Digital video: renting vs buying, and why Apple is best for buying

With news that iTunes’ share of video sales and rentals are falling against competitors such as Amazon (Prime) Video and other services, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why iTunes is the better platform for buying movies digitally, despite my brain screaming at me, “Look what happened to the digital BBC Store.”

iTunes offers iTunes Extras of which an increasing number of titles are including the same features as physical media.  Audio commentaries are regularly included, for example.  No other service offers this.

iTunes has one of the best device allowances of any service – and this includes the ability to download the content to a Mac, Windows PC, iPad and/or iPhone.

The UI of iTunes is much better than that of the competitors.  The Apple TV, not so much, but still considerably better than most.  Therefore it’s easier to manage existing titles.  And in all the years I’ve been buying movies from iTunes, I’ve never lost a single title due to film studios deciding to withdraw from the platform.  This could change, of course, but I’m sure if that happened, consumers would be lining up to lynch whoever decided it was a good idea to do so.

In terms of renting, Amazon (Prime) Video very narrowly outshines iTunes. There’s almost always a promotion which allows me to pay far less for renting an HD title via Amazon (Prime) Video than iTunes.  For example, I’ve just rented Hidden Figures (*superb* film) and T2: Trainspotting (also very good) – both in HD – £2.49 for both titles.  Amazon Video is baked into my LG television, making it very easy to access.

Don’t get me started on the UltraViolet digital platform.  It’s a completely useless pile of sputum devised by the film studios to make them look kind and generous by providing a non-physical digital copy of a film.  The truth is that it’s a massive pain in the arse to manage and I don’t bother with it anymore.   TalkTalk’s app (TalkTalk having bought Blinkbox which in turn is an UltraViolet partner) for LG televisions is awful.  I accept that one has to log in again occasionally, but the process is just stupid.  Look at what Google is doing for logging in to YouTube – much, much easier for televisions.  Entering a password via a remote control is the epitome of piss-poor user interface design.  But TalkTalk isn’t the only one guilty of this crime (NOW TV, Amazon, and even Netflix are guilty – but their TV apps allow for significantly long log in times).

BTW, I also hate the Amazon Prime Video UI too – it makes discovery difficult and it seems so random that I rarely watch anything on the service other than the really big TV productions.  I watched the German comedy, Toni Erdmann the other day (very, very funny – especially the nude party scene), but I had to manually enable the subtitles (found under CC for closed captioning – usually referencing subtitles for the hard of hearing – in my case, hard of not knowing enough German to understand the film without English subtitles).

The only other service I’ve purchased films from is Google Play.  I can watch the films on a tablet, my phone and even my TV through the YouTube app.  But those titles are generally either freebies or were heavily discounted.

Otherwise, I’ll be sticking with iTunes for future film purchases.  The next one, in fact, will probably be Hidden Figures because it was just such a great film, and there’s an audio commentary included in iTunes Extras which should give the film even more value.

BBC’s digital store to close in November

My biggest fear with buying digital only copies of films and television shows is if the provider goes away – whether it’s due to bankruptcy, change of direction – whatever.  As I’ve been sticking with the iTunes ecosystem for the majority of the time, I trust Apple to do the right thing and ensure I am able to download and watch my movies regardless of whatever happens to the movie or TV studio that supplied them with the content.  So far so good.

But, alas, the poor old BBC has announced that it’ll be shutting down its all digital BBC Store from 1st November 2017.  I’ve used BBC Store a number of times over the past 18 months, amassing a few titles here and there.  It was relatively cheap, and they often had many titles on sale.  My biggest complaint with the BBC Store, however, is actually watching the titles on my TV.  What a pain in the arse that was.  The BBC iPlayer baked into my LG TV, Apple TV, plus the games consoles I used to have, never supported BBC Store titles.  And there was no native BBC Store app for them either.  Thus I had to buy a Google Chromecast to be able to cast the content from my mobile phone to it.  No problem watching the content on my phone or tablet, but it’s not ideal – and this is why I think the BBC has failed – it felt as if it didn’t put enough resources into developing the BBC iPlayer integration or BBC Store apps across multiple platforms.

