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Did you know that Amazon has a streaming content service like Netflix, CraveTV, or Shomi? Neither did I! Well, I think a part of me was vaguely aware of it, but I had no real reason to give it much thought. I’m sure that they have pretty much the same thing as everyone else… a bunch of older seasons of shows that I don’t watch. Netflix has original content that sets it apart from the others, but it’s the only one. Or is it?
Consider these two scenarios:
Do either of these sound familiar to you? Chances are the second one does, especially if you are in Canada. It’s been a long-standing complaint of many of us that the Netflix we have here is inferior to that of our friends to the south. Whether that’s true is entirely up to you, but there’s certainly no denying that programming is different between the two and American Netflix has a much greater library of content to choose from.
So what do you do if you find yourself faced with one of the above scenarios? Well, there have always been work-arounds available… as long as you didn’t mind playing with network proxy settings, or subscribing to a monthly VPN (Virtual Private Network) service. As for the rest of us, we’ve been forced to suck it up and be happy with what we had.
Let me introduce you to the simplest, most-effective way of gaining access to content that is traditionally blocked because of where you are. Hola Unblocker is a free Chrome extension that takes seconds to download and install and begins working immediately. There is no configuring. No subscription. Nadda. Download it from the Chrome store (free) and install. That’s it. That’s all. The extension runs automatically, and fools Netflix into thinking that you are logging in from within the United States. (NOTE: You still require an active Netflix account. Hola is not designed to give you unauthorized access to content. And yes, your Canadian Netflix account will work on the US Netflix site).
It only took me a couple of minutes to test this. I downloaded and installed Hola Unblocker, and went to Netflix.com and logged in. I could tell immediately that this wasn’t the Netflix that I was used to. I was able to start watching shows that hadn’t appeared to me earlier. Then I turned off and extension, and refreshed the page. Suddenly I was in my familiar Netflix experience. You can toggle back and forth between US and Canadian versions. It truly is that simple.
All this time I’ve been talking about Netflix, but Hola Unblocker works with more than just that service. Hola currently unblocks the following sites, with a promise to add more as its popularity grows:
And good news for Firefox users. Hola has an extension for you as well, although I haven’t tested it.
In the current internet age, content restrictions based solely on geographic location are becoming increasingly ancient thinking. But until media conglomerations fully accept the new reality and open their massive content vaults to a worldwide audience eager to pay for that access, companies like Hola provide the best solution for all parties.
When I first heard that Netflix had bought the sole distribution rights to Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards I didn’t really give it much thought. But after seeing the first preview for the 13 episode political drama, I suddenly took notice.
I’ve watched the first 4 episodes so far, and House of Cards is simply amazing. If your first thought is “Netflix? Bah… this will be a cheap, second rate attempt at a show that couldn’t get picked up on network television” let me assure you how very, very wrong you are. There is nothing cheap about this show. It is extremely well acted, and superbly produced.
Francis Underwood (Spacey) is a ruthless political figure who is promised a prestigious appointment in the President elect’s cabinet, only to have the new President renege on that promise.
From that point, Francis is quietly working against the administration and positioning himself for greater power. This cut-throat behind the scenes power play is fast-moving and completely engrossing. I was glued to the TV throughout the first 4 episodes, and can’t wait to get back to House of Cards tonight.
Great job, Netflix!
Update 16 Oct 2012: Because of Boxee’s sudden lack of updates and support, I can no longer recommend Boxee Box with as much enthusiasm as I did when this blog post was written. Technically my Boxee Box still works very well… but… it seems like an abandoned product now… hard to recommend people spend money on this.
I don’t have cable. I don’t even have rabbit ears… well, that’s not entirely true. I do have rabbit ears, but they don’t seem to work very well with my Dynex 40″ LCD TV. Those same rabbit ears will work perfectly when attached to an older TV, but with the Dynex they’re useless.
Everything that I watch now comes from the internet, either downloaded as torrents, or streamed from the television networks. There aren’t too many times that I wish I could watch live TV, and when that does happen, I pull out the old TV and watch whatever it is on the rabbit ears.
