Spotlight On Amazon Instant Video

Amazon Instant Video & Amazon Prime

The Amazon Instant Video service provides streaming video service to a variety of platforms. Amazon provides first run TV shows, new movies, and subscription access (Netflix style) with it’s Amazon Prime service.

Video Price
First Run TV
(per episode)
$0.99 – $1.99
First Run Movie Rent $3.99
First Run Movie Buy $9.99 – $14.99
Subscription Service $79 / year

For TV series, buying the whole season is discounted. The Amazon Prime subscription service also includes free 2-day shipping from Amazon. It has less selection than Netflix, but costs less.

Places To Watch Amazon Instant Video

Amazon Instant Video is well supported across several playback platforms. What’s notably lacking is support for smartphones. This includes devices like Android phones and the Apple family (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and Apple TV). On PCs and Macs, Amazon allows videos to be downloaded for Offline viewing. For several platforms, using PlayOn can allow Amazon Instant Video to play on the device.

PlayBack Device Amazon Instant Video
PC YES
Android Devices no
iOS Devices no
Roku (TV) YES
Playstation 3 (TV) no
XBox 360 (TV) no
Wii (TV) no
Blue-ray Players YES
HDTVs YES

Amazon Instant Video Bitrates

Amazon uses the MPEG4 Part 10 video codec, H.264, for streaming to most devices. Amazon has been kind to post the streaming data rates for set top box applications.

High Def Audio Quality Bandwidth
1 HR TV Show Size
720p Better Audio 5.1 Surround 2.9 Mbps 1.3 GB
720p Baseline Stereo 2.8 Mbps 1.25 GB
Standard Def Audio Quality Bandwidth 1 HR TV Show Size
High Quality 480p Stereo 1.3 Mbps 0.6 GB
Medium Quality 480p Stereo 996 Kbps 0.45 GB
Low Quality 480p Stereo 664 Kbps 0.3 GB
Low Quality 240p Stereo 348 Kbps 0.15 GB

Before using Amazon Instant Video, check that your internet provider gives enough bandwidth to get the video quality you’re expecting.

Amazon Instant Video Conclusions

The Good: Amazon Instant Video is a reasonable service and one of the easiest paths to getting current TV shows to your TV. Amazon Prime’s video access is a nice bonus for folks who enjoy Amazon’s premium shipping service.

The Bad: Amazon’s device support is a bit lacking, especially in the smart phone arena. If Amazon improves their device compatibility, it’ll go a long ways to pulling up their video service.

Streaming Video News Linkfest 7/17

Another Sunday afternoon news drop. Most notably was Netflix’ price increase, which has been chattered to death quite successfully outside of my link lovin’. Here’s what else is out there.

Checking Your Internet Connection

Every video provider requests that your internet connection be able to transfer a certain number of bits per second, referred to as the bitrate or bandwidth, to have great movie quality. For standard (near DVD) quality, Amazon recommends 3.5 megabits per second (Mbps), Netflix recommends 2.5 Mbps, and Hulu recommends 1.5 Mbps as examples.

Our internet services providers are not always helpful in figuring out if you’ve got what it takes. In my area in Central Texas, Time Warner Cable, Clear, and AT&T promise up to a certain bandwidth, but always have a little asterisk in the corner saying that actual network conditions may vary. Factors like distance from the main office, neighborhood network use, and phase of the moon may limit performance.

Speedtest.net provides an easy way for people to check their internet speed and confirm what their connection is capable of

Introducing Speedtest.net

Speedtest.net is a free service that tests the health and speed of your internet connection. The service’s website uses Adobe Flash to run a program on your computer to test the internet connection. They check three internet connection properties:

  • Ping time: Ping time is the amount of time necessary for a message to go from your computer to a server on the internet and back. Times under 100 milliseconds (ms) are considered reasonable.
  • Download bandwidth: Download bandwidth is the amount of information (in Mbps) that your computer can download, or receive, from the internet. This is the most critical parameter for streaming video quality.
  • Upload bandwidth: Upload bandwidth is the amount of information (in Mbps) that your computer and upload, or send, to the internet. This is useful for uploading pictures or videos to Facebook or You Tube.

Running A Speed Check

To begin, point your web browser at the Speedtest.net website. The Speedtest webpage does have several buttons on it that are used to sell services for various PC tweak-ups, so go looking for the green “BEGIN TEST” button over the map to begin the speed test.

After clicking begin, Speedtest will identify the best nearby server to use for checking the internet connection. After this, Speedtest will run the ping test and begin uploading and downloading data. They’ll show a speedometer while checking the upload and download speeds.

After the testing is complete, Speedcheck fill present a final summary. In my case, I had a ping time of 88 ms, 2.56 Mbps download, and 0.43 Mbps upload.

Using These Results

The Speedtest numbers will help you diagnose streaming video problems.