(Ironically, as the mega corporate AT&T is set to buy Time Warner, Inc. and take over HBO – AT&T’s boss has been semi-joking that he wants to provide 20 minute mobile friendly episodes of Game of Thrones – this sort of thing horrifies me – I’m all about choice, but the important thing is that television is television and should be viewed as (and on) such)

Another problem with BBC Store is that many of BBC’s titles are available on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.  The BBC has said that it wasn’t able to compete with these services, but I still say they just did not put enough effort or resources into making the content available across platforms as easily as Netflix or Amazon Prime (which, BTW, should be coming to Apple TV next month if rumours are true).

Ultimately it’s a slap in the face for digital TV and movie consumption.  But I also ask: is TV and film going the same way as music?  Do people actually prefer to pay a monthly subscription fee to consume as much content as possible, rather than simply buy a title outright?   While the BBC is refunding those of us for the content we’ve paid for (plus, very ironically, a £20 Amazon voucher for similar digital content), it doesn’t make it easy for us to be able to repurchase the content elsewhere.  With content providers bemoaning that piracy is ruining the entertainment industry – it forgets very easily that if more effort was made to make the content available quickly and cheaply, and across as many platforms as possible, their rhetoric might be a bit more believable!

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

My first negative feedback on eBay!

I don’t use eBay often, but when I do, it’s usually to sell kit I don’t need or want to keep.  It’s proven very safe and reliable over the years.. until last week!

I bought the Sony RX100 mark V.  After encountering many articles and videos extolling the new features (especially the super fast 315 phase detect auto focus points) over the mark IV, I decided that I could take one more hit and bought the thing with the intention of selling the mark IV.

Alas!

What a flipping nightmare!   I’ve sold much more expensive kit on eBay and haven’t had a single problem with it.  But initially the mark IV refused to budge. The price for a new mark IV on Amazon  is about £100 less than what I originally paid for it six months ago.  So given the age of the device, and how that it wasn’t used very much and kept in a case, I thought £100-£120 less than the current price would be fair.  No dice. I had a few too low offers, including the person who would eventually buy the thing.  At one point I took the listing offline, revised the description to add as much information as I could from the questions that were being asked, and settled to a figure of £600.  And that included the breakdown and accidental cover insurance for three years.

On Sunday night I went to bed.  During that time, the buyer submits questions before buying the camera.  It is stipulated in my listing that it can take up to two days before I ship the item.  This is because as I work full time, and I work in middle of nowhere, and that I also work a shift system, the ability to get to a post office is somewhat limited during the week.  The earliest I would have been able to get to a post office is today (Tuesday) after work – and that’d be around 5pm. Given that I choose to ship Next Day Special Delivery (with the right level of insurance), that would be not have made a Wednesday delivery.

So what I do get when I ask the buyer for the details so I can start to arrange the transfer of the insurance?  She needs it before Thursday as she’s heading off to South America.  Talk about leaving things a bit late!  I’ve basically said that given the current timescales, I couldn’t do it, so I refunded her and cancelled the order. It would be better to buy from somewhere like Amazon’s used marketplace – these are usually professional sellers who can ship next day guaranteed.  I’m just an individual just looking to sell a camera in my spare time.  She told me that she couldn’t afford those prices.

If I had been told all of this before the order went through, I could have very probably made prior arrangements.  But the number of questions (and two different, much lower offers – the listing was set-up for a fixed price only) preceding all of this had slowed everything down.  Least of all I did not know it was urgently required.

Needless to say, the subsequent email exchange (through the eBay system) did not go too well.  I was always polite, but firm, in that I wasn’t going to work outside of the eBay guidelines to get this thing to her – she wanted to arrange a courier which would very likely invalidate that because if things went wrong, PayPal and eBay would not be able to assist me if she were then to put in a claim – they would side with her, and I’d have lost both the camera and money.

