Even as little as seven years ago, trying to obtain video on the Internet, much less watching a movie, was a complete nightmare. With much of the Internet still on dialup, it could take hours to download even a three minute music video, days for a feature-length film.
Furthermore, the video-watching experience was hampered by a kludge of competing codecs and video players, largely driven by competition from Apple, Microsoft and Real. This meant that, even if you had the patience or fast enough connection to download a video of any size, there was no guarantee that it would work.
However, in 2004 that began to change. With the release of Flash Professional MX 2004, the FLV file became a standard and, for the first time, high-quality video could be streamed using the Flash plugin. Since nearly all surfers had Flash, it meant that video could be streamed seamlessly in Web sites without any codec or video player issues.
This, combined with the widespread adoption of broadband, paved the way for streaming video to enter the mainstream and for sites such as YouTube, Veoh and Vimeo to blossom.
However, most of the major video sites specialize in the streaming of short clips, less than 20 minutes in length. Those wanting to watch full movies are often disappointed. The good news is that, as the Web has grown, more and more places have sprung up to help you watch full movies on the Web for free. Furthermore, there are still many of the pre-FLV solutions available to help you download and save movies to your computer.
So where can you find full movies to watch? Here are just some of the places:
Free Movie Sites
The pinnacle of the online movie experience is finding full-length movies available for streaming. Thus making the movies available instantly, anywhere with no software needed to install and no cost to the consumer. Though it sounds like a dream come true, there are actually a few sites that are making it happen right now.
Hulu is a joint venture of NBC and News Corp (the owners of Fox). Though the site is primarily focused on television shows, it also has a strong library of popular movies for free streaming. The site is ad supported but the resolution and streaming quality, for the most part, is good.
The Web Archive
For older movies, the Web Archive has a collection of public domain and freely-licensed movies available for download in a variety of resolutions. The videos range wildly in terms of content and and length. If you wish, with most of this films, you are free to edit it and incorporate it into works of your own.
This Comcast-owned site has hundreds for free movies available to watch instantly pulled from a variety of sources. Though many of the films come from Hulu, see above, they have others from previous decades, including obscure ones, that they host and provide exclusively there. Films on this site are ad-supported.
Much like Hulu and Fancast, Joost is a free video streaming site but it works with a different set of content partners. It boasts a large collection of freely-streamed movies as well as TV shows and other content, all uploaded by content creators. Also as with others on this list, this site is ad-supported.
Though not a video provider itself, Boxee has partnered with several other sites, to make it easier to get streaming programs from your computer to your TV. Boxee makes it so that you don't have to mess with the Web sites the content is on to watch the videos and can easily select interesting content with a remote from across the room.
The drawback to all of these free sites is that the movie selection, compared to the total number of movies released, is fairly limited. Though sites such as Hulu can provide hundreds of full movies, there are many hundreds of times that many available on other sites.
Paid Movie Sites
For a much better selection of legal movies on demand, one typically has to be willing to open their wallet. The good news is that, with the Web, the cost of watching movies has dropped to nearly nothing, making it one of the cheapest ways to get an evening's entertainment.
Here are some sites to consider when looking to stream or "rent" a movie online:
Netflix is best-known for its rent-by-mail DVD business, however, the company also provides a "Watch it Now" service that lets its subscribers watch 10s of thousands of movies for free online. The service comes with any account and provides with an unlimited amount of viewing time. The drawback is that the streaming requires Windows to function.
Not to be outdone, bricks-and-mortar video rental store Blockbuster has not only added a DVD-by-mail service, but also the ability to rent movies online. Movie rentals through Blockbuster cost around four dollars per rental and are viewable for up to one month after download and 24 hours after pressing "Play". Once again, the site requires Internet Explorer and Windows to operate. You can also choose to download movies to keep.
Though iTunes is technically an application, it works like a Web site, allowing you to download and rent movies. Movie rentals range from $1-$4 and has a similar viewing time to movies on Blockbuster, 30 days from download or 24 hours from when you first press "Play".
Amazon also has launched a video on demand service that works very similar to iTunes both in price, selection and function. Amazon's service lets you rent movies for $1-$4 and then view them within the allotted time. Amazon heavily promotes low-cost rentals, including older and obscure titles. Works on both Windows and Mac.
For fans in independent cinema, BigStar.TV provides an iTunes-like interface and the chance to rent or purchase thousands of independent user-submitted films. Films cost only a few dollars to rent and can usually be purchased for just a few more. Most of the films come without any DRM, meaning they should play on nearly all computers.
