Hulu vs. Netflix: no contest

Hulu vs. Netflix: no contest

Norma and I have become somewhat addicted to 24.  We watched seasons 1 through 7 using Netflix streaming through our Sony PS3.  (You need a special disc from Netflix to get this to work, but it’s terrific after you get it set up.)

Season 8, however, is only available through Hulu.  After yesterday, I’ve concluded they misspelled the name.  It should be Hellu.

Setup was miserable.  First, create a Hulu Plus “preview” account ($9.99/month).  Then sign up for Playstation Plus ($17.99/3 months).  Then … well, exactly what you do next was quite a mystery.  The Hulu web site is useless.  Luckily I found the answer on the Sony Playstation site.  You need to download and install the free Hulu app from the Playstation app store.

That took about 1.5 hours, including considerable button-pushing and experimenting.  Not helped by the fact that the newest version of the PS3 OS only supports Google Chrome.  But the best was yet to come.

Stuttering.  We tried to watch episodes 1 through 5.  Episodes 2 through 5 each experienced video and/or audio stuttering at some point.  The Hulu forums have a long, long thread about this issue (http://www.hulu.com/discussions/9 then look for the “Streaming Issues Details” thread).  The responses from Hulu make reference to “buffering.”  That’s worth a paragraph all by itself.

Software bugs. About 3/4 of the way through season 4, the video switched to a commercial.  (Did I forget to mention that in addition to paying for the service you get about 5 minutes of commercials per hour of content?)  At first, we thought this was just another commercial break.  But it wasn’t.  Hulu’s software got stuck in some kind of loop that would only show commercials.  We never did manage to watch the end of season 4, despite spending about 20 minutes trying various workarounds.

The PS3 has a large hard drive.  When we watch Netflix, the hard drive light flickers often.  Netflix is using it to buffer the video.  By writing a large chunk of video to the hard drive before beginning playback, Netflix mostly avoids the problem of waiting for the next piece of video to arrive over your internet connection.

By contrast, when watching Hulu the hard drive light never came on.  If Hulu is doing any buffering, it’s only using RAM (or whatever the PS3 equivalent is).  Therefore, almost by definition, there will be interruptions in the video stream.

Which leads to one more question: why doesn’t Hulu use the local hard drive as a buffer?  To answer that you need to understand the difference between the philosophies at Netflix and Hulu.  Netflix is run by engineers who have very little background in movies or television.  Their main concern is delivering a great viewing experience to their customers.  By contrast, Hulu is a creation of Hollywood.  Its managers share the major fear of Hollywood producers:  somehow, somewhere, some individual will manage to make a semi-illegal copy of one of their creations.  Buffering to a hard drive means there is at least a temporary copy of part of the video stream on your device.  Horrors!  You might figure out a way to keep the pieces of video and reassemble them.  Never mind the fact that the value of the time it would take to do this far exceeds the price of the DVD.

From our perspective, there’s no contest at all.  Netflix worries about their customers.  Hulu is mainly concerned with protecting Hollywood’s “intellectual property” without any concern for their customers.  Hulu will survive as long as there is new material being created that people want to see immediately.  But, we’ll cancel our subscription as soon as we’ve finished season 8 of 24.

1 Comment

  1. Tony Lima
    Tony Lima12-27-2011

    Update a few days later: Hulu also has the nasty habit of crashing the PS3 completely. All the way to a cold boot. And, in addition to stuttering and stalling, the video stream has now figured out how to pixellate. Adding one more point to the general lack of usability.

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