As an Xbox Live Gold member and Amazon Prime subscriber, the release of Amazon Instant Video for Xbox Live yesterday was pretty much made for people like me. For no extra charge (beyond the ~$140/year we already pay for both services), we get access to a library of 17,000 movies and TV shows on my television set.

Following the release of a similar app for Sony’s PlayStation 3, the arrival on Xbox Live is a key step in Amazon’s effort to become a bigger player in online video. For me, the test will be whether or not it convinces my family to drop our Netflix streaming subscription, and I suspect others will be considering a similar decision.

So I made a point last night to fire up my Xbox 360, download the new Amazon app, and try it out. To be clear, one evening with a service does not translate into a comprehensive review, but I wanted to share my initial impressions here, to give new users a sense for what to expect, and compare notes with others who have been trying it, too.

Interface: It’s simple and intuitive, particularly for people who have been using Microsoft’s Xbox Live interface since the overhaul last fall. The overhead navigation bar can be navigated with the traditional Xbox controller or Kinect gestures. No surprises here. They kept it simple, with clear cues to identify the no-extra-charge videos available to Prime subscribers. Thumbs up.

Streaming: A few seconds in to our first episode of Sesame Street, we got a buffering message as the video reloaded. Really? Sure, it was probably my connection, but I far prefer the approach that moderately degrades the quality of the video, rather than interrupting the stream entirely. Curious to hear what others have experienced so far. Thumbs down.

More like this: Not a new technology, by any means, but one that Amazon does particularly well, and the quality of the company’s recommendation algorithms were apparent in the suggestions I saw. After watching a bit of “Page One,” the documentary about the New York Times, I was immediately sucked in to a documentary about Steve Jobs that I had forgotten I wanted to watch. Thumbs up.

Search: Microsoft’s Kinect sensor enables quick voice search for content, but many people still end up using the Xbox 360 controller to search character-by-character, a slow process, to say the least. Amazon’s app helps these people out by saving searches conducted in each session, making it possible to click a tile to quickly search again or modify a query. If only the searches were preserved after exiting and returning to the app, it would be awesome. Thumbs sorta up.

Bookmarking: This morning I wanted to go back to the Xbox to pick up where I left off in the Page One documentary, and I ended up having to sift through the entire catalog of documentaries to find it again. The Amazon app hadn’t automatically saved my recently watched videos, at least not that I was able to find. The movie did pick up where I left off, thankfully. Upon further investigation, it turns out that I needed to save the movie to my “Watchlist” for quick access. Makes sense, but would it hurt them to automatically save my recently watched videos, as well? Thumbs down.

Purchasing and rental:  Even though Amazon Prime subscribers can quickly access a large library of content at no extra charge, the full library of Amazon movies and TV shows is many times bigger, and plenty of people don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime. However, it’s not possible to rent or buy videos from Amazon inside the Xbox Live app. Instead, Amazon requires users to make the purchases separately on a tablet or computer. They’re then available inside the Amazon app on Xbox Live. This probably has something to do with not wanting to split the revenues with Microsoft, or not wanting to work with the Redmond company’s e-commerce system, but seriously, this type of thing is absurd in this day and age. Thumbs down.

Those are my initial impressions. Even though I ended up with more thumbs down than up, I’m happy that Amazon and Microsoft finally brought this service to the Xbox 360. Nitpicking aside, that’s deserving of a big thumbs up.

Ultimately, the quality of the catalog will determine whether we can give up the Netflix subscription. Does it have the shows we want to see? Does it help us find good stuff we didn’t know about?That’s the type of thing that becomes clear over time. I’ll keep you posted.

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  • Christopher Budd

    Thanks this is really helpful. For a “first impressions” review it’s actually pretty thorough and gives me a really good feel what to expect with this.

    What I find interesting are the little differences between the different video apps (this, Hulu, Netflix). I suspect over time we’ll see the apps synchronize around best practices/user expectations (like bookmarking). This very much feels like the wild west days of a 1.0 platform, which, frankly, as a video platform XBox is.

    But give them credit, Microsoft’s gotten a very strong foothold in the family living room with XBox. Between the video platform and Kinect, they’ve got a strong foundation for the future. It’s just a question of what they do with that.

