Amazon's Unbox, or Wait for Apple/Disney
I tried the Amazon unbox today. Overall the process isn't bad, but this isn't going to unseat DVD sales, Blockbuster, Netflix, or anything else. This is a perfect example of Amazon having lost their focus on their core business.
The first thing I thought was, cool, they'll let me have a version for my video iPod and a version to put on the computer. Wrong, the portable version isn't for iPods, nor for PSPs. The portable version works on the Creative Zen Vision, Toshiba Gigabeat S, Archos AV 500/700, and the iRiver PMC. So their target audience seems to be all 20 people who own one of these devices. Strike one.
Then I also read the restrictions. Windows only. No surprise here, luckily I keep a dual boot, so I have that. US customers only. That is a bummer for our overseas friends, but worrying about copyright laws in every country you sell to? I don’t blame Amazon.
System requirements: 1.5ghz processor, 64 meg video card, and 512 megs of ram. Recommended: 2.5ghz processor, 128mb video card, and 1gb ram. Dang! I could run a DVD on my 733mhz computer back in the day that only had 64mb or RAM! But that is ok; these videos are more compressed (WMV) than standard MPEG2 encoding, so it makes sense. One strange thing—they recommend 5.1 sound, but the video only has two audio channels! Go figure.
And then there is the DRM. You cannot burn the video to a DVD. You cannot play it on your DVD player. You can keep purchased videos on 2 PCs and 2 portable video players at the same time. Rental videos can be stored on your PC for 30 days and once you press play, you have 24 hours to watch the video before it expires. Nice.
So I thought I’d rent something. The rentals are pretty cheap, cheaper than running over to blockbuster anyway. So I rented Office Space. There is some sort of special, where rentals are $1.99 off, Office Space cost me a cool $1.00 flat. Nice.
Installing Unbox Player
First you have to install the Unbox video player. This little program will download the file for you, and play it. Nice. After ordering the rental, you are brought to a webpage with a download icon. I start downloading the video player. As a side note, I am on cable internet. I have seen speeds well in excess of 1 mb/s. This Unbox player came across at a highly varied rate, topping out at 8 kb/s, with an average of 5 kb/s. Nice. So twenty minutes later, when the 3 megabyte file had finished, I went to install it.
The install went largely pretty smoothly. My firewall kept freaking out because the installer repeatedly contacted thawte, but no problem, I just allowed it. I punched in my Amazon login, and I was ready to go.
Well, not yet. The blasted thing wouldn’t connect. The system tray icon had a perpetual question mark over the icon. I opened it up again, and tried to login again. No dice. Since I a computer neat freak, I had already deleted the installer. So I re-downloaded the file (another 20 minutes), re-installed it (actually “repair” according to the installer), and logged in. This time it worked.
Getting Office Space?
Office Space showed up right in my queue. It didn’t look like it had started downloading (the lights on my router weren’t flashing) so I right-clicked on the system tray icon and hit “pause all.” Then I “resumed all.” I re-opened the program, and a little message flashed up—“You’ve used up all your licenses for this video, please visit Unbox.com and repurchase this video.” I hadn’t even downloaded the bloody thing!
So I got screwed out of $1.00. Yep, if it had been any more, I might have been more upset. But not to be deterred, I decided to buy Office Space. It cost a cool $13.45, which is a little insulting since Amazon.com is selling “new and used” Office Space DVDs for $7.79, and I know I can play them in a DVD player.
The order process went smoothly. The movie showed up in my “Unbox player” and started downloading immediately, at 50 k/s. At that rate, between the 1.2 gigabyte full-quality video and the 430 megabyte portable version, it was going to take like… 9 hours!
I’ve Got It!
But I’m a patient man, so I went to bed. Upon awaking, 8 hours later, I found that it had finished. I don’t know how fast it went, but I wouldn’t wait up for movies I bought. So I played the video. It looks good. Really good. As I mentioned, there are only two audio channels. The resolution is good, I don’t know exactly how good (since I had to use the Unbox player, and it doesn’t say), but easily equivalent to DVD quality. All this for 1.2 gigabytes, rather than the 8 or so on a typical DVD.
After watching the movie, I decided that I wanted to play around a bit. I tried to play both video files with VLC, Media Player Classic, VirtualDub, and a few other players I embarrassed to admit I tried. Of course the file didn’t work on any of them.
I had heard reports that FairUse4WM, a program that strips DRM out of Windows Media files, worked for these video files. I thought I’d give it a shot, so I did. Perhaps I wasn’t doing it right, but it didn’t work for me. No matter.
Next, I wanted to see how easy it is to uninstall Unbox player. So I checked the start menu entries—no uninstaller. I went into “c:\program files\amazon\amazon unbox player”—no uninstaller. So I went into my Control Panel, to Add/Remove Programs. The Unbox player shows up there for sure, but there is no remove button. There has got to be a way. I ran the installer again, remembering that among the options (install, repair) was a remove option. So I used that to uninstall the player. Now lets see what the damage is. The program files entry was still there, just missing some files. I deleted that. I poked around the registry. There were only twelve hits under the name “unbox.” I removed all the keys with this name. Clean system right?
I reinstalled the Unbox player, using Altiris’s SVS program that PC Mag gave away. This program is a piece of work, it basically catches everything a program installer tries to vomit all over your system, and keeps it isolated. It worked and I wasn’t surprised to see hundreds or registry entries, and files added/changed everywhere from “common files”, to the Windows directory. Too bad I hadn’t used this last time.
Other than getting screwed out of my rental, the process was fairly smooth. Purchasing was easy enough, and the slow speeds may be because every nerd in geekdom is jumping on this thing to try it out. The files play just fine in the Unbox player, which is kind of ugly, and certainly inferior to MPC or VLC, but it works.
I can almost see the imaginary joe sixpack enjoying this. What happens when his hard drive dies, I don’t know, but it is easy and convenient enough to buy movies. Maybe the rental system will get its quirks worked out. Of course, joe sixpack probably can’t hook his computer to his TV, and isn’t allowed to burn the movie as a DVD, so this has fairly limited appeal. As for portable devices, without iPod support, or at least PSP, the portable file is going nowhere.
If you are looking for a movie, I’d just recommend getting a DVD. They’re cheaper to buy (in the case of Office Space), the copy protection is so badly broken they are more versatile, and you can play them in your DVD player. The DRM is really the deal breaker here for me. I want to watch stuff on my iPod, or DVD player, or in Linux, or on a good media player. None of this is possible with these files. As brave as this is of Amazon to try out, I’ll wait for the Apple/Disney store, and we’ll see what rights their DRM allows.
 In retrospect I should have tried Windows Media Player, but I didn’t.