The Limits of Online Video

Dollhouse Epitaph 1

Last night I had one of those moments – scratch that, one of those hours – which illustrates exactly why TV is still the best medium for television shows. I’m a big fan of Hulu, and I love that I can catch the occasional old episode of Bones or Thirty Rock on my netbook while hitting the treadmill or cleaning the kitchen. However, by far the best TV experience for me still comes from pointing my remote at the big screen in my living room. Here’s why.

I discovered recently that an un-aired episode of Dollhouse, Epitaph 1, had made its way to iTunes (Amazon VOD, too), where the Whedon show has been exceedingly popular. I instantly plunked down the $2.99 and started downloading the HD version to my trusty Eee PC. Since the episode was a 676MB file, I left my computer running and checked in later… only to discover that my PC had done an automatic update and automatically shut itself down. Begin download take two.

The second download worked fine, and last night I set things up to watch the coveted episode on our big screen TV. I plugged the netbook in to the TV with a VGA cable and connected the audio up to some living-room speakers. Brilliant, right? Hardly. I assumed that since the show was downloaded and not streaming, and since I had successfully watched crystal-clear HD content on my Eee PC before, that porting over to the big screen would not be a problem. Unfortunately, my poor little netbook didn’t have the horsepower to carry it off. First came the stuttering, and then came the abrupt, no-warning shut-down of my computer.

Ah well, just watch it on the little screen, right? Um, no. Now my computer was not cooperating at all. Despite re-booting, my netbook would have none of it. It’s the first time in eight months that I’ve had a major problem with my pretty little machine.

So, we decided to move the file to another laptop via flash drive. No good. Must be a DRM thing.

Finally, we downloaded the episode again – in SD to save time – on the second laptop. Success. After about an hour of trying.

On the one hand, I did get to watch a TV episode that never actually aired for a mere $2.99 thanks to the online video revolution. On the other hand, it was still a pain in the ass to make it happen, and we ended up crowded around a laptop. If content like this ever made it to VOD, life would be so much easier.

Side note: Epitaph 1 was good. Really good. Made me excited all over again for the return of Dollhouse.

6 thoughts on “The Limits of Online Video”

  1. Of course, the current generation of Netbooks are known to have serious video playback limitations. Many of us were waiting for Windows 7 and the next chip to hit in the fall, now rumored for an early 2010 release. :/

    But when you manage to find yourself a more capable portable, check out this input panel we noticed at my mom’s Hyatt Place hotel this week: Awesome! Perfect for hooking up a laptop with Slingplayer or iTunes and a Roku box when on the road. The TV’s not bad either – looks like a 40″ LCD.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the pricing though as I accumulate <30 minute episodes of Californication Season 2 via Amazon at $3/pop.

  2. Sounds more like the limits of your netbook.

    I downloaded that episode from bittorrent, burned to DVD and played on my DVD (not great quality, but whatever) in about an hour last week. That’s on an iMac w/ a measly ~3 mb DSL connection.

    Had I known the episode was coming to Amazon in a week I would have waited and paid.

    Last night I downloaded Twilight to my TiVo Series3 and enjoyed that on my TV too.

    No problems here.

  3. Why bother with the Netbook at all? Using TiVo or Roku (or Sony’s BIVL) would have worked just as well and would have been a lot faster.

  4. I agree that the problem wasn’t with online video distribution and instead with the hardware being used to play it. Current generation netbooks weren’t designed with the playback of HD content in mind. The onboard video decoding hardware simply can’t handle it well. With Nvidia ION based netbooks coming in the near future I would expect that to change however.

  5. Agreed with all that the next-gen netbooks will better support playback, but I don’t *have* a next-gen netbook. Or a Roku box, or a TiVo. I’d use my other laptop, but it doesn’t have any useful ports on it. I believe there are still too many hardware requirements (i.e. too much work for the consumer) to support Internet video playback on TV. The problem is- as soon as those problems are solved on a mass scale, free and low-cost Internet distribution will likely drop substantially. Such is the way of the market.

  6. Just hook a PC to your HD screen!

    Cheap pc (>$400) with a solid graphic card added on gives you all the goodness that is modern TV without having to pay for cable. Though I do pay for netflicks and megavideo.

    over-the-air TV, hulu, megavideo, and netflicks should be more than enough to keep your couch potatoes happy.

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