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Living with Amazon: a glimpse of the future, but not a cable-killer yet

ecosystems amazon deep dive

Twenty-two million. That’s how many books, movies, TV shows, songs, apps, and games that Amazon boasts are accessible through its Kindle Fire tablets and other devices. The massive internet retailer has made a very aggressive play to be as synonymous with your living room entertainment as it is with online shopping.

I’ve spent the past few weeks living in Amazon’s ecosystem, attempting to make it my sole source of entertainment in my living room and beyond. Unfortunately for Amazon, there are still a number of holes in its offerings, despite its wealth of content. As with other streaming video services, using Amazon alone caused me to miss out on things like live TV, sports broadcasts, live news events, and awards shows. Amazon does offer some really cool services to sync my video content across multiple devices, and for watching movies and episodes of popular TV shows, it’s a great option. I used the Kindle Fire HD tablet to view much of the content from Amazon (with it plugged into my HDTV through its HDMI port), but I also appreciated being able to watch the same videos on my laptop or iPad.

Film/TV

That 22 million figure mentioned at the outset sounds like a big number, and the breadth and depth of content that you can access through Amazon’s services is quite impressive. But as you dig deeper, you discover that the majority of those 22 million items are individual books and songs, and the selection for TV shows and movies is significantly smaller.

Amazon does try to cover a lot of bases with its Instant Video service. It offers everything from popular broadcast TV shows like Parks and Recreation and Fringe to network and premium cable shows such as Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Dexter, all on demand and accessible from a plethora of devices. As of the time of this writing, Amazon had just under 11,000 different television shows in its catalog (split between about 80 percent SD and 20 percent HD versions. HD versions are frequently duplicates of SD shows). Likewise, it boasts over 56,000 movie titles for instant watching (HD titles are sparse though, with only 218 of that 56,000 available in HD).

Depending on the network that a show is originally broadcast on, TV shows can be available as soon as a day after they air, or as long as an entire year after they were originally seen. Content from premium channels, like HBO and its Game of Thrones series, generally has the longest wait, while shows from broadcast networks like ABC and basic cable channels are available pretty quickly. Amazon also offers UK favorites, such as Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, though the newest seasons of BBC and ITV shows are generally not available from Amazon until they air on the networks' American channels.

If you're a classic movie junkie, Amazon’s library is stacked

With regards to movies, Amazon does a good job at offering popular theatrical releases around the time of their release on DVD. Most popular movies from this summer, such as Prometheus, The Amazing Spiderman, and The Campaign were available to watch right around the time that their DVD and Blu-ray versions hit shelves. But other summer favorites, like Ted, were inexplicably unavailable to either rent or purchase. If you are a fan of classic movies, Amazon’s library is pretty stacked, as I was able to find pretty much any classic film I was looking for, including Fellini’s 8 ½ and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Of course, what’s glaringly missing from Amazon’s catalog of video is any sort of live broadcasts. If you’re hoping to follow along with the various presidential debates, or watch a live sporting event, or even a Hollywood awards show, Amazon won’t fulfill those needs. Additionally, evening news shows are out of the picture, as are any morning talk shows. The lack of live content isn’t unique to Amazon, but it’s one of a major issue if you’re trying to cut the cord.

Like many online video services, content from Amazon’s Instant Video service can’t be transferred or viewed on unsupported devices outside of Amazon’s supported device list. This means that you cannot view one of your purchased or rented videos outside of Amazon’s ecosystem or on any device that you choose. You can’t share a purchased video with a friend, you can’t back it up for future access / viewing, and you can’t really watch it without Amazon’s blessing.

Interface

While trying to work with unsupported devices sucks, Amazon has done a pretty remarkable job at providing access to its Instant Video library from a variety of devices. Not only can you watch Instant Video through the browser on a computer, you can also do so on Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, through the Instant Video app for the iPad, and a host of set top boxes and game consoles, such as the Roku, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. You can also view content on a large number of smart TVs from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio, as well as Blu-ray players and DVRs from TiVo and others. HD video support is not available on every device, but it is supported on the Kindle Fire HD and the various HDTVs that feature access to the service. Unfortunately, there is not yet any support for smartphones or Android tablets outside of Amazon’s own Kindle Fire range.

Watch an hour of a movie on your Kindle Fire, but want to watch the rest on your TV? No problem

Though the interface for Instant Video varies for each device the look of the app is generally comprised of Amazon’s dark grey and orange color scheme that’s easy on the eyes and fairly simple to navigate. The Kindle Fire gets some extra perks, including the ability to download movies and shows for offline viewing and access to Amazon’s X-Ray service that provides information about what you are viewing while you are viewing it.

