Damn you, Indecision!

Amazon Unbox: Follow-up Comments

I actually wanted to do a more in-depth follow-up post about my experience with Amazon’s video download service, but I will post a few comments now.

I noticed that a lot of people are getting to my blog by searching for “Amazon unbox resolution” or similar search terms, so I’ll talk about that info first. I checked the resolution of the Numb3rs pilot that I downloaded and saw that it is 720×408. DVD resolution is 720×480, so the Amazon Unbox videos are close enough to be considered DVD-quality. I’m guessing that the missing 72 lines of resolution is from some funky re-encoding of anamorphic widescreen material or something like that. Note that this is what I observed on a TV show download. It may differ slightly for full-length movies. Either way, the video looks very very good on a widescreen HDTV.

At first I played the video back from my Tablet, but since it couldn’t drive a proper widescreen resolution when it was hooked up to the TV, the episode had black bars on all sides — widescreen video presented within a 4:3 frame. 😛 The hubby realized that the Q1 has widescreen modes, so I set up the Unbox player on it and downloaded the episode to the Q1. I wasn’t quite sure how the authorization for these files worked, so I just re-downloaded the file from my Amazon account, a) to be safe and not screw up access to the file, and b) just to observe how the authorization would work in this manner. Luckily, the re-download worked without a hitch, though it was rather slow (remember, the TV episode was 1GB in size). In hindsight, I probably could have burned the video file to DVD, and then imported it into the Unbox player library on the Q1.

After the file downloaded, I hooked up the Q1 to the TV and played the TV episode in full screen. Wonderful playback! The video filled the entire screen, and playback was smooth. There were a couple very brief stutters in the playback, but overall the experience was similar to watching a TV show recorded on my EyeTV 500 from the over-the-air HD broadcast channels. Very impressive. The WMV compression that was used was a very good balance between keeping the file size at a reasonable value, and keeping the overall resolution of the video as high as possible. We were both so impressed at the video quality because most downloaded TV shows we’ve seen (from iTunes and other less conventional sources) always looked cruddy when blown-up on the HDTV. l took a screenshot of the file properties of the video file, but it’s currently on the Q1. I’ll post it soon.

The Unbox player is still kind of crappy, IMO. I think it gets really confused if it doesn’t have a consistent connection to the Internets. Sometimes after I have minimized the player to the system tray, I can’t restore it without completely exiting the application and reopen it. I was able to play the Numb3rs pilot from Windows Media Player, so maybe if I decide to download more shows from Unbox, I’ll download it with the Unbox player and play it back with WMP. I also heard on a recent episode of Buzz Out Loud that one of the hosts, Tom Merritt, had an awful time trying to get Unbox to work on his PC. He couldn’t get the video to play in the Unbox player OR Windows Media Player. He also didn’t like that you couldn’t configure the Unbox player not to start when Windows starts up. So he disabled it from Msconfig and discovered that some process related to Unbox still was running and trying to “call home” even though the main app wasn’t running! He acknowledged that it was unlikely that the “stealth” Unbox process was doing anything malicious, just keeping in touch with the license server, but it still seems ridiculous that Amazon implemented the DRM this way. So, if that kind of thing bothers you, keep that in mind when checking out the Unbox service.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed by the quality of the video downloads on Unbox. I am not impressed by the buggy player. l think it would’ve been better if they just showed up as a store within Windows Media Player, similar to Urge. Then the look of their store could be better customized. Searching for videos on Amazon’s Unbox site is nothing special. They didn’t try to differentiate it from looking up any other product on Amazon, which is a mistake, IMO.

And although they have a few good TV shows and some big-name movies like V for Vendetta, The Matrix, and Office Space, their overall collection is uninspiring. They are definitely going to have to fill out their collection a lot faster in order to stay competitive with iTunes, especially now that Apple has introduced their own movie downloads (though their movie collection is sparse as well). Apple’s video download resolution with iTunes 7 is higher now than before (640×480 compared to the previous iPod-friendly resolution of 320×240), but that’s still standard definition. Although, Kevin Tofel tested out iTunes 7 on his Q1 and he said watching one of the videos from iTunes was a good experience. So perhaps that difference in resolution doesn’t matter that much. I mean, video downloads on iTunes has been a strong business for Apple from the beginning, so most people weren’t even fazed by the 320×240 resolution in the first place. I’m definitely going to try downloading a TV episode from iTunes onto the Q1 and try to see how it looks on the HDTV compared to the Unbox video.

More info to come!

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