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While old school media types insist that content is king, when it comes to viewing said content, format and media player can make a big difference in the quality of the user experience. With new options seeming to crop up every day, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular software media players (and video destinations) to determine which one may be best for consumers. Individual results may vary, but here are the criteria I used to evaluate each:

Format Support
With so many different formats out there, it’s important that your top media player has robust support. Since consumers shouldn’t have to scour the web to add additional functionality, I didn’t include any plugins that consumers could use to expand support. Of all the players listed, the VLC clearly won this category. Whether you’re trying to watch Quicktime movies or play a VOB file, if VLC can’t handle the codec, you probably shouldn’t be trying to play it to begin with. The clear loser in this category was the Netflix Media player. While I have no complaints about the quality of their stream, the DRM restrictions and the requirement for downloading the Silverlight plugin, makes their web player pretty limited.

Ability to Stream Online
When digital movies first arrived, you’d have to wait a couple hours for the video  to download. With the introduction of streaming media, consumers rarely have to wait more than a few seconds in order to access to that content. While most video players are able to support this functionality, I feel that Netflix is the clear winner for this category. Not only do their video streams take into account your bandwidth to reduce buffering issues, but they also seem to have the highest video quality when streaming content. The clear loser in this category was the VLC player. While technically, there are ways to use it to stream torrent files while downloading, for the most part the VLC player is best suited for offline media. Continue Reading…

PSP  LollipopAs a casual video gamer, sports has always been one of my favorite genres. I like being able to play an entire game from start to finish, without devoting a month of my life to beat the title. My natural love for sports probably also contributes to this preference, but whatever the case, it’s safe to say that they’ve been a staple of my entertainment system for a very long time. Unfortunately, when it comes to innovation in gaming, the sports franchises seem to lag the rest of the field.

I’d argue that this is due to the monopolies surrounding most major professional sports, but it may also have something to do with the temptation to release a new game every single year. After being burned too many times, I did finally cut my upgrade cycle from every year to once every 2 or 3 years. However, even with less frequent purchases, I still notice that there are pieces of each game that seem to be endlessly recycled year after year after year.

Specifically, I’m talking about the commentary in EA Sports games. Whether you’re playing NBA Live or John Madden football, having live commentators lends a certain amount of realism to the experience. Sure, their puns are cheesy and sometimes there are glitches where they’ll tell you how bad you did on a great play, but overall I enjoy having someone critique my every press of a button.

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I’ve been critical of DivX’s efforts to woo Hollywood in the past, but I’ve also got to give them credit for a win when I see one and I think they knocked it out of the park when it comes to Paramount.

Recently, Paramount announced that they were going to be distributing content on USB sticks. At the time, they didn’t say what format it would be in and even on DivX’s conference call there was no mention of this realization of their strategic vision, but Electric Pig reports the Paramount movies will in fact be encoded in DivX.

With only 20,000 memory sticks for sale and at a price of approximately $33 US, Paramount is still clearly in the testing phase. But the fact that they choose DivX demonstrates the clear advantage that DivX has over all of their other digital competitors and have the only real solution for brick and mortar retailers.

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Normally, I tend to think that most regulations are bad. In a free market, businesses should be allowed to operate with a wide degree of latitude. At the same time there is a pragmatic part of me that understands there can be exceptions to this. Everyone should have the right to free speech, but that doesn’t make it right to run cigarette ads on Saturday morning cartoons or to claim that you’re a Doctor when you only bought your degree from an Internet spammer.

For the most part, the television world has been forced to accept reasonable restrictions in exchange for the public bandwidth they use to deliver their content. In the Internet world though, the content rules are more like the old west because consumers are opting into the service by paying for it. As long as you have the quickest draw, your behavior doesn’t matter as much and so far companies like Netflix have been more concerned about digital market share, then doing what’s right.

Maybe it’s because internet audiences are still small compared to television or it could be that it takes time for rules and standards to develop and emerging markets don’t tend to care about these things. Whatever the reason though, there are parts of the television experience that aren’t making the jump to the internet.

Specifically, I’m talking about closed caption data. For years, television studios have been legally required to provide this information, so that people who are hard of hearing can also enjoy the content. While there are some technical issues associated with adding this kind of data to a video file, technology is at a point where you’d think it should easily support this. The Matroska container for example, is able to include optional sub-title information along with video and audio data. Alternatively, because online delivery can microstream to people, files with the embedded sub-titles could made available to viewers who opted into them. This would involve keeping multiple copies of the same movies though and so far the digital movie industry hasn’t wanted to bear this cost.

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Photo by RocketRaccoon

Just in case you think Blockbuster’s problems are isolated to a declining video store industry, I’d encourage you to take a closer look at their latest 10-Q filing. Despite there being clear growth in the DVD by mail category, Blockbuster is hemorrhaging subscribers. In fact, the percentage of people giving up on BBI’s by mail service is almost as high as the percentage of people giving up on their video stores. According to their 10-Q,

Rental revenues decreased mainly as a result of: a $76.3 million decrease in by-mail revenues driven by a 30% average decline in by-mail subscribers, which was more than offset by related cost reductions described below under “Domestic—Gross profit;

At one point in early 2007, Blockbuster had the pedal on the metal and was boasting of having close to 3 million subscribers. Since then, they’ve been understandably quiet, but I had no idea things were this bad until I read their most recent filing.

After piecing through these various filings, I’ve come up with an estimate of only 1 – 1.25 million current subs.

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