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Second Take: Amazon HD VOD Not Ready for Prime Time?

When Amazon (s AMZN) released the HD version of its VOD service last week, the future of movie rentals seemed so close I could taste it. But while at first it was sweet, but after a few tries, it quickly turned bitter. Amazon’s high-definition streaming is close to being awesome, but a few problems keep it from being ready for prime time (and I want to know if you’ve had similar issues).
To set the stage, I run Amazon and Netflix (s NFLX) streaming through my Roku box using a wired connection to my cable broadband (speed tests I’ve run put me anywhere from 15-24mbps down). When I was watching movies, there was nothing else running on the network — in other words, no one was off in another room downloading the leaked version of Wolverine.

Load Times: Retrieving and buffering the HD movies takes a bit longer, but it’s still fast; we’re talking a minute at most before it starts playing.

Picture Quality: I’m sure there are purists who will knock the quality of the HD, but I found it to be excellent. I was fine with the non-HD quality during the first rev of this service, but now it just looks like garbage compared with the HD picture. Good-bye $3.99 rental price; time to budget in $4.99 a pop.

I rented three HD movies over the course of last week, and with each one I had some issues with the HD stream dropping to non-HD levels.

Last Tuesday, I watched Frost/Nixon (very good!) and about 30 minutes into the movie the entire thing stopped and had to re-buffer. When it came back, it was no longer in HD. I tried stopping and re-buffering a few times, but no luck.

On Friday evening, I rented Role Models (funny!), this time I had issues when fast-forwarding. Trying to skip ahead using the streaming service isn’t even worth the hassle it creates. When you skip ahead you have to wait for the stream to re-buffer (which takes a long time) and each time I did, the HD conked out. Again, I tried stopping the movie, waiting for a minute and then starting it up again in case there was some network congestion, but the HD was gone, baby, gone.

Saturday I tried once more and rented the Watchmen-based The Black Freighter (sucked!) and this time could not get the HD quality to kick in at all.

I contacted both Amazon customer support and corporate to find out what was going on. Both parties asked me a few questions about my set-up (and refunded me some money). They couldn’t point to a specific problem and thought maybe it was my ISP.

My ISP is Comcast (s CMSCA), so I contacted them, wondering if I had hit my bandwidth cap. I must say their response was the equivalent of a shock-and-awe campaign. They sent multiple techs to my house immediately after calling and tested the line, cramming 10,000 packets of information through my connection and said not a single one of them was lost. So it wasn’t my Internet connection.

To compare, I tried the Netflix HD streaming. It, too, would drop the HD quality, but not as often as Amazon’s. And truth be told, I’m a little more forgiving of the Netflix (s nflx) HD because it’s more of an experiment for the company right now and I’m not paying for each stream individually; it’s part of my regular subscription.

Amazon is so close with this service, but the HD hang-ups really give me pause. If I’m paying five bucks, it should work each time. But like with any potential breakup I need to ask — is it me? I need more data before making a final judgment. Have you tried the Amazon HD VOD? What’s your set-up and how well did it work?

15 Responses to “Second Take: Amazon HD VOD Not Ready for Prime Time?”

  1. I tried an HD tv show and had no problems with my Roku.

    I did have problems with content from Netflix via the Roku box for a time, but the problem was happening with the content delivery network. Once that was fixed, I’ve not had problems with Netflix, nor Amazon, which uses the same content delivery network.

    What would help to make Amazon more ready for primetime is to institute a way for people to easily report problems with streamed content, similar to what Netflix provides with Watch Now. And Amazon needs to incorporate a program to refund rentals if they fail. The current process is overly obtuse and complicated.

  2. Jason, this is pretty vague and perhaps contradictory:

    The new network congestion management practice works as follows:

    If a certain area of the network nears a state of congestion, the technique will ensure that all customers have a fair share of access to the network. It will identify which customer accounts are using the greatest amounts of bandwidth and their Internet traffic will be temporarily managed until the period of congestion passes. Customers will still be able to do anything they want to online, and many activities will be unaffected, but they could experience things like: longer times to download or upload files, surfing the Web may seem somewhat slower, or playing games online may seem somewhat sluggish.

  3. Yes, Amazon VOD HD on TiVo is a different animal – the Amazon web pages will show the different bitrates and what not between TiVo and Roku. TiVo also has normal scrubbing controls and 5.1 sound (when available), as opposed to Roku. Roku has the quicker/better UI, though. Which is why I gravitate towards it.

    I’ve also heard of Comcast’s traffic shaping in regards to video streaming, but haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that supports it. And as a Comcast customer, my streaming has been fine.

  4. Chris Albrecht

    Thanks, G,

    I’ve sent your comment on to Comcast and asked them for more info.

    UPDATE: According to a Comcast rep, the Power Boost should not be interfering with the VOD stream since I have ample bandwidth to accompany the HD.

  5. Comcast has the speed boost that confuses all the newer VOD systems that measure speed for best bitrate delivery. This was the case with Netlfix on the Xbox. Everytime you start the stream on Comcast it would come in at the best possible rate b/c of the speed boost. but since the boost only lasts like 30 seconds or so, eventually you lose the high quality stream.

    you yourself mention in the post that the speed you get on your connection is “15-24mbps down”. The 24mbps is in the speed boost range which I think is 25mbps. Comcast has something on their web page about this.

  6. I haven’t had many problems with Netflix HD on the Roku. I’ll occasionally have a bad stretch getting only 2 dots (usually this is between 7-8pm) on Roku, but even that will disappear in a few mintues. (Oddly enough, on my TiVo the signal strength will be fine during this same time …)

    As far as Amazon HD, haven’t tried it on Roku yet. Rented a movie on TiVo, but of course that DLs to the TiVo HD and so looked fine.

    I have rented SD movies/TV shows from Amazon and they look fine, no problems. Hopefully HD will be the same …