Zip.ca is better offline than online

zip.ca A few weeks ago, Sharon and I signed up for the free trial at Zip.ca, which is Canada’s equivalent to Netflix. We rent movies fairly regularly, usually at the local Blockbuster. The appeal of Zip.ca was the larger library of titles – Blockbuster’s selection is pretty limited. When our free trial expired at the end of last week, we decided to pay for the 1 DVD plan which costs $5.95 per month. Why? Not because we fell in love with Zip.ca, but because it will save us money.

You can fairly easily break the Zip.ca experience into two parts – the online part and the offline part. The former is where you search for titles, select the ones you want to rent, and pay for your account. The latter is receiving the DVDs in the mail, watching them, and then returning them. In my experience thus far, the online experience sucks and the offline experience rocks.

Where should I begin with the website…it’s slow, awkward, confusing, and worst of all, it’s inconsistent. Depending on where you are on the site, you’ll see either the old look:

Or the new one:

The logo, navigation, colors, and page width are all different between the two – it’s very annoying. Another thing that bugs me about the site is the rating stars (sometimes they are yellow, sometimes they are red, sometimes mousing over them changes them, etc). Like everything else, they are confusing and seem inconsistent.

zip.ca Thankfully, the offline experience is much better. Our DVDs arrived quickly, and the packaging was simple and effective. It’s lazy but quite enjoyable to have movies simply arrive at the door! Sending them back is a breeze too – just stick them in the already prepared envelope and drop them in the mail.

New releases at Blockbuster cost $5.97 to rent, and “favourites” cost $4.19. Then on top of that you’ve got to factor in gas prices and the fact that they may not have the movie you’re after. For $5.95 at Zip.ca we get two movies with free shipping, and as many additional movies as we want for $2.49 shipping and handling provided we only have one DVD out at a time. Combined with the larger selection of movies, it’s simply a better deal.

Rob recently wrote about Zip.ca at Techvibes, pointing out that the four-year-old company recently shipped its 10 millionth DVD. Quite an accomplishment, I agree, but Zip.ca is still no Netflix.

Until something better comes along however, I’m happy enough with Zip.ca.

Format-shifting: HD DVD to Blu-ray

high def formats By now you’ve probably heard that Toshiba has thrown in the towel and will stop making HD DVDs. That means Sony has finally won a format war! Good for them, I guess. Not so good for the consumers who invested in HD DVD, however. What are you supposed to do with the player and all those discs that you bought?

One option would be to convert your HD DVDs to Blu-ray. Wired has created a “how to” specifically for that purpose:

By converting your movies to a more enduring format, you can ensure your movie collection survives the death of the machine that plays them.

The process is simple in principle but excruciating in practice, thanks to the complexity of the technology, the myriad of applications needed and the predations of an industry that doesn’t want you format-shifting at all.

The three basic steps are ripping, transcoding/authoring, and burning. Converting your discs will take time, and it will definitely cost money. Lots of money.

I’m not sure it’s worth it. You haven’t bought that many HD DVDs yet have you? And if you have, you’re probably better off trying to track down a dual-format player. It’ll save you a bunch of stress, that’s for sure.

Your HD DVDs may be salvaged, but your player is almost certainly a glorified paper weight now.

Read: Convert Your HD DVDs to Blu-ray

Goodbye optical discs, hello write-once memory cards!

Post Image Engadget posted yesterday about 1GB write-once memory cards from SanDisk that would cost around $5.99 USD. My first thought was that it would never work. Why buy a memory card you can only use once for $6 when you can buy a rewritable one for as little as say $15? It wouldn’t make sense. But after reading the comments and thinking about it a bit more, it became clear that write-once and rewritable memory cards could serve very different markets, just as CD-R/CD-RW and DVD-R/DVD-RW do today.

For the digital camera user, a write-once memory card doesn’t make much sense, unless it comes as part of a "disposable" camera. Otherwise, you’re likely going to want to stick to a memory card that you can fill up, erase, and fill up again.

For digital media however, write-once memory cards do make sense. Think about albums, movies, and games – they all come on optical media. And as handy as they are, CDs and DVDs are still pretty big as far as technology goes. Each disc is 12 cm across, which means you need a pretty big device in order to read them. Imagine how big your digital camera would be if it saved data on a CD! And yes, I realize there are mini-CDs and DVDs, but they have drastically reduced capacities.

By comparison, an SD card is about 3cm x 2cm. Much, much smaller. They can fit inside all sorts of devices, including phones, cameras, and digital media players. I’d rather have digital media like music, movies, and games come to me via the cloud, but if I have to purchase it in physical form, I’d much rather have a smaller SD card than a relatively large DVD.

Write-once memory cards make the most sense for data archival, however. I’m sure I’m not the only one that burns write-once DVDs as part of my backup regimen. How cool would it be to use tiny little memory cards instead? Rewritable memory cards have already far surpassed the capacity of DVDs, so I imagine that write-once memory cards won’t be far behind. Plus, backing up data to a memory card is faster and less error-prone than burning a disc. And when you’re done? Memory cards take up a lot less room than discs do, so you can store many more of them.

