I cut the cord a couple of years ago. Purchased a couple of Roku’s, and got subscriptions to a few streaming apps. Those include Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO Now. On my phone, I’ve also gotten a couple of series on Apple’s TV app, so I can download them to watch when I’m offline.
The great part of this is that I pay about $40/ month for my tv services.
- Netflix – $9.99/mo
- Hulu – $7.99/mo
- Amazon – $99/year = $8.25/mo
- HBO Now – $16.19/mo
Total = $42.42/mo
Relying on these services, I’ve come to find the many goods and bads about how these apps work. For one, they often function differently on the Roku, then they do on mobile devices like iPhones and iPads. I work in application development, so it baffles me when I see API bugs or a lack of basic functionality, which should be obvious to any developer working on these platforms.
Below, I will break down each app into their good, bad and ugly qualities. To be fair, I haven’t tested every feature of each service across all devices, but I’ve definitely compiled a love/hate list of features and functionalities for the different streaming apps I’ve come to depend on for tv and movies. Streaming isn’t going anywhere. It’s expanding, and it’s becoming an industry trend. Streaming will only grow and take over traditional cable and satellite services.
Some of my “review” of these services is based on content, some on the content controls. The API or interface, if you will.
Most people know why Netflix is good. They’ve got some great content (I wish Marco Polo had been more popular, because it was visually stunning and a fantastically told story). They’ve got great controls, good profile management, and seamless auto-play streaming. I love when they ask me “are you still watching?” aww, Netflix. You’re cute. Yes, I’m still watching, and no I haven’t showered yet today. Don’t judge me.
Seriously, they have a decent selection of content, some great original content, and their interface is intuitive and friendly. I’m bummed the price went up, but I had a good ride at the $7.99 tier for a long time, so I guess it was inevitable.
I know when I am on some semi-public wifi’s I can’t get on to Netflix, because they are blocked. I haven’t tried their newer feature of being able to download content for offline viewing, but I am wondering how that would work, if the app forces a connection in order to launch. Something to look into, I guess. (For me, you or someone. Anyone? Bueller?)
As I mention below, with Amazon, they don’t have a method to “reset” a season or series, if you want to watch it again. Someone really should get on that.
Not much to say here. I wish they had some content sooner than right before the next season is coming out, but if that keeps prices down, I can wait.
The most obvious leg up, that Hulu has, is their next day availability. I don’t have to wait until the season is over, or the next season is about to start. I can see it the next day. That is fine with me, because I don’t care if I see something live. Cutting the cord can take some getting use to, but it is incredibly freeing to not feel like you have to stay up late to catch the show, or you’ll miss out.
They also have a good selection of content. I would like to see them fill out a complete contract with FX shows, but they are starting to get their content, so here’s hoping. (add current seasons of AHS and Taboo!, eh?)
If you are on the Roku app, and you go into movies, you will see a scroll-able list of about 250 movie titles, with poster art. Start scrolling to the left or right, and if you scroll a page’s worth at a time, at some point it will jump back to the beginning. It’s the most annoying bug, and I can’t believe they haven’t fixed it yet. I say that, while knowing I haven’t specifically reported it. That being said, their developers should be testing the front end use, at least enough to have caught a bug like that by now. I’ve had Hulu for over 3 years, and I’ve always known that bug was there.
They used to have a formal watch list, where you could intentionally subscribe to a series. Now whenever you watch one thing, it automatically adds that show/series into your watchlist. It’s more like a touch list, because it tracks anything you even click on by accident and watch only 1 second of. My mom comes to visit, and she watches E! content, which I don’t tend to watch. Now I’ve got her stuff littered in my watch list, and it was never her intent to add that stuff. I set up a separate profile for her. but apparently it is impossible to allow apps backwards compatibility with “relatively” older tech.
I have a roku LT, which was the first I ever got. I keep it updated, and use it in my yoga room. I move it into guest room when she stays. The app won’t update to the most recent version with profiles, which I believe is a limitation of the version hulu has made compatible with that version of the Roku. I get that versioning between tech and hardware can be messy and difficult to manage, but this is why it gets categorized under ugly. It’s ugly for the customer. Yeah, that’s me.
Another ugly feature is that when a show is done, we move on to something else, from the Roku. Whenever we go back, if we didn’t watch all the way through the credits, it still shows as a new episode available. They used to have a feature where you could remove the episode from your watch list, as an intermediary step from removing an entire series from your watch list. I don’t know why they stopped including that feature, but I wish they would add that back in. That, or some way to mark a show as watched, so it doesn’t list as new anymore.
