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Hulu Plus Arrives

Hulu Plus is now available for everyone, but it still has some Internet networking teething problems.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I'm a fan of watching TV over the Internet, so I was pleased to see that Hulu Plus has finally opened its door to anyone. After using it for the last few weeks, as a beta tester though, I'm not as happy with it as I had hoped to be. Darn it.

Part of that is that even with a 20Mbps cable connection and an optimized 802.11n link between my router, a Linksys Simultaneous Dual-N Band Wireless Router WRT610N and my Sony BDP-S570 Blu-ray Disc Player I'm still seeing latency and lag at times during evening TV prime time. I'm not surprised. After all, I predicted that this would happen.

You see, Netflix was already gobbling up a lot of bandwidth during those same hours. In all seriousness, that wasn't leaving a lot of bandwidth for other bandwidth hungry video applications like Hulu Plus. As I've said before, there's not enough last mile bandwidth for Google TV, Apple TV, and Roku's bandwidth demands.

Heck, for that matter, there soon won't be enough backbone bandwidth. The sooner ISPs move to 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) for the Internet, the better.

Hulu Plus' problems aren't just that our Internet infrastructure in the U.S. isn't good enough-although that's true too. It's also that Hulu Plus isn't providing a continuous data stream. Instead, every time Hulu stops and starts a new video stream, such as an advertisement or the next segment of a TV show, the network connection also stops and starts. The result is, even when they're not that much load on the connection, you see black screens of lag-time as the next stream gets going.

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I'm not sure whether this is happening because of Hulu's servers or because one of its content distribution networks (CDN) isn't doing its job right. It used to be that Hulu used Akamai for all its content delivery. Beginning this spring though, Hulu started using Level 3 and Limelight Network as well for video delivery. So, I don't know who to blame. I do know, however, that it's annoying.

Netflix, by the way, doesn't have these network problems. I use the exact same setup to watch Netflix movies and TV shows on my Sony HDTV. I can watch an episode of the classic Brit TV Avengers on Netflix with, at most a minor delay at the start, while watching an episode of the Simpsons with Hulu Plus comes with notable bursts of lag as it switches from the show to ads and back again.

Still, for $7.99, it's cheaper than any conventional cable TV deal. For that, you get access to something on the order of 120 seasons worth of TV shows from ABC, NBC, Fox, and older and smaller networks. This includes current shows like 30 Rock, Family Guy, Glee, and House and multiple seasons of classic shows such as Monk and X-Files.

According to a blog posting by Hulu CEO Jason Kilar:

Hulu Plus is now available on devices that have an installed base of over 50 million. Today, Hulu Plus launches on Roku. All PlayStation 3 owners with a PlayStation Network account, which is free, can download the Hulu Plus application. In the months to come, Hulu Plus will be coming to Internet-connected Vizio, LG Electronics, and Panasonic Blu-ray players and HDTVs; TiVo Premiere DVRs; the Xbox 360; and Western Digital's WD TV Live Hub Media Center and WD TV Live Plus Network Media Player, with many more mobile phones, tablets, set-top boxes, and Internet-connected devices to be announced.

We haven't forgotten about our existing device lineup and applications, either. Over the next week, updates to the Samsung, PlayStation 3, and Apple iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch Hulu Plus apps will be available, bringing a variety of bug fixes and feature and performance enhancements.

Since it's already showing up on my Sony Blu-Ray DVD player, it seems that Hulu and its partners are actually doing better than they said would at delivering the service itself to customers. That's great, but I still want to know if they can do better with their network performance. Until they can, I'm keeping my conventional cable TV.

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