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Hands on with Hulu Plus


Maybe I'm missing the point of Hulu Plus, but for ten bucks a month why is Hulu still showing me advertisements? I get that this new for-pay streaming video service offers full seasons (and past seasons) of current TV shows that would otherwise be limited to a handful of the most recent episodes. I get that the service works over Wi-Fi and 3G, and all the killer functionality that entails.

What I don't get is why anyone wouldn't apply their annual $120 somewhere, for ad-free services like Netflix.

It's like Howard Stern and Sirius. As our own Victor puts it, "Remember how Howard Stern went on and on about how there'd be no commercials. Ever. Guess what he did six times every hour? Right." All Paul Harvey and Gold Bond Medicated Powder and Hulu Plus.

Hulu Plus is in the middle of its sneak preview period. TUAW managed to snag an invite and hold a bake sale to raise the $10 needed to finance a month's test of the service. Over the last week, I've been able to see where the Hulu Plus service "win" comes from. Whether you're in the car or at a hotel, having a rich streaming library of videos delivers entertainment whenever and wherever you're at. I get that.

But ads? Ads that play every time you cross a commercial break time boundary? Even if you're just hunting for a specific scene? That's kind of a given for a free ad-sponsored web-based solution but when you're subscribing with a credit card? That's just evil.

I tested Hulu Plus on the iPhone 4, iPod 3G, and iPad Wi-Fi platforms. I had no problems watching video on the iPad and iPod, but on the iPhone I simply could not get audio to work, despite rebooting my system, maxing volume, validating iPod audio functionality, and hard-quitting and restarting the Hulu Plus app. The same system that had no problems playing back YouTube and iTunes video would not properly show Hulu vids, regardless of 3G and Wi-Fi usage. I don't know why. (Update: Thanks to TUAW reader moorebilly who figured it out. The Hulu app audio is controlled -- for reasons we do not begin to understand -- by the hardware ringer switch.)

The app demonstrated other flaws during use. As the screen shot at the top of this post shows, there are some significant bugs that need to be ironed out. The off-center dialog box at the top-left of the shot prevented interaction until it was tapped. I have no idea what the dialog was attempting to communicate but I know it wasn't supposed to be shown mostly off-screen.

On the smaller devices, the app proved to be iOS 4 suspend/resume unaware. Hopping out of the app and then back in reset the video and subjected the viewer to another set of ads. These issues were typical of what looks like an app rushed to the store without enough testing.

So is Hulu Plus worth the ten bucks? Well, kind of. It has a nice video library (albeit without the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which is an NBC/Universal show, for crying out loud!), which you can inspect over at the Hulu web site. If the content matches your taste, I could easily see spending ten bucks for a month's mobile access, especially during vacation if the ad model didn't drive you crazy. I'm not super fond of the recurring billing but it looks like you can cancel and rejoin at any time, so that's good.

All-in-all, Hulu Plus seems to tantalize with what it could be and disappoint slightly with what it actually is. Rich video library? Good stuff, and welcome -- especially with its 3G streaming support. Those annoying ads? Not so welcome, especially with the price tag attached. I wish Hulu could have made the revenue stream work sans ads...

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