Amazon this week unexpectedly released an app that (finally) brings its Instant Video service to the iPad. Previously only available for the Kindle Fire, this app lets customers watch Prime Instant Video content and movies or TV shows from their Instant Video libraries. This is great, of course, but there are some limitations, too. In this early review, we run through the good and the bad of Amazon’s new video app.
Amazon’s new Instant Video app gives Amazon customers access to a variety of content from the Instant Video corpus. Customers who have purchased or rented movies or TV shows can watch any of those videos from their Video Libraries. Additionally—and perhaps more usefully—Prime customers can browse and watch movies and shows from a selection of featured Prime Instant Video titles.
Unfortunately, the Instant Video app doesn’t offer any means of searching for titles in the Prime Instant library. Instead, Amazon has curated two collections of “featured” videos: one for grown ups and one for kids. It’s a pretty substantial collection, but the more obscure titles are clearly missing.
But here’s where it gets weird. The app includes your Instant Video Watchlist, and if you’ve created a watchlist, then those titles also show up in the app. So it’s not as if they can only deliver specific content to the device—it’s more like they just couldn’t figure out how to get search working in this first release of the app. We have to assume that they’ll add this capability in a future update, particularly considering how Amazon’s library continues to expand as they sign new content deals.
Unlike Amazon’s online storefront and its apps on some set top boxes, the iPad app doesn’t differentiate between HD and non-HD content. The video quality is good, but it doesn’t seem like it’s HD, and we suspect that Amazon would be touting that if it was. As far as your library and watchlist go, it doesn’t matter if you have the HD or standard def versions listed—the titles will appear in the app either way.
The app also lacks Recently Watched and Recommendations sections to help guide you to content you might find most interesting.
In addition to watching streaming video from Prime Instant Video, Amazon’s new iPad app also allows you to download videos you’ve rented or purchased to your device for offline viewing. This is something neither Netflix nor Hulu Plus offer, but of course neither of those services offers a transactional model whereby you’d have any rights to watch the video except by streaming. Nonetheless, Amazon does offer this feature, so you can watch in planes, trains, and automobiles, or anywhere else you don’t have a Wi-Fi signal.
Oh, right…did we forget to mention that? Video streaming only works on Wi-Fi. Not over 3G, 4G or even LTE connections. This is particularly surprising since Netflix and Hulu have eliminated those restrictions in their respective apps. And for some people—particularly those grandfathered into original “unlimited” plans, that may seem pretty restrictive. Open the app without Wi-Fi, and you’re greeted by a not-so-friendly message about the need for Wi-Fi, then quickly escorted and restricted to a view showing only the titles you’ve downloaded from your library to the device. If you haven’t downloaded any videos, you’re just nagged by Wi-Fi warnings.
Second screen use is also limited, too. Did we say limited? Sorry…we meant restricted…forbidden…unavailable. Pop up your AirPlay menu, and the options you’ll find support audio only. Failing to support AirPlay video sharing is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. Netflix and Hulu Plus do offer this capability though (but in a convoluted way requiring you to use mirroring, even though neither app actually mirrors the video in that mode, but instead sends it only to the second screen).
More disappointing is Amazon’s seemingly intentional blocking of video output over HDMI. HDMI! This borders on HBO and Showtime-caliber paranoia. With Netflix and Hulu of course offering this capability, this puts Amazon at a distinct disadvantage to those services for, say, watching a movie or TV show in a hotel. Even Flixter’s Movies app—part of the disappointing, DRM-laden UltraViolet ecosystem—lets you watch your movies over HDMI.
As far as managing your Instant Video account and library goes, Amazon seems to have missed a few opportunities here. While you can add and remove movies and TV seasons from your watchlist, that’s about all you can do, and even that’s a bit buggy in this first release. You can’t rent or purchase titles. You can’t delete, or restore titles from your library. You can’t send or share information about what you’re watching.
Presumably Amazon excludes the ability to purchase or rent titles from within the app to avoid Apple’s 30% agency fee for in-app transactions. But what about everything else?
You can physically delete titles from your library that you’ve downloaded to your device, but the inability to delete (or, more accurately, hide) titles in your library from within the app seems like a big miss that would be useful and fairly easy to implement.
There’s also no integration with social networks or messaging channels, so Amazon’s also missed a chance to let customers promote its service by sharing information with their friends about the videos they’re watching on Instant Video.
The new Instant Video app for iPad is Amazon’s first step into mobile device support beyond its own Kindle Fire. They have not yet released a version for the iPhone and iPod touch. And besides the Fire, Amazon doesn’t offer a version of the application for other Android tablets. Although you could previously watch Instant Video from Amazon’s web site, it takes some side-loading tricks to force the requisite, but now unsupported, Flash player onto newer Android devices, like the Nexus 7, running Jelly Bean (Android 4.1).
Amazon’s been pushing aggressively to expand support for Instant Video in TVs, set top boxes, and Blu-ray players over the past year or so. We can only hope to see that same push for mobile now, adding Amazon Instant Video to Google’s Play store and Microsoft’s Marketplace soon.
We’ve wanted to see Amazon make its Instant Video service accessible to mobile users for a long time now, and I’ve personally been ranting on Twitter about their failure to support iPad since the first generation of the service, then unfortunately named Amazon Unbox. Well Amazon has finally delivered on that request, but this is clearly a 1.0 product release, hobbled by a lack of features and severe sharing restrictions.
That doesn’t mean we won’t use it. I, for one, am glad it’s finally available, and I’ll be happy to refresh my memory on some of last season’s Doctor Who on my next cross-country flight. But for the time beeing, it looks like I’ll be sticking with Netflix and Hulu Plus at the hotel.
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It’s worth mentioning that since we posted this article, Amazon has released updates that include, among other changes, a much-needed search feature. The results may be a bit questionable, but it’s a welcomed addition.