Video Rebel, Part 2: Free HD download guide

When I decided to turn myself into the Video Rebel — eschewing all cable and satellite TV as well as Blu-ray discs and DVDs — the one thing I figured I’d miss the most in my cable-shunning, disc-free experiment was HDTV. I’m completely spoiled by high-def. So the first thing I did was scour the Web, looking to see what kinds of legal HD programs I could find. Are shows from the U.S. networks available in HD online? How about some crazy, off-network stuff, or movies?

Sure, there are set-top boxes offering HD downloads, and plenty of choices via illegal BitTorrents or in standard-def, both of which we’ll cover in a future episode. But for this week, what’s free in HD? Would I have to shell out big bucks in monthly fees, or pay for individual downloads to get my eyes on some sweet, sweet high-def video? Hit Continue below, and follow me into the world of free, downloaded and streamed HDTV.

abc_hdstreaming.jpg
The TV Networks
Even though I still have off-air HDTV, which is great-looking in its unfettered, lightly compressed form, I wanted to see how much HDTV was available online from our trusty TV networks. My conclusion: Not much. The only network offering HD streaming of full episodes is ABC, but only a few are available. Those do look pleasantly watchable, however, almost HD in their highly compressed trim. The best thing about ABC’s downloads? They were smooth as silk with nary a dropped frame.

CBS is still testing its HD downloads, offering only 2-minute clips that suffer from jerky playback and not-even-close-to-HD 480-line resolution. On the upside, CBS offers a huge selection of episodes in standard-def, but those also suffered from choppy playback on our 14Mbps broadband connection. Unwatchable.

Meanwhile, NBC (our parent company), is also experimenting with HD on Hulu.com, and the demo footage looks pretty good — passable as HD but not as clear as what you can get on broadcast. Fox, NBC’s partner on Hulu, is also pretty much a non-starter in online HD so far, but offers a good part of its content (sans American Idol) in standard-def on its Fox online site as well as on Hulu.


vuze_hd.jpg

Azureus Vuze
Here’s a peek at the future of HD downloads, where you can get 1080p clips in short order. Vuze has mostly trailers, but it’s using the peer-to-peer Azureus BitTorrent client to let you download big files quickly, while you also send pieces of those files along to the next guy. Best of all, the more people using a system like this, the faster it gets. The 1080p Iron Man trailer is a sheer, crispy delight in all its 1080p-ness. Lovely. Now get more content, Vuze.


hdweb.jpg

HDWeb
Here’s Verizon and Akamai’s thumbing their corporate noses at the rest of the slowpoke broadband world, suggesting that you have a fiber-optic connection (such as Verizon’s red-hot ViOS service sweeping the country) to see its 1080p demo clips. Our connection barely made the HDWeb's cut of 13.5Mbps (or greater) to watch 1080p, and whoa, did it look sharp. There are also some incremental-downloading QuickTime Live clips you can watch, all free to view even if you have a slower connection. Check out the Elephants Dream snippet, 11 minutes’ worth of high-rez, sensational animation, all done with open-source software.


vimeo2.jpg

Vimeo
This is like a high-end YouTube with lots of HD movies, demonstrating that it’s possible to offer up surprisingly good quality for your free downloading and streaming pleasure. Vimeo actually offers some amusing HD content here, especially some of the artfully done time-lapse segments.

More to See in the Future?
There are plenty more examples of budding HD download depots online, but this is a representative cross-section of the legal and free HD viewing available on the Internet right now. It all has a decidedly experimental, demo feel to it so far, but the message is clear: It’s possible to download video with magnificent resolution that will show off the beauty of that 1080p display just as well as Blu-ray does. Free and legal HD movies? Nope, at least none that you've heard of. Next move for purveyors of such download conduits: Convince content creators to offer up more compelling content.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our Video Rebel series, where we show you how to dump cable altogether, saving hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of dollars per year.

Video Rebel, Part 1: Cable TV, you’re fired! Netflix, you too
Video Rebel, Part 2: Free HD download guide
Video Rebel, Part 3: Kill your cable, get HD for free over the air
Video Rebel, Part 4: How to turn an old PC into a home theater monster
Video Rebel, Part 5: Download mania! Netflix, Apple TV, Xbox, Amazon Unbox and Vudu compared
Video Rebel, Part 6: BitTorrent and the dark side of downloading