Hulu Plus TV-Streaming Subscription Service: Tested in Preview

After months of speculation, video-streaming site Hulu released a preview of its long-rumored subscription service in late June. But in this preview, the service does not go far enough either in uniting video playback de­­vices or in offering a li­­brary of shows.

The new, $10-a-month Hulu Plus can stream TV content to Net-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, and other devices including the iPhone and iPad. The service can handle up to 720p high-definition streaming, and will work across PCs, TVs, mobile phones, and tablets.

How Hulu Has Grown

Hulu's appeal is its wide selection of TV shows from major production studios, broadcasters, and independent content creators. After more than two years on the Web, Hu­­­­lu has grown its library and improved its usability dramatically since we first re­­viewed the site two years ago. Now, Hulu aggregates material from 100 providers, including networks ABC, Fox, and NBC. The service is jointly owned by NBC Universal and The Walt Disney Company, among others.

Not only does Hulu's site provide an easy way to catch up on current TV episodes you missed, but it also provides an im­­pressive archive of back seasons of classics.

At launch, Hulu Plus will work with PCs and Macs; with Apple's iPad, iPhone (3GS and 4), and iPod Touch (third-generation) platforms, via an app; and with 2010-built Samsung connected devices (including Blu-ray players, Blu-ray home theater systems, and TVs) via the Samsung Apps platform. The Hulu Plus app streams over both 3G and Wi-Fi.

Hulu also notes that Sony PlayStation 3 support is "coming soon," and within months after launch, the service should work with connected HDTVs and Blu-ray players from Sony Electronics and Vizio. Microsoft Xbox 360 support is slated for early 2011.

After some hands-on time with Hulu Plus, I can say it's off to a good start but falls far short of fulfilling the ideal of a cloud-based library of television shows.

In many ways, Hulu Plus underscores the challenges of making TV series widely available. For starters, not all Hulu-hosted offerings are available in Hulu Plus, and for such content, Hulu may instead refer you to another site; examples range from classic shows like Babylon 5, for which Hulu Plus bounces you to the TheWB.com, to current hits like Gossip Girl (Hulu will refer you to TheCW.com).

Now, hang on, viewers may ask: B5 and Gossip Girl are both associated with Warner Brothers, and Warner has a deal with Hulu, right? Clearly, that deal doesn't include hosting these shows on Hulu proper, and that, in turn, underlines the challenge ahead for any cloud-based television library.

And never mind getting your NCIS fix: NCIS airs on CBS, and CBS is one of the few holdouts from Hulu. Ditto any of the Star Trek series--those are now part of the CBS empire, too.

But audiences should not have to think about the complex, Hollywood deal-making realities behind such limitations-issues relating to the ownership rights to a show, and where that show will live online. As audiences, we simply want seamless access to that entertainment.

And seamless access is, mostly, what Hulu Plus does deliver for the selection of shows it offers. One thing I like about the service is that, once having subscribed for $10 a month, I can use Hulu Plus on different platforms--including my Apple iPad and iPhone 4. On both devices, playback was of a pleasingly high quality, over both Wi-Fi and AT&T 3G on an iPhone.

Glitches and Gripes

But I repeatedly ran into glitches where the image quality became unwatchable; this happened consistently directly after a commercial break, whether the commercial break occurred naturally, or I skipped ahead and had to endure the commercial first.

My other gripe is the lack of cooperation among devices. For example, if I start watching on my iPhone and want to switch to watching on my iPad or on my PC, Hulu can't keep track of my last viewed show and where I was, so as to link the devices accordingly. That's a capability I've gotten used to with multiplatform e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle. (At least, Hulu Plus did resume playback after an interruption from a phone call; and it did return me to where I was after exiting the app to do something else.)

Hulu Plus's value will likely become clearer once the fall TV season starts and new episodes of shows become available for on-demand catch-up. But until Hulu Plus can dramatically grow its content library, improve integration among different viewing devices, and eliminate the boundaries among shows, the service won't live up to its game-changing potential.

Users can sign up for an invitation to the Hulu Plus subscription preview at www.hulu.com/plus; the company has not said when to expect the service to go live in wide release, beyond a vague reference to this happening "in the coming months." If you don't get an invite, you can still try the service out using a limited number of free episodes and clips. When you sign up for the preview, Hulu lists availability on other devices besides those already mentioned, including Android, BlackBerry, and Palm for mobile phones, and LG TVs and Blu-ray players. This could be a signal of the diversity of devices on which Hulu Plus will available.

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