Tech fans will have plenty to be thankful for come Turkey Day next week -- The Beatles are finally on iTunes, Google Voice is on the iPhone, Twitter has push notifications for iOS and Hulu Plus is finally out of preview mode, officially landing on Roku boxes everywhere.
We’ve happily been using Hulu Plus for more than two months on both the iPad and iPhone 4 as well as at home on a Playstation 3 -- at the expense of our former Dish HD subscription, trading a $70+ monthly bill for a $9.99 per month bill from Hulu, which was just reduced further to $7.99 now that the service is officially open to everyone.
Now that our original $99 Roku box also has Hulu Plus, here’s a look at how it stacks up against the other methods already in use.
We fired up our aging Roku box (remember when its only trick was Netflix streaming?), which already had the “coming soon” placeholder for Hulu Plus. Selecting it required a quick software update, but no reboot -- the screen went black and we jumped right into Hulu Plus. First order of business was entering our username and password, but if typing with an on-screen keyboard and remote isn’t your style, you can also go to an activation site online with a code you’ll see on screen.
Roku’s Hulu Plus interface is identical to the one used on the Playstation 3 (as well as select Sony and Samsung HDTVs), which is a good thing -- not only for consistency across devices, but because we happen to think this particular interface is quite good to begin with.
The main difference we noticed immediately was that on-screen text appeared a bit soft on our classic Roku box, especially when compared to the same screen on the PS3. We’re guessing this is a byproduct of the older Roku being limited to 720p output or perhaps it’s something Roku will correct in a future update (knock on wood).
Either way, video playback looks just as nice on the Roku as it does on the PS3 when using our 50” Samsung 1080i HDTV, so we don’t see this as a total bummer. We’re guessing the newer Roku XD and XDS boxes look just fine with their 1080p HD output, but we didn’t have one on hand to try out.
The Roku box has an extremely utilitarian remote control: Four buttons corresponding to up, down, left and right with a Select button sandwiched between them, a Home button at top and Play/Pause with Fast-Forward and Rewind buttons at the bottom. (Perhaps the only remote more spartan than the Roku is the Apple TV.)
To get around the Hulu Plus interface, all you need are the four arrow buttons and the Select button to navigate menus. The up button does double duty as the method for jumping to menu options at the top of the screen or the progress bar while in playback mode, while the down button lets you get to menu options at the bottom of the screen or options (such as turning on closed captioning) while playing back video.
A tap on the left or right arrow buttons let you quickly jump around during video playback, and holding either button down allows you to seek back and forth as well. Hit the home button and you jump out of the Hulu Plus app and back to the main Roku screen. The simplicity of the Roku remote is ready-made for Hulu Plus, which is often complicated on devices like the Playstation 3, which has far more buttons than necessary for video playback.
Hulu Plus loads quickly on the Roku and after a moment you’re greeted by the main menu. It features a large sliding panel in the center with recent episodes of popular TV shows featured, with a handful of menu options below it.
The menu options include Search, Browse Movies (yes, Hulu is not just about TV shows, although a quick glimpse through their selection will make you see why the company doesn’t hype it too much), Browse TV, Recently Added, Most Popular, Queue/Profile, Recommended and Help.
Search is self-explanatory, and since typing on-screen with a remote is nobody’s idea of fun, you’ll likely skip it most of the time and go straight to one of the other methods. However, Hulu Plus is good about offering suggested search terms -- typing in even part of a word will show you anything available that includes your text, then you can jump to it with a couple of clicks.
The two Browse options let you skim through movie or TV titles (complete with artwork, genre and a brief synopsis) and quickly jump to any letter of the alphabet to find what you’re after. Recently Added is the hub for content which is relatively new to Hulu, which makes it another shortcut to get where the action is in a snap.
If you’re not quite sure where to start, Most Popular or Recommended are good places to begin, and once you’ve found something that looks interesting, you can press the Select button on your remote to watch, queue it or add it to a subscription. If you’ve already added episodes to your queue or subscribed to entire seasons or shows, you won’t have to do much poking around here -- you can go straight to Queue/Profile to get to the stuff you want quickly.
In all cases, you use the Select button to play or pause video content and the up and down buttons to drill through menus and the left and right buttons to select content. TV show content is broken into submenus at the top -- Episodes, Clips, Seasons, Rate, Subscribe, Related and Home. Hulu remembers where you’ve left off if you stop watching content midway through, and you can pick right back up again from any other device -- for example, start playing at home on your Roku box and then finish watching a show on your iPhone while waiting at the dentist’s office.
Roku vs. iOS
If you don’t have a Roku, PS3 or compatible HDTV, don’t fret: Hulu Plus is also available on your iPhone/iPod touch and iPad, and the free app (which requires the monthly service fee to use) just got even better with a version 2.0 release on Wednesday, adding a split-screen player and new thumbnail behavior on the iPad, improved playback performance and the requisite bug fixes.
Hulu Plus 2.0 also brings much-needed enhanced queue and subscription management -- users can now see which shows in their queue or subscriptions are web-only, and you now have full control over episodes & clips in subscriptions (allowing you to select All Episodes, First-Run Episodes or None, which previously had to be done via other methods).
From your in-app user settings on the iPad, you can now choose to either tap once on video thumbnails for info and twice for play or tap once to play and press & hold for info -- both convenient methods, and it’s nice that Hulu gives users the freedom of choice to do it both ways.
The Hulu Plus interface on iOS is different than the Roku -- because you can tap to select, there’s no need for screen real estate to be taken up with a lot of menus to drill through to get at what you want to watch, although all of the key elements are all still there.
The Main menu shows you the same sliding pane of featured shows, with buttons to quickly jump to your TV, Movies and Queue at the top and a pane containing Featured, Most Popular and Recently Added titles below. Tap on arrows on either side of this pane and it will slide up to take over most of the screen, easily pushed away with another tap. You can also filter the content shown here by Shows, Episodes, Movies, Clips and Trailers accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest change with Hulu Plus 2.0 on the iPad is the new split-screen player -- while playing a video, tap the new Split Screen button and your media will shrink into the top quarter of the screen, allowing you to browse related content or additional episodes of the current show. This feature, which is unique to the iPad alone, will be big with multitaskers who already can’t stay focused on what’s playing in front of them -- God help us all if they someday make this available on the Roku as well.
With the Hulu Plus service now out of preview, the company is making up for lost time by enticing new users with a price cut ($7.99 per month, down from $9.99 during the preview), rewarding preview users with refunds for the price difference and making the service available to more devices with the Roku (not to mention all PS3 users, since the preview required a Playstation Plus subscription to access).
Today’s iOS update makes the service even more attractive to new and existing customers, but many are wondering when Hulu Plus might land on the Apple TV -- after all, Netflix debuted on the second-generation box at launch, and Hulu is clearly in a race with the DVD rental service to win over users.
We can’t predict if or when that might happen, but keep in mind that the Apple TV should be getting an update any day now to support AirPlay video playback from iOS 4.2 -- so keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime, the addition of Roku is certainly welcome to Hulu Plus users -- after all, the Playstation 3 is notorious for being loud and consuming power, so the smaller noise level and footprint of Roku’s box should be music to both your ears and your electric bill.
Oh, and if you don’t already have a Roku box, now is a great time to buy one -- you’ll get a free month of Hulu Plus service with any Roku purchase of $59.99 or more, with three models to choose from.
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