The best feature of Amazon’s Instant Video service might be Whispersync, which automatically synchronizes what you have viewed across devices. Did you watch an hour of a movie on your Kindle Fire, but want to watch the rest on your TV? No problem, Amazon will transfer the last point that you watched to whatever device you decide to use to finish the movie. It’s a seamless, effortless experience that makes you wish that it was available for everything that you consume on the internet.

Cost

First and foremost, it should be pointed out that using Amazon as your lone avenue of entertainment, whether that be for television shows, movies, books, or what else, is not necessarily the least costly route to take. Amazon does not offer subscription services with all-you can eat access to various forms of content (save for its perks for Prime members, which I will detail later), such as what you get with Netflix, Spotify, and others. That means that you have to pay for each episode, each movie, each song, each book that you want to read, watch, or listen to. If you are someone that spends each evening in the living room after work vegging out to a movie or TV show, your cost for entertainment can tally up quite quickly. Many people are anxious to cut the monthly cost of their cable subscription and supplant it with something like Amazon, but at the end of the day, they may find that they don’t save that much money in the long run.

You have to pay for each episode, each movie, each song, each book that you want to read, watch, or listen to

For instance, if you were to watch two HD episodes of TV shows three nights a week and watch an HD movie one other night, you would be looking at a bill of at least $22 at the end of the week. Do that four weeks out of the month and your Amazon bill is more than the average of $78 per month that Americans paid for a cable subscription in 2011. Of course, less aggressive consumers of entertainment can certainly come away ahead using Amazon’s a la carte system as opposed to a subscription service. Each HD television episode costs $2.99 (you can save a buck by going with the SD version), while 24-hour HD movie rentals cost $4.99 each (SD titles are again a buck cheaper). If you plan to keep up with a particular show for an entire season, you can opt for a “TV Pass,” which will automatically charge you for each episode as it becomes available. The TV Pass subscription will save you about five percent off of the cost of each episode. Amazon also gives its users the option to purchase movies, with prices ranging anywhere from $9.99 to $19.99 depending on title and quality.

As mentioned earlier, Amazon offers a good amount of Instant Video perks for those that subscribe to its Prime expedited shipping service. Prime members can access a large number of movies and TV shows for free (Amazon claims that over 30,000 TV episodes and movies are free for Prime subscribers), where regular joe’s would have to shell out money for them. Unfortunately, the movies and TV shows available or free to Prime members generally aren’t the latest and greatest blockbusters. Typically, the free options are older movies and back seasons of shows, and Prime members still have to pay to get current episodes and movies when they come out. But if you are catching up on back seasons of a show or like to watch older movies from time to time, Prime does have its value. At $79.99 per year or $7.99 per month, Prime isn’t that cheap for those that don’t use Amazon often, but for those that do, or those that wish to make Amazon Instant Video a source of entertainment, it’s certainly worth considering.

Wrap Up

Living a few weeks within Amazon’s confines wasn’t bad, but its content options weren’t enough to sway me, a cable subscriber, into becoming full on a cord-cutter. I appreciated Amazon’s wealth of content options, but it still didn’t match what I could get from my cable operator. And it didn’t make sense for me on a fiscal level — my wife and I watch far too much TV too often to make the switch to Amazon viable.

Amazon doesn’t tie me to a specific device

Since Amazon doesn’t tie me to a specific device, I can access my content on any computer with a capable web browser or on one of the litany of devices that feature Instant Video apps — unlike the experience provided by my cable operator which locks me down to watching content on my lone cable box. Amazon’s WhisperSync service only makes this experience that much better. Amazon’s pay-as-you-go options provide me with more flexibility than the strict subscription models employed by Hulu and Netflix, and the perks for Prime members like myself give me access to most of the back catalogs that Hulu Plus offers.

Searching was fast, and Amazon frequently provided search suggestions as I typed, returning results even faster. On the other hand, it would be nice to be able to rent blockbuster movies earlier than Amazon currently provides them, which is generally quite some time after they are out of the theaters. Despite Amazon’s wealth of options, it may not be the best replacement for a person that is used to a traditional cable service. But to supplement your cable service, or as an a la carte alternative to Netflix or Hulu Plus, Amazon’s vast library is very attractive. It’s not going to replace cable for me anytime soon, but it will certainly become a regular part of my over the top experience as shift to consuming TV over the web on a regular basis.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Tuesday:
Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve

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