Their mobile app for the iPhone is great. The play button is in the center of the screen, and away from the progress bar. This means you won’t accidentally jump to a different position in the program you are watching. On either side they have jumps to jump forward or backwards 10 seconds. Not something you’ll use often, but nice to have in an accessible way.
As a bonus, while watching your program, there is a bevy of information available on the screen, that you can click on. It won’t interrupt your viewing, to see this info, as it’s semi-transparent, and they fit a lot on there.
The obvious info/features there, include the progress bar, and aforementioned play/pause and jump controls. Also out of the way, but available is a function to send/beam the playback to another device/audio, as well as closed-captioning controls.
The coolest feature, is one that most apps don’t have. That’s their X-Ray feature. It shows a listing of the main cast, and you can view more to see the whole cast and crew. Clicking the “view more” will pause your playback, but sometimes you may want that. If you click on an cast or crew member, you are taken to their embedded imdb like dossier of that person’s professional work. Their bio, known for, credits. It’s pretty great for film and tv enthusiasts who might be watching something and think “Where do I know them from? Oh, that’s right!!!”
There is one feature that no streaming app seems to have, and it baffles me that no one has come out with it yet. For many enthusiasts of a tv series, we may re-watch the series at some point. For a service like Amazon, which has no profile switching, this can become an even trickier thing to manage. There is no way to reset a season or a series. Once you watch an episode, the progress is bookmarked to the end, and so you can’t start the series over.
I went onto the Amazon Prime forums, years ago, to look for any way to reset all episodes in a series. I ended up joining a thread, and despite over 100 posts in 4 years, this feature has not been added. Either Amazon isn’t scrubbing/sampling or checking their own forum, or they really aren’t that interested in the features their customers want. I could be wrong about that, but just sayin’. This is the thread, if you’re curious to see it: “Is there a way to reset a watch list?”
Despite their fantastic original programming, like Transparent, Catastrophe, Goliath, One Mississippi, Mr. Robot, and Betas, they gave up on the incredible Good Girls Revolt after one season. There must have been a reason that wasn’t made public. From what I read, they had a good and respectable level of viewership, certainly enough to give it a couple more seasons.
The character depth was great, and they were on the verge of doing what not many shows are even trying to do. They had women as the primary main cast, and telling the stories of women, when they were fighting for a place in journalism, in the work place, and in the legal system. Toward the end of the season, they had begun to develop the character of a minority black woman attorney. Imagine that. A black woman character, who isn’t a maid, a slave or a servant. What a novel idea. It was transformative. It was the telling of hidden figures, and they let it go. Such a disappointing loss. They could have pivoted the show to make her the central character, and keep introducing the hidden figures who fought for minority and womens’ rights during the civil rights era of the 60’s and 70’s.
The only other complaint that I have is the odd schedule they have for releasing prime content. Not everything, on Amazon Prime, comes with the Amazon Prime subscription. Some of it you have to purchase à la carte. Sorry to tell Amazon the bad news, but I pay enough in the yearly subscription, and am not likely to pay for single episodes or to buy movies all that often. I have here and there, but it’s not something I would do on a regular basis.
This means that when I get into a show, I get stuck waiting for the new season to “become” prime. For instance, I watched season 1 of Mr Robot, and now I’m stuck waiting for season 2. I can’t afford to pay for every season of each show I watch. It’s not a feasible cost structure. So I have to wait for season 2 to be prime. This gets somewhat “ugly”, because there is no schedule. I understand why. Why would Amazon let us know when they plan to provide this content to their yearly subscribers, for free? Their à la carte sales would plummet. But for the many of us who will wait it out, it kind of sucks that we see that offering, with only purchase/rent options exist.
Another example, of a show that is not an Amazon Original show, is Vikings. Great show. Seasons 1 – 401 are available and free to Prime members. Season 402 is only available for rent/purchase. I have no idea when it will be made “prime” meaning free to annual subscribers. I will wait it out, but in the mean time I’m just frustrated that I have to look through the glass window, because my budget is for the Prime membership, not for paying for each episode of each show, which would be a massive expense and luxury. That’s to say, I get that none of this is a necessity, but that is why these type of expenses are discretionary and must be able to be mitigated. A budget has to be able to be set, and per episode pricing is too much to fit into a realistic budget.
