Hulu is finally expanding beyond your PC’s monitor, but if you want to take advantage of the service, it’s going to cost you. For the past week, we’ve been running Hulu Plus, the site’s subscription service, through its paces as it ramps up for a broad launch. And we’ve come to a few preliminary conclusions.
We say preliminary since this is a service that’s still in beta – and there’s still time to improve some of the bugs. On the whole, though, Hulu Plus is a content-packed service that gets a lot of things right. And its portability, especially via the iPad, is a welcome and long overdue feature that might be enough to get some people to pony up the $10 monthly charge. It’s far from perfect, though, and there are a few stumbling blocks that could keep others sitting on the fence even after Hulu opens the service up to everyone.
The quality of the broadcasts is generally superb, streaming at 720p – versus the 480p for the free version of Hulu. It looks spectacular on the iPhone and iPad, oftentimes better than Netflix’s app. Newer shows stream in letterbox format, while catalog (non-HD) programming fills the screen.
There are occasional head scratchers, though. Select programs, for example, only occupy a small percentage of the screen. (NBC’s “Life” came through in a minimized version even though the show aired in HD.) And there are occasional moments when programs would burst into fast forward when we tried to pause them.
The scrub bar, letting you fast forward and rewind, works well on the iPad – but the pause button is a bit awkwardly placed. Many users have been spoiled on the iPhone and iPad by being able to tap the center of a video to pause and play, whereas with Hulu Plus, it’s a small button in the bottom left corner of the screen. Granted, it’s a small re-education, but it’s one that causes more angst than it should.
The sign-in process to Hulu Plus is simple and fast. And the expanded content library is deep – though after a week, you’ll start to notice the holes. Select shows only have a limited number of episodes, while others have the complete series. There are some quality older, cancelled series available, but you’ll inevitably be left wishing for another that’s not available. And the continuing absence of most CBS programming is frustrating – though that’s certainly out of Hulu’s immediate control.
The stream quality itself depends greatly on your connection. WiFi works better than 3G for the iPad, but both deliver on the service’s promise of TV to go. The touted feature about Hulu Plus remembering where you are in a show when you stop the app (and offering to start from that point when you return) is far from flawless, though. Sometimes it remembers. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, in fact, the notification just doesn’t show up at all. It’s a bug that will hopefully be corrected before the service’s broad launch.
Ultimately, the problem with Hulu Plus is less with the technology and more with the economics. The $10 monthly charge isn’t an extreme one – and the extra content and improved video quality make a good argument for it. But to pay a monthly charge and still be subjected to ads is frustrating.
Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has not ruled out the possibility of an ad-less version in media interviews, but has noted that if one were to come out, it would demand a higher monthly fee – perhaps as high as $20 per month. And, as it stands now, Hulu Plus isn’t worth that much – even without ads.
The Apple apps are certainly handy and nice, but the real test for Hulu Plus will come when it begins rolling out widely on Internet-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players (at present, only Sharp products offer the service), as well as video game machines. (The PS3 will get the service next month.)
Hulu Plus won’t replace cable, by any means, but it could offer a low-cost alternative for people who are planning to pull the plug anyway. And it could entice TV junkies with iPhones to sign up. The broader audience, though, might need to see the service clean up the tech glitches and offer a bit more encouragement before it signs on.