Hulu, the online video service that allows you to watch many of your favorite television shows and even some full-length movies, has been available for about a year now. Leading up to its launch, some wondered how the company would manage the challenges anyonline video site faces, including issues of copyright and creating a sustainable ad model.
But during the last year especially, Hulu has blossomed into a site where you can access great programming, legally, and with exceptional video quality. It's not hard to get started using Hulu, either.
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For those of you who haven't heard of the service or are just getting started, this review will center on the site's basic features and offer tips for making the most of your Hulu profile. In general, Hulu has done much to balance the needs of monetizing online video with ads while creating a very solid end-user experience, all for free.
The benefits of signing up
You can access the videos on Hulu without a user name and password, but you will miss out on a lot of the site's extra features, such as creating a queue of favorite programs or writing a review of a video to share with other Hulu users.
Hulu doesn't ask for too much information (e-mail, first and last name), but it does want your birth date and zip code for the sake of serving up more relevant ads for your programming.
The video player
Hulu sports a very sleek video player that has earned it many accolades, including being named the best technology product of 2008 by our sister site PC World. It works on Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer.
Hulu Online Video
Below is a video clip from The Office, one of the shows featured on Hulu. The actual Hulu video player is wider and longer than the video screen below, which I scaled to this text column. You can try this clip and others at Hulu.com.
The difference between Hulu's video player and the one most us will compare it to (YouTube) is similar to mobile phones in a way. YouTube's play, pause, and volume buttons, as well as the progress bar, remain visible and always there (like a traditional BlackBerry). A Hulu player, on the other hand, waits until you've scrolled your mouse over the screen to light up the buttons (like the touchscreen feel of an iPhone), giving it an elegant design.
Hulu requires a fast internet connection to enjoy the streaming video without any latency. According to Hulu's support page, videos typically stream at 480 kilobits per second (Kbps) or 700 Kbps. Hulu, for its part, recommends a bandwidth of 1,000 Kbps or higher for the "smoothest playback experience." If that all sounds like gibberish, go to Speedtest.net, a free site that will calculate your bandwidth speed to see if your connection makes the grade.
If you scroll your mouse to the right of the video, you'll see full screen and high resolution options. A nifty pop-out feature also allows you to isolate the video into its own browser window.
As far as online video goes, the picture quality is quite good even on the standard definition, and machines with fast connections can see some shows and movies in High Definition.
Finding your shows
Many of your favorite mainstream, network shows can be found on Hulu, including The Office, The Daily Show, and Family Guy. Hulu hosts content from major networks and content providers, including FOX, NBC Universal, MGM, Sony Pictures Television, and Warner Bros. (Fox and NBC are both owners of Hulu as well).
You can find some of the other non-member networks' content on Hulu too. In this way, Hulu acts as an aggregator, allowing you to search for shows and connect you to another network's main video player. If you wanted to watch "Lost," for instance, a "From ABC" label will appear under the video results and when you click on it, Hulu will take you to the third-party's video player.
But we'll focus on Hulu's main content. Provided you have an adequately fast internet connection (and we'll get to that later), Hulu serves up videos with an exceptionally clear picture.
The website organizes your browsing experience across many different categories, starting with the "TV" and "Movies" tabs. The "channels" tab further organizes content across popular categories such as "action and adventure," "drama" or "comedy."
After clicking on a channel, I use the the "sort" option that lets you search by title alphabetically, as well as the most popular and recently added programs.
Warning: The search function on Hulu is usable, but leaves a bit to be desired. It will often return shows completely unrelated to the one you searched for, and it also lacks an advanced search link. That said, it will generate automatic suggestions when you begin typing. It also features a "related searches" list that might help you find your desired program.
If you don't find the show you're looking for, scroll to the bottom of the search results and you'll find a small link to report the problem to Hulu.
Popular shows have their own Hulu home pages, with three tabs featuring episodes under the main tab, and reviews and discussions on the others. It's another area of Hulu that would benefit from Facebook Connect or Friend Connect, so you could see what your other friends (who also use Hulu) thought of a show.
Personalize your account
The benefit of setting up a user account on Hulu stems from the personalized features. If, for instance, you stumble upon a show you want to watch later, there is a "+" symbol next to it that allows you to add the show to your queue to watch at your leisure.
If you're really into a particular show, you can also subscribe to it and receive reminders of a new episode. All of this information flows into your profile, which contains the basic information you gave Hulu when you signed up for the service. Should you choose, you can add a picture and "about me" information to your profile.
If you plan to interact with the Hulu community by writing reviews and engaging in discussions about programs, then you might want to play around with the profile settings. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother too much with it.