LOVEFiLM? Then maybe LOVEFiLM isn’t what you need.

I’ve been a LOVEFiLM subscriber for a couple of years now, having started with the Amazon service model. I’ve been largely pleased with the service. The staff are helpful on the phone, the disks are usually reliable and the various packages are simple to understand and manage. The catalogue is incredibly decent, too.

But their distribution model is dated. We live in the internet age of instant gratification and preferably within 140 characters. So posting disks out, while good value and useful, doesn’t always address the question, “what shall we watch tonight?”. Which is why I was very pleased when they launched their online streaming service. Finally, I can go over and above my allocated disk and have more choice as and when I need. Having tried Zune Video, with its flawless HD streaming and fairly impressive catalogue coupled with integration with my existing media system, I was expecting great things.

However, they chose to stream over a web browser in the first instance, which is not compatible with my own viewing intentions. From reports, the quality wasn’t anything to write home about, either, often below DVD quality. Integration into consumer devices was a no-brainer, and that dutifully came in Sony and Samsung TVs and the PlayStation 3. At this point, I saw red, as I felt I was excluded based on my choice of a Microsoft eco-system.

The recent 2011 Dashboard update has changed that, however. Finally, I have LOVEFiLM where I want it and can stream films when I want them. Brilliant. Or so I thought. I tried it out last night …

Firstly, the user interface is uninspiring. The Metro UX is beautiful and while they have used the Metro UX, the feel of the application feels flat and while I appreciate the colours are reflecting the brand, they do contribute to an unexciting experience. Additionally, the combination of red text on dark grey produces a difficult to read font, particularly with the Segoe font used in the Metro UX. Transitions between screens and pages is not flowing, and certainly should reflect the experience in the core dashboard making the transition between interfaces less jarring. If you’re using the Metro UX, you need it ALL.

While navigation between film collections was simple enough, I was disappointed with the number of titles available. While the Zune catalogue is limited, I thought it was the lesser force in terms of number of titles. How wrong I was. I was very much looking forward to a sizable proportion of the offline catalogue being available.

My package gives me 2 hours of online viewing. So I had to find a film that was less than 2 hours. Unfortunately, this is not easy as you have to go into each title to see how long the film is to see if you could watch it. Hardly a thoughtful user experience. I found Supersize Me, a documentary that looked to be interesting and has received positive feedback. Unfortunately, it ran to 124 minutes, 4 minutes over my allocation. “That’s okay, the last 4 minutes will be the credits.” Maybe I’d be warned about missing the last 4 minutes? No. I was not allowed to watch the film, so removing my choice of losing those 4 minutes. Which raises the question, if I can’t make conscious decisions like that, and a lot of films run longer than 2 hours, why charge per minute? Surely viewing should be paid per film? If I only have 2 hours on my account, I am already discriminated from viewing a sizeable portion of their catalogue. And, I will ALWAYS have “change”, and therefore unused credits. That doesn’t work in my favour, as the user.

I finally found a film that ran below the 2 hours, and opted for the original Tron film. On selecting it for playing, I got a big fat error “MP1006“. So it seems I wasn’t going to be able to watch Tron. I tried again for good measure, but the same result was received. Maybe there was a problem with that particular title. I opted for another film, “The girl that played with fire”. I could not watch this either, but this time, because I had insufficient minutes left on my account. So in watching – and failing – to watch Tron, I had been debited (stolen from) my minutes allocation, rendering my online service useless for the rest of the month. This aside, what if I thought that film was no good 10 minutes in, do I still lose the entire film minutes? Again, WHY charge in minutes?

So between a flawed charging model (if they’re not allowing rollover minutes and/or portion viewing), plain not working films and stealing my credits I was left underwhelmed, frustrated and finally angry from what could have been a very positive experience. So while I was going to upgrade my account, I’m considering cancelling it (joining the users cancelling due to the switch to Silverlight) and going wholesale into the other video providers on the platform, such as Zune and – heaven forbid – $ky. And with Channels 4, 5 and the BBC introducing content soon, I – the consumer – am going to be spoilt for choice. Oh, and Netflix is coming soon …


Lovefilm have tweeted me back apologising for the problem and have reimbursed me with 100 digital minutes. Which gives me 9 minutes more than my 2 hours! Maybe I’ll be able to watch Supersize Me after all. I’ve asked for feedback on resolution of the original issue before I retry.

Follow up tweets: 1 and 2

Changing the way I consume media

“Owning” media used to be about buying the CD, or the DVD and adding it to your collection. I have a large CD and DVD collection as a result. Even when people were raving about downloadable music, I always went out to buy the CD. If it wasn’t “in the collection”, it didn’t feel mine. I also appreciate the finer things, such as the sleeve design, etc. Same for DVDs, buying a box-set feels a special experience, particularly if the box-set has had some thought put into the design.

But, there is an awful lot of media out there, and I only have so much money and space. Buying every film you hear may be good is one thing, but affording it and storing it (if you even watch it again) is another.

