TV You Want To Watch

TV subscriptions have always felt like a “necessary evil” to me.  Over-the-air TV signals used to leave a lot to be desired (my first 20 years were spent with them, we didn’t have a subscription of any kind until my parents moved to an RF dead zone), though I admit to not looking since the digital transition.  Cable always seemed overpriced, and the local cable conglomerate never left me with warm fuzzies, especially when they’d just about double rates and say it’s because your promotion expired, but now that you called to complain they’ll be happy to sell you some other promotion with channels you don’t care about just to bring your bill back down to something you only scream a little when you have to pay.  About two years ago, we moved to DirecTV and have been very happy with it ever since – by far, they have been the best TV subscription we’ve had.  The hardware worked flawlessly, the software was easy to use, and the quality was better than anything we’d been served previously.  But when looking at the bills and seeing that we’re paying around $75/mo for television, Stephanie and I both separately started wondering about other options.  Last week we came to each other with some ideas, found that we were both thinking along similar lines, and decided to do something about it.  Read on for more.

One evening recently, Stephanie and I started talking about alternatives to the TV subscription we have.  The problem is, I don’t want to downgrade the *service* – we both like the DVR, and can’t really go with a lower package and still have it.  So we’d either need to buy our own DVR of some sort, or go with some kind of instant streaming system.  She mentioned how you can do Netflix streaming with the Nintendo Wii, and I pointed out that it’s possible on the PS3 as well (saving the cost of a Wii, which most if not all of the friends I know that have one only play it when other friends come over and rarely any other time).  But another new bit of information had just come out which made this even more interesting: Hulu was going to soon roll out a new service called “Hulu Plus” which would also work on the PS3, among other devices.  Netflix’s monthly cost for a plan that includes unlimited streaming is $8.99, while Hulu Plus is $9.99, for a net total of $18.98.  Compare that with the $75 we’re paying, and it’s easy to see which is a better monthly cost.

Then there’s the caveats: Can we see all the things we want between the two services?  Hulu Plus is only said to be “coming soon” for PS3, and the free version won’t work because it requires a newer Flash than is available right now in the PS3’s browser.  How well does the service work?  Will we be able to view things comfortably, or will TV viewing turn into a painful process and we give up on some of our favorites?  I started to look through the list of possibilities, beginning with Netflix.  Movies, of course, are not a problem.  We don’t watch too many movies, mostly because we don’t see ones we want to view on TV (we don’t have any of the premium channels) and we don’t really get out to a rental place to pick one up, because we may not know when we’ll be able to watch it.  We’ve rented from the Playstation Network a couple times, and that worked out very well (and was cheaper than pay-per-view from DirecTV by usually $1/movie).

Due to the amount of time we generally have to watch something, Netflix’s one-DVD-at-a-time plan was fine with us because it would be a rare event that we’d be able to watch more than one movie in a night, or within a couple days even.  The turn-around time to get another movie from the queue should be fine, and there’s a lot of titles available streaming as well.  I signed up for a one-month free trial, requested the PS3 streaming disc and figured we’d give it a try and see what happens.  So far I’m quite happy – I’ve streamed some old TV shows and movies to my laptop, desktop, and to the PS3 (which looked just fine, played well, and was an overall good experience).  So some of the TV and probably all of the movies will be handled by Netflix, but there’s some shows that they don’t have available (until they’re released on DVD at season’s end) which would require something like Hulu, or more specifically Hulu Plus.

Last night, David had been good and had taken a nice nap, so he was allowed to play video games on the PS3 a bit – while “Pain” is not “rated E for Everyone”, it’s pretty tame and he likes flinging the character into walls and off of explosive boxes – and at one point I checked Facebook from my phone.  It was then that I saw a story, reposted from the Playstation blog, that the Hulu Plus preview app was available for anyone with a Playstation Plus subscription.  This doesn’t mean that Hulu Plus is available to all those people, as you still need to be invited in to get to use it (kinda funny, you get invited to pay for a service, but I can understand the slow rollout model – much better for fixing problems before they become widespread).  I asked David for the controller, logged myself in and grabbed a copy, and fired it up.  Sure enough it asks if you’re already a member, and if not you can ask for an invite.  I had already done that with an email address I created just for the occasion, but the text in the app said to use the email address that you use for PSN so I submitted a new request.  The app also generated a referral code, and when you enter that code Hulu knows that you’re a Playstation user, so I figured it might increase my chances of getting “in” since I’m part of the group from which they need testing data.  After that, you’re left with few options, but one is to see some example content.

We chose Wipeout, because David likes “big splash,” and after a few seconds it started playing.  And it looked just fine to me, certainly as good as it does on the satellite, and I’m pretty sure it even included Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.  The only problems we saw were the audio was quite low on the clip (the commercial before it was fine), and the display was forced widescreen – not good on a standard definition TV without letterboxing.  I contacted Hulu support and let them know, and got a friendly response from someone who said he talked to one of the lead developers, they know about that problem and are already working on a fix.  Yay!

Now what about the content on Hulu?  Well, most of the shows that we watch are or will be there.  I don’t know if the delays will still exist for Hulu Plus subscribers – for example, when Eureka airs on a Friday, it’s not available on Hulu until 8 days later – but even if they do that’s not the end of the world, half the time we don’t watch something the day it airs anyway.  The biggest problem would be timing, as in catching a show before it falls off the “last five episodes” list for that season, but Hulu Plus is supposed to fix that by in many cases allowing you to watch all episodes from the current season as long as that season is airing – won’t be hard to catch up on a show before a new season starts, so that takes care of that problem.  And worst case scenario, I can probably get the previous season’s DVD from Netflix if I need to catch up more than that.

So now I wait for a Hulu Plus invite, and meanwhile decide if I want to keep paying DirecTV for a little longer or cancel it and play catch-up once I have the Hulu account.  The only other issue we still have is news – Stephanie has become accustomed to watching Good Morning America in the mornings, and so far as we can tell that’s not available streaming anywhere.  Hulu does have excerpts from the show though, so they may be sufficient once we get things moving forward.

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