Review: BitBop offers dream of great video on Android someday

Have I mentioned there are a dearth of options for watching TV shows and movies on Android devices? Yeah? Well, while we wait for the possible arrival of Netflix and Hulu Plus for Android, I’m just trying out a new offering called BitBop on my T-Mobile Nexus S.

It’s very early days yet but it has potential to be pretty good. The interface is snappy and simple and it’s the first widely available Android video service I know of that lets you download shows to your phone for viewing offline (you can also stream while online). Unfortunately, the content and pricing leave BitBop in the dust compared with the offerings on the iPhone from iTunes, Netflix and several others.

In a world of fragmentation, one of the first cool thing about BitBop is that works on lots of Android phones — 30 so far including many popular models like the Galaxy S, HTC Droid Incredible and my personal fave, the Nexus S. It also works on some Blackberries.

You can’t load the app through the Google Market, sadly. You have to check the “unknown sources” box in the applications section of your settings. But thanks to the Amazon appstore, we’ve already probably all done that by now. After you sign up on the web site and create an account (credit card required), BitBop send you a text message with a link to download the app. Install and you’re ready to go.

Once you fire the app up, there’s a simply interface for finding shows. Movies aren’t available yet. If you’re connected online via wifi or 3G, you can watch the shows streamed or download to your phone for later offline viewing. Here’s what the opening screen looks like:

But there are at least two huge problems with BitBop. First, as of right now on March 25, 2011, the content is incredibly spotty. There are 168 TV shows and 0 — that’s zero — movies available. Even for the TV shows listed, most have only one or two episodes available. Maybe that’s not even spotty, just crappy.

And the selection is bizarre. For The Office, the only episode available to watch is from February 24 and it says it will expire on April 15. I hope they add some more episodes by then! Other shows, like Sponge Bob Square Pants, don’t even have full episodes, just short snippets, snackable comedy bites, I guess. For example, you can watch 2 minutes of Betty White at Comedy Central’s roast of William Shatner (After saying hi to George Takei, she quips: “We all think Shatner’s nuts, but George take has actually seen them”).

The other downer is the price: $10 a month after an initial free 7-day trial. That’s more than an online subscription to Netflix with only one-billionth as much content (though you do get the download option that Netflix doesn’t offer) and hard to justify against Apple’s pay only when you watch pricing. It also appears that the $10 won’t even include movies, once they finally arrive. Movie rentals will be $1 to $5, according to the web site. The pricing seems way out of line.

So, we end where we started. TV and movie options on Android stink. But like Meg Ryan says in the movieĀ You’ve Got Mail when asked if she’s fallen in love: No but there’s the dream of someone else.

Tivo already connects your TV to the web content you want

TivoHD modelWe’ve been happy Tivo subscribers for almost two years now. We started with a Toshiba RS-TX20 model that also has an integrated DVD player/recorder. That was an awesome combination (just one remote!) but its been discontinued. Not just the model — the whole concept. So when we added a high-definition television set and Verizon’s FIOS service last year, we bought a true Tivo box, the Series3 HD.

The Series3 can record high-def shows and connect to the Internet to do all the brilliant Tivo scheduling tricks. But it also requires that we have a separate DVD player and its accompanying remote to watch movies on disk. Big drag. Plus we lost the ability to transfer shows to DVD, which might make some TV execs somewhere happy but seems like a big downer to us ordinary consumers who just want an easy way to let our kids watch their favorite shows while on vacation in hotel rooms and so on.

Lately, the news has been full of the latest boxes and schemes to better connect your television to whatever source of programming turns you on. Downloads and streaming and cable, oh my. There’s the new Netflix $99 box designed by Roku that lets you choose movies on your PC that are then streamed over the Internet to your TV via the box. Gizmodo loves it, but others, like Kristen Nicole on Mashable, less so. Then Sony announced it would be adding a cable industry developed technology currently going by the tag “Tru2way” to some of its high-end TVs obviating the need for a set-top box even for pay-per-view and on-demand cable programming. NewTeeVee is pretty optimistic though I found it — and almost all the media coverage, really — lacking the history and context of this technology and rather naive about the cable industry’s aims here. But that’s a subject for another post. Plus Apple rolled out its HBO deal for downloadable if overpriced shows and Jeff Bezos said Amazon would get into the live streaming biz soon.

At first, all this news had me depressed that so many competing players were battling over all these little pieces of the big picture. The forest and the trees and all that. After all, I just want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it on the TV I like to watch. And just let me use a fairly simple and solitary remote control, please. But as I sat down to write some kind of screed against the industry, I started to mentally tally how we’d used our Tivos just in the past few weeks:

– Watched New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman’s five minute video podcast, which we gleefully follow every week.

– Realized we weren’t going to make it home on a Sunday night in time to watch The Tudors on Showtime, so we logged into our Tivo online account via a laptop and ordered one of our Tivos to record the episode, which it did.

– Rented “La Vie en Rose” from Amazon’s Unbox service web site and had it download automatically to our Tivo where we watched it a few nights later (We regularly rent two or three Unbox movies a month and would rent even more if the selection was better and/or the release dates matched the DVD release date).

– Watched all manner of recorded TV shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Battlestar Galactica.

– Pulled an episode of the children’s show Charlie & Lola off the Tivo hard drive and onto my iMac using Roxio’s legal Tivo Transfer program which then converted it to a format for the iPod for my daughter to watch later on a car trip.

– Watched some of the movie trailer promo ads featured at the bottom of the Tivo home screen. Full disclosure: as a boy, I even watched a few of the extended new car promos Tivo featured when my wife wasn’t around.

What am I trying to say? Tivo does just about everything I want and if the selection of rentable movies and web video was simply expanded, I don’t think I’d have much left to complain about — well, maybe they could add back in the DVD player. Send Sony, Netflix, Apple et al away. You’re not needed here.

p.s In the mea culpa department, I was all wrong about the Tivo-Unbox link up when it was announced last year. Oops.