I’ve tried numerous methods of getting my downloaded content to play through to the LCD TV. The XBox 360 was my preferred method until Microsoft did a software upgrade that couldn’t install completely due to the lack of a hard drive on my console. Rather than revert back to whatever version it had been running, the XBox 360 seemed to go its default configuration. That default does not play DivX movies, and any time I tried to upgrade the software, it refused because the onboard drive is full. I don’t play games, so there shouldn’t have been anything taking up space on the drive, but the onboard drive is so pathetically small that whatever software updates had been downloaded from Microsoft filled it to capacity. Essentially my XBox was now an expensive brick unless I was willing to go purchase a hard drive. Add to that, I was less than pleased with the wireless adapter that I purchased earlier… it seemed that the XBox option was becoming increasingly more expensive and not worth it. The final straw was that Netflix claims to be able to stream through a XBox 360… but when I signed up for Netflix at $8/month I quickly discovered that it requires a Microsoft Live Gold account for the XBox 360 to be able to stream. I wasn’t about to give Microsoft more money, especially for a service that I wasn’t going to be using for anything other than streaming content from a third party. I considered cancelling my Netflix account, but at $8 it really is a nice service.. especially when you consider that it can stream up to 6 devices, so my kids are each able to watch shows on their netbooks, while I can watch on my iMac, iPhone, and (eventually) the LCD TV in the living room.
More than one person suggested looking at a Sony PS3, which is supposed to be a fantastic media server. I was considering it, and then I read about a little company called Boxee. They have been operating in the United States for a little while, and have recently expanded into Canada. I started to read more about them, and sent out a request for feedback from my Twitter followers. I received some great responses from them, and decided that the Boxee Box from DLink was worth it. The cost was $200, but if it worked as well as I was hoping it would, this would be the solution to all my problems.
The Boxee Box looks exactly like it sounds… it’s a black cube that sits near your TV and acts as a bridge for any multimedia content that you want to consume. Unlike most media servers that try to hide themselves, Boxee Box wants to be noticed! One of the corners is cut, forcing the unit to sit at an angle. It has USB ports to plug in external hard drives or memory sticks, as well as an ethernet port and built-in wireless to connect to any shared folders on your network. Setting up the Boxee Box takes about 10 minutes, and then the fun begins. Once you tell it where your media is, it scans the network and creates a list of movies, tv shows, and music. It is also capable of displaying your pictures, but I don’t believe that it scans for those; you have to add those manually.
There are a few really great things about Boxee:
As great as it is, Boxee isn’t perfect. I initially had some problems with my remote control seemingly losing connection to the box. When that happened, I turned to my iPhone to control Boxee, but not everyone has that option. The remote control problem appears to have fixed itself. No idea what caused it. Boxee also isn’t always the greatest at cataloguing the content it scans. I have hundreds of “unidentified files” that I can play by going into the File Browser, but it hasn’t picked them up as being movies or TV shows. Boxee also appears to be quite slow when launching new content, but it’s less Boxee’s fault and more the network it’s running on. If it’s playing content from a hard drive directly attached through the USB connection, it’s fine. If it’s playing a movie across the wireless network, it can be painfully slow starting. Once it achieves enough of a buffer, it begins playback. That’s normal for any media player connected wirelessly, but it certainly is painful when you click something, and wait and wait… and good luck trying to skip to another part of the movie. I’ve found this does not work well. I’ve also noticed that when you stop a movie and try to resume it later, it may give you the option to resume, but when you select that, it starts at the beginning again. That’s probably my biggest annoyance with Boxee at the moment.
Because content rights differ between countries, the apps that come installed on Boxee in the United States are going to be different than the ones in Canada. As more agreements are struck with content providers, Boxee is able to update software on the unit automatically. A perfect example is music video site Vevo which was only recently added to Boxee. I’m sure as time goes on, I will start to see even more content listed when I sit down to watch TV. And more content is always a good thing!
All in all, I’m quite pleased with my Boxee Box.
I’d love to hear from other Boxee users about their experiences