tumors popular shows like Ally McBeal. Let’s not talk about Hulu’s earlier days, where Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia were available for free in their entirety. It totally messes up their pitch.

My main problem with the Hulu Plus content is that it doesn’t go far enough. Only NBC, ABC, and Fox put their stuff up on the site in the first place, and not all of those networks make their shows available via Season Pass, to say nothing of complete series availability. I imagine there’s a thin line to walk between making Hulu Plus worth it and cannibalizing DVD sales, but still.

CBS is completely unrepresented, as are cable channels like HBO, AMC or Comedy Central. This is where Hulu Plus needs to improve if it truly intends to attract people away from traditional cable – it needs to cut deals with content providers to get some of this premium content up on the Web. If people have one or two channels they can’t live without, that’s enough to keep them subscribed to cable.

Add to this the fact that your $9.99 a month doesn’t free you from any of Hulu’s advertisements, and you have Plus’s weakest link: you’re just not getting much extra for your money. So that leaves the delivery system to carry the price of admission.

On the Web

Hulu Plus on the Web is exactly the same as Hulu Classic. Enjoy.

Hulu Desktop

hulu-desktop-version-videosLikewise, Hulu Desktop with Plus is much the same as is Hulu Classic, though it’s missing features that make it a true replacement for Tivo or an equivalent DVR. This has less to do with Hulu Plus itself than with the Hulu Desktop app, though, so I’ll try to be brief.

My current setup involves a small PC connected to my HDTV – in nerdy enthusiast circles, the proper term is Home Theater PC, or HTPC. For said HTPC, I’ve purchased a remote control designed to work with the Media Center app built into most versions of Windows 7, and some versions of Windows XP and Vista. Problem one with Hulu Desktop is that it only sort of works with this remote – I can navigate fine, for example, but the Pause button does nothing.

Other nagging problems with Desktop: I can’t pause or stop a show and come back to the same place later on the same device (or another device, as with Netflix streaming). I can subscribe to shows and have episodes show up in my queue, but I can’t make Desktop distinguish between “new” episodes and “new to this Hulu rotation, but actually reruns” episodes as Tivo would.

Overall, the interface is nice, and it looks great on a TV from a couch. Just improve your Media Center remote support and treat it a little more like a DVR, guys, and you’ll have a good thing going here.

The iPhone App

huluiphonemockup-600A lot of the Hulu Plus iPhone App’s shortcomings can be forgiven in light of the fact that it brings Hulu content to a device that fits in your pocket, which is about the same thing that can be said of the Netflix app. It’s nice to be able to put on an episode of Modern Family (of which I have recently become extremely enamored) in bed as I drift off.

It does have shortcomings, though some of them are intermittent. I’ve had some trouble with its Search functionality, both because I was totally unable to find 30 Rock in the list of shows, and because sometimes the Search window just won’t go away after I have tried searching for what I was searching for.

I don’t think the iPhone app completely sells Hulu Plus, but given the lack of extra content and perks it’s one of the best cases you can make for paying $10 a month.

And the Rest

I’m not in a position to review the PS3 iteration of Hulu Plus, and the Xbox 360 rendition isn’t due out in any form until some unspecified time in 2011. Therefore, I can’t really speak about their quality – the fact remains that they’re just different skins for the same content, though, so most of Hulu Plus’s shortcomings still apply.

The service certainly has promise – Hulu has always oozed with promise that it hasn’t quite been able to fulfill. Time will tell whether the heads of the company can cut some more content deals with providers and put Plus’s theory into practice.