The model was “want it, own it” or “not interested”.

So our household has been switching models. Firstly, we decided to stop buying DVDs on recommendations/whim/preference so we don’t unnecessary bloat to an already bloated collection. We get a lot of recommendations for films, we miss out on an awful lot of films that are regarded as “required viewing” for film fans, so we decided to switch to a rental model. We currently use LoveFilm for this. This was a revelation, now we only invest in DVDs as part of a series (say, Doctor Who), special box-sets (the latest Alien HD box-set is awesome) or because we truly believe we will get lasting value from watching it (Chris Morris’ Four Lions is excellent). For £7ish a month, we get 5 DVDs.

But times are changing. Now, consumer devices are fighting to give the next level of media consumption: internet-based content. Whether you choose to buy (eg. iTunes music downloads), rent (download a film from Zune Video to watch within the defined period) or stream (true video-on-demand), people are changing and companies need to change with them.

I’ve always been a firm fan of buying CDs. Having digital copies of CDs feels like it weakens my relationship with the artist and the product itself. Having the designed case feels like I have bought something and the physical CD is at least a back-up of my music. Add to that the maze presented by variousDRMmodels and downloadable music in /MP3 or .WMA form becomes a minefield. If I buy music, I want to be able to use it on all my devices (PCs, portable MP3 players, XBox 360, Blu-Ray player).

Having just bought a Windows Phone 7 and – more importantly – Zune Marketplace launching in the UK, the model has changed.

The model is now: “have (love)”, “have (interested)”, “don’t want”.

Using Zune Pass, I can download just about anything and keep it while my subscription lasts. I benefit from being able to listen to “non-essential”, possibly mediocre music without contributing to my collection or bank balance. I can listen to Take That’s new album without buying it because, frankly, I’m not a fan. But I appreciate good song-writing and love him or hate him, Gary Barlow is [mostly] very good at what he does. If I really like an album, I’ll buy the physical copy from Amazon. I’m keeping the music industry alive using both the new and old-skool models.

That just leaves films. While I really like LoveFilm rental, the waiting period often lasts months for films and a film is often not there when you need it. The only realistic modern option is to be able to download or stream it. Zune Marketplace also provides this and having previously streamed HD through my XBox 360, I can confirm it is a very sleek experience. But it’s expensive and is not covered or subsidised by the Zune Pass agreement. The catalogue is also limited.

What is needed is LoveFilm (or even NetFlix) to provide streaming services to the UK market. LoveFilm do provide streaming services, but their output is reported to be poor quality, DVD-quality at best and being computer based really spoils what should be an 11-foot, surround-sound, large screen experience. Yes, they have launched their offering on PS3 machines, but this is now a walled-garden. Why should I invest in a console worth £200+ just to watch LoveFilm films? I have no interest in gaming other than the casual gaming I already enjoy on the XBox 360.

So while I enjoy Nightwish, Take That, My Chemical Romance, Talking Heads and anything else I can get my hands on through Zune, I will be forced to wait for an equivalent offering for films. LoveFilm have said they are “Looking into other devices” but I don’t hold my breath. They seem to have got in to bed with Sony and Samsung and Microsoft consumers (with their already otherwise complete media experience) will be forced to suffer. Alternatively, Zune could increase their catalogue and decrease/subsidise their rental price through Zune Pass. Either way, in austere times, it’s not looking good for LoveFilm unless they act soon.

LoveFilm …. A most humble request

I’m a subscriber to LoveFilm, having originally been part of the DVD rental by post service. Whereas I’d previously have bought the films I want to watch, I now have them sent to me. It is cheap, super convenient and I have rarely had issues … and when I have, LoveFilm has been quick to sort.

A lot of my friends are also subscribers, and it is not uncommon for us to make recommendations to each other about which films to watch, knowing that it will cost no more to add a film onto an already burgeoning list of films.

That’s where my problem occurs.

LoveFilm has an extensive catalogue of films, with detailed data and reviews behind each title. Coupled with the user-submitted rankings and reviews, this offers a very useful data source for identifying what films are worth my time. With my friends’ contributions, I have a list which averages about 30 titles at any given time. The downside of LoveFilm is that although you can have prioritisation of titles, it can often be months later when a DVD finally makes it to your door.  Often, this will be met by “WTF?”, as I express surprise as to why I should have rented that title.

The reason is probably a friend’s suggestion or a more geeky reason such as extending my exposure to a particular actor or director’s work. Either way, I have no-one to turn to and express my sincere regret as to their choice of film (and worse, their recommendation that I would like similar content) nor am I able to pat myself on my back for being a complete geek and extending my own breadth of celluloid pretentiousness.

Solving this is easy … really.

For each title I rent, let me add a comment. This comment can be added at the time of rental, after rental or while I’m waiting. It’s just a text-field. I’ve asked LoveFilm for this many times, via Twitter, email and I’ve even called them. For some reason, their priorities don’t align with mine.

