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Amazon Instant Video - Software Review (Wii and Wii U)

Amazon's Also-Ran Streaming Service Partially Delivers

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

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Pros: Cheaper than Netflix, includes mailed DVDs.
Cons: Poor browsing interface, buggy.

Amazon Prime is that other video entertainment service, the one that’s not Netflix or Hulu Plus, and I never paid any attention to it until it came to the Wii U and the Wii, when I decided to take the free trail and see how it compared with the other services. The Wii/Wii U app that brings videos to your console is functional, but it will need work to be a fully satisfying experience.

Browsing: Substandard

The interface is fairly typical of streaming video interfaces. On the main screen you have a variety of options. You can browse through movies and seasons-worth of TV series and either play them immediately or add them to a queue. You can go through your queue or go to a list of recently watched entertainment.

Browsing is problematic on a number of levels. First off, descriptions are incomplete. Apparently Amazon pulls a certain number of characters off of the relevant Amazon.com page and then just adds an ellipsis. For example, here is the description of a documentary called The Singing Revolution:

Estonia’s coveted position between Europe and Russia has lured wave after wave of occupiers. The nations darkest chapter, though, dawned in 1939 with the arrival of t...

That is not helpful at all.

There is a “More from IMDB” link, but instead of giving you something useful, like a full description, or reviews, it takes you to lists of trivia, goofs, and quotes, none of which are useful when deciding whether you’d like to watch a movie you’ve never heard of.

Amazon focuses far less on the individual user than Netflix. It shows you the IMDB score but won’t let you create a score of your own. It offers categories like Editor’s Picks or Genres but has no way to tailor recommendations as Netflix does. And while you can bypass many flaws in the Netflix app by going directly to their better designed website, the Amazon Instant Video is actually more difficult to navigate than the app.

Viewing: Generally Functional

With an Amazon Prime subscription you can watch some movies instantly, although for the most part the movies you’ll most want to see will cost extra; a couple of bucks to rent for a couple of days. Some of the movies I put in my queue actually changed status one day, so I was suddenly asked for money if I wanted to watch movies I could have watched for free a week earlier. since I have no wish to pay extra for the newer movies, I would just as soon be able to customize the interface to hide them.

Once you’ve found a movie and started watching it, Amazon’s service works pretty well. There is even a button you can press that will rewind the movie by 10 seconds if you miss something. Jumping to a different part of a movie is more problematic, as the scrollbar that allows you to change position does not move smoothly second by second but instead jumps far ahead or behind; in one movie I found the jump was about three minutes, so I had to move two minutes ahead of where I wanted to be and then keep tapping the 10-second-back button.

The reason I needed to move around in the movie was because the app had lost my place. Sometimes if you stop watching a movie in the middle and return later it will allow you to resume from where you left off, but others times it won’t. My assumption is this is a bug in the way I’m assuming it was a bug the couple of times I started the app only to discover my Wii U was no longer registered to Amazon, meaning I had to go to their website and input a code. Hopefully these issues will be straightened out eventually.

The Wii/Wii U Difference: Too Little

I first experienced the Amazon app on the Wii U, and I was rather puzzled by the design. The screen had all the navigational items while all the gamepad showed was a search box. Happily, you can swap screens, putting the navigation on the touch screen, but Amazon insists on showing less information on that screen, apparently believing that the gamepad screen is much smaller than it is. After starting my movie I could then swap screens again to watch it on my TV and use the gamepad for navigation.

The reason for this was made clear when I saw the Amazon app on the Wii. It was exactly the same as the Wii U version, and I realized that they had simply designed one app for both systems, making something more suited to the Wii remote than to the gamepad screen, for which they had simply made a few minor tweaks.

The Verdict: Needs Work, But Gets the Job Done

Amazon Prime does have a couple of advantages over Netflix. At $79 a year it is cheaper than Netflix is at $7.99 a month, although you have to be willing to commit for a year, and the selection seems almost as good. And while Netflix separated their streaming and DVD-delivery services, Amazon Prime subscribers can still both stream video and have DVDs mailed to them.

But I’m here not to pass judgment on the service but simply to pass judgment on the way that service is presented to the Wii and Wii U. And my response is a resounding, “eh.” It’s generally functional, but it’s not as good as the Wii Netflix channel was at its worst, when it was first introduced. If Amazon can’t do better than this, they will continue to be that other service forever.

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