Review: Amazon Instant Video on the iPad
By now you know that the iPad is my go-to device for watching TV while tackling boring household projects (because nothing puts laundry day in perspective like an episode or two of Hoarders.)
Last month, my iPad life improved all the more. Why: Amazon’s Instant Video app entered the iPad scene. The app combines content from Amazon Prime and Amazon Instant Video.
Amazon Prime costs $79/year and gets you free shipping on most stuff you buy, plus free unlimited streaming of about 25,000 TV and movie titles. Amazon Instant Video lets you rent or buy titles to watch (movies and TV.)
Like iTunes, Amazon lets you purchase or rent video content for download, and includes a “Season Pass” feature for episodic TV – with day-after viewing access.
Amazon’s Instant Video catalog offers about 120,000 TV and Movie titles for rent or purchase, though it’s not clear whether that fat number incorporates the Prime titles too (since you can also rent or purchase that same content if you’re not a Prime subscriber.)
By contrast, Netflix currently offers about 50,000 unlimited streaming titles; iTunes advertises around 75,000 titles for purchase or rental.
More content, unlimited streaming, plus this kicker: They aren’t kidding about the “Instant” part. You buy it (or rent it), you stream it. Instantly. iTunes makes you download the content to your device before watching it. Here on the farm, my DSL line tops out at about 4700 Kbps, which necessitates waiting 90 minutes or so before a typical 2-hour movie is ready to play. And even then, there’s a good chance the buffer runs out before the video ends.
Performance: Sketchy at First
How does the Amazon Instant Video app perform? A lot better now than it did initially.
When Amazon’s iPad app first came out, in the beginning of August, it lacked a search function, which really crippled the process of finding content. After finding something to watch, the video regularly paused to reload and often crashed, displaying a variety of error messages. Like this one:
And this one:
Hello, Amazon, are you out there? Not ok, ok?
I couldn’t even get through a 20-minute video without the app crashing three times. The persistent reloading (as in every few seconds) was experience-crushing. And the experience, in this case, was a particularly suspenseful episode of Breaking Bad. (Ultimately, I gave up and watched it on the Google TV. The Google TV! Can you imagine?)
This sort of issue is likely more pronounced in low-bandwidth situations (the farm, for example,) but it’s a sharp contrast to the Netflix app, which uses adaptive streaming well enough that the video almost never hangs up.
Fortunately, an early update added search functionality, and also seemed to fix a lot of those technical issues. Though the app still crashes and reloads on occasion, it’s now improved to the point being reasonably stable.
But it does beg the question: Why release an app when it’s not ready for primetime? The buffering issues are one thing, and my low bandwidth at home probably exacerbated the problem (though the app initially crashed like crazy in the lab, too, which uses cable broadband.)
The lack of a search feature, however, seems like something that should have been built and included before the app was released.
I was also a little disappointed when I realized the AirPlay icon, which I assumed would let me stream the video to my Apple TV, only streams audio from the Amazon app. So the video keeps playing on the iPad, while you get sound only from the TV. Weird, right? While I don’t find that scenario particularly useful, I do use this feature quite a bit to connect to my Jambox speaker.
Bottom line: The Amazon Instant Video app, despite its initial glitches, brings a huge selection of content to the iPad. For cord-cutters, the app makes it possible to purchase full-season and next-day access to premium shows — without the download buzzkill of Apple’s video eco-system.
While one-day-after access is a far cry from the ability to watch live TV on the iPad (as we can in the lab, with AnyPlay), Amazon still does a nice job of filling in the gaps between Hulu and Netflix. I’ll give it a B+.