I can then click on that note (which may indicate a comment already in place), and I can enter a bit of text saying something like “John recommended this because he knows I like things big and blue”. Then, when I receive the disk (likely to be months later), I won’t be inclined to send it back or will be able to understand why I considered it. You could even insert a little note to me in my little envelopes – no scratch that.

Implementing this would be a quick win and many of my fellow subscribers think this is a good idea. An hour to add to the database and business layer, maybe a couple of hours on the user-interface (maybe something AJAX-y like the rest of the interface?) and a couple of hours in testing. You have a day, tops, for an easy #win.

Yes, I could keep my own records. I could even talk to your API, maybe even serve that purpose for others. (I am already planning a Windows Phone 7 UI) But why should I need to worry about security of data, implementation, data protection legislation,  continuity of service, etc. in the first instance?

… and when you’ve done that

Perhaps you could consider equalising the playing field for the UK audience? The US has Hulu, Zune and Netflix, all coming into their computers. For me, I use Windows Media Centre and XBox 360 a lot – not for playing games – but for watching TV, playing music, etc. OK, Zune has finally made it to XBox in the UK, but 1 HD film is equivalent to a months subscription to LoveFilm which gives me 5 films! But at least I have the choice. I also sold my soul to Murdoch and have Sky Player on my Xbox 360. Both Zune and Sky work awesomely well.

Netflix gives US users the ability to order and watch films from the PC or – more importantly – the XBox 360. I applaud your efforts to bring watchable films over the internet, but I’m a snob and I can’t see me enjoying watching a film, in a web browser, with questionable bandwidth, slumped over my PC. Nah, much rather watch it 11-foot away, use my remote control, my existing HD hardware and my broadband using my XBox 360. You have the catalogue, you clearly have the programming talent, so is it not possible to “make it so”?

Do you agree with this feature? Drop us a comment and support the cause …

UK: Have Microsoft fallen out with us?

The UK is widely regarded as being one of the key countries the drive
innovation in technology. Indeed, the computer was invented in the UK, in
Manchester. Obviously, much of the innovation now occurs in America. With the
signifcantly larger population and economy it provides  natural wealth of
resources for development of products and the eventual testing and purchase of
products. Companies like Microsoft often launch primarily in the US and then
“roll out” across the world. The UK doesn’t tend to fall too far behind in this

Recently, however, we appear to have been given a distinct cold shoulder by

The XBox Dashboard was recently significantly improved, using a
CoverFlow-style interface with a customisable avatar. It looks and works like a
dream. The US also got the benefit of integration of the Netflix service onto
the XBox dashboard. Now, not only does the XBox Video Marketplace allow
downloading of HD-quality films for watching at leisure, using the Netflix
service users can stream HD-movies at any time – no need to wait for the
download to occur. Netflix do not operate in the UK, so we don’t get this. Why
don’t they arrange something with, who offer a similar

The rival MP3 player from Microsoft, Zune, has never been available in the UK
officially. The Zune is intended to compete with the Apple iPod. The iPod is
unfortunately becoming synonymous for this particular technical gadget but there
is so much more to this market than just iPods. Creative and many other vendors
create MP3 players with a wide variety of features. Microsoft were keen not to
get too far behind on this so launched Zune as a means of listening to music,
but the “USP” was the ability to share music with your friends and buy music
wirelessly using the Zune Marketplace. Your Zune ID was the same as your Windows Live ID which is the same as your XBox Live ID, creating a real ecosystem of identity and technologies. Obviously, for Marketplace to exist in the UK, deals would have to be done in the UK which Microsoft don’t seem to be too bothered about. Maybe it is because the market is too small. As the Zune product is
developed, we see the Zune HD now has HD Radio, a technology the UK foolishly
did not adopt, instead we adopted DAB which is poorer quality than FM (in
practice). So they are pushing us further out of the door, reducing the glimmer
of hope that they may just change their minds in the future. The UK is left in
the clutches of Apple.

At the recent E3 Gamers conference, Microsoft announced a number of exciting
new features for the XBox. One of which was the rebranding of the Video
Marketplace which allows the downloading of videos form the XBox servers at a
small fee. This will be rebranded as “Zune Marketplace”. Indeed, the XBox itself
already provides some degree of integration with Zune devices. Where does this
leave the UK? Will we receive this branding and how will it afect us other than
a few colour changes on the XBox dashboard? Again we don’t know where the UK
will stand.

Microsoft Money is being abandoned (Guardian article), due largely to the success of the Quicken product by Intuit. Microsoft have committed to help users migrate to Quicken as part of a programme of future versions. Unfortunately, Intuit abandoned the UK years ago, so where does this leave UK Money users in need of budget accountancy software?

Hulu has been added to the Windows Media Centre, allowing access to their wide variety of video content direct from your PC or Media Centre environment. Hulu is not available anywhere other than the US. Media Centre content such as Extras which can include content direct from channels is also excluded from UK use. We used to have BBC content, but they pulled it when they reviewed their digital content output. Obviously this is not Microsoft’s fault but I think there needs to be
some effort made in replacing and securing new content for UK users.