Updated on December 10, 2021
I’ve written previously on the issues surrounding digital media support if one happens to not have all of one’s devices in the same “walled garden”/”ecosystem.” In my case, my current devices consist of: a Mac Mini; an Xbox 360; a Nexus 4 smartphone; a Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 tablet; a Chromebook; a Roku streaming stick; and an HP laptop with Linux Mint. Since the major tech conglomerates seem bent on pushing their own devices/stores as much as possible, cross-platform support has historically been mediocre. Thanks to digital rights management (DRM), it’s especially so for buying digital video. (Streaming-only video services like Netflix tend to be more cross-platform.)
The best solution for cross-platform support (and avoiding DRM) is still ripping one’s own DVDs/Blu-Rays into DRM-free digital files that’re playable on any device. (Well, that or piracy, truth be told, though I’m going with solutions that give the creators compensation.) However, as an alternative, I thought I’d look at what digital video store solutions would work best with all of my devices. The major digital video stores I looked at were iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Xbox. Of course, all come with DRM that’s impossible to remove (or very difficult/convoluted/costly, per the solutions I’ve seen for iTunes). I’m also just looking at purchasing videos, not streaming, which some services arbitrarily treat differently.
While it’s dated (from early 2013), this chart from CNET lays out the incompatibilities between devices/stores pretty nicely.
iTunes is the one service that’s still tied to a particular application, instead of a website like the other services. As such, no Linux support…and no support for any devices not made by Apple.
- Mac: iTunes is fully supported, of course.
- Xbox 360: No iTunes support.
- Android: No iTunes support.
- Roku: No iTunes support.
- Chromebook: No iTunes support.
- Linux: No iTunes support.
Besides serving as an app store, Google Play also serves as Google’s answer to iTunes for its Android operating system. Since Google Play seems to be using YouTube’s infrastructure for video support/playback, cross-platform support’s better here than in other stores.
- Mac: SD video is available through the browser. HD support through a browser is sporadic, and apparently depends on the movie/TV show owner’s whims. My copy of “Wreck-It Ralph” is in standard definition (SD), but copies of “Regular Show” and “Peg + Cat” are in high definition.
- Xbox 360: Google Play videos can be played through the YouTube app, under the “Purchases” tab. In the past, this support was spotty/more hidden, but recent revisions to the YouTube app seem to have improved support. From my testing, HD was available.
- Android: Full support for Android devices, including HD videos.
- Roku: Google Play has its own Roku app. HD is available.
- Chromebook: Similar to Chromebook’s Android cousins, there’s full support for Google Play videos in SD. HD is again subject to the same licensing whims as on the Mac above.
- Linux: Google Play videos can be played through the browser (with same SD/HD restrictions as the Chromebook/Mac above), after making sure the HAL module for Flash is installed first (for DRM reasons).
Amazon Instant is Amazon’s streaming/rental/purchase store for videos, meant to compete with iTunes, Hulu and Netflix. Amazon helpfully gives this chart showing its services’ device/software compatibility.
- Mac: There’s HD support in a browser for TV shows, but movies will only play in SD.
- Xbox 360: Purchased videos can be played in HD. (You can’t buy videos through the Xbox, however.)
- Android: Amazon’s finally added support for the Instant Video app for non-Kindle Android devices, with videos playing in SD. However, installing the app requires installing Amazon’s own app store, which requires allowing for side-loading apps on your Android device—a lot of work just to aggressively push their own app store on users. Apparently, Amazon figures if Android users won’t buy their Kindle, then forcing them to install their app store to access Instant Video is the next “best” thing?
- Roku: Amazon has an app for Roku devices with HD support.
- Chromebook: TV shows and movies play in HD, similar to Windows computers’ browsers.
- Linux: Support within the browser for purchases, with HAL module installed. I didn’t test it, but assume similar support to Chromebook for HD?
Vudu is Wal-Mart’s digital video store service. Unfortunately, while every device I have is supported for SD, support for HD is variable and arbitrary for no apparent reason.
- Mac Mini: Supported for SD; HD support variable.
- Xbox 360: Full support for HD via the Vudu app.
- Android: Support for SD only on Android devices via Vudu’s app.
- Roku: Vudu has an app for Roku devices, with HD support.
- Chromebook: Support via the browser for Vudu, though presumably with similar HD issues as the Mac.
- Linux: Support via the browser for Vudu (with HAL module installed), though presumably with similar HD issues as the Mac.
Microsoft has its own store for Xbox videos, but it tends to be oriented toward/compatible with Microsoft-related devices.
- Mac Mini: Supported for SD only within a browser.
- Xbox 360: Full support, of course.
- Android: No support for Android devices.
- Roku: No support for the Roku.
- Chromebook: Unclear if Chrome OS is supported, but if so, presumably SD only like OS X.
- Linux: Unclear if Linux is supported, but if so, presumably SD only like OS X.
While it’s more convenient than ripping DVDs, there’s still problems with digital video stores. Besides the DRM issues, there’s also that the stores (or more likely, the media companies) still treat HD as a luxury or “special” feature. Thus, whether one can get one’s purchase in HD depends on what device/app one’s using, which frankly is ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is that even staying relatively within one device “ecosystem” isn’t a guarantee of HD support, again presumably due to studios’ whims. A Google Play “Peg + Cat” video plays in HD just fine on all my devices, but not a Nickelodeon show also from Play (which is only in HD on my tablet); this despite Chrome OS being Google’s doing.
That said, the best digital store options seems to be Google Play, followed by Amazon and Vudu. While these were the only stores that’d play on all of my devices, they’re all flawed by their inconsistent and arbitrary handling of high definition versus standard definition.
Hopefully, things will change in the future, at least as far as widespread HD support is concerned. Ending DRM is unfortunately unlikely, given Hollywood’s paranoid mindset.
Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.