The one advantage that DVDs have over write-once memory cards, of course, is cost. You can buy DVDs for around 35 cents per disc. I don’t expect that advantage will last long. When production of write-once memory cards ramps up and technology improves, the cost will come down dramatically. Okay maybe one more advantage of DVDs is that they are harder to lose, but that depends on how you look at it 🙂

My initial negative impression is long gone – I’m looking forward to write-once memory cards!

Read: Engadget

Why are blank CDs so expensive?

Post ImageI never thought I’d write something like this, but blank CDs are freaking expensive! It wasn’t long ago that I could care less about turning a CD into a coaster, but now I do care. I don’t know what changed, but for some reason CDs have become incredibly expensive relative to DVDs.

Here is the current pricing at Futureshop.ca for a brand I quite like:

More than double the price! And it’s not just Maxell either:

It’s ridiculous! Heck, you can get a 50 pack of Memorex Dual Layer DVD+Rs for only $59.99. I suppose I should point out that both the Maxell DVD and Memorex Dual Layer DVD prices are after an instant rebate, but don’t be fooled – that spindle of 100 Maxell DVDs has been $32.99 for at least six months. That’s for both DVD-R and DVD+R. This isn’t specific to Futureshop either…I’ve noticed the same trend at all computer stores here in Edmonton.

I’m obviously not an expert on this topic, but aren’t CDs and DVDs made from pretty much the same stuff? The main difference between the two seems to be the wavelength of the laser that is used, not anything with the physical discs themselves. Even if there are some differences, surely CDs shouldn’t be twice as expensive as DVDs to manufacture!

You might be thinking that this isn’t a big deal – DVDs store more data anyway. That’s entirely accurate. In fact, I really only use CDs for two reasons: burning audio CDs for my car, and burning CD images. Still, the price shocks me.

Perhaps the high price of CDs is just a reflection of marketplace pressures? These days, almost everyone has a portable media player (like an iPod) and almost all new cars have an auxiliary jack (including mine), so there’s less of a need to burn audio CDs. And on the data side, DVDs are just far more useful due to their larger capacity. All new computers come with a drive that will burn both DVDs and CDs, so it’s easy to pick DVDs over CDs.

Are CDs dead?

I don’t think CDs will be disappearing any time soon, but I do think they are on the way out. Newer technologies like DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray have made the CD seem ancient and have certainly reduced its usefulness. And I think it’s safe to say that the CD will be the last physical media form the music industry will ever sell. Digital tracks over the web is the way of the future.

So long compact disc…it was nice knowing you!

10 Reasons For Simultaneous Movie Releases

Post ImageIn my humble opinion, the way movies are released today sucks. First they hit the theatres, then DVDs, then video-on-demand services, and finally television. The movie studios really like these different release windows for some reason. Why not release movies to all of these distribution channels at once? It makes a lot of sense to me. The hottest item during the Xmas shopping season in 2006 was probably HDTVs, and I suspect it will remain a big seller this year and next. Watching new releases like Spider-Man 3 in the comfort of my own home sounds very appealing.

The idea is finally being explored:

Comcast is trying to make the “simultaneous release” dream happen, but with prices being proposed in the $30-50 range per screening, the dream looks more like a Hollywood acid trip.

Yeah, that price simply isn’t going to fly. The article includes a bunch of really great analysis, so check it out.

Here are ten reasons why I think the “simultaneous release” dream needs to happen (in no particular order):

  1. Drinks and snacks at the theatre are horribly overpriced – talk about price gouging. Not to mention the cost of gas to get from your house to the theatre! I’d rather eat the food I already have in the house, thanks.
  2. There aren’t any crying kids, cell phones, or other distractions in my house. Oh and my floors aren’t sticky either.
  3. I don’t like being forced to sit through fifteen minutes of commercials before the movie previews start. It makes seeing a 90 minute movie a two hour experience (and that’s assuming you don’t line up to get good seats).
  4. Many people have invested thousands of dollars into a comfortable home theatre system – simultaneous releases let them make the most of it.
  5. Hollywood would make more money. Increased sales and reduced marketing expenses.
  6. Pause! You should control the viewing experience, not the theatre. Want to pause for a few minutes? Go for it.
  7. We’ll get better quality movies. Instead of making only movies that are likely to do well at the box office, Hollywood would be free to make all kinds of movies with each one being widely accessible.
  8. Theatre owners would be forced to revisit their business. Why do we go to the theatre? I think “to see a movie” is a secondary reason. The primary reason is to socialize. Perhaps theatres will come up with a better overall experience when their backs are against the wall.
  9. Independent and other small movie studios would play on the same field as the big boys. Remember all the trouble Mel Gibson had to go through to get The Passion of the Christ released in theatres? It wouldn’t have been such an issue in a world with simultaneous releases.
  10. Control over the volume. Control over the temperature. No parking necessary. You can lay down if you want. Etc.

