I am a cord cutter. I live in a house of other cord cutters. By that, I mean that we don’t own a television in our house, instead opting to watch all our video content on our computers or portable devices. The obvious advantage of this is that none of us need to pay for a TV license. While I haven’t been able to find any market research to back this up, anecdotal evidence that I know suggests to me that a sizeable number of students are like me in that they consume a majority of their video content streaming rather than on television.
The UK is different from the US television market in that a lot of the original TV content produced here is made available online quickly. There’s BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4oD, and ITV Player – from the top three British broadcasters – that make their content available for free-of-cost (without a subscription or a TV license). The exception is Sky, which uses exclusivity of its content as a unique selling point for its own services.
What remains then, for the viewing needs of cord cutters in the UK is a) streaming movies b) on-demand playback of older content no longer active on the broadcasters’ own services. This is the gap that online streaming services such as Netflix or Lovefilm Instant fill in. Now, I could easily pirate the content but I these days I try to do the right thing. I buy all my books from the Kindle store rather than pirating PDFs. I subscribe to Spotify‘s premium service. I genuinely believe that content creators deserve to be compensated for their work. (Reading Paul Carr and Monday Note has convinced me that digital content needs to be paid for to create sustainable businesses which will continue to amuse and entertain us.)
So even with films and television, I want to get my content from legal sources rather than pirating them. There simply isn’t any excuse when the price for such services is so affordable: £5-6 a month is something that can comfortably fit into any student’s budget. Although I’ve been a subscriber to Spotify’s premium service for years, it’s only recently that streaming video services have launched in the UK have become mature enough to use.
I only make an exception when there’s no legal avenue at all to obtain something I’d happily pay for; that’s when I pirate. I totally understand why they don’t make it available because at the moment, they don’t want to cannibalize their existing business. Even making it available on a paid basis gives an incentive for people to cancel their satellite / cable subscription, and that revenue it far to worthy for them right now to risk it to online services which is a more price sensitive market and won’t accept higher prices. (Read this Fast Company piece on the struggle Hulu is facing in the US along these lines.)
What’s good for the customer is that most streaming service companies offer month-long or longer free trials that give you a fair amount of time to test how good their service is. This is exactly what I did. Here are my thoughts on the ones I tried out.
Lovefilm Instant (£4.99 / month) is Amazon’s play in streaming services in the UK. (In the US, this is branded as Amazon Instant Video.) I tried out a 45-day free trial of Lovefilm from a voucher I got along with an Amazon purchase.
My first impression of the service was that it’s a confusing mess. DVD / Blu-Ray titles are mixed in with streaming titles. The ‘Instant’ bit essentially lives on a section of the main Lovefilm site. Discovery is primarily done through ‘lists’ created within Lovefilm according to genre and lists created by users such as ‘Best of Lovefilm’ or ‘Staff picks’. This feels odd. I remember a time, many months ago, when Lovefilm also used to make films available for a payment and some included within the subscription package, so the whole ‘With Package’ section these days – when it no longer offers films on payment – feels like they tried to stuff the current titles into the old interface.
The search function does not have autocomplete. You’re flying blind as to what’s available and what’s not – or if you don’t know how to correctly spell a film title or actor / director name. The hangover of the legacy business of renting DVDs becomes quite apparent whenever you search for a title: results thrown up show a mix of DVDs as well as streaming titles. If I’m a streaming-only customer, why make things more complicated by showing me results that I cannot possibly access on my subscription plan? Perhaps this is a ploy at upselling you to their costlier plans, but for someone like me who doesn’t even have a DVD drive, this is completely pointless. While it’s possible to filter the search results according to ‘lists’ again to show only Lovefilm Instant titles, my point is a user shouldn’t have to do this extra step themselves.
Okay, so let’s say you don’t have a particular film in mind and just want to browse titles they have according to genre. So I clicked on a list, and to bring some sanity into sifting through the results, choose the option to order results according to ‘Member rating’. Here’s the problem with that: the ‘ordered’ results have no fucking relation whatsoever to the member ratings. Note how in the above screenshot the ratings go from 3 stars to 2 to 2.5 to 3 to 4. It simply doesn’t do what it does on the tin.
Search / content discovery UX is broken really badly for TV shows. Say that I search for ‘Lost’ (don’t judge me), the results are presented as individual episodes. Assuming that the show I wanted was ‘Lost On An Island’ (whatever, just roll with the example), that would mean instead of having a list of episodes on a single page for a TV show or season, I needed to click through dozens of pages of search results to find the one I want in case there are TV show titles with common words in their titles. To top this off, Lovefilm offers three criteria to sort results: ‘relevance’, member rating, date added. None of this is a particularly effective way of ordering results or a browsing interface for a TV show, where the best way is to provide a sequential list of episodes according to season. Instead (as you can see in the screenshot above), episodes according to ‘relevance’ are ordered completely randomly.