In short, by using a paid site, you not only get a much wider selection of movies to choose from, but the quality of the video, especially the resolution, improves drastically and you aren't subjected to advertisements. In many cases, it is well worth the few dollars to rent the movie rather than trying to stream it for free.
Before Web-based streaming became popular or widely available, peer-to-peer (abbreviated P2P) was the most common way to download movies. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer-to-peer]P2P is a generic term for a file sharing network that works by connecting peers, or users, directly with other peers. These networks have no centralized server and access to them requires a client application.
Some of the more popular client applications include the following:
Limewire is the best-known and most popular of the file sharing apps. It's 5th version brings in a slew of new features including a new interface, drill-down menus, the ability to share files directly with friends and CC integration to help you find free, legal content. It is available for both Mac and Windows and there is both a free and pro version of the product.
Though more stripped down than Limewire in terms of interface, eMule offers a great deal of power under the hood including the ability to share files across multiple networks, advanced statistics and a price tag of completely free. It has become a very popular client among those that prefer the eDonkey network.
Frostwire was created to be a free, open source alternative to Limewire. It touts itself as being faster, cleaner and adds the ability to download Bittorrent files. It even has the ability to apply new skins to itself to change its look. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
DC++ stands for Direct Connect ++, it is an open source file sharing application that runs on the Direct Connect network. It is a bare bones application that offers a standard set of features and is a favorite among some file sharers for movie or other large files. DC++, at this time, is only available for Windows.
KCeasy is a Windows-only file sharing applicaiton that uses giFT as it's backend, this allows it to connect to multiple networks including Gnutella, Ares and OpenFT. Development seems to have largely stopped on this application at this time, however, it may be due to issues with the networks themselves.
Over all though, traditional P2P file sharing is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The evolution of more efficient systems and action by ISPs to throttle down such transfers has made most P2P networks relative dead zones. Instead, most of what was traditional P2P has moved on to Bittorrent.
Over the past few years, Bittorrent has become the de facto standard for file sharing, especially of large files, such as movies.
Unlike the applications and networks mentioned above, Bittorrent works through trackers, or central servers, that monitor the file transfers. To share a file, a user would use a bittorrent client to create a small file known as a "torrent" that is uploaded to a server. The torrent file contains information about the file and the tracker that is to be used. Other clients then access the torrent file and, from there, visit the tracker and, through that, start downloading the file.
As users download the file, they are also uploading to other downloaders. The one offering the file is a "seeder" the ones downloading it are "peers" and peers that don't upload back are known as "leechers". The result is that Bittorrent can move a large amount of data quickly with no one user bearing a large upload cost.
There are many Bittorrent clients available, including the following:
Bittorrent is the official Bittorrent client of the Bittorrent corporation, the developers of the protocol. Though it is held in high regard it is not the most popular of the clients. Still, it is something of a standards bearer in the field, and a solid choie for beginners and will likely be the first to receive any innovations in the protocol.
uTorrent is known for being "micro-sized" and still very powerful and flexible. It prides itself on needing the least amount of resources to operate and still having a robust feature set including download management, throttling and more. Another great client for learning what Bittorrent is about.
Vuze goes the opposite direction of uTorrent and Bittorrent, though it is a Bittorrent client at heart, it also allows users to download and stream HD content from Vuze's own network. It also has a built-in media player that lets you watch movies and listen to songs right in the program itself.
Bitcomet is an older but still very popular Bittorrent client that lets you download bittorrents "up to 5-10 times faster" than other clients and even has the ability to preview certain media types as they are being downloaded. Bitcoment also claims to have caching features that makes it easier on your harddrive.
Bitlord is a fairly standard Bittorrent client but makes itself stand out through an integrated Bittorrent search engine that lets you find torrent files without having to surf the Web or visit 3rd party sites. Bitlord offers a pro version for faster downloading but the free version comes with no spyware/adware.
Due to the nature of Bittorrent, streaming of video or audio is not available at this time. Since Bittorrent downloads its files out of order, there is no way to easily stream a file being download (though you can, as with Bitcomet, preview the downloaded portions).
A Word of Caution
It is worth noting that, while there is a large amount of legal content available over both P2P and Bittorrent networks, there is also a large amount of material that, downloading, would constitute a copyright infringement. Rights holders are being very aggressive about protecting their rights and are, in many cases, targeting those who share files. Though the odds of getting caught are slim, it is well advised to locate legal torrents and files to download.
If you want to learn more about watching movies online, take a look at these links: