Amazon Unbox on Tivo

Amazon Unbox became available via Tivo about a month ago. When Amazon Unbox was originally unveiled I barely noticed. It was another DRM encumbered video download service. There was a bunch of DRM related rules and I’d have to deal with yet another single-purpose video player and it’s DRM implementation.

But now it’s available on Tivo of which I’m a big fan so I decided to check it out. Signing up by April 30th produced a $15 credit so I could try it without any risk. The Tivo angle was intriguing because at least in theory, while still DRM’d video, it should just work without a hassle.

I linked my Tivo to my Amazon account which was a simple process and then headed to Amazon to find some video.

While subjective, I found browsing for videos a bit of a pain. If your looking for a specific title a search will find it and all is well. But browsing results in long, single column lists of videos which couldn’t be sorted by name. They could only be sorted by relevance (the default), best selling, newest arrival and price. While iTunes has it’s own problems (like burying niche movies and videos that may be interesting), I find it to be a more pleasing experience when I’m just browsing to see what’s out there. With Unbox I got tired of scrolling through pages and pages of web pages, especially when video names began to repeat. They’ve since added more pre-built categories to browse for which seems to help.

TV shows are $1.99 per episode and are an outright purchase, although I did see some labelled “rental” that were also priced at $1.99. This (at least the purchase part) is the same as the iTunes store. Amazon Unbox also offers full seasons for a discounted price. But unlike the iTunes season pass Amazon Unbox would only let me buy episodes which were already released. In the iTunes Store a season pass for an in-progress season pre-buys all episodes and delivers them when they’re released. For example, iTunes offers Stargate SG-1 Season 10 as a season pass for $35.99 and will deliver episodes as they’re released. Amazon Unbox only offers the 10 episodes that are already released for a “full season” price of $15.92. It appears you’d have to wait for the season to end before buying all episodes for a discounted price.

Movies are available as a rental for $3.99. The rental lasts 24 hours after you first hit “play” for the show or for 30 days after it’s downloaded to your Tivo. It vanishes once the time is up but it can be watched multiple times in the 24 hour period. Movies were also available for purchase. Prices where mostly $9.99 for older movies and $14.99 for more recent movies.

When I first went through the movies a month ago I was disappointed to see that the movies were in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio which I assumed was pan&scan despite the PC download being offered in widescreen. Now I see that the movies are labelled 1.33:1 (letterboxed) which is better than pan&scan (in my opinion).

I ordered a TV show (St. Elsewhere) and a movie (The Left-handed Gun) both of which are old shows. Amazon says the quality is slightly better than the “Best” recording option in Tivo. I would agree and was pleasantly surprised at how good the quality was for these old shows. The recordings were better than “best”, despite their age. I think they benefited from the fact the the recording process avoids any interference that’s sometimes present in my cable TV.

The videos can be played while their still downloading although I didn’t try this since starting to play it starts the rental clock. Since downloading takes awhile I’ve done it overnight or while I’m at work.

The movie was an hour and forty-two minutes and took 2.16GB of disk space. This compared to a shorter one hour show recorded at the “Best” setting which took 2.96GB of disk on my Tivo. So despite the better quality the files are smaller. The recording are copy protected so they can’t be burned to DVD or moved off the Tivo. A single video can be downloaded on two different Tivo’s or PCs but it is two seperate downloads.

It’s been a month and I still haven’t burned through my $15 credit so I can’t claim that Amazon Unbox has caught on with me. It is easy to use if you don’t mind browsing through a lot of web pages to find something that might interest you.

I have bought TV shows through iTunes and will probably continue to buy any I want from there. But that’s simply because I end up watching them on my Mac while I do other work. If I spent more time in front of the TV I’d order through Amazon when I wanted a show. The big benefit over iTunes that I see is the ability to order something over the internet from work during the day and have it be on my Tivo when I get home. Even so, it’s still cheaper for me to rent through Netflix so Unbox is going to remain an impulse thing. As for buying movies, if I’m going to buy a movie to keep, it’ll be on DVD, not through Unbox, iTunes or any other download service. Even when I “buy” a TV show it’s usually just for a one time viewing.

On a related note: David Pogue of the New York Times has an article about the various new features that have been quietly added to Tivo recently. Many of them were new to me so if you have a Tivo be sure to check it out. This link is to the version of the story since they don’t require registration.

Click on the banner below if you want to try Unboxed on Tivo. Until April 30th you get a $15 credit towards Unbox rentals or purchased. You’ll need a Tivo with a broadband connection.

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