Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Knocking streaming, trying streaming

I've been playing fast and loose lately with the idea that streaming movies sucks.

So instead of just resting on that general pronouncement, I thought I'd put it to the test. Get some actual evidence to support my claim by watching Big Fan, which I recently discovered is available through Netflix for immediate streaming. My wife has a Netflix account, so I got down to business yesterday after work.

The results were mixed. Some of the problems I encountered had to do with my computer, some had to do with the streaming itself. But since all the problems are germane to the experience of watching a streamed movie -- you need a computer to stream, after all -- they are all relevant in this analysis.


1) I couldn't get the position of my laptop screen correct for the night shots. Daytime footage in Big Fan was fine, but at night, I couldn't get the right angle to make out the contrasts. I'd angle it either too much past 90 degrees, and the light from the window behind me would wash it out, or too much short of 90 degrees, which meant I was getting my own reflection in the screen. (Why not just do exactly 90 degrees -- ha ha). With the smaller laptop screen, you have to position it closer to yourself to create the same screen size you'd get while watching the TV screen from your couch. But I really don't want a reflected image of myself watching the movie while I'm watching the movie.

2) The image was stuttering and freezing. I kind of knew I wouldn't get actual buffering, where the movie stops while the progress bar shows you how much buffering is required before you can start watching again. The combination of Netflix' product and my internet (to be honest, I don't really know how it works) would ensure that my viewing experience would exceed this minimal standard. But that doesn't mean there weren't problems in the smooth delivery of the movie. In fact, when Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan, the incurable Giants fan of the title and his equally incurable buddy, showed up in the parking lot for some tailgaiting -- and, without tickets, ended up staying in the lot for the entire game -- I thought the quick freezes might have been some kind of hip technique utilized by director Robert Siegel. So I jumped back a minute in the movie just to see if the freezes were in the same spots, which would confirm or refute that theory. They weren't in the same spots, which meant this was purely a shortcoming of the streaming. The fact that you have to check, because it might be a problem with the delivery method, is a big difference from watching it through a DVD player, where you'd be certain it was an artistic feature intended by the director.

3) My laptop overheated. At about the 30-minute mark of the movie, the computer shut down. Given that the laptop was sunken into the comforter on my bed, I shouldn't have been surprised -- cut off the air flow from underneath, and the computer takes evasive action to protect itself. However, I also have a method to prevent this kind of thing from happening, a laptop cooling pad that slides under my laptop and projects cool air through a fan onto the underside of the computer. The actual fan is broken, but the square slab of plastic should still provide a buffer between the computer and whatever surface it's resting on, using the opening for the fan as an airstream that prevents the computer from feeling smothered. So streaming this movie must have really required a lot of effort from my computer, because it still overheated despite the presence of this buffer.

At this point I was feeling pretty pessimistic about streaming. Because the computer needed a few minutes to cool down before it would power back on, I walked around and put away some laundry, sharing my observations about the experience with my wife. Being a strong Netflix proponent and a regular streamer herself -- albeit on a Mac rather than a PC, and here I go again opening myself up to being chastised for preferring the "inferior product" -- she seemed to take the fact that it wasn't working out for me a little personally.

And then:

4) The final hour of the movie went by without incident. In fact, in a happy bit of unexpectedness that I attribute to both Firefox and Netflix, the movie resumed in the exact spot where it was when the computer crashed. Firefox did the job of restoring the session, and Netflix did the job of not canceling my viewing. I didn't dare hope for that, since my wife prepared me for the fact that I'd have to start over and search forward to the spot where I'd left off. What was really strange was that the movie was no longer halting and stuttering. Maybe my computer needed to be rebooted for some other reason, which is why Big Fan wasn't streaming perfectly to begin with. In order to prevent another overheating, I added a second buffer underneath the cooling pad.

So I'm glad I did it. For one, it was really nice just to finish watching Big Fan, and not have to do anything more -- not have to return it to the video store or drop it in the mail to get my next movie, not even have to eject it. Nor did watching Big Fan "count" against my wife's account, either by delaying her access to her next title, or by being one of a limited number of streamed movies she can watch per month. Accessing it instantly is obviously a huge advantage, especially since that's one of the main ways I give Blockbuster props: I credit them with allowing me "instant gratification" by being able to pick out a movie at the store, rather than having to wait for the mail. It goes without saying that picking something out online is an instanter version of instant gratification than that, even if the selection is limited. Finally, there's the fact that I wouldn't even have been able to watch Big Fan yesterday without this method, due to the inability to procure a DVD that I discussed on Sunday.

But I'm still not entirely sold. I can't deny the problems that plagued me -- and really distracted me -- during my first half-hour of watching Big Fan. Whether I need to get a different computer, or have a method to hook it up to my TV, is not really the point. The point is that for me, streaming involves using the tools I currently have, at this point in time. It's only as useful to me, practically speaking, as those tools allow it to be. Watching a little indie like Big Fan on my laptop may work out fine, but if I want to watch a grandiose epic, I'll still vastly prefer a physical DVD that I can slide into my player, for the largest picture and best sound available.

Baby steps, streaming, baby steps. Hey, only two days ago, I was cursing your name.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

I haven't watched a whole lot of streaming stuff yet on Netflix, but as I said yesterday, iTunes HD rentals are really nice quality.

For anything streaming, I usually let the buffer build up for a few minutes before diving in.

Glad you're trying it though.

Vancetastic said...

I've done an iTunes rental once before, and don't remember any problems. However, you've still got the problem of watching on the computer, plus, it costs a couple extra bucks. I'm trying to use methods that I've already paid for through a set monthly fee ... I'm still paying for it, but it feels different when it's part of a bigger package and doesn't involve a cash outlay at the actual time of viewing.