Subscribing to Hulu Plus or Netflix is a great deal--until you find yourself on a less-than-perfect Internet connection. Perversely, your streaming media library is most valuable in places where you can't access the Internet: Watching a movie or burning through episodes of your favorite TV show is the best way to get through a long plane trip, a car ride, or a vacation in the middle of nowhere.
Luckily, you can use third-party software and a few tricks to download streaming video from Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. Now you can watch your entertainment on your terms, even in places where your cherished Amazon Prime account is inaccessible.
Bottling the Amazon Prime Instant Video stream
At first blush Amazon appears to offer an easy option with its downloadable Unbox Player, but the fine print renders Amazon's own tool almost useless for practical purposes.
Sure, you can use the Unbox Player to download movies and television shows you've rented or purchased on Amazon, but you can't use it to download the Amazon Prime Instant Video content that you can stream through your Amazon Prime subscription. The Unbox Player does let you stream that stuff, but streaming through Unbox isn't any different than streaming through your browser.
I rented a movie on Amazon to test whether Unbox could indeed download files for later. A half hour and several rounds of quitting out of the program and refreshing my recent purchases later, the film finally showed up in Unbox for offline viewing.
The user experience was unpleasant, and offered no added convenience compared with watching video in my browser or through iTunes. Amazon's official solution to the offline-viewing problem is a bit of a wash. Fortunately, as I'll discuss later, some unsanctioned third-party alternatives can give you considerably more control over your streamed media.
Jumping through hoops to save Hulu video
Hulu doesn't provide an official download option. Viewers who want to record streaming movies and TV for later enjoyment should try RTMPDumpHelper, a free utility designed to download media that you're streaming via RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol, which Hulu uses). Your experience may differ on Linux, but on Windows you can simply download RTMPDumpHelper and the RTMPDump Toolkit, unzip both into one folder, and then open the RTMPDumpHelper program.
RTMPDumpHelper will walk you through the process of establishing a proxy server that will intercept any RTMP streams (including those for Hulu and several smaller video-streaming sites) and save them as an MP4 file. Be warned, though: Setup can be somewhat finicky, and the documentation is a little technical.
During my testing, RTMPDump never successfully attached itself to Chrome--my browser of choice--even after I tried multiple suggested solutions online. I eventually gave up and opened Firefox, which RTMPDump readily recognized.
However, even after RTMPDump was hooked into my browser, about a third of the time the program failed to notice that I was streaming a new video from Hulu. I had to reload the page--but since it was easy to see whether the stream was being recorded in the RTMPDumpHelper window, the extra step added only a few seconds of inconvenience.
Futzing with RTMPDumpHelper can be a little frustrating, but the results are worth your trouble. Of all the methods I used, RTMPDump produced usable video the fastest--usually just a few moments after my streams finished, taking minimal processing time compared with other options. It also recorded video in a format (MP4) that was easy to transfer to my phone or tablet, or to watch later on my PC. In fact, if RTMPDump were a ubiquitous utility, it would be the best way to download streaming media, period. The problem is, most streaming sites--including Netflix, the biggest name in streaming video--don't use RTMP.
Taking back Netflix
If downloading videos from Amazon and Hulu seems difficult, well, I'm afraid Netflix has made the process almost impossible. Several years ago you could intercept a stream directly from Netflix, à la RTMPDump, but Netflix wised up and now exerts much tighter control over your streaming data.
In fact, the only reliable method I could find to get a copy of a Netflix stream was to record it from the screen. Plenty of programs, including free options such as CamStudio, will let you record both the audio and the video from your computer screen as it plays.
Recording the video yourself does come with a few caveats. First, it's a demanding task that will tax your PC's hardware. Often your recordings can contain a lot of skipped frames if you're trying to capture video at a fairly high resolution, especially on older computers that have their hands full just streaming full-screen video in the first place.
Second, the files produced when you perform screen capturing are typically huge. For example, before I tweaked all the settings in CamStudio, my sample videos exceeded 200MB for just 30 seconds of footage. You'll need to experiment to figure out the optimal balance of recording size and quality for you and your available storage.
That said, such problems become easier to deal with if you upgrade from free to paid software. Although screen-capturing with Audials, a $25 program, is still a system-intensive task that leaves you with gigantic files, paying for the software unlocks a lot of settings and presets. With most streams in my tests, the procedure was as easy as entering a URL and then letting the program open a new tab to begin recording. Getting the file size to reasonable levels (less than 1GB for an hour-long program) took very little tweaking.
Screen recording has other advantages as well. Since you're merely recording the video that's playing on your screen, you can use this trick with any streaming service. I eventually managed to record a stream using Audials on all three of the major streaming services, and you could do the same thing with Twitch, YouTube, or any other online video service.
Pay someone else to do it for you
You can save some time and hassle by automating your streaming media recording completely. PlayLater is a new service that lets you queue up your accessible streaming media and records it for you in the background. It delivers an MP4 file after the stream ends, without interrupting your other computing tasks.
Paying $20 a year, or $40 for a lifetime subscription, allows you to use the PlayLater service and search for any stream on any service to which you legally have access. For paid services such as Amazon Prime or Netflix, you'll need to enter your login information; once you do, PlayLater presents an easy-to-use interface for finding streaming video and saving it to your computer as fast as you can stream it.
If all of that sounds too good to be true--or legal--don't worry: Thanks to a 2010 ruling that protects the consumer's right to watch "time-shifted" media (the same one that makes recording streams yourself legal), the service should be protected.
PlayLater has positioned itself as a DVR for online streams, which should be perfectly legal. Of course, the law surrounding copyright and online media is constantly shifting, but for now PlayLater is offering a service that simply automates the legal recording and rewatching of online video that you could perform yourself.
Of course, no matter which method you choose, once your recordings are in a file format that's right for you, the world is your oyster. Your newly captured media can reside on your phone or tablet for safekeeping. Depending on which formats your mobile devices prefer, you may need to convert the file, but that's simple enough--and you'll never again have to worry because, say, Netflix removed Farscape from its streaming library while you were right in the middle of the second season (just as a crazy example). You'll even be able to use your downloaded media with services such as Plex, which makes watching video from Netflix or Hulu on your home-theater system way more convenient.