Home > personal > Amazon Unbox on TiVo = Love + Hate

Amazon Unbox on TiVo = Love + Hate

March 12, 2007

There are three major players about to vie for a spot in your living room to download videos: Xbox 360, AppleTV, and Amazon Unbox on your TiVo. I have an Xbox 360, a TiVo Series 3, and my AppleTV should be here “any day now” (right Apple?). Saying that I’m thrilled at the ability to order movies from my recliner is an understatement. 🙂

Some of you will howl that Netflix and BitTorrent and other things should fall into this category too. I say “Nay!”. I’ve built and re-built so-called Media Center PCs before and I’m sick of it. I don’t want a PC in my gear stack, I just want a device that does one thing well: A giant video store in the sky.

So, how does Amazon Unbox stack up? Let me break it down:


  • Amazon lets you rent OR buy your movies. This is super important, and something Apple is blowing, big time. How many movies that you see do you really want to own? If they’re not Disney (if you have kids), or Indiana Jones or something, you probably want to watch it once. So you want to rent. But there are still those few movies you want to watch over and over and over.. so you want to buy. Give consumers the choice! We’re smart – we’ll figure it out! This is a big win for Amazon.
  • Amazon keeps your purchases “in the sky.” This is huge! If I run out of room on my TiVo and delete something that I later want to watch, I’m not out of luck. Amazon will happily re-download it to my TiVo and I’m all set. Apple loses out on this one too – I’ve lost songs I’ve bought from iTunes and had to re-buy. That sucks… they have my purchase history, why can’t they give me another copy?
  • 1-Click rocks. Ok, the patent thing was stupid and silly, but nonetheless, being able to click “Buy Now” and have the video almost instantly appear on my TiVo really really rocks. It downloads, for me, 2X realtime (1 hour TV = 30 min download), and I can watch it before it’s finished. Xbox 360 sucks here – you have to wait for it to finish a big chunk first, and it’s terribly slow.


  • The selection isn’t that great, yet. I’ve bought a bunch of TV shows, but some of them I really wanted, like The Sopranos or Lost, just aren’t there.
  • Browsing for stuff is confusing. I browsed through the TiVo listings and found movies that I couldn’t actually get for my TiVo. Want to watch Sum of All Fears, for example? Tough, it’s listed in the TiVo section but only available on Windows PCs. Ugh.
  • They have rentals only for movies. Um, hello? How many times do I really want to watch an episode of 24? Let me rent those, as well. I’ll happily buy every episode of the Simpsons, but I want to rent 24. Gimme the option.
  • No HD. Xbox 360 already offers 720p downloads. I’d gladly pay more for HD versions of my favorite movies and TV episodes. I already do with HD-DVDs, afterall.
  • Wish I could browse Amazon Unbox from my TiVo. I’m not smart enough to know how this could be done well, but maybe using Amazon recommendations + TiVo thumbs up/down, it could get smart about what to offer me? My wife doesn’t want to open a web browser to buy her movies, she wants to use her remote.


  • There’s something terribly wrong with the video encoding. Anytime there’s a lot of horizontal movement (especially camera pans), the video gets all jittery and ghosty. Plus the interlaced picture structure is super-visible. I’ve done enough video editing and encoding that I’m gonna make a guess here: they inverted the interlaced frames and have encoded it wrong. For most scenes it’s tolerable (but not good!), but for some, it’s downright awful. I’m hoping this is a simple oversight and will get fixed, but of the 6 or so shows I’ve watched so far, they all had this problem.

All-in-all, I think it’s off to a good start. Certainly competitive, and I’m certainly going to use it more than the Xbox 360’s download stuff, which was very disappointing. I’m glad there are big competitors duking it out – that means you and I win. 🙂

I’m happy to pay the content holders a reasonable price to download this stuff in a convenient way. It’s no secret that every TV show and DVD is available for free via bittorrent, but the same can be said about music, and I love shopping at iTunes. The people who make this stuff do deserve to get paid, and I’m happy to help. I wish they wouldn’t muck it up with DRM so that I could use it more easily, but hey, that’s life.

Word to the wise: I’d buy *MORE* of this stuff if it were DRM free.

Categories: personal
  1. Steve
    March 13, 2007 at 3:10 am

    I agree 100%!! (Saw your note on twitter)

    Funny, I too just signed up for Unbox for my TiVo Series 3, and placed my pre-ordered my Apple TV back on the day it was announced (no Xbox 360 though).

    Here’s another thought… When trolling through Unbox movie rental listings, what if I find something that I DO want to purchase? They don’t seem to be cross-referenced. “Other versions” shows DVD and VHS, but not the Unbox purchase. Likewise if I’m viewing purchase and decide (maybe after reading the reviews) that I only want to rent it. I have to go search for it again and select it that way.

    Oddly enough, for my test case (“Clifford’s Really Big Movie”, which I found while trolling rentals but then decided my kids might like to buy it), there’s no link to the purchase in “Customers who viewed this item also viewed”. But when you find the for-purchase movie, the rental one actually DOES appear under “Customers who viewed this item also viewed”. Strange they don’t both point to each other, but that’s not really where the cross-link should be anyway…

    I agree that Apple is really missing the boat by not offering rentals. Now that TiVo has it (and delivered it before my Apple TV even shipped), maybe I should just cancel the Apple TV order and wait to see if they decide to offer rentals, and maybe a box that does better than 720p. It was bad enough to find out (at MacWorld, after I pre-ordered) that Apple TV’s movie trailers are only 480p; since Apple TV is limited to 720p, shared iPhoto images should look twice as good on TiVo as Apple TV (assuming TiVo releases hi-res iPhoto support for Mac users)…

    In any case, it’s a fun time to be riding the bleeding edge. Unbox is exactly the sort of thing I was anticipating when I decided to go for the Series 3 in the first place. Bring on the HD movie rentals, somebody!!!

