Hulu Plus got a lot of attention in its iPad/iPhone incarnations. But it’s also the smoothest, most polished media experience I’ve ever had on my PS3. And to some extent, it really is the Holy Grail: Hulu on TV.
Let’s back up a second. The PS3 is the Blu-ray player I’d recommend to anyone. But BD discs were never meant to be navigated with a Dual Shock. Beyond the obvious quality boost that Blu-ray brings, the experience of watching a movie on the PS3 – wielding that odd pop up menu, figuring out if I’m hitting the right buttons on the title screen, accidentally fast forwarding at 100x speed when my cat bumps the controller – has never been wonderful. There’s a disconnect between me and the media as soon as I need to interact with the machine. Resolution aside, watching a BD on the PS3 is no more pleasant than watching a DVD on a PS2.
I’ve also downloaded quite a bit from PS Store. If I can get over the fact that shows cost $US2/pop (and more in HD), I must say I prefer the method to watching Blu-rays. No annoying menus are required just to watch my show. And Sony’s SD-quality downloads beat the HD quality of my DirecTV box. Still, the PS Store is…just OK. The interface is often sluggish as it struggles to propagate images. I’ve gotta buy funds for my wallet to buy the movie to download it to watch it. There are just all these unnecessary steps.
And as for Netflix. Look, it gets the job done. But I have an Xbox 360. And it works better on the Xbox. So which one am I going to use?
In terms of pure usability, Hulu Plus is better than any of these options.
Once you download the app, syncing your account with your PC is literally instantaneous. And what you’re greeted with is a stuffed but easy-to-navigate menu. Navigate around with the D-Pad. Click what you want with the…whatever the shape on that one button is. You know the button. It’s the button that makes things happen on the PS3 controller.
And what’s particularly compelling about the menus is that you won’t be sitting there, waiting around for assets to load. The graphics and text for the shows are just there, like they should be.
(The only quibble I have is that some of the text seems to get chopped on my TV, a problem that’s common in HTPCs. Also there’s a lot of glare on my TV in these pictures. But that’s not anyone’s fault but the sun…and maybe Panasonic.)
From here, the process is just like using Hulu in a browser. Click on one of their highlighted shows. Pan through episodes. Subscribe. Rate. Etc. I didn’t notice any feature (that I wanted) missing from Hulu on PS3 that made me long for the web interface. And as a bonus, if you choose to look around the menus while watching a show, the video will just shrink down into the corner of your screen…a miracle to those of us used to Netflix.
As for watching clips, the experience, again, is akin to the PC. Click whatever you’d like, then prepare for a 30-second ad. Personally I’m fearful of mankind deciding, like we did in the days of cable, that we’ll pay for a monthly service that also has unskippable ads. But sidestepping that debate, I’ll just complain that ads need to be audio balanced with their respective content. While watching Modern Family, a show that tends to be quieter than most, I encountered an ad that blared through my speaker system at more than uncomfortable levels. Sony and Hulu, please remember that I have neighbours and a soft spot for my hearing. Fix this tiny issue.
As for the video quality of the actual content…it’s decent if you consider that we’re talking about streaming media, but objectively, it’s mediocre at best. You can actually toggle 3-4 bitrate settings depending on the particular media content – a handy feature that will allow you to get the best possible signal every time. Cranked all the way to 3.4Mbps HD (max), I thought the image was a bit worse than HD on my DirecTV…which is in itself so lousy that I don’t really consider it HD despite the “HD” moniker.
Don’t get me wrong, the quality is very watchable on my plasma. But if we’re talking about a commercial-packing service with a monthly fee, the days of “I’m happy just to watch funny SNL clips when I want to!” are over. I’d like to see a higher bitrate option, literally.
If you’re interested in Hulu Plus, you’ll need to pay $US10/month for the service, plus you’ll need to pay $US18 (for three months) to $US50 (for a year) of PlayStation Plus to access the service on the PS3 – for now at least. Once the preview period is over, all PS3 users will have the opportunity to subscribe without paying for PlayStation Plus.
Luckily, what you’re paying for is an authentic experience of Hulu on TV, and the most rich, polished media app to reach the PS3 (or really any console) yet.