Fanhattan: 4 Channels Cover a Lot
iPad users' video options extend well beyond iTunes. Mainstream video providers like Hulu, Netflix and ABC have launched their own apps for streaming content. Fanhattan tackles the problem of finding out exactly what's available where. It's an aggregator of iPad video content. It lists content from four channels now, though the app could go from convenient to essential by listing content from smaller video apps as well.
Through its control of iOS and the App Store, Apple's made it incredibly easy to watch (and, most importantly, pay for) professionally made movies and TV shows on the iPad. Whether you're buying directly from Apple via iTunes or connecting through a third-party provider like Netflix or Hulu, there's a large and growing body of video ready to play at a moment's notice.
Finding a video to watch, though, sometimes involves digging through several libraries and shuffling various apps around until you finally land on what you want, available exactly how you want to watch it. Besides Apple's own iTunes, there are dozens of apps able to bring entertainment to the device; the trick is figuring out which one has the title you're looking for. And sometimes the trick is also figuring out what you're in the mood to watch in the first place.
Fanhattan dives into this chaotic morass of motion pictures to fish out the evening's entertainment, pull it ashore, and present to you your options for obtaining it, along with various related facts and trivia. It's sort of a TV Guide for the iOS platform, a slick and polished video aggregator.
Starting up Fanhattan, you're given the chance to pick between the app's selection of TV shows or movies. From there you're taken to a set of menu screens to begin browsing the various libraries Fanhattan has collected and spun into a composite interface.
In the main menu, you can sort by Hottest, Newest, Top Rated, Critics' Picks and Oscar Winners. Swiping to either side shows you more ways to sort. One option is to choose by genre; another is to "Smart Browse" -- select several genres at once, sort by Release Dates, by User Ratings, etc. The app also has an "Upcoming" menu that will let you know what's in theaters now, what's coming in the next few weeks, and what's about to arrive on on-demand channels soon. You can't access most of the video listed here; they're mostly just trailer jumps.
Any way you select it, a series of titles will appear below the selection menu. Scroll through, pick one that looks interesting, click it, and you'll be given a short plot summary, an abbreviated list of ways to obtain the video, and an option called "Discovery."
Discovery gives you an in-depth rundown of your selection. The first menu is Watch Now, which contains your purchase, rental and streaming options. The show's full iTunes price listing is there, from a big-ticket HD purchase to a budget standard-def rental -- whatever's available. The movie's availability on third-party portals is listed as well. Click on any of these and you'll be punted over to the appropriate iOS app with the video all cued up and ready to go. If you don't have the appropriate app on your iPad, you'll be escorted to the App Store to get it. You'll usually need a subscription to the service in question, also.
The Netflix Vortex
Whether I was shown my way to the video via Netflix, Hulu or iTunes, the process was as smooth as I could ask it to be. A password or username might have to be used, but there are options for keeping that info stored, if the user so chooses.
However, choosing to view a video through Netflix threw me into a strange loop.
Apparently in order to fire up the iOS Netflix app, Fanhattan has to send you first to a Netflix-owned page on Safari. That page then immediately flips you to the appropriate video in the Netflix app. However, hitting the "Done" button in the Netflix player will take you back to the Safari page -- which immediately bounces you right back to the video you were watching. This goes on and on until you hit the iPad's home button. Even then, when you re-open Safari for whatever reason (which might be hours later so you can look up a bus schedule or whatever), you're still on that Netflix bounce page, so you go back to watching the video yet again.
Only when I was fast enough to hit the All Pages view on Safari could I shut down the offending pages and escape the vicious cycle. Granted, this is probably more Netflix's fault than Fanhattan's, but the joining of the two processes seemed to be pretty clunky.
But perhaps you aren't convinced about a movie or show yet and you want more info before you commit an hour or two of your life. In addition to the Watch Now menu, you'll also see a full boat of film information in the Discovery section: a plot blurb, a Rotten Tomatoes composite, cast and crew info, clips, trailers, soundtrack info, similar titles, Facebook integration and even a window for buying movie schwag from Amazon.
If you decide not to commit to the film you've selected, hitting the star at the top of the screen will take you back to the top of the app. Perhaps from there you'll look into Fanhattan's selection of TV shows. That half of the app is very similar to its movie library, though with TV shows, an episode selector is made part of the Watch Now menu.
Used like this, Fanhattan tells you all about whatever's playing at iOS' various multiplex theaters. Those theaters' names are iTunes, ABC Player, Netflix and Hulu -- those are the four channels Fanhattan lists. However, these are not the only ways to stream video content to an iPad. If these three are iOS' multiplex mega-theaters, it appears Fanhattan ignores the platform's smaller movie houses.
For instance, Crackle is an app that streams mainstream feature movies and shows to iPads and iPhones. Its selection seems to change constantly, and it's a bit of a mishmash. At the time of this writing, you can choose from 10 episodes of "Seinfeld," for instance, or see a movie like "Bad Boys" or "The Mothman Prophesies." But this content either doesn't show up on Fanhattans' listings or is listed as only being available from iTunes.
It's anybody's guess whether any of the stuff that's on Crackle now will be available there next week or whether it'll all be replaced by a totally different grab-bag of video -- that's just the nature of these free-video apps. And that's why including channels like Crackle would greatly benefit Fanhattan. Once users step beyond the boundaries of these four major channels, iPad video apps become an even more unpredictable mess of content, and an even more powerful aggregator would be very useful.
Fanhattan's glossy interface gives you an easy way to breeze through what's on the iOS platform's main channels. It'll give you plenty of information about what movie or show you're considering, and it's certainly more convenient to flip through its options than to wade through four channels individually to shop for content.
However, video for iPad goes deeper than the three options Fanhattan presents, and it would be great to see the app expanded to tie in as many ways of watching as possible.