Damn you, Indecision!

Amazon Unbox Video Download Service: First Glance

I say first glance instead of first look because although I have downloaded a TV episode from the service, I have not actually watched it yet. I found out about the Unbox service going live rather late last night, but I figured I would try downloading an episode before I went to bed.

The selection of movies was kind of lame, and it was apparent that most of the companies that put their TV shows on iTunes were not on the Unbox service. Of course, this may change in the near future. I decided to choose a TV show to download, mainly because Amazon was offering an instant rebate of $1.99 on your first download, which would make the first TV show free. Besides the movie selection being kind of sparse, the movie download and rental pricing was all over the map. Anyway, I chose the pilot for Numb3rs as my TV show download. I kept hearing that it’s a good show, so I figured I’d check it out.

In order to download anything, you have to download the Amazon Unbox player, which is either a Java or a Flash application… Not sure which it is, off the top of my head. Once the player is downloaded, the video download begins, and you are given some stats on how long you have to wait before you can start watching, your transfer speed, the size of the download, and remaining space on your selected hard drive (click on the pic below to see larger version).

amazonunbox.jpgAs you can see from the size of the file (1.02 GB), this is not just a 320×240 resolution video, as the iTunes Music Store offers. According to Amazon, the video purchases you make include a DVD-quality file for you to watch on your PC or TV (via hooking up your PC to your TV, I assume, since you cannot actually burn these files to DVD), as well as a smaller version of the file that is compatible with PlaysForSure devices, such as the Toshiba Gigabeat S, or the Creative Zen Vision M. While I cannot yet comment on the actual quality of the video (stay tuned for updates once I’ve watched the video), I feel that Amazon has gotten a very good start with their download service. Many people, myself included, are not willing to pay for TV episodes or any other video downloads from services like the iTunes Music Store unless the resolution is higher than 320×240. I am not familiar with the other movie download services like Vongo or CinemaNow, so I can’t comment on them. But I felt that Apple’s restriction of their video downloads to iPod-friendly resolutions was short-sighted. I hope that their upcoming movie download service (which is most likely to be announced next week on Sept. 12th) ups the resolution of their downloads. They don’t have to be HD, but they at least should be on par with what Amazon is offering with the Unbox service.

Getting back to the Unbox service, the download took a while, since the file size was large. I didn’t get a chance to time how long it took because I just left it to download overnight. I did notice, however, that the status indicator shows that you can start watching the video (or at least this one in particular) once 40% of it was downloaded:


Earlier this morning I tried to copy the pilot episode to my Gigabeat S, but I think that the Amazon Unbox player connects to Amazon over special ports, because it couldn’t get online over the open WiFi AP here at work to validate the licensing for the file. So if you don’t have a net connection handy, don’t expect to be able to transfer your videos to your device! Shame on Amazon for this lame DRM implementation (though I suspect that’s how PlaysForSure must work in general). 😛 You are allowed to download your video files to 2 computers at a time, and each computer can transfer the videos to one portable media device. You can back up your video purchases onto DVDs to free up spack on your hard drive, but as I mentioned before, you cannot burn these videos to DVD to watch on your TV.

The Unbox player is kind of clunky. When you start it up, an icon shows up in your system tray, but you have to manually choose “Launch…” from its menu in order to pop open the player interface. Why wouldn’t it just automatically open the player GUI, as if you were opening Windows Media Player or iTunes? Also, the Unbox player is slow and bogs my machine down. I think it may be aggravated by the fact that my Windows install is a bit hosed in general, and that it couldn’t get online upon start up, but still. The player shouldn’t be this bloated and unwieldy. I’ll have to see how well it works to hook up my Tablet PC to our HDTV and watch the TV episode.

You’re not going to be able to just queue up a video download and watch it a few minutes later, obviously, and given the size of this 43-minute video, you’re going to need lots of storage space. But I think that once Amazon starts getting some more content on the site, they’ll get a sizeable amount of customers who aren’t necessarily beholden to the iTunes Music Store (rename the service already, Apple!). Unless playing back the videos from my computer is an awful experience, I could see myself buying more videos in the future from Amazon, given that they offer them at higher resolution than iTMS, and don’t require subscription fees. We’ll see how Apple counters this development.


5 responses

  1. What are you running the video player on? I was thinking about trying it out but the minimum processor requirement is nearly twice what my little tablet is packing (I really need to upgrade). iTunes also requires 1.5 GHz for video playback, but it manages to play video on my tablet at small size without choppiness.

    BTW, Numb3rs is a great show. Hope you like it.

    September 8, 2006 at 10:07 pm

  2. Hi, Sumocat! 🙂 Actually, it’s not video playback that I was having trouble with. I think the player is finicky about its internet connection. If it can’t call home to Amazon.com, I think it gets all boggy, trying to reconnect. Also, if I minimize the app to the system tray, I’ve had issues trying to open the player window again. There were a few times that I had to just exit the program completely and reopen it before the player window would open again.

    However, besides those issues, I’m happy to report that once I was able to get the player working and played back the Numb3ers pilot on my TV, it looked great. I wanted to write a follow-up blog post over the weekend, but I’ve been under the weather (still am… *sigh*), so the blog post will have to wait a bit longer. I will say, though, that once more TV shows are available on the Unbox site, I think it’ll become as viable an option to me as going out and buying the DVD box sets for a show, because the resolution of the downloads is truly DVD quality. Very impressive.

    September 11, 2006 at 4:46 pm

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  4. Wade Ziegler

    You are way wrong. First off this application is written in C or C++ which is obvious from its responsiveness like iTunes, etc. None of these applications are written in Flash or Java. An application like this simply can’t be written in Flash or Java. It’s understandable that people don’t know that but please don’t throw out these terms that you don’t understand.

    At least 90% of the software you use is written in C/C++ whether it is on your iPod, UNIX or Windows. Java and Flash are just Window Dressing. There would be no Unbox or iTunes with just Java or Flash — it is impossible.

    If you are having problems with slowness — like I am having now — then it is due to Amazon not provisioning enough servers or your local Internet provider.


    March 12, 2008 at 10:56 pm

  5. Relax. This was a “first glance” post that I wrote when Unbox came out *2 years* ago. “First glance” should’ve indicated to you how little research I did for this post. It was just meant to be a, “Hey, I tried out Unbox and this is what I found,” kind of post.

    I don’t recall what made me think that perhaps the player at that time was either Java or Flash. I may have been completely off, but I made no indication that it *definitely* was Java or Flash. It was a guess. And since I haven’t used Unbox since this first glance two years ago, I have no idea what updates they’ve done to the app itself.

    I doubt anyone saw this post and said to themselves, “Oooh, Unbox is Java? That sucks!” So take a step back, unclench, and count to 100 before you go lecturing someone you don’t know about a niggly little detail.

    March 13, 2008 at 1:26 am

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