Hands on with Amazon Video on Demand

Written by Liane Cassavoy.

Amazon’s Video on Demand is the latest service that will attempt to make you turn off your TV and turn on your PC when you want to be entertained. But Amazon is jumping into an increasingly crowded market, so how does its service fare compared to similar offerings from Hulu, iTunes and Netflix? I gave all four a spin under similar conditions to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/Hands_on_with_Amazon_Video_on_Demand]

EASE OF USE (THE BASICS): All of these services are simple to use, and Amazon is no exception. All of them let you browse available titles, and — in most cases — begin watching a video with just a few clicks. Amazon and iTunes offer TV shows and movies for rental and download. If you rent a movie online, you have 24 hours to watch it; if you download it, you can watch it whenever you’d like. You are limited in what you can do with the file you’ve downloaded, though: You can only transfer it to a certain number of computers, set-top boxes or mobile devices.

Hulu doesn’t offer content for downloading; it aggregates streaming video, including movies, TV shows and video clips. Netflix Instant Watch is only available to Netflix subscribers, and lets them watch movies on their PC or on a Netflix set-top box.

SELECTION: Amazon’s selection is impressive: It offers more than 40,000 titles. In comparison, Netflix’s Instant Watch has about 12,000 (up from about 1,000 when it launched in early 2007); Apple says its iTunes store has more than 2,000 titles available (up from 150 titles in January 2008). Neither they — nor Hulu — can compete with Amazon in terms of sheer volume.

That volume extends to its collection of TV shows: Amazon offers all the episodes from the first four seasons of The Office. Hulu, meanwhile, has five complete episodes available. (iTunes doesn’t have any, because The Office is on NBC, and NBC and Apple still don’t get along.)

Both Amazon and iTunes have a very good selection of recent titles — both in TV shows and movies. iTunes recently announced that it would be offering some movie titles the same day as the DVDs are released, and Amazon seems to be doing the same thing. Amazon will let you, for example, register to watch Made of Honor (starring Patrick Dempsey) on Sept. 16 — that’s the same day it will be available on DVD.

Amazon is lacking a few key titles, though. The service seems to offer almost every show from Comedy Central — except The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Hulu, meanwhile, offers full episodes of only two Comedy Central shows: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. If those are your favorites, Amazon’s breadth won’t matter.

PRICE: Hulu wins hands-down in this category: It’s free, though ad-supported. Amazon does offer some content for free, but most of it is priced in line with what you’ll find on iTunes: Single TV episodes cost $1.99 (they’re available for purchase only) and movies cost $2.99 to $3.99 to rent, and $9.99 to $14.99 to purchase. The Netflix Instant Watch feature lets you watch an unlimited amount of video, and is included with most Netflix subscriptions, which start at $9 per month.

PERFORMANCE: Video quality across all four services was very good, and all loaded videos quickly and smoothly. I noticed the most freezing and buffering when watching video content from iTunes, and some of the clips on Hulu were not as high-resolution of the majority of content I found on Amazon and elsewhere. High-definition content viewed on Amazon looked great, though I did notice when watching some titles that the formatting seemed off. It seemed as though video that should have been seen in a 16×9 ratio was squished into a 4×3 window.

Both iTunes and Netflix require that you download software to play back video content: iTunes requires the iTunes client, and Netflix provides a proprietary player. Both Hulu and Amazon play videos right in your browser window, though they require Adobe Flash.

COMPATIBILITY: None of these services are restricted to your PC, but they vary in the devices they support. Amazon lets you send videos to a networked TiVo box or to a Sony BRAVIA TV with a Sony BRAVIA Video Internet link. Content that is rented from the iTunes store can be transferred to a compatible Apple device, but it cannot be stored in two places at once.

Netflix works with Windows PCs only, but Hulu, iTunes, and Amazon all support both PCs and Macs. Netflix also works with some set-top boxes, which allow you to view Instant Watch titles on your TV. The Roku Netflix player is available now; the LG BD300 Network Blu-ray Player is coming soon, and later this fall the Xbox 360 will be compatible with the Netflix service as well.

Amazon’s Video on Demand seemed a bit pricey to me — $2 for a 22-minute TV show is more than I want to spend. But its ease of use and excellent selection impressed me enough that I’ll be back again.

Liane Cassavoy has been writing about and reviewing technology for the past 10 years. She was a staff member of PC World magazine and has contributed to Entrepreneur, About.com, and other publications, and recently authored a book that will be published by Entrepreneur Press later this year.