Taking a step in the right direction, ADVFilms has a “digital download” service, which allows one to buy episodes of some of their selection of dubbed anime. Unfortunately, by the looks of things, they’re taking a few giant leaps in the wrong direction. Hopefully they’ll get on track in time. Today I’m looking at what they do offer, and how it can be improved upon.
Digital Download Terminology
Before anything else, some terminology needs to be covered:
- Standard Download
- A standard download is a medium quality download with a resolution of 320×240 pixels. These typically cost US$2.00.
- Premium Download
- A premium download is a DVD quality download with a resolution of 632 x 480 pixels. These typically cost US$4.00.
- When buying a bundle, you’re buying the DVD, and you may also digitally download the episodes. This allows you to watch the episodes before the DVD arrives. The standard bundle generally costs US$5.00 extra on top of the price of the DVD, and the premium bundle US$10.00.
As stated above, the pricing is commonly US$2.00 for a standard download, and US$4.00 for a premium download. Depending on your purpose for purchasing a digital download, this pricing isn’t all that bad.
The best use for this service I can think of is to try out a series you’re considering buying. US$2.00 is not a lot, unless you’re sampling 25 or so series.
For this review, I’m looking to sample the series AIR. The price for the first DVD is US$30.00. The DVD contains four episodes in English and Japanese language, and probably with bonus material only available on the DVD. Downloading the four episodes comes to the price US$8.00 for a standard download, or US$16.00 for a premium download. Because of the higher price of this DVD, US$16.00 almost isn’t that bad of a price. It’s half the price for half the languages. If you’re a viewer who prefers to watch anime rather than read it, this can be the perfect way to save US$14.00. Furthermore, if great quality doesn’t matter as much, you can go standard and save US$22.00.
I do see some problems with the pricing. If you buy a DVD, why don’t you get the premium (or at least standard) download for free? Why should you have to pay an extra US$5.00 or US$10.00 simply so you can watch what you bought before it arrives? Additionally, what happens if I buy episode one of AIR and find I like the series? Now I can buy the DVD alone or as a bundle, but there’s no way the US$2.00 I spent on the standard download can go toward the price of the DVD or bundle purchase, is there?
This is potentially the real killer for me. I use the Opera web browser on a Linux-based operating system. I do have a copy of Microsoft Windows around (my laptop came with Windows Vista), but if I didn’t, then I’d be out of luck.
The listed requirements are:
- Operating system: Microsoft Windows 2000, XP (although I’m sure I saw Vista listed elsewhere as well)
- Connection Speed: Minimum 800 kbps (certainly this is more of a recommendation)
- Media Player: Windows Media Player 10.X or later (necessary for DRM)
- Browser: IE 6.0 or later, Firefox 1.5 (actually, any modern browser will do)
Making the Purchase
I decided to buy AIR episode one as a premium download and episode two as a standard download. This was a risk as I may not care for the first episode, but I want to try out both qualities with the same show, without buying the same episode twice or buying episodes from a show I already own on DVD. This does eliminate comparing the quality with a DVD, however.
Since I already had an account with ADVFilms, I did not have to register to make a purchase. The first thing which comes up when buying is a screen with my mailing address to verify it’s correct. This would be nice if it weren’t for one thing: I’m buying two digital downloads, and zero physical items. The rest of the check out process continues to be the same as any other purchase from the site. The total comes to US$6.00 (rounding up) because I’m purchasing one standard download (US$2.00) and one premium download (US$4.00). I’ve chosen to pay by credit card, which means an instant payment, and thus instant access to the downloads.
Upon completion of the order, I’m met with a screen listing my digital purchases. They’re named “Episode 1 (dubbed) Premium” and “Episode 2 (dubbed) Standard”, which I can see as being a problem if I bought, say, five episode ones from different series. A registration key is also given for each file, as well as listing the number of licenses I’ve used and purchased. Contrary to the sound of “licenses used”, this is the number of licenses available to use. It starts at three, meaning the episode can be “licensed” to view on three separate Microsoft Windows computers. This information on the purchased files is kept in the “My Downloads” section once the user is logged into the site.
