REVIEW DATE: 04.01.09
A year after coming on the scene, Hulu is still top dog in streaming professional video content, thanks to its library of over 11,000 titles, an improved interface, and social-networking capabilities.
Tons of free professional video content. Improved site navigation. Hulu Friends feature lets you connect with friends on the site. Users can view high-res content in 480p resolution.
Offers only the past five episodes of currently on-air shows. Content can disappear from the site randomly.
Since its public launch a year ago, Hulu.com has been the number one reason I don’t miss having a TV set. The free online video service provides loads of full-length commercial programming and movies you can stream right from your browser. And in the last 12 months, not only has the service added tons of new content, it’s also instituted subtle enhancements to make finding and viewing your favorite shows a breeze. Hulu is celebrating its anniversary by adding even more content as well as a new dimension to the user experience—social networking.
When Hulu launched in March 2008, it had 50 content providers, the biggest being NBC and FOX, and over 90 show titles. Now it has more than 130 providers, including the newly added Comedy Central, and for anime fans, Viz Media. Together they contribute over 11,000 titles. The library of full-length movies has increased as well, going from 150 to 550. There’s still no programming from ABC, CBS, or CW, but there’s plenty of content to keep most viewers happy.
TV.com, in a play to overtake Hulu, has redesigned its site and added content from CBS. There’s also a TV.com iPhone app that has cool features but limited content. But Hulu still offers more programming, especially of classic and recently off-air shows. For some time, TV.com’s Web community helped differentiate that service. But, Hulu’s new Friends feature eliminates that advantage to some extent.
Hulu Friends expands the service’s old Profile section and adds social-networking capabilities. Friends allows you to integrate your Facebook or MySpace profile, as well as your e-mail address books, into your account. This makes it much easier to connect with friends on Hulu. The Friends section also has a Notifications feed that alerts you to new shows added to your queue and videos in your queue that are about to be removed from the service.
The redesigned profile section now has a very Facebook-esque look. You can view your profile photo, bio info, the friends you’ve imported, and an activity feed of those friends’ site activities. And with Facebook Connect, you can add your Hulu activities to your Facebook activity feed. Hulu Friends is an attempt to build a community that creates the feel of TV.com, but with more advanced capabilities. While I doubt Hulu will become the next online networking destination, the social features do add an entertaining touch.
Hulu has made a number of enhancements, some of which improve the player so it can deliver higher-quality video. The new Watch Hi-Res option lets you view videos in crisp 480p resolution. And now, when you pause the video, the player displays a buffer meter. A full meter means that Hulu has saved 5 minutes of content to your computer memory, which allows for smoother viewing.
Others improvements simplify content navigation. To make its ever-growing library of content more navigable, the service has added channels, which let you browse content by genre or theme. This is more of a discovery tool for times when you feel like watching something new but don’t know where to start.
At the bottom of the page are recommendations based on your viewing habits. If, for instance, you visit the page for 30 Rock, Hulu will suggest you might like Arrested Development or The Office. A new page in your profile recommends shows and clips that it thinks you’ll enjoy, based on your viewing history.
To make up for the lack of content from some providers, Hulu offers handy deep links that take you directly to the episodes hosted on other sites. For example, searching for Lost will display a page of thumbnail results that take you directly to a video feed of the episode on ABC.com. TV.com also offers deep links to non-hosted content but integrates the ability better than Hulu does. Both sites let you search for non-hosted content, but Hulu doesn’t have the dedicated Web pages for these shows that you’ll find on TV.com.
Hulu still has some annoying limitations, such as hosting only the past five episodes of on-air programs. So if you missed more than five episodes of Heroes or Family Guy, you’re pretty much out of luck. It’s also hard to predict when episodes of other shows will suddenly and mysteriously disappear from Hulu. I used to enjoy revisiting episodes from all three seasons of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example, but Hulu now hosts only a few episodes from the second season.
The amount of content and the quality of its player more than compensate for these annoyances, however. Hulu is still clearly the best Web site for getting streamed commercial video content, and it remains our Editors’ Choice.