This morning I found an email from LOVEFILM in my inbox saying that their service was now available on the PS3. I rushed to the living room to try it out. My verdict? Meh.
There’s two reasons for my lack of excitement about the service, and it’s not the film offerings. I have been a LOVEFILM customer for years, and have been quite happy with what I can get there.
The first reason I’m not as excited as I could be is that the video quality isn’t entirely what I expected. It looks to be par for the course for online video, that is, quite blurry on a 50″ screen, and definitely below standard definition digital TV.
The second reason I’m not that excited is because the video controls for play/pause, fast forward, rewind, etc. don’t work on my device. I’m sure that’s a glitch that’ll get fixed, but it hasn’t helped my first impressions.
Looking at both these issues in a bit more detail, I have a third reason why I’m disappointed, but admittedly that’s a bit of a pet peeve and/or technical, so people shouldn’t necessarily take this to heart: the LOVEFILM player appears to be written in flash.
How do I know? About a year and a half ago, I was still working at Joost, and one of the things my teammates and I were trying to achieve is to get the Joost player on as many platforms as possible. I’ve made it my personal mission, so to speak, to convince the powers that be that consoles are the ideal delivery platform for online video – you get the same sofa experience as for regular TV/spinning disc media, but some extra convenience in that you don’t even have to buy/rent your videos. Great stuff.
Finally, towards the beginning of 2009, that message took hold, and one of my teammates started designing the Joost flash player for the PS3, with a little bit of help from yours truly because he did not in fact own a PS3 of his own. Only he ran into a handful of problems. One of them was that it proved impossible to implement the standard video controls that every PS3 gamer would be used to from the built-in players. Flash on the PS3 apparently only offered access to the X button, and cursor buttons.1
So we opted to use X for play/pause, and left and right for forward and rewind. Turns out, that’s exactly what the LOVEFILM player offers.
Now if LOVEFILM is done in flash, then I’m not surprised by the poor video quality. For one thing flash’s networking code leaves a few things to be desired, which ends up meaning that you want to transmit lower bitrate video than flash can strictly speaking play, just so you avoid the potential for stalls and stuttering.
Second, flash is pretty CPU intensive, even with hardware acceleration for video playback (which has been a sore point on the PS3, where flash AFAIK still is less comprehensively accelerated as it could be). Again, the solution is to use lower resolution video than the hardware would be able to deal with.
Lastly, the configurations of H.264 encoding that the flash player supports are fairly modest, requiring higher bitrate for lower-quality video than is technically possible.
All of which leads to blurry video, which the LOVEFILM player seems to display. My bet, therefore, would be that it’s implemented in flash.
There’s a last factoid that supports that theory, in that Sony told us at Joost that they were working on letting third parties install apps in the XMB, and that using flash in those apps was not only an option, but the best option for video at the time. Seems that things haven’t changed much in the last year+.
All that said, for a quick video fix, this player looks like a viable option. It just doesn’t even begin to stop me from renting or buying videos.