Amazon Officially Adds HD Content, and It Looks Good

Amazon today started offering both movies and TV shows in HD, a welcome and rumored upgrade. I took the Video on Demand service out for a quick test drive, and found the HD video quality to be very good and the overall system simple to use.

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Amazon Video on Demand lets you rent or purchase movies and TV shows from its library of about 40,000 titles on your computer or from your TV, with the help of a compatible set-top box. Amazon didn’t provide a specific number of HD titles available but a press announcement said users can browse through “hundreds of selections.” Compatible devices include some TiVo DVRs, Roku’s Digital Video Player, Sony’s Bravia Internet Video Link and Panasonic Vieracast. Most titles will cost $1 more to rent or purchase in HD:  TV shows, which typically sell for $1.99 an episode in SD, will cost $2.99, and movies that go for $3.99 to rent in SD will cost $4.99 in HD.

I tested the HD streaming capabilities on Roku’s Digital Video Player, a small set-top box that also streams Netflix movies. You connect the $100 device to your TV and to your home network, either via Ethernet or wirelessly. From the comfort of your couch, you can browse all of the titles that Amazon has available, and can decide whether to rent or purchase a movie. (You will need to set up a pin online before making any purchases, though.)

I rented Tropic Thunder in HD, and viewed some of it while connected to my home network via Ethernet and some while connected wirelessly. When the Roku box was connected via Ethernet, the experience was a delight. The movie began playing almost instantly, and the picture looked nearly as sharp and clear as a Blu-ray movie or an HD title rented on demand from my cable company. It was a significant upgrade from an SD movie rented from Amazon, and also better quality than a Netflix title streamed in HD.

When I switched to a wireless connection, though, video quality degraded noticeably. The movie seemed to buffer a bit before starting, and the picture stuttered and broke up a few times. Even when I had the movie playing smoothly, the picture still never looked quite as sharp as it did when I had the Roku box connected via Ethernet. If my only option were to connect my Amazon-compatible device wirelessly, I don’t think I’d bother paying the extra $1 it costs to rent movies in HD as opposed to standard definition.

In both situations — wired and wireless — I fired up several computers on the same network, and had all of them streaming YouTube videos in HD. I noticed no performance hit on the Amazon movie at all, regardless of how much activity was taking place on my network. What might be of greater concern, though, is the amount of bandwidth you’ll be using, especially if your broadband provider is one of the many considering limiting the amount you use. I asked both Amazon and Roku if they knew the size of the files being streamed, but did not receive an answer in time for posting this. We’ll update with more information if we receive it.

If you already have a compatible Amazon streaming device, today’s announcement is a great news for you. But is it enough to make me run out and pick up one of those set-top boxes? Almost — but not just yet.

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