Hulu Plus on the go is still Hulu minus

Can Hulu Plus find a place in an off-the-grid TV user's heart who's already subscribed to Netflix? We give it a try to find out.

Hulu Plus offers some great quality, with a content selection that still leaves something to be desired.
Less for more? In some ways, on Hulu Plus, yes. Scott Stein/CNET

I've been cable-TV-free for the better part of a year and a half. First, the idea was to save money. Second, the idea of watching TV via the Internet and on my assorted devices--iPad, iPhone, PS3, laptop--is an appealing and, honestly, preferable way of dealing with content at this point, especially since the TV is usually out of bounds in our household, since our sleeping child dictates silence. Though I feel like my idea was personally motivated, it's increasingly becoming part of a cable-cutting trend that many are adopting. (For more advice, see Maggie Reardon's tips on cutting cable for online video. )

Admittedly, we're not really off-grid at all. We still use the cable provider's Internet service. We also subscribe to Netflix, a virtual necessity when off-grid. Hulu has always offered a good selection of current shows on many networks, acting as a decent stand-in for a DVR.

Hulu Plus, with its promise of a larger library and an ability to work on the iPad, iPhone, and game consoles, got my attention when it was launched . Its price--$9.99 a month--did, too, for all the wrong reasons. Still, when I received my e-mail inviting me to sign up for the "preview," I ponied up my credit card. Is it worth it? And can it really help fulfill my wishes to watch TV off the grid without spending a fortune in iTunes? Well, that depends.

Content surprises
Hulu Plus offers no free trial period other than a few free shows on its app, unlike Netflix which gives new users 30 days to try the service. Users have to discover for themselves what Hulu Plus' library actually consists of, which at the moment has its ups and downs. Some people on forums I've read seem confused as to whether the "Hulu Plus Preview" is currently free, or costs money. Hulu doesn't make the distinction clear of what a "preview" really even means, since this looks like a final product. And, yes, it costs money right now.

So what does Hulu Plus offer for its $10 that really earns the "plus"? Chiefly, it's this: all TV shows featured have either a complete season or their entire history available. "The Office" and "30 Rock," for instance, offer all seasons and all episodes. So does the "Bob Newhart Show." The selection of shows, however, is limited to the networks offered, and is paradoxically less than what regular Hulu offers if you're accessing from any place other than a computer. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and the "Battlestar Galactica" spin-off "Caprica" are absent on the iPad version, to name just two.

On the Web, however, signing in if you're a Hulu Plus subscriber gives you what you'd expect: all of what Hulu had before, plus the "plus" content. More oddities abound: ABC's free iPad app offers episodes of "V" yet, somehow, "V" is completely absent from Hulu Plus (not that I really want to watch the remake).

Then there's the issue of content overlaps with Netflix: "Arrested Development" is on Hulu Plus, it's true. But it's also on Netflix Watch Instantly. So are many back episodes of popular TV shows, including "The Office" and "30 Rock," as well as some premium Showtime series. Netflix easily wins on content, and its cheapest watch-instantly plan is $8.99, a dollar cheaper--plus it allows for one DVD rental.

Thanks to a 4:3 screen, old TV shows actually look great on the iPad.
Thanks to a 4:3 screen, old TV shows actually look great on the iPad. (seen here: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) Scott Stein/CNET

Performance: It's fast
There are advantages to Hulu Plus. Compared with iPad apps like Netflix, which has superior content but a slow and buggy interface, Hulu is smooth and zippy. Shows start up in seconds on both the iPad and iPhone. I truly appreciate the quick response time and well-laid-out interface, including the easy-to-maintain queue of TV episodes, which acts like a reader list across devices.

Weirdly, seasons can't be added to a queue directly. Performance quality was largely excellent. Some episodes of some shows seemed to stream in far lower-resolution quality than others, but most current shows looked as crisp as HD programming. We only had a few hiccups: one episode of "The Office" repeatedly quit midstream from our office network, but worked fine at home. And, of course, there is the commercial issue: though the ads are brief--and seemed less frequent than on regular Hulu--the presence of ads at all on a pay-subscription app will offend many. Still, compared with the ad-saturated experience of the iPad pay version of Wired, it comes across as gentle. (See CNET's video hands-on .)

Streaming on 3G from the iPhone was nearly as good, allowing for a longer wait while queuing the episode. And though we're on the topic of cross-platform support, the great news is that Hulu Plus works about as seamlessly between the iPad and iPhone as the Kindle App does. A playlist queue acts as a great shortcut when swapping devices, such as going between an iPad and iPhone as I did (or, to the PS3 or a Web browser). Hulu Plus even works on some Blu-ray players-- read Matthew Moskovciak's take on Hulu Plus on the Samsung BD-C6900 . Hulu also resumes playback on an episode from where it was left off, like Netflix, working across devices. It's a nice feature that's thankfully left intact, but nothing that Netflix Watch Instantly users don't already take for granted. Unlike Netflix, Hulu doesn't currently tell you what percentage of a program you've currently watched when browsing episodes. For all of these reasons, Hulu Plus could be a great way to bypass having a DVR/cable setup. But that's the key: could be.

Where Hulu Plus needs fixing
From here on in, though, Hulu is going to need to cover a wider range of TV shows in order to offer some real competitive value to Netflix. For current programming, it's useful, but I couldn't help but ask myself why I wouldn't simply turn on my laptop and watch a several-episode queue of current TV on regular Hulu for free. The real value is in recent back episodes, and once I've burned through those on my favorite programs, I'm not sure I'd want to keep subscribing.

Here's what I'd like to see next: more cable content. Some sports highlights. "The Daily Show." (Sadly, that seems unlikely to come back.) And, maybe something better than the embarrassing sprinkling of content Hulu Plus offers under "movies." Though $10 a month might be reasonable, these days subscriptions are piling up from all corners. I'm not getting rid of Netflix. I don't think many will. So, Hulu Plus: what will you do to add rather than replicate?

Here's to hoping that Hulu Plus at the very least offers the entire content library of Hulu for the iPad, PS3, and other new devices as soon as possible. That should be a given. And its content library had better expand fast, or I might not be subscribing for long.

 

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