Once you find a film / TV show you want to watch, you click through to its details page which lists a synopsis along with other related data pulled from IMDb. Clicking ‘watch now’ (sorry, the screenshot was taken after my subscription ended) starts playing the film…in that tiny embedded player window. It doesn’t look visually pleasing, and you’d most definitely need to switch to fullscreen viewing mode. The idea behind it probably is that most people would do that anyway. However, at first look, the player interface doesn’t look aesthetic.
I had trouble with the playback too. Despite having a 100 mbps broadband connection which never gives me issues, playback kept stalling and giving me ‘Content not available offline’ error messages randomly throughout my 45-day trial period. The only solution for this seemed to be to exit fullscreen mode, reload the page – at which point the player would prompt me to continue watching from where I had left – and then start playing back a couple of dozen seconds before the point playback stalled. I don’t know what the cause behind this could be.
What I found most disappointing was that Lovefilm Instant doesn’t make the process of figuring out ‘what to watch next’ easy. This really shouldn’t be that hard since Amazon already owns the best movies database on the planet – IMDb – and if it tried it could easily throw recommendations according to titles watched or rated previously by a user. Instead, it makes you browse through endless lists of various descriptions and even at that makes usage difficult by non-functional sorting. There’s no way of linking your Lovefilm account to your IMDb account (although there is an option to link Amazon and Lovefilm accounts). I cannot fathom how they can let this opportunity pass.
Legacy business hangover rears its head again when you try to browse titles according to ‘related’ content. Browsing to that tab shows titles available on DVD mixed with those available for streaming.
And here comes the subjective part: Lovefilm’s streaming library is utter shit. Its library seems to mostly consist of B-grade / C-grade films from the 90s with very few new film releases or TV shows. Perhaps it’s just a case of ‘watchable’ content being hard to discover due to the problems I mentioned above. Lovefilm is clearly trying because even within the 45-day window I tried the service, I saw new titles getting added. When it comes to TV shows, it hardly has anything that is not already available elsewhere such as YouTube or Channel 4’s 40D.
Anyway, when the time came to take a decision on whether I want to renew my subscription to become a paying customer, I simply didn’t feel the content library was rich enough or the discovery UX intuitive enough to be worth paying for. Obviously, issues with playback not working properly was a factor. Many of the videos were only available in standard-definition, which is baffling in this age when so much content is available in HD. Another factor was that Lovefilm does not (yet) offer any way to stream content to mobile devices; its Android app only allows you to add DVDs to your rental queue.
Lovefilm Instant feels almost like an afterthought to its core DVD rental business. It’s a shame that it cannot give good recommendations either, since with Amazon’s surprisingly accurate shopping recommendations and IMDb’s rating database, it should have enough data to go on which other players don’t have.
Once my Lovefilm trial expired, I signed up for Netflix (£5.99 / month) – and so far I’m loving it. (I didn’t get a free trial because I’d previously signed up for a 30-day trial without using it.) Netflix starts you off with a quick questionnaire on preferred movie genres to personalise recommendations. The contrast with Lovefilm’s UI is stark as Netflix’s user interface is inherently more visual. Text is non-existent, making the user-interface more aesthetically pleasing than Lovefilm’s rigidly-structured pages. The whole user experience is centred around serendipity and discovery. Every time you visit Netflix, it presents a different set of thumbnails, making discovering newer titles or titles you may not have heard of incredibly simple.
More information on each title is presented using hovercards. What I like about this is that Netflix uses the initial questionnaire in addition to ratings you make on Netflix as you watch more titles to make a ‘best guess’ for a title’s rating in the eyes of each user. These personalised recommendations help you make snap decisions on whether you want to watch a title or not: if you’re in the mood to watch a film that you would definitely like, you’re likelier to choose titles with higher guessed ratings; or if you’re in the mood to experiment, then you might even consider titles with lower guessed ratings.
One of the things that Netflix’s has nailed really well is recommendations. In addition to a ‘browse’ feature that allow you to browse according to category, it also shows recommendations according to categories generated on-the-fly based on your ratings / preferences history. These fluid categories help you quickly discover films similar in tone to ones that you already like. Brilliant!
Netflix also nails ‘social’ recommendations. You can link your Facebook account to Netflix, and for your friends on the service who have done the same, it can show you films and TV shows that they have seen. The inherent idea behind this of course is that you’d be interested in watching films your friends watch, which is not a bad assumption to make because at any time for the ‘social’ recommendations you can rate a title as ‘Not interested’.
And the player UI is beautiful. Each title starts playing in a full browser-window sized player. It also starts playing content automatically and silently upgrades to HD quality once enough data has been buffered. What I particularly like about the player UX with respect to TV shows is that it automatically queues the next episode in the series after you’ve finished watching one. You can either sit back and let it continue, or use the countdown period to browse back to the main library interface. Netflix understands how episodes within a TV show are related by season, and automatic queueing makes for a great ‘leanback’, hands-free experience.
