Leaving AOL? Lose their video site.

AOL Video

Edited 02-20-2007 and 05-15-2007.

Recently I did a few drive-by reviews of Videos at AOL.com and Stage6, a new video site I learned about on Digg, and the differences between the “file-sharing” sites are staggering. All they have in common is free videos with some for sale at various prices; the only advantage AOL has over Stage6 is that sometimes they have more to choose from.

Focus: AOL HI-Q Videos

I didn’t take AOL’s normal (low-quality) videos into account for this article; while they’re crisp and clear in their compact version (which is tiny) when you expand them to full-screen all you get is a muddy blur punctuated by a pair of eyes now and then. And don’t blame that on my video card; my video card would make almost anyone jealous. I focused instead on AOL’s HI-Q (HD or high-definition) videos. They’re rare at best, extremely hard to find, and require installing ActiveX controls and their HI-Q Player, which was a nightmare.

For reasons known only to AOL you need IE to download the HI-Q player.

That was the first strike against it. I dislike exposing my PC to vulnerabilities in IE that will never see the light of day in Firefox. The installation file kept downloading over and over again. That was the next strike against it. After three downloads I had to make the download stop through Task Manager.

IE7 blocks scripts and ActiveX controls.

That means technically you can’t download anything with it, so the next annoyance was giving the download and at least three different ActiveX controls permission to run. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most pull-your-hair-out experience imaginable, AOL’s HI-Q Player was off the charts.

You’re out of control!

Once you’re through IE’s endless warnings, beeping download blockers, awkward right-click installations and the player is finally being installed, you’re out of control; there’s no clue as to what’s being installed or where it will land. Searching for the player in Explorer once it’s installed is useless, and that’s coming from someone who swears she can find anything on a PC. I finally resorted to running a product I dislike and avoid, SIW, to trace it’s single running process, KHost, back to a C:Windows directory, which still told me nothing. The executable was the only thing I found in that folder.

Is this a rootkit?

At that point I swore the program was a rootkit, so I ran it through Resplendence’s Rootkit Hook Analyzer. The scan came up clean, so unless it’s designed to avoid detection, it probably isn’t a rootkit. That said, the only place you can access it from is the Taskbar. That’s kind of scary.

How do I uninstall it?

I checked Add/Remove Programs, Program Files, the Start List, and my Taskbar’s HI-Q shortcut for an uninstaller but no matter where I looked I couldn’t find one. I checked CCleaner’s and Spybot’s Uninstaller lists but they came up empty, too. I finally found it using jv16 powertool’s Software Manager but using jv16 is like breaking out heavy artillery to get rid of unwanted houseguests; it’s way beyond what you should need to get rid of any program. Except, of course, theirs.

It downloads a download manager?

Not only that, but the player downloads a Download Manager that autoruns on startup unless you disable it immediately. It’s always visible in the right-hand corner above the Taskbar and slows the computer down considerably.

Well, hell, let’s try it out.

My favorite artist is Mariah Carey so I downloaded a few of her videos for comparison. What I couldn’t find was the same high-quality Mariah video on both AOL and Stage6, so I compared two favorites, “Fantasy,” which AOL has a HI-Q version of, and “It’s Like That,” which thanks to Stage6’s file format is high-quality.

Letter-boxing and ads?

Once the player was running I was unpleasantly surprised by full-screen mode. It’s the format of the box around the video that I disliked. It takes up major screen real estate and makes videos look low-rent. See for yourself below (I can’t capture video with my under-capable technology but I hope you get the idea). Another serious drawback: there’s at least 30 seconds of ads you have to watch before each video starts.

No Local Hard Drive Storage

In one of the weirdest twists I’ve seen in P2P playback, AOL’s HI-Q videos can be “downloaded” and played back but cannot be stored locally on your hard drive. Downloading is strictly peer-to-peer, not server-based, to save AOL money, uses digitally signed videos that only AOL can upload, uses a grid framework similar to BitTorrent, but it stores your downloads in one place only — on an IE page.

More disadvantages…

To watch the same video again you have to open AOL’s Download Manager, which opens a page in IE with a list of your downloads. From there you can play them back or download more, but there’s no way to store the files on your computer. All videos are protected with Windows DRM. You have to acquire the rights to play a video at least once and sometimes each time you want to watch it (my experience varied depending on the song). Example screen shots are below.

AOL Hi-Q sucks!

This added up to one bad experience that I wouldn’t repeat except that AOL has a few high-quality videos you can’t find on other video sites, but since I can’t store, share or even work with those videos (for instance, I’m fond of decompiling video for stills but that’s impossible with AOL’s technology) I’m limited to local playback on IE after I acquire the rights to each video yet again. It’s not something I feel is worth wasting time on.

Compare HI-Q to Stage6 and DivX.

After you zip through a quick Stage6 sign up page, you can download the DivX player and codecs from any browser (and that’s not as hard or as time-consuming as it sounds). The DivX Player gives you control over what’s installed, shows where files will be stored, lets you change the destination folder, and moves along quickly so you can you create, upload, download, and share files on their website or offline using a high-def file format similar to MPEG-4 (it’s said to be a hacker’s rendition of the format, but who cares…it works).

Advantages of Stage6 and DivX…

There’s no DRM, no Download Manager, and no downloading files and playing them back exclusively from IE (a slow and laborious process at best). Stage6 gives you the freedom and control to do what you want. Full-screen playback is also seriously awesome on Stage6. There’s no ads before a video starts; in fact, there’s no ads at all. To access video controls, just right-click the video, even while it’s playing.

Conclusion: Don’t bother with AOL Hi-Q.

Using the DivX player is like heaven on a PC. Forget YouTube with their crappy Flash videos that you have to rip with possibly illegal software and AOL’s DRM’d offerings, played back against a less-than-ideal backdrop. If you’re looking for the best in free, high-quality video, without the annoyances and limitations of AOL, Stage6 is your best bet.

Visit these sites for more information:

Stage6
How DivX Works