"Ooh, look. Buffy!"
Generally it is hard to get my partner interested in my iPhone and iPad. Like all gadget widows, I imagine, she has framed my collection of mobile devices as the enemy -- diversions that pull me away from attending to her during every waking moment.
"Wow! A lot of Buffy." But she has discovered Hulu Plus on my iPhone and iPad and is marveling at their deep library of episodes of "the best thing ever put on TV," she insists. That is where Hulu Plus, even at $10 a month, first impresses. Having complete runs of major series, even "Saturday Night Live" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," communicates its value because it feels as if you are getting open access to shelves of DVD compilations you know cost $50 each and more. To be sure, the library is still catch-as-catch-can. Getting select episodes of the old "David Susskind Show" is a trip, but I have to admit "Airwolf" is doing nothing for me, and half the programs in this extensive catalog I can't really identify. But my partner and I are looking forward to discovering what all this "Glee" mania is about.
Once you scratch the surface of the library and spend a few days rooting around for what you like, the initial impression of great value modulates a bit as you start to feel overwhelmed by the dross of decades of TV. I won't even venture to speak much about the quality of the "Movies" library. Other than the occasional instance of a film like "Slacker," the most recognizable brands here are at least four "Benji" films. I kid you not. Hulu would have been better off not including a movie library at all.
What Hulu Plus on the iPhone gets right (aside from scale) is sheer quality of viewing experience. Performance was superb for me on both WiFi and 3G connections. The videos loaded very quickly and video quality was quite sharp across different connections. On an iPhone 4 with its superb resolution and shadow detail, the experience is exceptional. Likewise, the video quality and speed were strong on the iPad. Even scanning forward to later points in the stream, the response is quick.
What is especially noteworthy is how well the dynamically served ads work across the video platforms here. There were only a few hiccups during the ad inserts, all of which use a countdown clock to keep the user engaged during the brief voiceovers from Hulu or inserted ads.
Also strong here is the synchronized experience. I started an old episode of "SNL" from the ‘70s hosted by Hugh Hefner on the iPhone. When I launched Hulu Plus on the iPad, the program asked whether I wanted to continue viewing the episode.
"You like when things are synchronized," my gadget widow teased when I showed her the seamlessness of the effect. I do. In fact I think that the seamlessness of media consumption across devices is one of the under-appreciated value adds for both Hulu-Plus and Netflix. Long-form media is being eaten in medium-sized meals by many of us who are experimenting with TV/film everywhere.
I am watching four or five films or TV episodes at a time now across mobile, PC and TV. Having Hulu remember where I left off on my iPad and iPhone when I fire it up on the PS3 means that the type of media I consume is no longer contingent on where I am. I can have a film, TV, headline triage, movie preview experience no matter where I am. I think we are only beginning to see how important it will be when media are independent of the technology.
All that being said, Hulu Plus on devices is very much a version 1.0 project. The catalog experience is bland and uninspired. It desperately needs more personalization and filtering. On the iPhone in particular there is no opportunity to get details about a program. A barren list of show titles pops you directly into viewing the episode. Opportunities to create media queues are also unclear in the interface. You can subscribe to shows, but that just loads up your subscription list with titles you may not want to watch. I should be able to create playlists.
And for the mediaholic like me, having an excellent film service in Netflix and now a pretty good TV archive in Hulu Plus requires two $10/month subscriptions -- when ideally we would want the two merged in some way.
Oops, did I just say that out loud?
"You're paying how much a month for this stuff -- on top of the iPhone bill? And cable?" my lonely and abandoned better half yells.
"Honey, remember... Buffy?"
"You're taking me out to dinner. I suddenly have a desire for lobster dumplings."
Hmm. Hulu and Netflicks for ten bucks each on devices that I can roam my house (or airport) with. So what do we pay Comcast, Time Warner, and FiOS for?
I'm not so sure I would admit to watching Buffy on my iPhone. In fact, I'm sure of it. I know for a FACT I would never pay MONEY to watch Buffy on anything.