7 things you need to know about free video on demand

Consumer Reports News: March 29, 2013 10:38 AM


Free video on demand is a great idea in theory—but often it hasn't offered much to watch. And most of free VOD content has been SD (standard definition), a letdown for anyone used to high definition. But recently things have improved, at least for TV programming. The situation varies by provider, but based on conversations with friends and relatives, I'd say free VOD is generally getting better. Here's what you need to know:

1. There's more to watch. My free VOD lineup includes about 75 TV programs from the big four networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—and hundreds more shows from a few dozen cable channels. Many popular shows are available, including kids' favorites. And if you subscribe to HBO and Showtime, you get free on demand from those channels, too, including original series and some decent movies.

2. More of it is in high definition. Many more shows are now offered in HD as well as SD, so you don't have to sacrifice quality to watch a program when you want. When the new FX series "The Americans first started, I could get only an SD version—but an HD version was just added.

3. The number of episodes available varies wildly. With some programs, you'll find only a few recent episodes, so don't assume one will stick around forever. (Missed out? You might be able to watch it free at the network website, using your tablet, phone, or computer.) In other cases, you can get a full season or even multiple seasons, especially on premium channels.

4. You don't have to DVR as much. Now that I can get HD episodes of programs like "The Good Wife," I've stopped recording them. That's taken the pressure off my DVR, which is often perilously close to full.

Find the best television for your needs and budget: See our TV buying guide and Ratings.

5. You can make up for a late start. Missed the debut of that drama everyone's talking about? Watch it on demand. I didn't have HBO when "Game of Thrones" first aired, but after hearing friends rave about it, I watched the first two seasons on VOD, and now I can't wait for the new episodes to start this weekend.

6. You can take a refresher course. With the "intermission" between seasons getting longer (think "Madmen"), you can re-watch the previous season's finale to refresh your memory.

7. You might have to watch commercials. Fast forward is disabled with some shows, so you can't blow past them as you do with your DVR. For the same reason, think twice about rewinding unless you're willing to revisit a segment you just watched.

Bottom line: Check back often to see what your free VOD offers. You can usually access it at a specific channel number or via the program guide. Then it's a simple matter of navigating the menus or searching for a title. Clicking the onscreen keyboard to spell out the name can be tedious with a standard remote, but it gets the job done.

Curious about other ways to stream movies and TV shows? Check out our streaming video and movie rental buying guide.

Eileen McCooey

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