Recently, Hulu Plus came to the Wii. A premium subscription version of Hulu, which has long allowed users to watch episodes from TV series online, the Wii Hulu Plus channel lets Wii owners view TV episodes and movies through the Wii. The software is far from perfect, but if you can put up with its peculiarities, you can replace regular, far more expensive cable TV with your Wii.
The Hulu Plus Service
Hulu Plus costs $8 a month and allows you to stream videos through any supported device, which includes game consoles and smart phones. For that $8 you have access to many TV series, released usually within a day of their broadcast, and a collection of old and/or obscure movies.
Hulu Plus has the vast majority of current and recent TV series, excepting programming from premium channels like HBO. They don’t have too many British TV series though – No Doctor Who, no Absolutely Fabulous – although they do have my newest series-crush, Downton Abbey.
TV episodes are shown with commercials, although far fewer than you’ll see on TV. When I was a child in the 1960s, commercial breaks were often introduced with the words, “we’ll be back in one minute,” and Hulu Plus represents a return to the days of the one-minute commercial break. I saw the same few commercials over and over again; you cannot, DVR-fashion, fast forward through them.
(As an aside, I have often thought that, since there are some commercials people love and others they hate – and put on mute –a service like Hulu Plus could simply survey its viewers on their actual interests and deliver commercials they’d be more willing to watch, giving advertisers more bang for their buck. On the website they do sometimes make viewers choose between commercials, but ultimately, asking someone who doesn’t drive to choose between two car commercials is rather pointless.)
Hulu Plus also offers several thousand movies, many shown commercial-free. Don’t expect any recent blockbusters. The collection isn’t nearly as good as Netflix’s; of movies of the last few decades only a handful are remotely well known - Gangs of New York, Groundhog Day, Doubt. Still, many of the various documentaries, indie films and B Movies are pretty entertaining.
The site also offers many movie trailers and clips, if you like that sort of thing. Unfortunately a search of movies will always give you everything together – movies, trailers, clips – and you have to use a pull down to narrow the search.
It is easier to set up your queue using the Hulu website than doing it on the Hulu Wii channel, but the site itself is poorly organized. For example, they have the Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes available, but if you search on “Alfred Hitchcock” you won’t find it, because they don’t list him as the director. You will, on the other hand, find the non-Hitchcock movie Vacancy in that search, because its description claims it’s “in the tradition” of Hitchcock.
For a classic film buff, the best thing Hulu Plus has is The Criterion Collection, which offers a great number classic movies and includes almost everything by Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurasawa. Unlike the rest of Hulu, Criterion can be searched by director.
The Hulu Plus Wii Channel Interface: A Bit Clunky
Hulu includes most of the website’s features in the Wii channel. You can search, browse movie and TV by name or genre or studio/network, get recommendations generated by what you have watched and what is popular with Hulu subscribers, add shows to your queue and choose to have episodes automatically added to your queue as they appear.
The queue itself is ordered in a mysterious way. It doesn’t appear to be in the order in which I added items, nor in any other order that I can discern, and there is no way to reorder anything. If I have subscribed to something like The Colbert Report I would like the episode to be at the top of my queue so I would know it’s there, but instead I simply have to check The Colbert Report in its arbitrary spot in my queue, select it and see if any new episodes have been added, which makes it far less convenient than my DVR.
The Wii pointer is supported, but not well. Sometimes you get the Wii cursor, and sometimes you just don’t and have to use the direction buttons. I have no idea why.
When playing a video there is a seek bar you can use to move back or forward with either the Wii cursor (if it happens to be working) or the direction buttons. The seek bar appears if you hit a button or wave the remote at the screen, but there’s no way to make it disappear immediately if it comes up unwanted when your cat kicks your remote, which is very frustrating when you’re watching a subtitled movie whose subtitles are hidden behind the seek bar. You just have to wait a few seconds, and sometimes the seek bar wouldn’t disappear at all unless I paused and unpaused the video.
A Wealth of Major and Minor Issues
The Hulu Plus Channel interface is full of oddities. The interface is designed for TV series, which have episodes, so it treats movies like they are TV series with one episode, requiring an extra click to watch them. When browsing you can look at a capsule description of a movie (although if the description is too long to all be displayed on screen there is no way to scroll down!) but you can’t get a capsule description of a TV series, only descriptions of individual episodes. You can add items to your queue, but there is no way to remove them. On the other hand, Hulu Plus will remove things from your queue on its own if it thinks you’ve finished with them, even if you haven’t watched them to the end. If I accidentally exited a video near the end (and exiting videos accidentally is pretty easy) then when I restarted they would sometimes not resume where I’d left off but instead restart from the beginning. And one handy feature of the website, playlists, which could be used as a organizational tool (one I’d suggest to Netflix) isn’t supported on the Wii.
A notable issue with Hulu Plus on the Wii is that it seems to need a faster connection than Netflix to offer the same quality. While a lot of videos play perfectly well on Hulu Plus, with perhaps an occasional stall of a second or two here and there, sometimes a video will freeze constantly, sometimes for 10 or 20 seconds and sometimes for a minute, by which time you’ll get an unhelpful error message telling you there was some unknown problem. This is on the high quality setting that Hulu Plus uses as its default, and I found that if the video was not running well, changing to the low quality setting helped enormously, although it didn’t look nearly as good. I found most modern programs ran fine, but older television shows tended to do quite poorly.
This is because Hulu Plus requires a minimum download speed of 3 mbps, and while my PC, which is plugged directly into hub connected to my cable modem, gets around 20 mbps, according to speedtest.net, my Wii wireless connection is slightly less than 3 mbps. I don’t know what Netflix’s minimum mbps is, but it never gave me this much trouble.
There are also occasional problems with the commercials, in that they would sometimes just randomly happen at a time other than when the show was set to break for a commercial. This seems to be more likely to happen in older shows.
Verdict: A Mixed Bag
Still, Hulu Plus does offer a way to watch most of your favorite television shows for $8 a month, far less than you would pay for cable. And while its movie selection is far inferior to Netflix’s, its television collection is impressive, containing the majority of current programming and an awful lot of major series from previous decades. Netflix also offers some TV series once they’ve been released on DVD, but Hulu Plus gives you these shows in a much more timely manner. It also has a few great shows missing from Netflix like Lou Grant, although to be fair Netflix offers series you won’t find on Hulu Plus like Doctor Who.
While Hulu Plus’s many imperfections make it a less appealing Wii streaming media service than Netflix, it does offer an immediacy that Netflix lacks, and if you don’t want to wait a year for the DVD release of the latest season of your favorite series, Hulu Plus is certainly a better choice. But it needs a lot of work.