Review: Google Movies

Last week Google took the wraps off their brand new Google Movies rental service. For $2-5, a user can rent a movie to stream either online or to their Android phones or tablets. Currently movies are only available online via the Market or YouTube and the Xoom tablets that have received the 3.1 update currently rolling out to Verizon Xoom users. Google estimates that the service will be available to all Android users running 2.2 and up “in a couple of weeks”. So. How excited should you be for the privilege of paying up to $5 a pop for digital movie rentals? We go hands-on to find out.

OK, So, I’ve Already Got Netflix. Why Should I Care About This?

In a word: selection. If your ultimate goal in life is to see as many movies as possible—while never leaving your house—and you don’t want to resort to piracy, your options are limited. Netflix is a great value for the price, but the service is frequently lacking in newer releases. On the other hand, hit up the Android Market’s main Movies page, and you’ll notice immediately the comparatively quality selection. Inception, The King’s Speech, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I are all featured on the main page. In fact, every movie visible on the main page at the time of this writing are currently unavailable on Netflix via streaming save one (Africa First: Volume One). It’s clear Google went to great lengths to ensure a high-quality selection of movies.

The flipside to that, though, is that it comes at a cost. Every one of Google’s featured movies, as well as just about every recent movie in the entire store, costs $3.99 to rent. The rental period is technically 30 days, however once you begin watching a movie, you have 24 hours to finish watching it. There’s also a couple other limitations we’ll deal with in a bit. Additionally, it seems that just about any movie that streams in HD costs about $5, including The Tourist and It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. This last one in particular demonstrates just how much the studios value HD content if even this relatively small movie costs $5 to stream in HD.

In general, the selection of movies is quite good, but you’re certainly paying for the convenience in this case.

You Said I Could Watch This On My Phone or Tablet? How’s That Work?

I did! There’s obviously a problem inherent in watching streaming movies on a wireless device: it’s a wireless device. If you don’t have a 4G device, connection speeds are pretty sluggish, and even having 4G doesn’t guarantee to correct this problem if you’re in an area with crappy 4G signal. Not to mention carriers are increasingly charging by the gigabyte and full-length feature movies are kind of the epitome of bandwidth hogs. Fortunately, the Movies service does provide a way to handle this: offline downloads.

Enter the Videos app on your Android device (if you have it) and one of your menu options is to “Manage offline downloads”. The offline movie manager helpfully shows you an overview of just how much free space you have on your device and let’s you “pin” a movie to your device. Once you pin a movie to your device it will begin downloading immediately (if you’re not on a WiFi connection, it will ask if you’re really sure you want to risk hitting the data cap).

I tested this feature out by downloading The Green Hornet, and the movie itself seemed to only take up about a half gigabyte and downloaded over my WiFi connection in about 15 minutes or so. Obviously, your mileage will vary based on your connection speed, but suffice to say it’s not too painful. Assuming your phone or tablet has a decent amount of free space and a moderately broadband-level data connection available, you should be able to load up plenty of movies to carry with you.

Somewhat annoyingly (though understandable), is the proviso that if you download a movie for offline viewing on a particular device, it will no longer be available for streaming online or for download to any other device. If you decide to make use of this option, be absolutely sure that you’re downloading it to the device you want it on.

But What’s It Like To Actually Watch The Movies?

Playback experience is about what you’d expect. That is, if you’re streaming it, you’ll face the same problems YouTube always experiences for longer videos. And yes, whether you’re viewing your rentals from the Market or YouTube proper, you’ll be using the YouTube player. In our test of watching the The Green Hornet, on at least two occasions, playback stopped and had difficulty continuing. Other sites loaded without a problem, and buffering didn’t seem to be the issue*.

Offline playback was unsurprisingly much easier. Again, the Xoom used the same player the YouTube app uses and it worked remarkably well. Even scanning to different portions of the video worked smoothly with no delays at all. Of course, this comes with the previously mentioned caveat that you can’t watch it anywhere else, but at least you get a somewhat more solid viewing experience.

Also, it’s worth noting, we tested out playback of movies via the Xoom’s built-in HDMI port and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this functionality is not blocked or hindered in any way. The Xoom currently supports full HDMI-mirroring (read: everything on the tablet shows up on the TV it’s plugged into), and this functionality extends to movie rentals as well. So, you don’t need anything more than your tablet and an HDMI cord to play a rented movie on your TV. That imaginary future where your tablet is the center of your home entertainment system rather than a dozen different boxes, players, and remote controls just got a little closer. Nice!

Also, we were pleasantly surprised to find that, at least on the Xoom, playing back the entire movie only sapped about 20% of the battery life after a full charge (offline viewing). While you probably wouldn’t want to try this on your phone, most of the higher-end Android tablets should offer you the freedom to enjoy sitting around watching a full movie and not worrying about whether or not you’re going to be able to do anything else with it all day.

Do You Think It’s Worth It?

Like with any service, it really depends on your use case. On the one hand, RedBox is much cheaper, Netflix has a better selection, and the prices here feel just a little too much like the old Blockbuster days (may they rest in peace). On the other, if you’re looking for something to playback offline, on a mobile device, or you simply don’t want to leave the house or worry about returning discs, then this service might appeal to you. It’s a pretty narrow range of use cases, but if you fit into it, great!

At the very least, it’s one more small step towards getting the studios on board with this whole “the future” thing we’ve been pushing for the last five years.

*– After some research we concluded that YouTube has some issues with longer videos where an incomplete file is cached and then referenced during playback. This causes an unfixable loop, which explains why we could load other content-heavy sites, but the player would still not load the movie. Google’s forums suggested clearing your browser’s cache to solve the problem, however we fixed it by simply refreshing the page. It’s unclear if this would fix any playback issue every time.

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