Not content with being the world's favourite bookstore and muscling in on iTunes' territory with DRM-free MP3 downloads, Amazon is now taking on video shops, DVD-by-post services and, yes, iTunes again, with a new streaming service - Amazon Video on Demand.
We put it through its paces in Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome. We've been using the service throughout its beta phase - it goes live to all US customers today.
Setting up and interface
The Video on Demand (VOD) service starts out as just another Amazon web page. Select a TV show or movie and a super-widescreen 21:9 format window opens up inside the page. Amazon VOD uses the latest Flash 9, so you may to have download a quick upgrade.
Connection is impressively quick - no more than around 5-10 seconds before the video starts playing. You generally get 2 minutes of the video free before having to buy (or rent, in the case of movies) the full stream. Purchasing is a one-click affair, with no check out process, and all purchases are stored in a Video Library online so you can pick up from where you left off earlier.
Video and sound quality
Videos appear to be encoded at 640x480-pixel resolution, although hit the Pop Out button and the video moves into a separate window that is easily (and quickly) scalable to your chosen side. Sound is in stereo.
After a few seconds of viewing the player controls slide away, making full screen viewing fairly clean. The VOD service does not appear to buffer much video at all - an interrupted internet connection will bring up a 'Connecting...' dialogue in less than a second. Naturally, you can't watch any video when offline, unlike download services.
IE vs Firefox vs Chrome
Firefox is our browser of choice (at least for the moment), but actually delivered the least impressive experience of Amazon VOD. Video was sharp and colours bright but a couple of episodes of Mad Men stuttered and froze just as the smooth dialogue was getting going.
Switching to Chrome took an edge off the crisp detail and made it through the rest of the series without freezing, although fast motion had a jittery feel to it that soon became tiring.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised, but IE was the smoothest at streaming Amazon Video On Demand. Again, edge detail wasn't quite up to Firefox, but motion looked good and sound was first class.
As it moved out of beta, the selection of shows on Amazon VOD has improved, particularly on TV side. There are numerous free videos to watch (particularly pilots and end-of-season cliffhangars), bonus material previously found only on DVD releases and quirky one-offs like MTV music video and reality show snippets.
Overall, a good debut from Amazon that works well and delivers a decent streaming experience - especially in Internet Explorer. We'll test it again when we get our hands on connected Sony Bravia TV.
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Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.