Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hulu Plus

We recently got a free trial of Hulu Plus. We love Netflix, and don't have regular TV, so we thought we'd give it a go.

The short version: it's got a long, long way to go before it's worth the money.

The long version: the selection of content is pretty lousy. They have a total of 543 movies. That's about 10% of the DVD collection I left behind me, and about half of what Netflix have in just their foreign romantic comedies section. Of those 543 movies, you get a small selection of uninspiring documentaries, a pile of crappy sci-fi B-Movies from the 1950s (Atom Age Vampires, for example), a load of early John Wayne movies, a bunch of straight to video kung fu flicks, and not much more. Out of 543 movies, I found maybe five I wanted to watch, and even those were in the "if there's nothing better to do" category. But guess what, there's something better to do.

The TV selection isn't any more interesting. I'm watching Jack of All Trades, which is fun and which I haven't seen anywhere else. Spartacus: The Motion Comic looks like it'll be worth an hour of my time. And, errr, that's it.

The PS3 user interface is dreadful. They don't, for example, tell you who's in a movie, or who directed it, or when it was made, or give you a rating. They do, however, give you screen space to tell you what network it was provided by. They also give you the ability to sort your movies by network. Guess what, I don't give a damn about the network, I want to know about the actual movies! Navigating around is weird: you can't just click on a movie to find out about it. If you click, you play the movie: instead, you have to press DOWN to access the movie info screen, then click again to see the actual details, then back and click something else to put it in your queue. Even starting and stopping movies is a pain.

I reckon it'll be worth taking another look at Hulu Plus in six months to see if they've improved their user interface and got anything actually worth watching. Until then, we'll stick with Netflix. We've already paid for the first month (we thought it was a month's free trial, but it was actually only a week), which gives me time to finish Jack, but otherwise, we're done with Hulu Plus now. A huge, huge disappointment.

Monday, November 22, 2010


As you probably know, I'm a bit of a book lover. I've had a book in my hand since I was two years old, and can't imagine life without reading. Last month, however, I finally succumbed to the lure of the e-book, and got myself a Kindle 3G with wi-fi. I'll admit, I've been hugely prejudiced against them, and only got one because I needed it for work. After all, what can compare with the touch, smell, visual appeal, and convenience of a proper paper book? I hate reading books on computer screens, and can't imagine myself ever preferring an e-book over the real thing.

After several weeks of learning to live with my Kindle, there are still things about it that I dislike. Let's get those out of the way first.

I can't (safely) read it in the bath. On the other hand, there's a lot of books I don't read in the bath either. Big, heavy books are generally out of the question, as are most hardbacks. Bathtime reading is only for cheap paperbacks I can afford to have accidents with. And anyway, I don't have many baths these days. I have a shower, and I have a hot tub, and hot tubs aren't really for reading. So, not so much of a problem, then.

I can't put it in my pocket. Well, it fits in the side pocket of my shorts, quite neatly, as it happens. But it doesn't go in my jeans, and what with living in Florida, I don't have an inside jacket pocket, so I have to carry it. However, most books don't fit in my pocket either, and the Kindle is much, much lighter than a real book. So actually, the Kindle wins, especially as I can now put thousands of books in my pocket, or at least, carry them around with me.

It's hard to organise books on it. When you have 900+ books loaded up, it's not easy to find the one you want. Fortunately, there's a feature called Collections, so you can have a load of sci-fi, a load of reference books, all the books by a specific author and so on. Unfortunately, the user interface for putting books in collections is horrible. It took me all evening to sort out all those books. Which is about as long as it would have taken me to sort through 900 books if you'd dumped a load of boxes on my living room floor, but I could do it all while sitting down drinking a glass of wine. So, could be much, much better, but still an improvement on paper.

E-books cost too much. Many years ago, I was involved with publishing. About 50% of the cover price of a book is the cost of the paper. It can be more if you're doing a fancy cover. Another 10% is the cost of getting it to the store. E-books have no printing or distribution costs, so you'd expect the price to be proportionately lower. Sadly, that's not the case. A book that costs $15 typically costs $14 as a digital edition. It's hard to justify that pricing, and it's going to make me reluctant to buy e-books, especially because...

