Thoughts, rants, experiences, reviews and other things from the mind of Jason O’Conal

Streaming Media Services Suck

22 Mar 2015

I’ve long been one of those guys crying out for affordable streaming media services. I’ve said that if we had these, piracy wouldn’t be as much of a problem. And, you guessed it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong. Streaming media services haven’t turned out to be the panacea I thought they would. In actual fact, they suck! They’ve come late and they’ve come without the features people have come to expect.

In fact, software developed in people’s spare time (with little to no hope of future remuneration I might add) continues to be more featureful, open and better integrated with existing software and hardware than what multi-billion dollar companies like Netflix with armies of engineers can build. It’s kind of pathetic.

Woo! They’re Finally Here!

I am (you are, we’re all) Australian and so I’m naturally writing this article from an Australian perspective, but I have been to the US and used various streaming services (including Netflix and Hulu) for a while and we’ve actually had some pretty good streaming media services in Australia for a while (ABC’s iview and commercial TV catchup services), so these aren’t the thoughts of someone only just getting his streaming media feet wet. I’ve also heard more than a few stories from people using various unblocking websites to get access to geo-blocked streaming media services (such as Netflix US, Netflix Canada and Hulu).

I watch a lot of TV, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the launch of Presto, Stan and Netflix in Australia (well, I’m still awaiting the launch of Netflix). Given the lacklustre experience I had with these and similar services while I was in the US, I’m not sure why I’ve been so eagerly awaiting their arrival in Australia. But now they’re here, I’m not impressed. Not impressed with the interface, the openness of the APIs, the integration with other services, the recommendation engines (I haven’t actually seen one yet apart from Netflix’s MAX, which seems to have disappeared). They suck!

The World Without Streaming Media Services

It’s not only about the size of the libraries. These services could literally have all the media in the world and they’d still be severely lacking.

This article contains a lot of information about how to set up an efficient, easy-to-use system for streaming pirated media content. I’m not encouraging it (I don’t really need to, the streaming media services, television networks and movie studios are doing a good enough job of this already). I am, however, saying that, from a user point of view, the open source community has provided a set of tools that are vastly superior to anything the business world has provided and is likely to provide in the future.

There’s a pretty standard software stack that’s used when setting up a home theatre system:

  1. Sickbeard for searching for episodes of TV shows and Couch Potato for searching for movies
  2. Either SABnzbd or some torrent client for actually downloading the files
  3. Back again to Sickbeard and Couch Potato for renaming and moving the files into the proper directories
  4. XBMC or Plex for collecting these files and displaying them in an interface that is, depending on your particular tastes, equal or superior to the interfaces provided by every proprietary streaming media service ever made

There are valid criticisms of open source software: the software is buggy, poorly supported, you need to be a ‘computer whiz’ for installation and maintenance, the project is abandoned. These criticisms are often valid and, yeah, it’s a bit difficult to get the full stack up and running without knowing a bit about Linux. But it’s not that hard. And there are some pretty easy-to-follow tutorials out there. Oh, and while the software is buggy (as is all software), it’s pretty rare that you’d encounter a show-stopper bug. Most users would find that they could keep their installations of this software up for months without even needing to restart the software let alone reboot the computer. Oh, and they’re active too, with bug fixes and new features coming out all the time.

This software stack provides a few awesome features that none of the proprietary systems have:

1. Watchlists

Oh, Netflix has watchlists, if you can call them that. And maybe they’ve improved their UI since I last used it, but I just find it atrocious to use. Unless I’m missing something, they don’t allow you to add to their watchlists from anything other than their website and their apps.

As good as Netflix’s content library is, it will never be able to compete with the library of practically every TV show and movie ever released that can be found on popular torrent and usenet sites. I haven’t yet found a proprietary service that lets me add a movie ad hoc when I’m out and about and hear about a movie I’d really like to try. I usually end up writing a note on my phone for this. What?!

2. Synced history

I change my mind. All the time. I’m really bad at finding something and sticking to it. I suffer almost perennially from the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. It’s not a question of if but when I will want to try out a different streaming service or home media setup. I haven’t yet found a proprietary service that will allow me to sync my watched history from one service to another or, better yet, export it. Now this one is a bit technically difficult that’s true. Well, unless you use common sources (e.g., The TV DB or The Movie DB) which is precisely what the open source software products use.

Both XBMC and Plex (and probably most other software media centres available) connect with trakt.tv, which I use for keeping the history of every movie and TV show I’ve ever watched. I also use trakt.tv to maintain my watchlists which, if I were using it, could be integrated with Couch Potato so that, whenever I added a movie to my watchlist (whether through the web interface or a mobile app), Couch Potato would automatically start looking for a release to download. I pretty much just have to click a few buttons wherever I am in the world to have the movie waiting for me, ready to watch by the time I get home.

