Tech Review: Amazon Unbox

It’s been a little while since I’ve reviewed any movie-viewing software; this is largely because opportunities and reasons to try out different software doesn’t crop up very often. But I’m nothing if not an opportunist, and Amazon.com periodically hands out vouchers for their Amazon Instant Video service. I’ve rented a few movies through these vouchers before, and for a long time I simply used the streaming service. The streaming service isn’t bad — it’s Flash-based, and pretty typical for online movie viewing — but it does have one drawback in that if you have a relatively slow connection, the picture quality will sometimes degrade in order to save on bandwidth and allow the film to buffer. Since my internet provider isn’t always a paragon of stability, I found that this wasn’t the way to go for me, and have recently started using Amazon’s Unbox software. Amazon Unbox is a desktop-based application for viewing digital movies that have been rented or purchased through Amazon.com. And since I’ve been trying it out, it’s only appropriate that I share my experiences, as I have with movie software in the past.

The Amazon Unbox software is simple to download, and the download and installation process can be begun before or after you purchase or rent a digital video from Amazon. It will select a default location to install itself (in your Program Files folder if, like me, you’re using the Windows XP version), but you can choose a different location if you prefer. More importantly, during installation it will prompt you for the location that you wish to download movies to — if you wish to store them on a secondary hard drive, as I do, Amazon Unbox will permit you to do so. It also prompts the user to provide a name for the computer it is being installed on — this is so that when you purchase or rent a movie, there is an easy way to distinguish which computer in the household is to be the recipient of the film. The movies are protected with DRM, and my speculation — admittedly only speculation, since I have not tried this software on more than one machine — is that once a particular computer has been designated as the download destination, it cannot be changed.

On the positive side of things, the options for name and storage folder can be changed at a later date through the preferences menu. If you leave Unbox videos in a different location after changing the folder, there is even a convenient command to import them. It also has some (limited) advanced settings if you want to tweak graphics performance. Further, you have the option of whether or not Unbox runs automatically when you start Windows. It doesn’t seem to be particularly heavy on resources when not in use, but I like to not have things running when I’m not using them, so it’s nice to be able to turn that feature off. It is, however, recommended that you turn Unbox on before you rent any movies — if you rent through the website, and Unbox is running, it can begin the download automatically. There is a “Check for Purchases” button that I believe should trigger any download if Unbox isn’t up when you rent, but I have not yet tested this.

Rental itself is fairly standard, and convenient. Rental prices generally range from $1 to $4, with the $4-priced items usually being new releases. Most items are in the $2-3 range, but every so often something significant will be priced at a dollar (both Paranormal Activity and WALL-E were $1 rentals for me). I did see a few films that were priced $5 or $6, but these seemed to be movies that were being made available on Amazon at the same time as they are being ran in theatres. If you’re looking to own a video outright, purchase prices seem to be comparable to DVDs; as I prefer to own a physical item for the equivalent cost, I have not purchased any digital videos through Amazon, but I presume they would work the same way as a rental, only without the expiration date.

The rental period operates in two different stages. Once you pay for the rental, you have 30 days to start watching it. During that period it will not expire until you start watching it (for reference, I held on to WALL-E for about three weeks before watching it). Once you press play for the first time, Unbox will ask you to confirm that you wish to start the viewing period for that video. If you do, the video then has a 24 or 48 hour viewing period (depending on the video) during which you may watch the video as many times as you like. After that, the video will expire. The video will not be deleted from your hard drive after expiration — this is so that if you wish to purchase it or rent it again, you can simply renew your license without downloading it a second time. If you wish to delete the video, there is a convenient link to do so (which will also prompt a confirmation request.)

The files download automatically upon rental, and Unbox gives a steady progress indicator. If you click the “Download Status” button, it will also show how much disk space you have remaining and what files you have recently downloaded, in addition the progress of the current download. If the program is shut down during download, it will resume upon being relaunched; I have not seen any other way to pause a download. If you select a video in your library that is currently downloading, you will see a progress indicator and a timer telling when the video should be playable (an estimate based on download speed and the file size). Once the video has been downloaded to that point, Unbox will switch to telling you how long the video has until it’s completely downloaded, and will provide the option to start playing the movie. (Given my inconsistent internet speed, I always opted to wait for the file to finish downloading before playing.) The library also displays the movie poster (or DVD box art), some basic information on the film from IMDb, file size, movie length, and the expiration date of the rental (if applicable). The expiration date will update from the initial 30 days to the viewing period date once you press Play.

The player itself works quite well. Video quality is about equivalent to a standard definition DVD; I haven’t noticed any HD movies, but I may simply have overlooked them. There are the standard video controls of Play/Pause, Rewind, Fast Forward, Volume Control, and Full Screen, and all work well. Controls and the mouse pointer fade away quickly once you stop moving the mouse while in full screen mode. Pressing the space bar will pause or unpause the movie. Playback of the video is smooth, and does not appear to have any problems, at least not in my experience. As the files are in .WMV format, they may also be played through Windows Media Player or other compatible software, so long as the rental period has not expired.

Unbox also has a “Shop” tab built in to the program. However, I did not make any purchases or rentals through this for the simple reason that it lacks any obvious search function. I suppose it would be fine if I wanted to rent one of the current top rentals, but for cherry-picking titles it’s not very convenient. Still, that’s about the only complaint I’ve had with the service.

Overall, Amazon Unbox isn’t perfect, but it’s a very usable program. The issues I had with it are fairly minor, and I even found it convenient enough to justify spending actual non-voucher money to rent a video (Halloween II). While I’m not going to go using it heavily, I’m definitely going to keep it on my computer for those occasions when it will prove useful.

Rating: 4 Stars

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6 thoughts on “Tech Review: Amazon Unbox

  1. Fine tech review, Morgan. I wonder if Amazon will ever develop comparable for Mac or Linux users? I’ve streamed content from Amazon, but only through the web (as I’m on a Mac). Still, it’ll work consistently when Netflix will balk (but we’re talking Silverlight instead of Flash). Well done.

    • Thanks, Michael. It’s a good question as to when Amazon will make an application for Mac users… it’s not too surprising they don’t have a Linux version, so few companies do, but it seems like Macs would be a reasonable extension, if only for the iPad market (I know they have a competing device, but it just seems like bad business to me to not try and take a piece of all the major markets.)

  2. I wasn’t even aware that Amazon had a desktop app for this. I use Amazon Instant on my PS3 and my connection is usually stable enough to play at a good rate, but I’m going to have to keep this in mind for future rentals. Thanks for the heads up, Morgan.

    • You’re welcome, Eric. My own connection is pretty spotty — DSL in a rural area — so I try to take advantage of things which allow me to not have to deal with buffering or signal degradation.

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