My TV remote has been gathering some dust lately, since I've been catching up with shows on the Web — at my leisure. And, no, I haven't been visiting network Web sites.
I've been using a free Web site called Hulu (www.hulu.com). Unlike network sites and video sharing sites like YouTube, Hulu lets viewers stream full TV episodes, full-length movies and clips from various networks and film studios all in one place.
The site, a joint venture between General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal and News Corp., opened to the public this month after several months of use by a test group. (Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Hulu doesn't offer content from all the major networks — CBS and ABC shows are absent — but it includes episodes from NBC and Fox, as well as movies from several studios and a variety of video clips.
The clips include parts of movies and shows, such as "Saturday Night Live" or "Napoleon Dynamite," that have a lot of catchy, funny moments.
Hundreds of videos being added weekly
So far, Hulu has full episodes from about 250 TV shows and more than 100 full-length films. Hundreds of videos are being added to the site each week.
The site is supported by commercials viewers see interspersed with the videos and by small stationary ads that sit above the video in their browser — a trade-off some won't mind but others will likely find annoying.
Hulu's offerings are still sparse, and users have to deal with a variety of minor annoyances. But the combination of TV shows and movies with personalization and social features makes Hulu a fun site for free, legal online viewing.
One of the first things I did on the site was set up a personal profile and log myself in. Creating a profile isn't necessary for watching much of the content, but you need one to log in to watch R-rated movies or TV episodes that are rated for mature audiences.
The site is intended for use by people age 13 and older and relies on users self-reporting their ages. But if a logged-in user who is under 17 tries to watch R-rated movies or TV-MA shows, the content will not play.
Create a content queue
Logging in to Hulu let me do things like create a queue of content I want to watch, post reviews of videos I have seen and list information about myself for other users to see. Users don't have to log in to see one another's profiles.
Sorting through an alphabetical listing of shows _ one of several simple ways to navigate the site _ I spotted some recent episodes of "Heroes," added them to my queue and then watched them over the next few evenings.
The quality of the videos is pretty good — generally files stream at 480 or 700 kilobits per second. They progressed fluidly on the screen of my desktop computer at work. In comparison, YouTube content streams at about 200 kbps.
I liked the ability to view videos directly in the browser page, in full-screen mode or in a separate window I could move and resize. I found that mode the most convenient because it is more conducive to multitasking.
With it, I also could enlarge content that seemed small in the browser window but didn't look great on the full screen, like episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Astro Boy." The ones I watched seemed a bit blurry when filling the screen.
A neat feature on Hulu is the ability to share content with others through a little button on the edge of the video's viewing area. I found some particularly choice old episodes of the "Maury" talk show — the first and second parts of "I'll Prove a 13-Year-Old Boy Fathered My Baby!" — and posted them to my Facebook profile along with a note.
I also perused the movie selection on Hulu. After watching about 15 minutes of the animated film "Ice Age," my multitasking ways got the better of me and I went off to do something else. Several days later, I opened Hulu again and clicked over to "Ice Age," assuming the film would restart at the beginning. To my surprise, it picked up where I had left off, apparently a perk of logging in to the site.
Another time, I opted for one of my favorite films, "The Big Lebowski." Since the movie is rated "R," I had to log in. After that, I had the option of watching a movie trailer in advance or seeing commercials throughout the movie. I'm guessing most viewers will choose the former.
Ah, those annoying ads
Not surprisingly, Hulu's free content isn't truly free. The ads that show up periodically within episodes and films tend to repeat, which can be annoying — though I found it made them easier to tune out.
And, while you can e-mail friends links to videos, when I sent my co-worker Nick a link to "The Big Lebowski," the e-mail didn't include the title of the video being linked to. Users can include a message, though, where they can write the title themselves.
Also, on-the-go video buffs may be disappointed to see Hulu content can't be downloaded to a portable media player like an iPod or Zune. A Hulu spokeswoman told me the company hasn't ruled out making the content more portable in the future.
Even with kinks and limitations, though, Hulu's entertainment options and fairly simple navigation make it a good option for lazy evenings at home.
Speaking of which, I should get back to "Ice Age."