... you can't lend or resell e-books. With a real book, I can pass it around my friends. Most of my books were inherited, gifts, or second-hand. That's not allowed with digital books. Every person who wants to read the book has to pay the full (inflated) price. You're not building up a collection of anything you can pass on. You're paying for an admission ticket to a reading experience, and there's not even a family discount if you bring your kids.

Many of the things I expected to dislike about it turned out to be completely groundless. One of the constant objections I hear from book lovers is "I like to annotate my books". It's actually way easier to annotate a Kindle than a real book. Just click and start typing. Better still, all your annotations and bookmarks are indexed so they're easy to find. Can't do that with a real book.

Battery life is quite impressive. This weekend I charged it for the first time since buying it. Four hours on charge, and it'll be good for another month. If only my phone lasted that long.

The Kindle has actually proved to be remarkably easy to read. It uses E-Ink, so it's not backlit, and it doesn't strain my eyes like a computer screen. The experience is nothing like trying to read on a Palm or a laptop. It's much like reading a book, in fact. Flipping pages back and forth is just a thumb press, and you can rescale the print to whatever size you like. You can get around a book really fast with hyperlinked contents and footnotes, and judicious use of bookmarks.

The experience of buying a book on a Kindle is quite incredible. I can go to the Amazon Web site, find something, click buy, and within seconds, it's mine. That's less time than it would take me to get up from my chair, answer the door to the postman, and open the box, let alone order something on the Web and wait for next-day delivery or even actually go to a shop. Not only that, but with 3G, I can buy a book any time, any place. See... want... have. It's that simple.

The thing I've noticed most is that a lot depends on the e-book, rather than the reader. As I mentioned, I now have some 900+ books on there, and I've certainly noticed there's a huge difference between a good e-book and a bad one, just as there is between a good edition of a book and a bad one. When they get the formatting right, do proper tables of contents, and restructure the books so it works, it's really pleasant to read them. When you get mixed up fonts, bad OCR so you have typos, and they've just tried to copy the print layout, it's often too horrible to read. Still, you get what you pay for. Good ones cost, free ones may well suck.

Something that's also quite cool is the built-in dictionary. Unsure what a catafalque actually is? Just put the cursor over the word, and it'll tell you. That's something else ordinary books can't do.

The experimental features are pretty unimpressive. The audio player has no controls, so it's practically useless, and the Web browser is possibly the worst I've ever seen. Certainly the worst I've seen in the 21st century. However, this is a book reader, not a tablet, so I'll just ignore those problems and move on. Maybe they'll update them in time, maybe they won't. I'm not bothered either way. The pdf reader seems like a good idea, but it has a fatal flaw: most pdfs are so closely typeset that they're illegible on that screen. Imagine a magazine page shrunk down to 25% of normal size, and you get the idea.

All in all, though, I've learned to love my Kindle. I've sprawled on the sofa with a Dreamweaver manual. I've sat in airports reading thrillers. I've had lazy mornings in bed reading classics. I've taken it everywhere, and found myself reading at times I didn't expect. I can carry a whole library with me, and that's as liberating as when I discovered I could carry my entire music collection in my pocket. My only real objections are the pricing and the DRM. However, there are loads of free books, there are libraries, and there are torrents, so I suspect the book business is soon going to find itself facing a piracy issue just like the music and film industries are facing right now. Set fair prices and allow fair use, and people will pay. If not, they'll find ways to get what they want anyway.

Will it replace books? Probably, and surprisingly, to a large extent, yes it will. Digital books are more convenient for many reasons, just like mp3s are more convenient than vinyl, and Netflix is more convenient than a houseful of DVDs. I still cherish books as objects, just as I cherish some of my favourite album covers (even though I have nothing to play them on) and the deluxe box sets of some of my favourite movies. But for everyday reading, the Kindle is marvellous. And, dare I say it, better than paper.

I never thought I'd say that.