Content, content content. When I was growing up, we lived in a small town, outside a small city. The owner of the cable company in our town didn’t believe in music television, so our cable programming didn’t include MTV. I was seriously under-educated as a result. My parents, either in defiance of that, or just because they knew what was good, got HBO instead. I could never thank them enough. Despite having the shit scared out of me, with the nazi documentaries, I also learned a lot from docudramas like And The Band Played On. After seeing that, when it first came out in 93, I realized that fighting for transparency, education, funding of AIDS and HIV research was so incredibly important. The human side was so well portrayed. I based school reports on the subject, because of that film.
I also loved Live From Baghdad, which chronicled the beginning of CNN’s ascent to become the first 24 hr news channel, covering live in the middle of a war.
Now we have some of the best series you can find. Game of Thrones, Westworld, Big Little Lies, Silicone Valley, the list goes on. There are so many, now completed series, which were so well done you’d be hard pressed to find any other network on the same level. They push the envelope in a grand manner, that I just love.
They don’t have all their original content available all the time, and I don’t understand why. The aforementioned Live From Baghdad is a perfect example. This would be an ideal time to have that available! Right now, when our POTUS is attacking journalists and journalism, we must remember why we need them, and the fights they have fought and continue to fight. The risks they take to bring us the news, from around the world.
When you are on the roku app, it doesn’t allow you to auto-play the next episode if you are watching an old season or series. You have to go into a series, and into a season, and then into an episode and choose to play it. When it finishes, you have to back out of the episode, go over to the next episode, and go into that one to play it. Other apps do this better, allowing you to “binge”. Maybe they are just attempting to discourage unhealthy binging habits, but I doubt it.
The apps are all seemingly a little different. the iPhone app vs the iPad vs the Roku. They all show titles differently. I like the iPad view with the poster tiles. I can’t stand the Roku listing of all movies. It has the movies alphabetized, and you have to scroll through the movies in each letter, one at a time. So you arrow down to letter B, then scroll right to view all movies that begin with B. Then you have to go down to each letter (ie C), and scroll over. It’s not about being intuitive. It’s intuitive, in that it’s not hard to get how it works. It’s about being a friendly interface. Imagine a user doesn’t know what they want to watch. They are looking for something that will catch their eye. They may not even know the genre they are in the mood for watching. Having the ability to view by release year/date could be a nice option. No matter the sort, one continuous list is definitely easier to scroll through, as opposed to 26 (+ numeric & symbolic prefixed movies) separate lists.
iTunes TV App
I don’t have much to say. They had the West Wing series at 1/2 the price of Amazon, so I went with them, because I wanted a series I could download and have available to stream when I’m offline. This works for that, but not much else.
I don’t have Apple TV. I looked at it, but it is 50% more expensive than Roku, and Roku is an independent product that won’t push their content or store the way Apple will.
This app didn’t used to be bad. It used to be decent. But in the last year, they made an update and screwed the pooch. So West Wing is a great example. They have all episodes/seasons in 1 long continuous list. That’s fine. The title of each episode is there, and you can expand it to see synopsis. My fury has to do with how the list appears on the iPhone. You go into the series, and you see 6 episodes. You have to scroll to the right to see another 6 episodes. Why in all the name of all that is logical did they choose 6? Why not 5, or 7, or 10? I am baffled by this horrendous design.
I can get passed it though, until I try to interact with the list. I can click a cloud to download an episode to my phone. Now comes the crappy part of this. Imagine I want to download 2 or 3 episodes, for a flight or something. Each time I click the cloud on a episode, I can’t do anything while the download starts. I can try, but nothing will be successful. I’ll know when it does start, though. Want to know how? Because I get jumped back to the beginning of the damn list. EVERY. DAMN. TIME. I can’t just click the episodes, click, click, click that I want. I have to start a download, get jumped back to the beginning of the series, scroll back to where I was, start another download, get jumped back to the beginning, rinse and repeat. The same thing happens when you want to remove a download from your phone. It’s not intuitive at all. You have to press down on the episode, and then another window pops up, with a trash, and then you can remove it. You can guess what happens after you do that. The screen freezes and then jumps you to the beginning of the list again! AHHHHHHH!!!!! Find a freaking bookmark, will you?
It also doesn’t auto-play to the next episode, if you have it downloaded or are on wifi that can handle streaming one in the cloud. Either way, too bad. You have to go in and out of each episode, like you are shopping in a mall in 1992.
See the bad, above. I almost wish I hadn’t made the purchases I did, for use in this app, because of those issues. I hope they fix the app soon. It sucks to make that kind of purchase and then have the delivery method made into a horrible user experience.