November 14, 2019

Streaming the big three (the user experience)

My "big three" are the three streaming services that feature localized Japanese content, almost entirely anime, front and center. To start with, subscription rates roughly reflect overall market share and the number of titles in their catalogs.

Crunchyroll  $7.99/month  $79.99/year  

By comparison, Netflix's basic SD plan is $8.99/month ($12.99/month for HD). Hulu with no ads is $11.99/month. HBO Max will debut at $14.99/month.

I'll be discussing how they well the big three run on the Roku Express platform (3900X and 3030R), together with their browser-based queuing systems. So keep in mind that I'm only reviewing what I use, not the capabilities of these services on all the available devices.

When everything is working the way it should, Crunchyroll delivers the best video experience on the Roku. Alas, its bigness has caused load balancing problems in the past, resulting in forced resolution downgrades, which rendered it basically unwatchable. In the words of Yogi Berra, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

I only observed this during live streams or same-day updates to popular series, and I haven't found myself in that situation of late. In any case, if AT&T intends to replace its satellite service with streaming, it had better be able to handle the traffic.

HIDIVE occasionally encounters similar problems that have resulted in a hard crash of the Roku app. Even under normal conditions, HIDIVE has a video quality glitch where it can take a minute for a stream to ratchet up to the correct resolution. The same thing happens when using the Roku Replay function.

Again, this is most apparent under high load conditions. The HIDIVE Roku app otherwise runs well, despite having only been released this year. HIDIVE does have some irksome design issues (not technically bugs). For example, having to log into the website every time you reopen the browser. Crunchyroll and Funimation time you out after a week or so.

On HIDIVE, you can create up to three profiles per account. But the app is missing a line of code that says, "If there's only one profile, don't ask to select a profile." The result is a useless extra click every time you access the app. This bug was fixed on the website.

HIDIVE and Funimation mostly use closed captions instead of true subtitles. Crunchyroll encodes each language-specific stream with its own set of pre-rendered subtitles or dub track. Pre-rendered subtitles look and display better, and don't randomly switch the language settings between episodes, which the Funimation Roku app does far too often.

This happens occasionally with HIDIVE too, though on HIDIVE this glitch seems to be tied to the encoding of specific videos.

The Crunchyroll approach can get confusing because each encoding is treated as a separate title. You have to be sure to queue up the right one or the Roku app can end up spinning its wheels and never playing the video, probably because of a DRM or language setting conflict.

Another downside is the occasional cryptic message: "Sorry, due to licensing limitations, videos are unavailable in your region." In most cases, it simply means that one of the video streams (usually Russian) is not licensed for North America, not that all the videos are unavailable in the North American market.

Crunchyroll has the best browser-based queuing system. The Crunchyroll queue reminds me of the Netflix queue (using "Manual Ordering") and that's a good thing. It's just the queue and a recent history list, with an absolute URL that can be bookmarked. You can add, remove, play, and organize titles using "send to top" and drag-and-drop.

You can only add and remove titles from the HIDIVE queue, and it does that well enough. But HIDIVE generates the queue dynamically on the home page, where it plays hide and seek amidst the promotional material. The Funimation queue has its own page, except it is slow to load and often delivers you to a cluttered landing page instead of the queue.

C'mon guys, could you please just copy Crunchyroll? Or Netflix?

Related posts

Streaming the big three (a little background)
Streaming the big three (comparing content)
The streaming chronicles

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