An Online Answer to the DVR
By ANNE EISENBERG
SOME people who want to watch a movie at home wait for Netflix to mail it to them on a disc. Others click on a link at Netflix or other Web sites and immediately watch films, TV episodes or sports events streamed to them on the spot.
But streamed shows can be ephemeral — they depend on a good broadband connection, and they pass by as they are viewed, unlike downloaded videos that can be watched later offline. And some shows can’t be found again at a site that once provided them, because they are meant to have a limited run.
Now, for $5 a month, a new service called PlayLater lets subscribers copy streaming video as it shows up at 30 sites, including Netflix, Hulu, PBS, ESPN and CNN, so they can watch it later.
With PlayLater, viewers can stockpile episodes of their favorite television shows on their hard drives and thumb drives, just as they copy programs on a digital video recorder for later viewing.
PlayLater has many restrictions — it works only on PCs, and the videos made with the software may be watched only on the PC licensed by PlayLater to record the show, or on another PC that shares the license. And it doesn’t work with iPhones, iPads, or mobile Android devices, although Jeff Lawrence, the chief executive of PlayOn, the Seattle company that offers the subscription service, said these apps would be available soon.
The number of people who watch streaming video is climbing, said Radha Subramanyam, an executive at Nielsen, the ratings firm, “and so is the time they spend watching.” Netflix subscribers spent an average of nearly 8.5 hours doing so in June, she said.
“Everyone streams across all ages,” she said, “but some age groups stream more than others.” She said that there were strong numbers for both the 18-to-24 and 24-to-35 age groups.
PlayLater is among many new services that aim to take advantage of streaming’s popularity, said Dan Rayburn, a New York-based analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm, and an executive at StreamingMedia.com, a Web site devoted to covering the streaming media field.
Mr. Rayburn called the subscription service “a great idea” but said it had many weaknesses. “Most important,” he said, “it doesn’t work on Macs.”
I signed up for a free trial offered by PlayLater and installed the software on my PC — a painless process that took about 10 minutes. There is no central schedule of streaming choices at the bare-bones PlayLater home page. Instead, I went to each participating site and shopped for shows I might want to copy. The software records in real time, so it takes 30 minutes to copy a 30-minute show — though you can skip the commercials when you watch the recordings later.
I listed in a queue all the programs I wanted, then PlayLater recorded them one after another. But I couldn’t program the software to record on future dates, as can be done with DVRs. (Mr. Lawrence of PlayLater says the company is working on creating this feature.)
Streaming quality, of course, will be affected by the Internet connection. PlayLater’s site recommends a broadband connection of at least 1.5 megabits a second, the same speed that Netflix recommends.
Even with a decent connection, you should be sure that other people on your home network aren’t downloading large files or playing an online game, taking away needed bandwidth.
The quality is also affected by computer hardware. You’ll need a laptop or desktop PC bought within the last five years to avoid problems, Mr. Lawrence said. Each hour of video being recorded requires about one gigabyte of storage space.
The picture quality of the shows I stored on the hard drive was similar to that of the movies I stream from Netflix or Amazon — sharp and clear when tiny, and grainier when I enlarged the image. That is how it should be, said Ara Derderian , co-host of the HDTV and Home Theater Podcast.
“Don’t expect high definition, or the quality of a Blu-ray player,” he said. “The copy of what’s streamed should look identical to what you’d get if you were streaming it.”
SUBSCRIBERS might also be worried about the legality of copying video content. Mr. Lawrence said PlayLater is following the path set earlier by VCRs and DVRs.
“PlayLater is legal for the same reason that using a VCR and a DVR is legal,” he said. “There is a well-established legal precedent that consumers are allowed to record videos for time-shifted viewing.” (In time-shifting, people make copies for their personal use that they can view later.)
Denise M. Howell , an appellate, intellectual property and technology lawyer in Newport Beach, Calif., says she isn’t so sure that software like PlayLater’s will succeed without a legal challenge. She pointed out that the terms-of-service agreements that users have with companies like Netflix and Amazon limit a video’s viewing.
“If the streaming sites let this go, ignoring it, they will irritate the people who provide the content,” she said. “They are not going to be able to sit back and look the other way.”