Some months ago, the Hub compared the Roku and TiVo Amazon Instant Video players. The two devices interacted with the Amazon service in a fundamentally different way (streaming vs. download). As the Amazon Instant service becomes available on more devices, it typically has been implemented as a streaming player. TiVo has stated that they are updating their Amazon Player to support streaming which would give it access to the Amazon Prime library. As of the other day, TiVo commented to the Hub there was no release date to share as of yet. Of the streaming Amazon devices on the market today, which one offers the best experience? Tech of the Hub took the Amazon Instant video player for a test drive on three hardware devices: the Roku XDS streaming player, the LG BD670 Blu-ray player and the Panasonic DMP-BDT210 Blu-ray player.
The Amazon Instant Video Service
The Amazon Instant service is a unique video on-demand service in that it offers every pricing model out there: Rental, purchase and all-you-can-watch (like Netflix). In February, Amazon offered a streaming library to the members of Amazon Prime ($79 a year to get free two-day shipping). Some titles on Amazon are available in high definition and surround sound. In addition, most shows on Amazon Instant are priced competitively. Some of the best deals are when you buy an entire season of a TV show.
Navigation / Interface
Unfortuantely, with many choices comes some user interface complexity. Regardless of which Amazon player you use, navigating the interface is a little bit of a maze compared to Netflix. This is most evident when browsing for content. For videos you own, you need to navigate through about three menus. Netflix devices with the HTML5 interface feature easily accessible catagories such as “Recently Viewed” or your Instant Queue. The Amazon player does not remember what content you’ve recently watched. All three devices did have identical functionality around search. The search interface does remember recent searches and this is one way to overcome the lack of a “Recently Viewed” category. Despite these user-interface shortcomings, the Hub still enjoys the service.
All three players display most of the same high level categories when starting the Amazon Instant Player. Unlike Netflix, the Amazon player starts within several seconds on all three devices. Notice, only the Roku has a high level menu for “Special Deals” (on the extreme right of the picture). This leads to the free content that’s available on the service (e.g. the premier episode of Breaking Bad, the short prequel to season six of Doctor Who)
|LG Opening Amazon Instant Screen|
|Panasonic Opening Amazon Instant Screen|
|Roku Amazon Instant Opening Screen|
|LG Browsing Prime Shows|
Both the LG and Panasonic have nearly identical interfaces for browsing the Amazon catalog. Both show ten shows or movies at a time. The Roku’s browsing interface looks like, well, other channels on the Roku. The Roku interface is much more responsive which makes it easier to use. Occasionally, the LG and Panasonic interfaces would take a couple of seconds to render the next page of titles.
|Roku Browsing Prime Movies|
When you actually select a show, the LG’s version is probably the most interesting:
|LG’s Show Detail Screen|
|Panasonic’s Show Detail screen|
|Roku’s Movie Detail Screen. Note the “5.1″ badge|
The Roku has the most basic interface of three. I do like that the LG displays suggestions at the bottom of the screen. For services like Amazon and Netflix that’s important given there are thousands of titles that are constantly changing in the streaming library.
In Show Navigation and Remotes:
The Roku has three fast-forward and reverse speeds similar to its navigation in Netflix. It’s also the only player that has the three second skip-back which is very convenient when you miss a piece of dialog. Both the Panasonic and LG also have three fast-forward and reverse speeds but its implemented in a strange way. As you start to fast-forward, the content you are watching continues to just play along at normal speed. Only when you press play again, does it stop and rebuffer. So, it’s a roulette-like experience where you’re guessing which scene you will land up in.
|Panasonic’s in-show navigation|
It’s annoying that the Panasonic’s regular Blu-ray navigation controls do not work within Amazon Player. Instead you can only use the direction pad. Of the three players, the Roku has the smallest and easiest to use remote. The Roku’s absence of the blu-ray player creates the opportunity for simplicity.
Video and Sound Quality:
All three devices can stream Amazon Instant in HD. Looking at the details of any program, only the Roku player indicates if it’s available in surround sound with a “5.1″ graphic. The surround sound indicator is missing on the Panasonic and LG players. According to Amazon’s documentation it states the Panasonic and LG players are capable of outputing Dolby Digital 5.1. After trying various settings on the receiver and players, we could not get Dolby Digital using the optical audio output. It did not appear to be a hardware or configuration issue since Netflix on the Panasonic player had no problem outputing Dolby Digital. Therefore we can only conclude it’s a problem with the Amazon player on these units. Perhaps it transmits Dolby Digital over HDMI but we were unable to verify this as we are still using a receiver from the dark ages (our trusty Pioneer 1014).
|Only the Roku shows the 5.1 surround sound badge|
We covered the start up times for the Panasonic and LG players in the Netflix comparison (with remote control pictures). Of the three, the Panasonic is the quickest to start from a cold boot. While the Roku does take the longest to start from a cold boot (95 seconds), once it’s started it will get you to the Amazon player the quickest. It takes several seconds for the LG and Panasonic to get to their apps home screen. On the power front, the Roku is the winner only consuming 6 watts and it has the smallest physical footprint.
At Streaming Media East, I also saw Sony’ Amazon player, the SMP-N100 and one of their blu-ray players which both had the Amazon Instant service. Oddly enough, Amazon Instant is not available on the Playstation3 (I’m sure Amazon is relieved given recent events). These players have a similar X-grid interface as the PS3. Sony’s Amazon player had a distinctively different interface than the players evaluated here. I only had a little bit of hands-on time with the Sony device but it looked interesting. Given it’s current price of $79 and its inclusion of Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon Instant, it’s probably worth looking at. This box also has a DLNA client but folks on the forums report issues with it. The other Amazon Instant device that I would like to see is the offering from Vizio.
Of the three options we test drove to watch Amazon Instant Video, the Roku XDS is the clear winner. Its responsive interface, intuitive in-show controls, easy to use remote and its ability to play Dolby Digital surround sound provides the best Amazon Instant Video experience. It also costs the least at $99. While functional, the LG and Panasonic Blu-ray players appear to be in need of some updates. During testing, the LG player had to be re-registered with the Amazon service several times. To be fair, the players are relatively new to the market and a future firmware update will probably address these issues. Don’t forget, the LG and Panasonic players are really good at playing Blu-rays!
Update (11/15): The new Roku 2 is also a great Amazon Instant Video player but it does not support legacy receivers given the exclusion of the optical audio port. Another great option for watching Amazon Instant is Sony’s new SMP-N200 streaming player. It supports surround sound and sports a nice looking user interface. Read our hands-on review of the SMP-N200 here.