Downloading the Episodes
The episodes have easy-to-guess filenames once you buy one. It’s easy to download every episode from a series, but the DRM-protected encryption ensures the episodes cannot be watched unless they’re purchased and a registration key is provided before viewing. My only intent is to download the two episodes I purchased.
The standard download is an 86MB WMV file. The premium download is a 456MB WMV file. This made me wish I bought episode one as standard and episode two as premium, so I could start watching episode one while episode two continues to download. Oops. Live and learn. This meant having to do something else for an hour, but that’s to be expected with such a large download.
I started the premium download first, then I started the standard download immediately after. The standard download took 12m 22s to download, and averaged a download speed of 119.37 KB/s. The premium download took 58m 15s to download, and averaged a download speed of 133.48 KB/s.
Playing the Files
I’ll skip over my five-hours of trying to get the videos to play in Linux. It involves collecting id’s, downloading software source code, modifying code, finding the encryption is too new for the decryption software I use, and in the end being able to watch the encrypted files with the video and audio often out of sync in the mplayer software on Linux. In the end, I went with using Windows Media Player in Windows Vista to watch the files, even though getting screenshots for showing quality would be inferior to the software I use in Linux.
To watch the files, I had to boot my laptop into Windows Vista, copy the files from my PC to a USB flash thumb drive I have (which thankfully had enough space for the premium download), then connect to the Internet on the laptop and try playing the files in Windows Media Player. With about 15 or so minutes of file copying from my PC to the USB flash thumb drive, I had plenty of time to ask myself why I didn’t just download the files on my laptop instead of my PC in the first place.
The first thing I got when trying to play the file in Windows Vista is a message telling me to connect to the Internet first. Oops, forgot about that. Good thing I wasn’t trying to watch a video I bought while on a commute to work where I’d be away from Internet access for an hour. At least once I’ve “acquired rights” to watch the file, I can view it any time in Windows Vista, so long as I don’t lose the file which stores the rights, or reinstall the operating system causing the file to be lost.
With an Internet connection, running the file brings up a “Media Usage Rights Acquisition” dialogue, with three options to choose from: whether I purchased a license from ADV Universe, purchased a license from ADV Films, or wish to purchase a license. I make my choice, and am asked for my e-mail address and the registration key for the file. By the way, this is a 16 character registration key for me to have to type in. For each file. It doesn’t state whether the dashes between every group of four letters is required, so I included them, and was able to receive a license. This does leave me with a big question: If the site knows what I bought and what I’m trying to watch, why do I have to type in the registration key? It should instead tell me what I’m about to watch, tell me how many licenses I have left to use, and ask me if I want to use a license for my current computer I’m about to watch on.
With my license having been received, I can watch the files whenever I want to. On my laptop only, though, not my PC. My PC doesn’t run Windows. And I have to run Windows on my laptop to watch the files, even though I do everything else in Linux.
Because I watched on a laptop using a laptop’s speakers, I cannot comment on audio quality. Things sounded decent for being heard on a laptop’s speakers, however.
Video Resolution and Quality
For screenshots, I used the “Print Screen” feature of Windows Vista to take a screenshot of Windows Media Player. I cannot find any way to control de-interlacing in Windows Media Player, so the screenshots might be lower quality than if I were able to take screenshots from a Linux program, such as Xine.
AIR, which has a delightful first two episodes, is one of the growing number of series created in widescreen format. Because of this, the actual video dimensions are 888×480 for the premium download, and 426×240 for the standard download. Windows Media Player actually plays the premium file at 888 pixels wide, when it should actually be about 852 pixels wide. I imagine this is an error in ADVFilm’s creation of the premium files. For purposes of comparing quality, I am not going to re-size the width of the full-sized screenshots. If I could have used my standard Linux media player, it would have corrected the resolution for me.
Due to the way de-interlacing was (or wasn’t) used with Windows Media Player, I cannot properly compare the quality of the premium download with a DVD. I will say this: the quality I saw was inferior to DVD quality. At full screen, compression artifacts around edges could be seen, and edges had jagged resizing. Viewed at normal size, these problems were barely visible.
