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

When Amazon 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).
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To set the stage, I run Amazon and Netflix 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.

THE GOOD
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.

THE BAD
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, 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 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?

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