Time Warner just launched a test of its new HBO on Broadband service, only available so far to residents of Wisconsin who are subscribers of Time Warner Cable, HBO and Road Runner broadband. It so happens that some of your humble narrators at DVICE are currently living on Wisconsin's appealing yet frozen tundra, and qualify for the free service. As soon as we heard about it, we jumped at the chance to get our hands and eyes on it. So we took HBO on Broadband for a spin using a desktop PC, a laptop and a home theater PC, giving it quite a workout. Here are our first-hand impressions.
The special player is a separate application, not browser-based, but for now it's only supporting Windows XP and Vista. If you're an HBO subscriber and have Time Warner's Road Runner broadband cable service, you can download HBO on Broadband's 48.9MB application which hooks you up to the service's 600 titles. Included in that list of shows are all HBO's currently-running series and movies, as well as a few shows from the company's back catalog.
Downloads are fast, and you can start watching immediately. Well, almost. When we tried pressing Play right after hitting the download button, it stuttered a bit, but after a few seconds, it's smooth sailing all the way. That's helped along by our sprightly 14.6mbps Road Runner connection.
You can take it with you. You can either watch HBO's east coast feed live (pictured above) while you're connected to Road Runner, or download a show on your laptop (up to five PCs allowed per account) and watch it on the road, even when you're not connected. This is where the service really shines, and is better than Netflix "Watch Now."
My Library lets you store the shows you've downloaded, and the programs don't take up too much disk space—they're compressed fairly tightly—around 600MB per hour of playback. You designate how much hard drive space to dedicate to this library, and titles stay on board for various lengths of time until HBO decides they expire. For instance, currently airing episodes of The Wire don't expire until the end of March, a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode expires two weeks from now, while a Sopranos show expires at the end of the day today.
Playback looks okay, but it's not HDTV. The low rez still looks pretty good on standard-def shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Flight of the Conchords, but HD resolution is sorely missed on shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire. They're shown in letterbox format with image quality that's not quite as good as a DVD. Making matters worse is the player's color rendering, taking on a red tinge on some shows (see pic above) that was mildly annoying, and there's no way to adjust the tint or saturation.
You can play the content full-screen. Or, play it in the app's small window if you want. We like the player's added niceties such as the Netflix-like ability to rate each show or movie you've seen, as well as see other subscriber' ratings.
You can schedule recordings of upcoming HBO shows, akin to TiVo's Season Pass. Just click Season Pass and you can choose to download all the episodes from that season, or just download new episodes.
Summing up, HBO's first foray into the streaming video/download game is looking good. While we'd like to see all of the network's back catalog of stellar series available for download in HD, the opening slate of 600 standard-def choices isn't too shabby. The player works well, has some welcome conveniences and might just make a plane flight or two go a lot faster with its content-to-go capability. Best of all, it's free if you're already paying for HBO at home.