Viewing this download at full screen might be considered painful to anyone who must have pristine graphic quality. It’s decent enough for checking out an episode to see if you’re interested in the series, but at half the dimensions (one quarter the area of the premium), and less than one fifth the file size, the quality of the standard download is low enough that I feel the price is too high. Perhaps US$1.50 would be a better price point, or even US$1.00.
The standard file might be fine for viewing on smaller devices, such as an iPod Video, but not only do I not have such a device to test on, but the encryption and DRM would preview an iPod Video from being able to play the file.
Going Back to Buy More
When I return to ADVFilm’s page for the first AIR DVD, I’m able to re-buy the same episodes at the same quality. Or, at least, I can drop them into my cart with no indication that I’ve already purchased them, as well as nothing remind me that I still have two unused licenses per file. I didn’t try to purchase one because I’ve already invested enough time and money without dropping another two minutes only to potentially end up with another three licenses.
Because I’ve already paid US$6.00 for episodes from the DVD, it would be nice if they listed “buy this DVD and get $6.00 off”. Unfortunately, a price point of US$120 for four DVDs containing 12 episodes of content is too much for me to spend on this series. Maybe I’ll wait for a box set.
It would be trivial for ADVFilms to put Japanese language, English subtitled releases up. I assume dual-language would be simple enough as well. Other than this, I see three barriers to entry:
- DRM encumbering the downloads. This limits their audience to only Windows users, and ignores the iPod Video crowd who might view videos often, on commutes or otherwise. I don’t know if the DRM is a requirement of the rights holders to the shows, or if ADV actually thinks it will stop piracy. Any new piracy of shows ADV films licenses to dub and release will be people ripping the DVDs and putting them online. Older piracy will be based off of the Japanese DVDs or from what the episodes aired on television.
- No path to own physical medium. Don’t mistake this with the ability to buy the DVD and pay five to ten dollars extra to view it right away. A path to own would allow one to buy downloads, then buy the DVD for a discounted price.
- Pricing. Looking at the price of the DVDs, the premium pricing isn’t too bad. However, because you’re not getting bonus features, etc., the pricing could be lower. Additionally, when compared with a box set release, how will the prices hold up in comparison?
What I believe ADVFilms should do is the following:
Remove DRM from downloads. This would change the distribution model, as right now I can download any episode of any series available through the site. I simply cannot run anything I did not pay for because of the DRM. By removing DRM, the download system would have to require authentication, a username and password. Just watch out for many IP addresses accessing a file all at once.
Either drop the multi-pricing, or allow the user to “upgrade”. That is to say, if I buy a standard download for US$2.00, let me later pay US$2.00 to upgrade it to premium. They already track what I’ve bought (so they can provide download links and registration keys, as well as the number of licenses used).
Additionally, allow an upgrade path toward buying the DVD where the cost of buying the DVD with episode downloads prior is no higher than the cost of buying the DVD first thing. Let me “try before I buy” by allowing me to buy an episode, then knock its price off of the DVD.
Consider putting “episode one” for every show out there as a free download. Again, this gives the users a “try before I buy” option.
Provide downloads is different formats. For example, provide something other than Windows Media Player. They can even do some sniffing what operating system the user’s web browser suggests the user runs, and they can default to providing whichever format is most common on Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X, and Linux distributions. That’s three major targets, three formats. I imagine Windows Media Video, QuickTime, and Ogg. Give me the option to download the file for an iPod video, and even make it available via iTunes if possible.
Expanding on price, quality, and formats, an iPod Video download could be US$2.00 (even better at US$1.00, as this can be made up for in volume sold), with an upgrade path to DVD quality downloads, and with an upgrade path to buying the DVD. You can’t tell me ignoring the iTunes store as a distribution method for your infinite-supply items isn’t a colossal blunder. [Edit: See the first two comments where the blame goes to the rights holders here; ADV appears to be trying on getting the prices down and availability up!]
Make it a nicer, easier process from start to finish to buy episodes than to watch them on YouTube.
If you’re interested in a service such as the ADVFilms digital downloads, but have issues with it, be sure to let ADVFilms know: e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If no one voices their opinions, ADVFilms won’t know which changes to consider making. Just remember to be professional and friendly in your e-mails. I’ve already sent out an e-mail, myself.