Video on-demand took a leap forward this morning with the launch of Hulu.com. Created by NBC Universal and News Corp. (FOX's owner), this online video-streaming site is looking to dethrone YouTube as the go-to site for video clips. The question is whether it has the muscle power to do that. Below are our initial impressions on the site and whether it's worth checking out.
Content: From The Simpsons to The Office, Hulu has a solid catalogue of current programs to attract viewers. They're free with limited commercial interruption. You can even find some gems like Arrested Development and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, not all TV shows on Hulu are available in their entirety. For instance, you can watch all three seasons of Arrested Development, but you can only watch five episodes of Heroes. We do like that it has a respectable selection of niche programs from channels like National Geographic, Sci-Fi, Bravo, and Oxygen, to name a few.
Movie-wise, Hulu's library won't get you to ditch Netflix (its movie list is only 4 pages long compared to its 153-page selection of TV shows), but you'll still find a decent list of titles from studios like MGM and Warner Bros. Notable are Sideways, The Big Lebowski, and Red Dragon. There's even an HD gallery with high-def trailers, but again, it's not as populated.
Experience: There's a lot to like about Hulu's layout. It's interface is clean and straightforward, and you can browse for content in a variety of ways including genre, popularity, or by typing in the name of the show you're looking for. You can even add a show to a feed reader and get updates when new episodes or clips of that show are added.
To stream content, Hulu uses its own Flash player. Unlike other video on-demand services like Joost, there are no downloads, so videos play straight from your browser (it's compatible with Firefox and Safari). At launch, streams were smooth and hiccup-free. For us, however, HD trailers were choppy and didn't run smoothly on our 2.2GHz MacBook Pro.
Hulu offers a few options when watching videos. For instance you can switch to a full-screen view, adjust the brightness of the video, or pop up a new screen and run the video from a separate browser window. Hulu also provides you with code to embed videos to your blog. Likewise, you can share the video to your MySpace, Facebook, or StumbleUpon accounts.
Hulu is by no means perfect. For the most part, it only features NBC and Fox TV shows. You must watch commercials before each episode you stream (they're about 5 to 10 seconds long) and you can't download any content. An ad banner (not animated, thank goodness), which doesn't always display, also takes away some of the vertical real estate of the actual video. Our biggest gripe, however is that there's no way of telling when a show on Hulu might go away. It's a little disturbing to feel that your ability to watch a video you like is at the whim of an exec at GE or News Corp.
Nevertheless, Hulu is worth checking out. It's a positive sign that big media is finally understanding consumer demand and is hopefully a step closer to giving viewers the all-access pass to on-demand video we all want. Legally.
Louis Ramirez is a dealnews Features Editor.