So in the end, I got my first ever negative feedback – after I left her a positive for the quick payment, but this was before I knew about her deadline).  The comment she left was that I was uncooperative and rude.   I was never rude. Rude, by her definition, is that she simply did not like what I told her.  I was never aggressive or impolite.  If she only organised herself better, was upfront about her expectation on delivery times, and made the decision to buy within a sensible timeframe, she would have had the camera yesterday.  Today at the latest.

I’ve decided to keep the camera.  I’m not sure I can bring myself to sell it just yet after all that rigmarole.  I’m trying to decide how it will fit in with my existing trips, but I’ve been looking at what other people do with multiple cameras and I’m coming up with some (cunning) plans.

At the time of writing, my camera kit now looks like this:

I’ve gone a bit mad on audio kit.  This stems from my time shooting Imagineer System’s marketing video.  Having good quality microphones is a must.  Though at the time of making the marketing video, I had little knowledge of audio gain control – the result was that a lot of audio was very fuzzy.  I’m not making that mistake again.  The AX53 camcorder replaces my ancient Sony DCR-PC100e, which was a lovely miniDV unit.  Alas, it’s dead and I haven’t any way of playing anything I recorded unless I take them to a specialist who can take transfer them to DVD or external hard drive.  The AX53 uses fast SDHC memory cards which I can import footage into Final Cut Pro on my Mac.

(BTW, my first ever digital camera was a Sony DSC-S70 – it was super chunky, only offered 3.2 megapixels, was super expensive, but the quality was absolutely brilliant – which perhaps explains why I returned to Sony products after a brief spell with Cannon)

I still need to get a couple of small tripods.  I’ve settled on Joby Gorillapods which will enable me to wrap the arms around objects as well as act as a stand and grip.  BTW, the case that you see is an Amazon Basics camera backpack.  Super light too.  The case also has lens cleaning kits and all the manuals (which I also have in PDF form on my iPad).  You can’t say I’m not prepared.

Westworld meets the humble Stereo

The one thing that I’ve been lacking at home has been a radio player.  I do have a 10 year old second hand component-based DAB radio, but it’s now so old and clunky that it’s been retired and is about to go to silicon heaven.

I’ve taken a rather unusual approach to its replacement.  Rather than get another component based stereo system, I’ve chosen to get an Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot for the bedroom).  These are speakers that happen to have an artificial intelligent assistant built into them.

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Alas, “Alexa – Destroy All Humans!” doesnt work.

In essence, the Amazon Echo is a big speaker with plenty of bass that you can connect to over Bluetooth.  Handy for playing music from one’s phone.  It has very few buttons other than a microphone mute and an “action” button.

But the Echo (and Echo Dot)’s niftiest feature is that it’s controlled by your voice, and it can connect with a number of services (over Wi-Fi) to form a very capable personal assistant.   The commands are pretty basic, and there is no context to follow-up questions/commands.  For example, if you were to ask about a personality and then followed it up without referring back to that personality – Alexa (for that’s her name) will be very confused.  Google appears to be winning the contextual war, so to speak, but I’m sure Amazon will be on it.

I use my Echo and Echo Dot to play audio books from Audible (an Amazon company) – and having collected all four Round the Horne series (30+ hours worth of beautifully crafted comedy), it’s superb.  The Echo can also play live radio streams from TuneIn including all the BBC Radios and local radio stations – “Alexa, play Eagle Radio” will invoke Eagle Radio’s live stream.

Echo can also control smart devices in the home too.  And there are so many more things this “speaker” can do.  The radio player has become intelligent.  I now fear that if the toaster and kettle also become intelligent, they may form a household rebellion against me.

But in all seriousness, this is the next big development in IT.  We’ve seen it in smartphones (although Siri over here in the UK is terrible in comparison to what Amazon and Google are currently doing), but now it’s coming into the home.  My TV will eventually be voice controlled (just waiting for LG to issue an update). Sky have plans to do the same as well.  The future is here.