I did also wonder why I rarely got the 4-dot quality for Netflix. By running Speedtest, I found out that my internet connection is right at the threshold where Netflix likes to step down the quality one notch to ensure smooth video streaming. I’ve also used it to identify internet problems. Netflix was bouncing back and forth between quality settings on my Roku box. So, I ran Speedtest multiple times. What I found were intermittent ping and download speed numbers. My ping times would be 80ms, 250ms, and 125ms. My download speed would be just as erratic. I ended up getting an AT&T technician to come out and he found a problem with my DSL connection, and it’s been smooth Netflix since.

Netflix Raises Prices: Oh Noes, The Sky It Falling

Well done to Engadget for first spotting the rumor that Netflix was raising prices. Netflix has made it official:

First, we are launching new DVD only plans. These plans offer our lowest prices ever for unlimited DVDs – only $7.99 a month for our 1 DVD out at-a-time plan and $11.99 a month for our 2 DVDs out at-a-time plan. By offering our lowest prices ever, we hope to provide great value to our current and future DVDs by mail members. New members can sign up for these plans by going to DVD.netflix.com.

Second, we are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into separate plans to better reflect the costs of each and to give our members a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan or the option to subscribe to both. With this change, we will no longer offer a plan that includes both unlimited streaming and DVDs by mail.

Netflix Customers Rend Clothes, Dress In Sackcloth

Netflix’s rather prompt and large change has shaken up their loyal following. The internet angry mob is very much out to get Netflix at this point. For a good feel of the anger out there, I recommend the ZDNet article’s summary of Facebook and Twitter posts. Some choice nuggets:

First, there are the comments on the announcement blog post itself. These are pretty dire.

“Are you F#**!!@! kidding me?”

“Way to go again Netflix – Divide and Conquer – EPIC FAIL!!”

“I know I’ll be cancelling my service and going with Blockbuster soon.”

“Sept.1 I’ll be canceling.I do without cable I think I can do without Netflix.”

“Peace out. You’re streaming selection is horrible anyway.”

“Thanks netflix, you just increased my bill too! Currently I am paying 9.99 for 1 DVD and Unlimited Streaming and you want me to pay 15.98!? Tell me how that is cheaper than 9.99.“

Let’s not forget Facebook

the only way that this is terrific for the customer is if you plan to offer your entire collection available for streaming…. otherwise this is just yet another way to choke more change out of your customers…. I mean… are you guys really that strapped for cash? or are you just greedy? ALSO, what a great way to treat you long term customers, we REALLY appreciate it…i can understand you applying it to new customers… but please, explain to me who’s brilliant idea this was… I hear it going like this ” Hey I have an idea of how we can show appreciation to our long term valued customers… let’s take MORE of their money, that way they REALLY feel valued!”….IDIOTS.

Yes, they really are that cash strapped, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

I think that folks are so pissed because the Netflix Streaming + 1 DVD deal was amazing. It was effectively Hulu Plus ($7.99 / month) but without ads and running on a TV combined with the Blockbuster 1 DVD a month plan ($11.99 / month) for 10 bucks. It was a steal. Now it’s just a good deal at $15.98. After the dust settles, people are going to grumble and go back to their Netflix crack.

Basic Netflix Costs and Financials

Netflix is cash strapped and trying desperately to land new streaming content deals, and the streaming content is getting crazy expensive. Look at the signs:

  • Hulu disclosed parts of their Q2 results, and noted that they spent about $8 on content costs per Hulu Plus subscriber (which explains the ads). Hulu is paying for first-run shows.
  • Netflix originally signed content deals that were costing it a total of $180 million per year. That figure is expected to jump 10x to $1.8 billion.
  • The Starz deal included a cap on the maximum number of streaming video users who can access the videos. Netflix crossed that number. They’ll be crossing it in other deals soon.

DVD aren’t cheap either. It costs Netflix about $1 to ship a movie out and back. If Netflix’s streaming package was well priced at $7.99, two DVDs will eat the price difference between the current streaming-only ($7.99 / mo) and the streaming + 1 DVD ($9.99 / mo) packages. This move is signaling that Netflix wants first run content and that they’ll be using up a good portion of that $7.99 streaming cost to pay for that first run content.

Also consider that Netflix doesn’t appear to have as much money to play with as it should. A Seeking Alpha analyst has concluded that despite Netflix reporting a profit, they’re cash-flow poor and are short on cash to use in funding new endeavors:

In other words, over the last quarter, Netflix earned around $116MM in operating cash flows but most of this (at least $77MM in rising payables) is not actually real cash flow. That means Netflix only earned about $39MM in operating cash flow last quarter.

But wait, it gets even more strange. Of that $39MM the company earned, another 22MM of it came from “accrued expenses” and another $15MM came from “deferred revenue.” I know it seems pretty crazy, but Netflix didn’t actually earn any money last quarter.

This is why Netflix is making the move in a drastic fashion. It’s a large increase for a segment of the Netflix users and the increase does not grandfather in existing customers. Netflix cannot afford to take their time with a transition band or bleeding for a bit. Netflix’s CEO has said that they’ll treat DVD and streaming as two separate business units. By breaking into the two clear services, it allows Netflix to upgrade the streaming and give both sides what they really want.

