Hands on: much to like in Hulu Desktop
May 29, 2009 7:41 AM CT
Hulu dropped a surprise on TV fans Thursday by introducing public beta of Hulu Desktop—desktop software for the Mac and Windows that works with the popular TV streaming site. The software finally removes Hulu from the web browser in an official, Hulu-approved way and puts it into a very media-center-like format for browsing and watching your favorite shows. Though Hulu Desktop still keeps Hulu's offerings largely on the computer, it offers some flexibility in the watching experience.
This is all part of the opening of Hulu Labs which, according to the Hulu Blog, will offer sneak peeks at things the developers are working on. This includes recommendation algorithms, custom widgets, and more. The first Hulu Labs offering, however, is Hulu Desktop, which was designed as a "lean-back viewing experience" for use with either Apple's standard remote or the Windows Media Center remote (the menus can be navigated with a mouse and keyboard as well).
What's it like to use? In short, many of us at the Ars Orbiting HQ agree that it's basically "Joost done right." (Joost on the desktop was never horrible, but never really took off either, and was somewhat confusing to use.) Hulu Desktop lets users start browsing and watching TV right away—no login required. However, if you do have an account at Hulu with preferences and subscriptions set up, you can easily log into it from the desktop to access all of your stuff.
The menu system is intuitive and lets you browse by movies, TVs, popular shows or clips, newly added selections, your own subscriptions, and more. And, of course, there's a search box if you want to look for something new. My favorite part about the software, however, is that it shrinks whatever you're currently watching and sticks it in the upper left corner in order to let you browse the menu system and keep playing the video at the same time.
My video keeps playing in the upper left while I browse for more content
Really, the best way to get a feel for the software is to download it yourself and play around, but we Ars staffers have taken an early liking to it. As for my use on the Mac, keeping Hulu Desktop running in the background while I'm working on other things does not make me want to jump off a building like Joost did—it appears to require relatively low overhead and certainly sucks up less CPU and memory than Safari does while idling in the background. And, of course, the upside is that Hulu Desktop can be used easily on your Windows Media Center or Mac-based HTPC much easier than trying to watch Hulu in the browser on those machines. (Of course, it would be more ideal if it could be built right into the WMC software or the Mac's Front Row somehow, but this might be a suitable alternative for the time being.)
The downside, though, is that you still can't officially watch Hulu on other set-top boxes that would take the Internet video with its less-lucritive ads straight to the TV. (Hulu yanked access from Boxee's media center software earlier this year thanks to some whining from the content providers. They didn't want their video to go straight to the TV instead of living in the computer sandbox as it was intended.) This distinction is important, because the large majority of the Internet-using population has no knowledge or interest in setting up an HTPC. Allowing the small population of nerds (let's be honest here, guys) watch Hulu on the desktop with a remote control is no skin off Hulu's back and it makes a vocal minority happy.
Would we be happier if Hulu Desktop could be used in more ways than on a Mac or Windows equipped computer? Yes. But Hulu's taking baby steps here, and we are still pleased with the result.