Filmstruck Revisited: Better, but still room for improvement

Back in November, I explained my disappointment with Filmstruck, the new classic movie streaming service created by Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. My biggest gripe – the limited devices available to easily send a movie to your television – has been partially fixed. You can now watch Filmstruck via Google’s Chromecast. Since my TV has Chromecast built in, I reactivated my subscription and can now enjoy the service without having to plug my laptop into my TV and control it with a mouse.

Roku users will still have to wait.

Filmstruck still offers a fantastic collection of classic cinema. But technically, it’s still pretty rough.

The website experience

I’ve already told you about the search and alphabetizing problems. But I didn’t discuss the tabs.

Want to find a good horror movie? Thanks to the website’s three-tab organization, you won’t be able to find all the service’s scary flicks in one place. You can go to the Filmstruck tab, find the horror genre, and browse some of the appropriate titles available. But you then must click the Criterion Channel tab and find the horror genre again to see the rest of them.

The third tab, Browse All, seems like the right place to find all the horror movies on the site. But this tab lacks browsing by genre. It just lists films sorted by title or date. And even then, to get all of the films, you have to filter on All.

Why does Filmstruck use such a clumsy design? My guess: Filmstruck treats Criterion as a premium feature; the service costs $7 a month without the Criterion collection, and $11 with it. It makes sense to remind people why they’re paying the extra $4, but it doesn’t make sense to complicate browsing.

It’s worth noting that The Criterion Channel doesn’t include every film available on disc from Criterion. Among the titles it lacks as I write this are:

  • Days of Heaven
  • Heaven’s Gate
  • Nashville
  • Easy Rider
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller
  • The Smiling Lieutenant
  • Trouble in Paradise
  • Design for Living

What do these films have in common? They’re all owned by major Hollywood studios. I suspect Criterion’s licenses to sell them on discs don’t include streaming rights. Other Hollywood films are available. (You may notice that the last three films I listed have something else in common. I was reading Scott Eyman’s Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise as I was researching this article.)

Since Turner Classic Movies is involved with this service, one should assume that the Filmstruck tab would offer movies screening on TCM. And yet I can’t find any such connection. But the collection is overall excellent – almost as good as Criterion’s. The films include 5 Broken Cameras, Gimme Shelter, Metropolis, and many more worth trying.

The Android experience

Chromecast lacks any significant user interface. To stream a video from a particular service, you need that service’s Android or iOS app, which must then support Chromecast.

I use an Android phone, so I’ll describe the Android app. I’ll assume that the iOS app behaves similarly.

Once again, the opening screen expects you to browse either the Filmstruck or the Criterion collection – and this time, there’s no Genre option. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the app, unlike the webpage, allows you to browse genres without thinking about Filmstruck vs. Criterion. Tap the menu in the upper-right corner and select Browse. Here you can browse by genre within All Films. Even the Search tool allows you to filter by genre.

If only the website had such good tools.

Not that Search is perfect. It still has the two-name problem I described in the previous article. Another problem: For some reason, neither Android’s Swype feature nor its voice support work in this app.

But when you want to watch a movie on the big screen, you just tap the Chromecast icon on the top of the screen and select your TV.

Watching movies on the big screen

Which isn’t to say that streaming Filmstruck to a television is always an easy affair. With Chromecast, you use the streaming service’s app to pause and unpause a stream. But sometimes the Pause or Play icon just doesn’t work in the filmstruck app. Other times, there’s no icon.

Fortunately, my TV’s remote can pause and unpause a Chromecast stream.

But that’s not the only problem: If I stop a stream and go back to it later, it rarely resumes at the same place where I left it. It’s been off by as much as half an hour. Since it’s difficult to manually find your place with any streaming service, this makes it impossible to watch part of a movie and return to it later. This is a particular problem with early Charlie Chaplin shorts, which Filmstruck makes available only in feature-length collections.

Filmstruck provides commentary tracks for many of its movies; a big plus in my opinion. But the commentary tracks don’t worth with Chromecast. You’ll have to listen to them on your phone or computer.

When it comes to image quality, Filmstruck looks pretty much like any other streaming service. At its best, streaming at 1080p, it looks good but not as good as a physical Blu-ray at the same resolution. Sometimes it looks considerably worse. But that’s the big issue with streaming. Image quality depends on bandwidth, and bandwidth depends on all sorts of variations beyond anyone’s control.

The bigger disappointment came with the audio – at least for newer movies. Filmstruck provides two-track PCM soundtracks for all its movies. Unlike Netflix, it doesn’t use Dolby Digital for 5.1 mixes. I get as close as I can to proper surround sound by using my receiver’s Dolby Surround option, but it’s not the same.

Filmstruck has improved the freezing problem I noted in my earlier article – where the image would freeze and I’d have to wait for the stream to catch up. But the problem hasn’t gone away entirely. I’ve managed to watch a couple of movies without freezes, and more with only one short freeze. But I found watching Run of the Arrow impossible because of short freezes happening once or twice a minute. Annoyed, I switched to a program on Hulu, where nothing froze.

I’m really developing a love-hate relationship with Filmstruck. I don’t think I’ve ever found a better online selection of great movies. It’s almost impossible for me to browse and not find something I want to see or see again.

On the other hand, it’s still pretty rough.

2 thoughts on “Filmstruck Revisited: Better, but still room for improvement

  1. I am with you on the freezing/buffering problem. I even had to go so far as to change my IP through a proxy for it to just work.

  2. I haven’t used the mobile apps as of yet but the video player is terrible on the desktop website.
    It is so difficult to seek at a specific point even playing and pausing doesn’t work correctly.

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