3. Breadth of content

We’ve touched on this before, but no matter how good their content deals are, it’s just not possible for a single proprietary provider to have access to enough content to compete with the pirated content available online. This is mostly due to the much hated business practice of exclusivity, where only one proprietary provider in a particular region has the legal right to stream a particular content owner’s content. To get access to whatever I want whenever I want (assuming between them they have access to everything, which is not true), I’d have to pay something in the order of $40/month. This is in addition to the charges I pay for the bandwidth consumed!

4. Up to date content

Apart from a couple of one-off agreements (well, they seem one off as they advertise them as such special snowflakes), Australians end up having to wait weeks, months, even years to get legal access to shows after they’ve aired elsewhere in the world. Of course, pirates know no regions, pirates aren’t concerned that FOX has decreed that Australians not watch a particular program until Channel 7 is prepared to pay twice what it’s worth. If you want to watch a show that’s currently airing, all you need to do is add it to Sickbeard. When a new episode comes out, it will be automatically downloaded and ready to be watched in XBMC or Plex. You can even set it up to send a notification to your phone.

5. UI

I touched on this briefly above, but, in my opinion, the user interfaces in XBMC and Plex are vastly superior to what’s provided by any proprietary service. And if you disagree with me and don’t like the default themes, you can build your own, use someone else’s or pay someone to build one for you. You aren’t tied down by the fact that whichever service you are using is closed source.

Of course, XBMC and Plex don’t have to build UIs for such large content libraries as very few people would download some 15,000 TV shows (or whatever it is that Netflix has these days). That’s actually another benefit of the XBMC/Plex solutions: you only have to organise and wade through content that you explicitly want. You aren’t forced to see whatever drugs Netflix is pushing on its poor users this week, you aren’t forced to scroll through all the shows you’ve seen a thousand times before but never want to watch. You just have to scroll through shows you have chosen to put in your library.

Probably the most compelling UI feature in XBMC and Plex is not how nice they look, how customisable they are or the fact that they deal well with sane-sized libraries, it’s the watched and unwatched indicators. Who would’ve thought that I’d like to see whether or not I’ve watched something? Who would’ve thought that I’d like to hide things I’ve watched? Apparently not the product managers working at Netflix (and the rest). I know Netflix records what I’ve watched because sometimes I see something marked as watched, but I can’t see a list of things I’ve watched, I can’t filter out things I’ve watched and I can’t see a list of things I’ve partially watched. Again, if you don’t like the way it’s presented in XBMC and Plex, you can use an external service like trakt.tv to handle this for you.

6. Devices

Services like Netflix, Hulu, Stan, etc. make an admirable effort to build ways for users to access their content on various devices, but there’s always something missing (whether it’s an even worse UI, totally missing apps, buggy apps, whatever). This, I admit, is less of an issue because they work hard to make sure users can access their content on most devices, but I would still prefer to know that not only are there apps for the devices I use but that, if it’s broken, I have the ability to fix it myself or pay someone else to fix it. By the way, if you get XBMC/Plex set up properly, you can watch TV shows on your PC (all OSes supported), mobile phone (iOS and Android supported, probably more), Smart TVs (no idea what’s supported here), Apple TV (using AirPlay), Chromecast, the list goes on!

You can even watch media when you’re not at home using any Internet connection (even 3G – Plex will transcode it for you so you don’t waste all your download quota). Both XBMC and Plex have great apps for controlling what you’re watching from pretty much any device as well. Oh yeah, and they support remote controls too! It’d be pretty difficult to find a scenario in which you weren’t able to watch what you wanted using Plex and XBMC and if you do, great, you can start working on the feature!

7. Full control of the content

In some ways, this is the most important difference. Since you download the files to a physical drive you control, you can do whatever you want with the media. You can share it with people (though I admit this is a lot easier when you just have to share a URL), you can watch it using some other system (if you do manage to find a device XBMC/Plex won’t work on) and you can watch it when you don’t have internet connection (like when you’re on the plane, there’s a technical fault, you’ve just moved house or you’re on a road trip). You downloaded it, you possess it, you control it. The proprietary providers are not the gatekeepers of your content. If you miss a payment, you don’t suddenly lose access to everything you’ve previously downloaded.

Streaming Media Services Suck

I’ve listed seven pretty compelling reasons (well, they are in my opinion at least) for why streaming media services suck and pirated content rules! But, of course, I am not condoning pirating content. I’m just ranting to blow off some steam but also in the faint hope that proprietary providers will notice that they’re missing out on a huge chunk of the market and that they’re unnecessarily giving their users, whom they claim to serve, a bad experience.

Tweet me @lovek323 if you like this post.

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