Monday, June 30, 2008

Amazon Unbox Review

Synopsis: Amazon Unbox is too lacking in the convenience and features departments to justify the price. But if they address some of the missing features and switched to a Netflix-style, all-you-can-eat subscription model, then they could really compete.

Recently had an excuse to try out Amazon Unbox on our Tivo. The whole family was sick this past weekend and we had already watched our Netflix movie and everything Tivo had recorded for us :) So we thought, why not download a movie from Amazon Unbox?

I had already linked my Amazon account with our Tivo account, so ordering the movie just required that I enter a 5 digit pin number. There was a snafu with the credit card I was using, but once I got that resolved, the movie started downloading almost immediately. Only problem was that it took a LOOOONNNNGGGG time for it to download (we have a supposedly 10mbps cable DSL connection). By long, I mean in the range of about 6-8 hours. Since we started this just before dinner, there was no chance we could watch this that night. We had to wait until the next day.

The movie shows up in the Now Playing list as soon as it starts downloading. There is no estimate of how long it will take to complete, but Tivo does tell you how many minutes of the movie have been downloaded. The Amazon Unbox site doesn't tell you how many minutes total the movie is, but I was able to find this information via Netflix. Thus, you can do back of the envelope calculation of how long the download will take. (By the way, I believe the total download size was 2.4 GB).

The way Amazon Unbox works is that you have 24 days to keep the downloaded rental, but once you start watching it, you have 24 hours before it will be deleted. Tivo's provides a warning message when you start watching the movie and if you stop watching Tivo tells you exactly when the movie will be deleted. So that's all very good.

We started watching the movie, and the picture quality is top notch, easily DVD quality. It's just like a recorded TV program; there are no chapters, no menus, just the movie from beginning to end. So that's one strike against Amazon Unbox, that you don't get the bonus features or options or navigability of a DVD. Since the characters in this particular movie speak with a Scottish accent, we wanted to put on subtitles. Nope, can't do it. How about closed captioning? Amazingly, no, closed captioning doesn't work either. This is pretty much a deal breaker for me.

The movie cost $3.99, about the same as rental from a local video store. Is the value worth the price? No, I don't think so. Speaking of the local video store, it would have been faster to have walked to it to rent a DVD, and we would have had a richer viewing experience on top of it, for about the same price. And it can't begin to compete with the tremendous value of the Netflix service.

I have some advice for the Amazon Unbox team (they're waiting with bated breath for it, I know). They really need to add support for closed captioning, at the very least, but if they could figure out a way to add in the other features that one typically expects with a DVD that would definitely bolster their offering. The long download time could be mitigated if the download occurred automatically, in the background. What I'm thinking of here is a subscription service and that one could have a Netflix like queue with their Amazon Unbox account and when they finish with one movie and delete it, the next movie could start downloading immediately. This would mean a turnaround time measured in hours instead of the Netflix turnaround time which is measured in days.

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