Anything else? I think it’s only a matter of time until the simultaneous release becomes the norm.

Most New TV Shows Require Too Much Effort!

Post ImageI don’t watch a lot of television, save for hockey, news, and Smallville. I guess I am “an Internet child” and that’s definitely where most of my time is spent. I think there’s more to it than that, however. Almost all of the new TV shows being produced require a lot of effort from the viewer. More effort than I am willing to put in.

Take 24, for example. People are crazy about this show. I mean seriously off the reservation, like this guy:

If Jack Bauer has to catch a shark with his bare hands and speed-dry the fin so he can make a soup to restore the President’s sexual potency, I’ll be watching. If Jack Bauer is caught in the path of a fiercely-lit green energy beam made of fuckton particles in a suspended gobbledygook matrix and inadvertently is wearing a shark’s tooth necklace and become half-human, half tiger shark – I’ll be watching.

I’ve never seen an entire episode of 24, so I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I just don’t get it. And therein lies the problem. There’s no way I am going to start watching 24 now – it’s too far along. I’d be an outsider, a poser almost. I would have to go back to the very beginning and watch every episode just to catch up. And that’s just too much work.

And existing fans of the show? They can’t miss an episode, no sir. They have to record it for later if they absolutely cannot be sitting down when the new episode airs. Heaven forbid they miss one. They’d be behind, lost. Can’t have that – so they put in the effort.

There’s some old shows that are guilty, like 24, but it’s the new ones that are the worst. Just look at some of the newest shows – most pretty much require that you started watching from the beginning to really understand what’s going on. Heroes? Yup. Prison Break? Yup. Friday Night Lights? Yup. Studio 60? Yup. Ugly Betty? Yup. Jericho? Yup.

I am not sure if this trend is good or bad for television. On the one hand, networks might be limiting a show’s audience by setting the barrier of entry so high. On the other hand, these kinds of shows probably sell a lot better on DVD.

Either way, I kinda miss the old shows. The shows that didn’t require a lot of effort, nor an introduction. You could just start watching any episode and you just got it. There are notable exceptions in the current most popular shows, like CSI or Law & Order or American Idol, but for the most part, I think the new shows require too much effort.

In a way, I look forward to the day these shows are cancelled so I can just get all the DVDs.

My kids don't know what a DVD is!

[Obviously I don’t have any kids, so play along would you?]

Sometime in the not too distant future…

The strangest thing happened today! My daughter came home from school and started telling us all about her exciting day in the first grade. Then out of nowhere, she asked what a DVD was! I guess her class had been learning about how the screens in their desks work and the teacher made a reference to DVDs. I did my best to explain that in the old days, we needed to have a small, round disc in order to get a movie or something to play. She couldn’t quite wrap her head around the idea – it was kind of like me when I learned about record players. She’s used to having everything appear automatically – the lessons, videos and assignments all appear in her desk, “like magic” she tells me. Having physical media is such a thing of the past, and thank goodness for that too!

I can’t imagine what she’ll think when I explain to her that wireless wasn’t always everywhere and we’d have to disconnect and reconnect to different hotspots!

Back to the present…

It’s going to happen, it’s only a matter of time. The time when we download everything is coming, and it’s coming sooner than you think. Physical media is dying.

As Engadget noted the other day, Blu-Ray stuff is going to start shipping near the end of May. The format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is pretty much useless though. Do we really need a new format? I think the advantages offered are not as great as those offered by DVD when compared to VHS, so people likely won’t upgrade in mass numbers. I think that’s why the Xbox 360 shipped with a good old fashioned DVD drive – people are going to start downloading content more and more.

Think about it for a second. A small percentage of online music sales are online right now, but the number is growing. The big networks like NBC and ABC have started selling downloadable video, a trend that is expected to continue. Millions of people have satellite TV or digital cable services that let them download new content all the time. Broadband connections are extremely popular around the world, and the United States is finally starting to catch up. And when we do finally have wireless everywhere (we’re getting closer) there will be no need for discs. Instead, everything will be accessed online.

Sure things will be difficult at first. What we really want is the concept of download once, play anywhere. That will take some time, but it is definitely achievable, and has already begun with devices like the Windows Media Center PC. Wifi is spreading throughout homes – how long until we see televisions with built in wireless connections so they can access content from devices around the house? These are the kinds of things that will become commonplace.

My brother and sister buy DVD’s all the time, and I have lots of friends who buy CDs, but I haven’t bought any for quite some time now (don’t have time to watch a lot of movies). If I could get entire Xbox 360 games off Xbox Live instead of just demos, I’d probably do that too.

I can already see the headlines – “DVD format disappears almost as quickly as it came!”. Never before has a format been so widely adopted so quickly. Maybe downloading will come almost as quickly? I for one think the download party is going to get much bigger in the next few years.