    • SilverSee

      “This very much feels like the wild west days of a 1.0 platform, which, frankly, as a video platform XBox is.”

      Not at all.  With Xbox Live Video and (later) Zune Marketplace, Xbox 360 has been a terrific download and streaming video platform for years, with a user experience significantly better than what Todd is describing.  My wife and I have been renting movies on Xbox Live (nee Zune) for years before streaming services became popular, and we still rent the occasional first-run film this way.  (Those who haven’t discovered it before now, well, perhaps just weren’t paying attention…)

      What is new and exciting is the way that Microsoft has opened up the platform to 3rd party services, initially with Netflix and Hulu, and now the rest, and has integrated Bing search and a natural interface (voice and gesture) into the experience.  It’s arguably the best set top box on the market.

      Obviously the Zune brand is going away (I expect we’ll hear more about that next week at E3) so Xbox Live will be Microsoft’s (once and future) entertainment brand. 

      It’s ironic that the video marketplace that began life on Xbox Live and was rebranded around Zune will now be folded back into Xbox Live again. It’s pretty great, and certainly deserves wider exposure and success.

      • Christopher Budd

        Sure that makes sense. To clarify I’m talking about it as an open platform for 3rd party developers. And what we’re seeing is the same weird inconstancies from app to app on Xbox that we saw in the early days of Windows.

        That’s mainly what I mean.

        • SilverSee

          Okay, thanks for the clarification. 

          Yes, there are some differences between apps, but many seem to follow the platform UI guidelines.  Obviously there is room for improvement in some of the user experiences.

          Streaming performance is going determined by the 3rd party service infrastructure, codecs in use, local bandwidth constraints, etc. I noticed that several other services such as Xfinity and HBO Go had hiccups during the first few days of their rollouts, but these seem largely gone now.  I expect the same improvements will occur with Amazon.

  • Louis Chan

    I played around with the app last night. While I agree with most things, I did not experience the streaming problems mentioned. I watched Tommy Boy last night while streaming a sports game on my laptop via ESPN3; both using my Wi-Fi connection, watched the movie from beginning to end without interruption.

    Did not know about the purchasing and rental limitation. Perhaps Microsoft wants to push people to use their Zune app for movies so all the $$$ goes to directly to Microsoft.

  • Jeff Rutherford

    Todd, do you know how the Amazon Prime catalog compares to Netflix streaming? Just curious if there’s 50% duplication of content or more.

    • Jake Ludington

      Prime has a bunch of titles Netflix doesn’t have, like current season of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and most Showtime content. I’m not sure what the crossover is, but in most cases, if I can’t find something on Netflix, I can find it on Amazon .

  • Jake Ludington

    You forgot to mention that search won’t show you titles that aren’t free, which is a flaw. If I search for Mad Men, for instance, I would want to know it was available for free or purchase. Netflix does this by telling you something is only available on DVD.

    It also won’t show you anything in the Your Video Library section via search.

    • Todd Bishop

      Thanks, Jake, I hadn’t noticed that. Good catch. 

  • soij

    It’s odd to me that you have to be on xbox live gold (a paid service) in order to use your hardware (xbox) and bandwidth (paid for) to access content you have already paid for (amazon prime). I can watch using my DVD player or PC with HDMI – no extra costs (subscription) needed.

    • Foobar

      I agree. This is a fundamental show stopper for me. I can watch and purchase Amazon Instant Video on my PS3 and I don’t have to pay Sony anything. I’m already paying Amazon and Netflix for streaming content, I’m not going to pay Microsoft to view that content. If Microsoft wants me to purchase an XBox One (which I WAS considering), then they must fix it so that you do not have to pay a subscription and/or be an XBox Live Gold member to use the full services of Amazon Prime and Instant Video.

    • Somebody

      I just discovered this and I can’t believe M$ arrogance. This is the last time I buy anything from them. Especially after what I’m reading about the surveillance machine that is Xbox one.

  • care package

    MS sucks. I refuse to be forced into anything. Even something as seemingly small as not being able to rent movies right from the app will get me to return this POS xbone I just bought. I’ll just stay a playstation guy and miss out on the MCC. It is the only reason I was even going to buy one of these things, and I already feel burnt.

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