The reason why I singled out the lack of autocomplete as a UX deficiency in Lovefilm is that autocomplete – like Netflix does it – let’s you know right away whether a title you want is available or not. In case a title doesn’t show up while I’m typing, I know that right away without having to navigate away to search results page.
Netflix also offers streaming on tablets and mobile phones through its Android / iOS / Windows Phone apps. The UI is very similar to what’s offered on the desktop – so no need to figure out anything new. Hovercards are replaced using an ‘i’ information icon that pops up with the same information. Streaming content – both on desktop and mobile – just works, without any playback hiccups.
There is one thing that I felt Netflix got wrong though. I signed up for my Netflix account using Facebook Connect, and thus I never needed to set up a password when accessing it on my laptop. When I opened the mobile app though, I was frustrated to find that there’s no way to sign in without providing a password. I had to ask for a password reset on my account and then set up a password, just so that I could use my Netflix account from its mobile app. I don’t understand this omission, because there are other mobile apps which happily allow you to sign in using Facebook Connect.
Overall, I’m incredibly happy with Netflix and I think I will stay on as a customer. The content library is rich with a selection of foreign films, new releases, indie films, as well as top-notch American and British TV shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, The Inbetweeners, et al. There are sometimes cases where a title I’d find on Lovefilm Instant isn’t available but in general, Netflix UK seems to have a far broader selection of titles than any of its competition.
YouTube Rentals / Google Play
I mention YouTube Rentals / Google Play because Google markets this heavily on the Google Play Store. Unlike Lovefilm or Netflix, Google does not offer a fixed subscription that allows you access to a library. You need to buy each film separately, and then have 48 hours to watch it. Playback quality is good, as you’d expect from any standard HD video on YouTube. Content selection seems to be about the same as Netflix (sometimes better), minus the TV shows. It’s just not for me though, because buying access to each title at £2.49-3.49 a pop is way too expensive for me. Prices aren’t too out of line compared to Apple iTunes offerings though. I mention this only for the sake of completeness – I’d take an all-you-can-eat subscription any day over a piecemeal model.
Streaming services have been late to the party in the UK compared to the US, but if you are thinking of signing up for one now is a better time than ever with offerings being a lot more mature than they were when the services debuted. Subscription package costs are quite reasonable too for the content offered. I’d recommend that you sign up for trials on each service and see which one gives the best fit for your viewing tastes: you might find that either Lovefilm or Netflix is a better fit for what you like to watch.
I also haven’t tried NowTV – Sky’s new online streaming service. It’s significantly more expensive at £15 / month, but it also has a much larger library due to Sky’s weight in the general TV market. I may give it a go after a couple of months in case I find myself running out of stuff to watch on Netflix.
A cautionary note for Linux users: none of these services will work for you. Lovefilm and Netflix both require Silverlight player, to enforce DRM restrictions; and YouTube for some reason doesn’t allow playback for film rentals on Linux either (probably due to DRM reasons again) even though its standard player is Flash-based.
I think the big gap at the moment is in how broad and deep TV show libraries are on streaming services. Hulu still hasn’t launched in the UK, despite noises being made about it back since 2009. What I found for all the three streaming service here is that the content is either something already available for free from the channel on which they air, or, when available, restricted in the number of seasons that are available. That, however, is a broader industry issue – and I hope TV networks catch on to that fact that if they don’t make content available legally, people will simply get it when they want through illegal means. Movies also have the same ‘release window’ problem, but it’s much more acute with TV shows because streaming services usually catch up with many seasons later whereas with many films I’m happy to wait until the time they become available. (The films I really want to watch, I watch in the cinema.)
I think what I like best about streaming video – Netflix in particular – is that it makes finding new stuff to watch so effortless. I don’t need to go hunting for links on illegal streaming sites or worry about what quality the video will be. I like the simplicity and I want content creators to be compensated for their work. I hope that this march towards a future of on-demand content does not get bogged down with exclusive deals which effectively silo different content across multiple services.
N.B. I realise that it’s hard to objectively call Lovefilm’s UX bad without further data. Craigslist, for instance, stands out as an example of website design that doesn’t turn heads but clearly works for them. The only measure that can really speak definitively is data from split testing of design / functionality, or revenues. Here again, the problem is that Lovefilm may have higher revenue due to its volumes in the DVD retail business, so any comparison would need to be done on revenue purely for its streaming business versus Netflix’s. And that data is not easily available. Perhaps Lovefilm has found their design does work them, due to familiarity in the eyes of its users versus Netflix users who may be ‘savvier’ (again, a question that cannot be answered without knowing demographics). My intention in writing this blog post was to present what I felt about the design and service of the two contenders – in the hope that some people find it useful.