A few days ago, I discovered that Flixster is offering some free movie downloads for people who sign up for an account, and who do some social media blurbs for them (if you’re like me, and don’t want to pester your follows with such, you can do as I did and delete the posts after you’re given the movies.) These movies are made available through their “Flixster Desktop” application; while you’re awarded the movies through their website, and can check your “collection” there, both the download process and playing the video take place in the application. I don’t see any way to outright buy movies through Flixster yet, so I suspect that the application and the offer are part of a beta program so Flixster can test the process out before getting their feet wet. (Although you can apparently also access your regular UltraViolet collection through it, so that may be what they’re angling for. EDIT: You can indeed access your regular UltraViolet collection.)
The first movie is your choice out of a limited selection; I went with Dog Day Afternoon. The other two are randomly selected; I got Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and 17 Again, starring Zac Efron. This is not what I call getting things off on the right foot, but oh well. I can hardly blame the program for that. While I have reviewed one of the movies, and will hopefully get to the others soon, I thought it might be worthwhile to say a few words about the program itself.
It should be noted I’m using the Windows XP version of the software, but I suspect the salient points of this review will apply to all versions.
Flixster uses the UltraViolet digital format for their movies, and signing up for the service requires signing up for an UltraViolet account as well, and linking it to your Flixster account. I found this to be an irritating number of hoops to jump through, especially as the websites weren’t behaving well in Firefox, my usual browser of choice. It is my understanding that the videos should be playable on any UltraViolet-enabled device, however, when acquiring the movies, Flixster’s site immediately directs one to download, install, and use Flixster Desktop. As I don’t have any other UltraViolet devices, I went along with it.
The installer does not prompt the user for any settings at any point. The software is always installed to the same location. I don’t mind that so much, but what does bother me is that there is no opportunity, either during or after installation, to change the download directory for the movies themselves. This means that if your primary hard drive is running low on space, such as mine is, it will quickly become lower on space. The complete lack of options on where to store the files is touted by Flixster as making things nice and simple for the user, but personally I’d happily take the added complication from being able to choose my own storage directory, especially since that’s a complication that I am already well-practiced in coping with from every single other program in software history.
There is a work-around for that, but it is, of course, a bit more complicated than simply having the program able to store movies in the directory of your choosing. You can find the storage folder (it will be in Application Data → Flixster → Storage), and move the files in it to another location yourself. However, when you want to play one of your movies, you will need to move it back to the default storage location, since Flixster Desktop does not search for files (for your convenience, remember.) As the files are not labelled by name (they’re labelled by a long hex-string), this will require you to use some method to remember which is which; I stored mine in separate sub-folders by name on my data drive.
EDIT: As of November 2012, it is now possible to set the download location in preferences.
The files, as I understand is the case with all UltraViolet movies, are in an MPEG-4 format with Digital Rights Management (DRM) information and encryption. While you should theoretically be able to play it on any UltraViolet-enabled device or software, other software will not be able to play the file, even if it can play regular MPEG-4 files. So you don’t have much of a choice in the software you use to play the files.
My own internet connection isn’t quite fast enough to stream high quality videos (it can handle 480p on a good day, 360 on a not-so-good day), but in any case, I didn’t notice any option to stream the movies with Flixster Desktop. It’s simply download and play. (EDIT: I have found the streaming option; it’s part of the website itself and not the Flixster Desktop app.) It syncs up with your Flixster account so that it provides a display of the movies you have available, and a simple button press initiates the download. It provides a constant progress update on the download, but you cannot initiate playback until the download is complete.
Once completed, you can play your movie. Theoretically. In practice, I found that a few days after my initial tests (which all worked fine), I could only play two of my three movies. Dog Day Afternoon (of course it’d be the one I actually wanted) caused a “License error 3304” to come up. I contacted customer support, and this is apparently a known bug in the software that, they assure me, they are planning to fix soon. This may be a good time to note that the software does not have the helpful manual “Check for Updates” feature many programs have; I haven’t been using it long enough to find out if it has an automatic update feature. Since I have a valid license, the fact that the DRM is preventing me from viewing a movie I have lawfully acquired the right to view is more than a little irritating, and to my mind illustrates a basic problem with DRM. While I understand the desire to combat piracy, the fact is that a dedicated pirate can and will find some way to circumvent the system, while the honest users are hindered in their choices of players and, if the player has a bug in it such as this, may find themselves unable to play the movie at all, which is sort of a basic requirement for a digital movie file.
If I can digress a little further for a moment, there is a basic bit of common sense that seems to have been overlooked here. If you want to keep customers, treat them as customers. You can’t do that and treat them as thieves at the same time.
My other movies are (so far) playing properly. The quality of the videos is fairly good; it’s just a hair below DVD quality (I can notice some minor pixellation on my screen), but it’s adequate. In truth, it may be the player that’s causing the problem there; I have no means of verifying on a different player, and certainly the file sizes (the three I have are between 1.3 and 1.8 GB) indicate DVD-quality video. The player on the other hand has a couple hitches to it. First, there’s a noticeable delay upon starting a video, of about two seconds. It may not sound like much, but when you’re staring at a blank screen waiting for your already-downloaded video to start, it’s noticeable, especially when other video software doesn’t have any such delay. The delay also occurs, albeit in smaller duration, when you manually adjust the player’s current position in the movie. Second, the mouse pointer doesn’t seem to have been accounted for. While the player controls fade away if you stop moving the mouse, the pointer itself does not. So if you want to watch your video without the pointer distracting you, you have to move it over to the right side of the screen. It also seems to get stuck in “hourglass” mode — which makes it too wide to move completely off the screen. This can be corrected by right-clicking, and then clicking to close the menu that comes up. It’s a minor issue, overall, but it’s an irritating one. Additionally, the controls that fade away seem to be a bit finicky about coming back when you move the mouse.
On the positive side, if somewhat basic, the player does allow you to view the movie full screen, and has the basic player controls allowing you to pause the movie or to move to a different place in the movie. It also remembers where you were in the movie, so if you shut down the program and resume it later, you can pick up where you left off. This helpful feature did not, however, come with a rewind button; if you want to start over at the beginning, you’ll have to drag the slider over yourself. (The player does start at the beginning if you reached the very end of the video, but how many movies do you really watch all the way through to the very last credit?)
I should also note that while I was putting Flixster Desktop through its paces for this review, the Awesomium browser it’s based on threw up an error and crashed. It didn’t seem to affect Flixster Desktop itself, but it’s worth mentioning.
Overall, I have to give Flixster Desktop a pretty poor grade. There are, at least at present, too many bugs in the software. Most of them are minor, but the license bug is a literal show-stopper. And I find that there are too many limitations placed on the handling of the files, and too few options with the player. While I’m grateful for the free movies, if this is a test run for a paid service, it’s a failure. I can’t conceive of ever spending money on movies that have to be played through such a poorly-designed application, especially when there are better services out there.