  2. Dave
    March 13, 2007 at 7:31 am

    Don is dead-on about the video problems. Whether the fault is in the encoding or decoding end of things is unclear, but pans and low-light shots are very poorly represented. My uninformed guess is that Amazon did a naive transcode to lower MPEG-2 video bitrates to save themselves a little bit on transmission costs. As an example, “The Descent” is 99 minutes and 2.1 GB as an Unbox download; it suffers greatly in the previously mentioned situations. If I find the DVD I’ll check the VOB size for the movie and post again. I hope this problem gets fixed because the service has tremendous potential.

  3. Justin Etheredge
    March 13, 2007 at 10:57 am

    The other day I downloaded something from X-Box live (the MacGuyver pilot episode) and I could start watching it before it was completely downloaded. About 60% if I do remember correctly. As I was watching it another box popped up to tell me it was done downloading. Granted it wasn’t in HD, I don’t know if that affects it or not.

  4. Chris
    March 13, 2007 at 11:52 am

    The Xbox 360 service has worked pretty well for me. Like the previous poster said, you can start watching before the download is finished. I’ve seen The Descent and Superman Returns in HD and the PQ has been excellent. The biggest flaw with Xbox is the movie selection. There are only dozens of films on there, not thousands, which should be the bare minimum.

  5. March 13, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    The Xbox 360 service has a few major problems, imho. I suppose it deserves it’s own blog post. 🙂

    The biggest problem, for me, was that even the HD movies have a stereo audio sound-track. But the worst part about it is that the stereo audio is presented as a 5.1 channel bitstream, with the other channels just containing zero information.

    So your receiver can’t matrix out the other channels using Pro-Logic IIx or anything – instead, it just plays in stereo. Especially bad for dialog, since the center channel is silent the entire time.

    That really, really sucks.

  6. B
    March 13, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    You missed one “The Bad” topic.

    For Tivo-Unbox rentals once you start watching the video you have 24 hours to finish. This reminds me of the old days of Pay-Per-View(PPV) and is the reason I don’t use PPV anymore. Also if you have a family with childern this completely blows as its rare to make it thru a movie in one sitting with small kids.

  7. March 14, 2007 at 12:46 am

    @B: I don’t mind the 24 hour period, but I agree, something more like a video rental store (3 days? 7 days?) would be more reasonable.

    Still, I’m just glad I can rent at all. Try renting at iTunes.

  8. March 14, 2007 at 1:33 am

    Great points you made here ad I agree with you 100%.

  9. Robin
    March 14, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Very interesting. This granny got dragged into using iTubnes, but now I love it. I think I’d love downloading movies and tv shows, too. It’s good to find out more about it.

  10. March 14, 2007 at 5:21 am

    The amazon unbox service is fantastic. In the old days (last month) I had to download to my laptop then hook it up to my tv via s-video ugh. Now I just one click my order and it appears on my tivo 2 box. Now that’s what I call convergence and convenience.

    I agree that itunes not having rentals is crazy. Also the rental time should be increased to at least 2 days after you start watching.

  11. March 14, 2007 at 6:56 am

    Does anyone have a size for the unbox videos? I wondering because I have a relatively slow (Verizon) DSL line at my house. Because one-click purchasing is something impulsive, I want to one click and watch my movie now. How much buffer do you need before it starts playing?

  12. March 14, 2007 at 8:17 am

    Great write-up Don! I’ve been talking about all of these services for a little while now. I have pretty much all of ’em – Series 3 Tivo, XBOX 360, Netflix Watch Now. For me (an most end users) the answer is simplicity and quality. If I have to jump through a dozen hoops to get the end result, why not bit torrent. If I’m jumping through hoops then what’s another one. I like the 360 the most because it’s the least amount of hoops with the best quality. Turn on XBOX, Navigate to Marketplace, and buy. After it’s 30% done you can start to watch.

    Netflix Watch Now feature is pretty good too except the whole hooking the computer up to the TV. If they could partner up with a Tivo type of company then life would be gravy.

  13. March 14, 2007 at 11:48 am

    I’ve experimented with Unbox/TiVo too. I agree, the interlacing stuff is awful. The only thing I’d like to add is that subtitles and closed captioning don’t work at all. I was certainly hoping for something like that as my hearing isn’t that good anymore.


  14. March 14, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Unbox is a headache, I haven’t tried Tivo but unbox is a chore to set up.

  15. March 15, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Unbox doesn’t allow you to select a canadian address when signing up for on click checkout.

    Tivo does work in canada. You just have to import the hardware from the US.

  16. March 20, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    I did not have any trouble with the encoding of the video I was watching (The Illusionist) on my TiVo.

  17. Dan
    March 25, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    We don’t have hearing problems, but we have become accustomed to watching with closed captioning. It’s extremely helpful, and it’s good for learning to read. (For our 3 1/2 year-old, not for us.) It’s completely missing from the iTunes store AND Unbox. Not cool and not accessible. 😦

  18. April 22, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Netflix could be included in this group if they ever revived their partnership with TiVo. It seems that Amazon has beaten them to the punch — I’m not so sure that Netflix could even have a deal with TiVo anymore now that they are tied up with Amazon.

    Still, I think I’d rather see Netflix delivering this service — their selection would most likely be better and I’d like to think they would do a better job with the quality of the downloaded videos.

  19. Bill
    February 6, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Can someone comment on the installation process?
    And when it is set up, are the transmissions directly from Tivo or treaming wireless through your computer?

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