Amazon Instant Video: Better than iTunes?

For those who are not entrenched with iTunes, Amazon Instant Video offers a way to rent or purchase movies and TV shows to watch on your computer, or on your TV using Roku.  Here are some of the issues I encountered while attempting to download and watch Amazon Instant Video shows on a variety of platforms.

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Buyer Beware: SD vs. HD

Finding and purchasing the videos was the easy part.  I wanted to get season one of “The Big Bang Theory”, so I simply typed that into the search bar at Amazon.com, and quickly found what I wanted.  With one click, I bought season one.  “Great!”, or so I thought.

Later I realized that I had purchased the Standard Definition version instead of the High Definition version.  The Standard Definition version comes up by default, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to accidentally get the SD version (especially since there’s a banner on top that reads “This season now available in HD” – confusing!).

When I first discovered that it was SD, I was a bit disappointed. After watching the SD version though, I was okay with it since the resolution was fine. There was also some consolation in that the SD version was $10 cheaper than the HD version. But it was still a bit annoying that it wasn’t more obvious which version I was getting in the first place. Just watch out for this.

Playing the Video on a Mac

When tried to play the videos on Safari running on a Mac Book pro, the website said I needed to install the latest version of Adobe Flash.  Alright, I manually navigated to the Adobe Flash website (because no working link was provided) and downloaded and installed Flash.  I tried Safari again.  Still no joy with the video.  Next, I completely closed Safari, restarted it, and navigated back to my videos.  Finally, I got the videos to play on my Mac.

Not a big deal, but the lack of a working link to the Adobe Flash website was a minor annoyance.

Playing the Video on iPhone/iPad

Watching Amazon Instant Video on an iOS device requires the Amazon Instant Video App.  After I downloaded it, I simply logged in using my Amazon ID and password, and in no time I was watching the videos I purchased.  Great!

Playing the Video on Windows

Things also went without a hitch on my Windows 7 machine.  I could watch the Amazon Instant Videos on Firefox as well as the Chrome browser with no problems at all.

Playing the Video on Roku

Next up was playing the video on my TV using Roku.  I turned on my Roku, and started the Amazon Instant Video app.  The only hitch was that it asked me to “authorize” my account.  It gave me a code and told me to enter it on a website on my computer.  I had to run to another room, go to my computer, bring up a browser, go to the site, and enter the code and jump through a few more pages, then run back to my TV.  After that, the video played fine.  This is a one-time ordeal so it’s not too bad.

Of course, Amazon Instant Videos will NOT play on Apple TV at all.

Downloading the Videos to Your Computer

Up to now, I had been streaming the videos and watching them in real time.  However, I wanted to download the videos so I could watch them without being connected to the Internet.

Here, Macs get shafted.  According to this Amazon site, “Downloading to a Mac or a Linux PC is not supported.” So, although you can stream Amazon Instant Videos and watch them on your Mac while connected to the Internet, you cannot download them to your Mac to watch them offline. Kind of a bummer.

Even on a PC, downloading doesn’t seem to be encouraged by Amazon.  When I clicked the small link to get more info on downloading, all I got was info on how to download to an Amazon Kindle.  I Googled for info on how to download to a PC, and found out that you have to download the “Unbox Video Player” (shown below), probably to deal with Digital Rights Management issues.

Amazon Unbox Screenshot

Okay, so I jumped through that hoop and downloaded this piece of software to my PC.  I ran it but still found no “download” button!  Instead, what happens is that if you go back to your videos on the Amazon website, you’ll be now be able to download them there.  But, there is a limitation of only two downloads to a computer, and two downloads to “unbox portable devices” (which cannot be any Apple devices; I’m not sure what devices qualify, but undoubtedly Kindles do).

I went ahead and downloaded a video to my PC.  It downloaded as a “WMV” file.  It played fine on my PC, but I wanted to see if it would play on another computer if I copied the file.

So, I copied the file to a USB stick and transferred it to another Windows machine.  As I feared, Windows Media Player put up a message saying “Downloading media usage rights…” and opened the Amazon home page in a browser.  It didn’t give any guidance on actually how to get the media rights, but I’m sure it would involve “using up” one of my two downloads, so I canceled. So, copied video files will not play back on a different computer.

With only two downloads allowed (and no copying), I wondered what would happen if my hard drive crashed, or if I got a new computer and wanted to transfer the videos to the new machine.  Okay, I have one more download, but what would happen after that?  Apparently, you will only be able to watch your purchased videos while connected to the Internet after you use up your two downloads.

Downloading the Videos to Your iPhone/iPad

Given the limitations in downloading to your computer, downloading Amazon Instant Videos to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch was surprisingly easy.  You simply tap the download button in the app and it is stored locally on your iOS device.  It isn’t clear how many iOS devices you can download your videos to though.

Amazon Prime

Don’t confuse Amazon Instant Video with Amazon Prime.  Amazon Instant Video allows you to purchase or rent video on an individual basis with no membership fee.  Amazon Prime is a membership-based system that costs $99 per year.  With that membership, you get unlimited access to thousands of movies and TV shows, as well as a free Kindle book to borrow each month and free two-day shipping.  Personally, I didn’t find a lot of videos on Amazon Prime that I wanted to watch, so I prefer Amazon Instant Video.

Summary

Overall, Amazon Instant Video is a nice solution if you want to stream video to most mainstream devices like PCs, Macs, iOS devices, Kindles, and Rokus (as well as Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3).  However, if you have Apple TV, or want to download video to your Mac, you’ll need to use iTunes instead.

Amazon Instant Video has a limitation of two downloads to Windows machines, and they won’t play if copied to another machine.  Videos will not download to Mac or Linux machines at all (but you can still stream to those devices and watch while connected to the Internet).  They will download to iOS devices and Kindles.

In general, Amazon Instant Videos are cheaper than iTunes videos, so I stick with Amazon.

Along with my broadcast TV antenna, Amazon Instant Video does a nice job of replacing cable TV in my home.

Hope this has been helpful!  Please comment on your experiences with Amazon Instant Video below. – Brian