Stick It To The Netflix Man

One thing I did see in all the angry outbursts were threats to go to other competitors, start using Redbox more aggressively, and so on. “That’ll show Netflix!” they cry. Probably not. I suspect that the customers who are most upset are those that Netflix was losing money on. If the customer was running streaming video and burning a hole in their Unlimited DVD plan, that $1 per DVD shipping costs was killing Netflix. You leaving will not upset Netflix. It’ll increase their profitability.

All that said, if someone wanted to stick it to Netflix, they’d rent as many movies as they could right up to the September 1st changeover deadline.

Other Summaries From Around the Web

Update: Lazy Man & Money blog had the most rational take I’ve seen so far.

PlayOn Thoughts Four Weeks Later

It’s been about 4 weeks since I used PlayOn to get my Daily Show fix. Since then, I’ve signed up for a month more of PlayOn service to keep getting this and a few other shows like Burn Notice and White Collar without paying for Amazon Instant Video. My feelings about the service have shifted some in that time.

PlayOn Better With Tweaking

I’m still finding that PlayOn gets the job done. With some tweaks to the various providers, it seems to get the job done quite admirably most of the time. It’s been a delightful bridge to get Hulu on my TV via my Roku box and has brought some unexpected benefits like closed caps on the Roku box. A few tweaks that have proven quite nice:

  • Turn on Hulu closed caps: In Hulu, go to Privacy & Settings and click the “Automatically turn on closed captions if available.” checkbox
  • Use the Hulu queue: To avoid navigating the crazy-large menus, use the Hulu website to queue up shows then go directly to your Hulu queue for quick viewing

Places To Improve

It’s not all roses, however. The interface, in general, is still clunky. For channels that don’t have queues, it’s downright painful to navigate on my Roku. I’ve used the PlayOn iPad app, and that is manageable. I’m holding out hope that the upcoming Roku refresh will give PlayOn both the motivation and the technical ability to make a more robust Roku interface. I’ve also, on occasion, had playback issues. PlayOn will spontaneously reset the video feed to the beginning of the show (yes, before the first advertisement) during some Hulu viewings. I blame my increasingly erratic internet connection (AT&T, your number’s up), but I’ll still be sending in a support request to see how PlayOn responds.

PlayOn Is A Recommend

After a month of use, PlayOn has a place in my setup. I’ll finish out my current month subscription and, if we get this Hulu video reset under control, pick up a year of service for $39.99.

I do have one aside on the PlayOn pricing. I like a good deal, but I think that the annual subscription is the best deal in the package. Because of how MediaMall structured the annual service, with each extra year costing $19.99, I have a hard time recommending the lifetime subscription. Looking at the pricing:

8 Months 1 Year 2 Years 3 Years 5 Years
Monthly Rate
($4.99 / mo)
 $39.92  $59.88  $119.76  $179.64 $299.40
Annual Rate
($39.99 first year)
($19.99 second+)
 $39.99  $39.99  $59.98 $79.97 $119.95
Lifetime Rate
($79.99)
 $79.99  $79.99  $79.99  $79.99  $79.99

If you’re going to use the service beyond dabbling with it, the breakeven point for the annual service is around 8 months. Subscribing to the annual pass and getting 33% off after 1 year seems like a no-brainer to me when I like the service. It takes more than 3 years to break even on the lifetime rate and, in this industry, that is a lifetime. In the end, pick what works for your household budget and run with it.

Company Offers Competitor Customers Free HDMI Cable

HDMI cables continue to be a racket. Cables are way overpriced and the average user should buy the cheapest one they can find. One company has an interesting solution to this. They’re giving away free cables to their competitor’s customers:

Kogan is offering TV buyers a free HDMI cable with proof of TV purchase from one of its competitors, to prove that its £4 cable is as good as the £20, £50 and £100 alternatives on sale at rival stores. It may even extend the offer to PC buyers.

“An HDMI cable is an HDMI cable,” Kogan added. “It’s a digital cable. You either get a picture or you don’t. Don’t get conned into buying a ‘fancy’ HDMI cable because it will make no difference!”

Since HDMI cables are heavily used in streaming video setups, I’ll keep beating this drum. There is no reason to waste money on more expensive cables. If you’re doing a commercial setup with 100 feet of cable, then we’ll talk. That isn’t a living room setup.

Spotted via Slashdot, which is always good read for the comments. This one sums it up well:

There are various grades of HDMI cable for different task. If you’re running a 1920×1440 monitor or a 3D telly then you should get the high-speed flavor rather than bog-standard but you can still get those for a fiver from reputable online suppliers. The problem is not stores telling people that they need a $10 high-speed HDMI cable rather than a $5 normal speed one, they’re telling people that a $100 super-deluxe high-speed cable will give them a better picture and sound than the $10 high-speed HDMI cable. Which is BS.

…and the victims of this are usually people wanting 6′ cables to connect their BluRay to their TV, not slashdotters wanting to run 60′ cables past their homemade van-der-graff generator, in front of their Pringles-can long distance WiFi link, under the Farnsworth fuser and down to their experimental video wall.