Best free stuff, 2013 edition: The media buff
The Media Buff
Media lovers have never had it better. If you’re a music and/or movie buff, the Internet puts a vast array of wholly free, wholly outstanding digital options at your fingertips, whether you’re looking for gratis media gratification or for fun, helpful services that will scratch your entertainment itch.
Sony’s Crackle service is the go-to source for free movies, featuring titles ranging from The Fifth Element to The Blair Witch Project, along with a number of stellar concert flicks. DocumentaryStorm is brimming with educational films for deep thinkers, while Hulu’s vast catalog and next-day publication of many new TV episodes make it the go-to source for free streaming television shows—as long as you don’t mind sitting through the occasional ad.
Meanwhile, Spotify can soothe your savage breast (and your listless ear). The service lets you stream its mammoth catalog of on-demand songs via its desktop programs; however, users of the free mobile apps will be limited to not-so-on-demand radio functionality focused on the artists and genres of your choice.
If streaming isn’t your thing, you’ll need a strong piece of traditional media-playing software to rock your personal media collection. VLC media player is the long-reigning star here, and for good reason. VLC works cross-platform and lets you play most video files without having to install codec packs or additional software—plus it’s packed with extras like support for podcast streaming and Internet radio.
You may need to convert your physical DVDs or Blu-ray discs to digital formats to coax them into working on your gadgets or with your software. HandBrake is the app for that job. It converts most common multimedia files, as well as any non-copy-protected DVD or Blu-ray sources, into widely supported MP4 or MKV files. (And if your discs do have copy protection, DVDFab HD Decrypter can probably help.)
Google Music is an online music store similar to iTunes, but with a few freebie perks. Most notably, you can store up to 20,000 tracks for free on Google’s cloud servers and then use Google Music’s Web interface or Android app to listen to them anywhere. Google Music also has some cool free features like Instant Mix, which helps you find long-forgotten tunes in your library.
If you have a particular movie or TV show in mind and want to know which streaming video service streams it, head over to the aptly titled Can I Stream.it? website. There, you can search across the most popular streaming, rental, and purchase services to find out whether and where a movie is available, either via streaming or as a paid digital download. Can I Stream.It? pores over Amazon, Crackle, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, and other services to discover your chosen target.
When you’re looking for some new tunes, check out Twitter Music, a wonderful music discovery service. The free service taps into your social circles to serve up personalized music recommendations. Twitter Music doesn’t offer full-length music streaming, merely short song samples from iTunes. But you can log in with your Spotify or Rdio account to listen to full tracks.
Another great way to find new music for free is with Noon Pacific, which creates a “mixtape” of up-and-coming songs, all picked by some of the most prominent music blogs on the Web, and delivers it every Monday at noon Pacific time. The interface is dead simple: It’s a list of all the mixtapes, with this week’s addition at the top. Alternatively, you can subscribe via email to receive notification when new material is available.
The vastness of Netflix’s library makes it all too easy to miss a hidden gem when you confront the overwhelming array of options available, especially since the service’s star recommendation system can be highly unreliable. A Better Queue helps you uncover the best content by juxtaposing Rotten Tomatoes ratings with the Netflix catalog, and then providing genre, average-rating, and publication-date sorting options.
For a bit of musical fun, check out Google’s experiment called Jam with Chrome. The site sports a selection of 19 instruments that you can play in-browser, ranging from acoustic and bass guitars to drum kits and keyboards. Once you get started jamming, you can switch between instruments and invite up to three friends to join your session. Think of it as a virtual garage for practicing with your band—or, just treat Jam with Chrome as the incredibly fun distraction that it is.