The Writers Guild strike already stripped us of our Daily Show and Colbert Report, and now it may take away Heroes and House as well. Looking to escape Reality TV hell? We've painstakingly reviewed three free (and mostly legal) video services—Joost, Miro and Hulu—for your faux-TV enjoyment during these dark times.
Hulu: NBC Universal/News Corp.'s mutant is a sandbox-y YouTube for their properties. Joost: Streaming P2P service from Kazaa/Skype founders that wants oh so badly to be real TV. It's got deals with Viacom and other name players—News Corp.'s rumored to be at the table as well. Miro: Open-source Cory Doctorow-anointed Joost-slayer. You download, rather than stream. It uses RSS-based channels and BitTorrent for its P2P workings.
How They Look (and Feel):
Joost's translucent black interface wins hands down in the Slickness Dept., and its channel grid layout is the standout of the three. One issue is that player controls disappear when you're going through channels or shows, so you can't mute or pause a video playing in the background while surfing. But in terms of intuitiveness, on Joost, it's naturally apparent how to click around then start watching shows. (The "oh no, we can't play this now" error message assailed me more than a couple of times, showing there are still some P2P kinks to work out.)
Miro is more powerful for tweakers and creators, which contributes to it being less straightforward. It's not immediately obvious how you start watching stuff. Since its channels are RSS-based, you have to subscribe to them first, and then pick episodes to download. I should add, the best (though perhaps non-legal) content might require you to hunt outside Miro's interface for a torrent. Miro's the least flashy, using a modified browser scheme that takes longer to zoom through than Joost or Hulu, which is a problem when it overwhelmingly features the most content.
Hulu's good for a browser-based streaming player, as I've said, with a clean, mostly easy-to-navigate system.
In the end, no one's really nailed the content organization bit. None of them are bad, but they don't make surfing for new stuff particularly intuitive or fun. It can be a chore, and sometimes it feels like a long one.
Ads, I mean uh, "Revenue Model":
Miro is blissfully ad-free, but the other two are not. Joost's bumper ads are quick and not overly annoying. The ones that occasionally interrupt shows without rhyme or reason, however, are too long and randomly timed. They'll drive your head into your monitor. Hulu's gotten worse since its debut week, where I saw a single 30-second clip per 40-minute show. Watching Heroes the other night, I got slammed with an ad at each of the dots in the timeline.
Joost has 356 total "channels," though some aren't channels in the traditional sense. There's stuff from MTV, Comedy Central, Adult Swim, CBS, Warner Music, as well as channels of CSI, Happy Tree Friends, Transformers and GI Joe. There's offbeat stuff, too, like the Really Terrible Film channel.
Used within legal boundaries, Miro lacks solid mainstream content. Comedy Central's "channels" are stand-up clips and web shows only, and Adult Swim just contains their video podcasts. But Miro boasts 2,756 channels, with everything from "Ask a Ninja" and National Geographic to NASA and Wired Science. But yes, you can start your own channel—all it takes is a torrent and a dream.
Hulu's the slimmest, but it has the most recent episodes of the best shows: House, Battlestar Galactica and any other popular shows from NBC Universal and News Corp., like SNL, The Office or Family Guy. There's no indie or offbeat content whatsoever—it's a totally corporate venture.
Across the board, scattershot content is still a major issue. Joost has a Comedy Central channel but no South Park or Chapelle's Show. Miro's kind of defined by being whatever from whoever. Hulu's trimmer offerings at least have an internal logic, with the newest five or six episodes of current shows available, and full seasons of past shows like Buffy.
What You Now Know:
No matter what service you pick, you won't find everything you want, thanks in part to corporate hang-ups and in part to the primitiveness of these early stages. They're maddeningly incomplete, like a crappy library in a rural town. Joost is probably your best bet in terms of quantity and quality, with Miro working better if you want a ton of new programming but don't care about corporate quality. And if you want Battlestar, well, the choice will be made for you. [Joost, Miro, Hulu, Flickr]