Streaming Cosmos: CosmosOnTV.com vs. Hulu HD vs. Amazon HD vs. Vudu HDX

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Studio and Year: Cosmos Studios 2014
Feature running time: 107 minutes
Genre: Science Documentary

Video Aspect: 1.85:1
Resolution: 1080p/30

Starring: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Directed by: Brannon BragaBill Pope, Ann Druyan
Music by: Alan Silvestri

 


 

Cosmos, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, is an updated version of Carl Sagan’s 13-episode science-themed documentary series that take viewers on a journey through space and time. Cosmos packs a ton of science into each episode, but it also tells its story through engaging narrative and spectacular graphics. I fondly remember watching the original Cosmos by Carl Sagan when I was a child; I am inspired by that show to this day.

The new iteration of Cosmos features updated science and special effects. I’m thrilled that the new version is an exceptional production; I almost feel like a kid again when I’m watching it. Neil deGrasse Tyson does not just fill Sagan’s shoes, he steps into them and starts running as fast as he can. Each week, I eagerly anticipate the latest episode; 11 of the 13 episodes have aired already, and I’m sad that the series will soon end.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos picks up where Carl Sagan left off

Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy fame, deserves credit for stepping up with the financial means and industry clout to make the new Cosmos happen. The result is a show that is as rich in its visual storytelling as it is accurate in its science. The special effects themselves are movie quality, which is why Cosmos deserves a movie-quality presentation.

Cosmos comes out on Blu-ray June 29. There is little doubt that the series will make a great box set, and I’m going to pick one up because I love the series so much. I’m also confident that the Blu-ray version will be definitive in terms of sound and image quality. However, the show is worth watching now, and if you are looking for the best quality version that’s currently available, there are several online sources. I looked at four HD streaming options: CosmosOnTV.com, Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon. I found a significant disparity in quality between the four formats. I would’ve compared iTunes HD as well, but Cosmos was not available from the iTunes store.

In the past, I’ve used screenshot comparisons to compare streaming movies to each other and to Blu-ray. For Cosmos, I’ve added a couple additional metrics. I streamed episode 5, “Hiding in the Light,” while tracking data usage. I also captured a three-minute clip from the beginning of each stream (in 960 x 540 resolution) and I created a YouTube video with the resulting footage. Although YouTube introduces its own recompression loss, the video effectively shows how the streams look when compared to each other. I suggest watching the video before you proceed; make sure to view it in 1080p and full-screen.


Now that you’ve seen the Cosmos comparison video, let’s get started. Ranked from worst to best, here is what I saw while streaming Cosmos.


cosmosontv.com

Total of data transferred: 924.3 MB

Average transfer rate: 2.5 Mbps

Soundtrack: Stereo

Resolution/Clarity: 6/10

Black level/Shadow detail: 5/10

Color reproduction: 8/10

Fleshtones: 7/10

Compression: 5/10

If you want to stream Cosmos for free, Cosmosontv.com offers a 3 Mbps stream that looks decent. Unfortunately, the sound and image quality are not all that good. There are significant artifacts throughout the presentation, and during space scenes, the issues become distracting—shadow regions contain significant amounts of blocky artifacts.

Sound is only available in stereo, and it lacks the dynamics and surround effects of the 5.1 mix. Since it’s a free stream, I can’t complain about the presence of TV ads, but they do diminish the impact of the presentation. Cosmos has very high production values, but a lot of that is lost if you watch the show via cosmosontv.com. Episodes 4 and later are available for at least nine more weeks, but the streams of the first few episodes expire earlier than the rest—episodes one and two are no longer available.

Hulu (monthly subscription)

Total of data transferred: 848.7 MB

Average transfer rate: 2.4 Mbps

Sountrack: Stereo

Resolution/Clarity: 6/10

Black level/Shadow detail: 5/10

Color reproduction: 8/10

Fleshtones: 7/10

Compression: 4/10

Hulu managed to make a visual mess of Cosmos. With an average bitrate of only 2.4 Mbps, it suffered from the largest number of visual artifacts among the four services I compared. Sound was only available in stereo, and was rather anemic. On top of that, Hulu’s presentation included ads; I don’t watch TV so I almost forgot about television ads, and they sure are annoying. Ultimately, there’s no reason to choose Hulu over cosmosontv’s free stream.

The most distracting artifacts in Hulu’s stream were amoeba-like areas of blocky pixels that showed up in the shadow regions during space scenes. Hulu’s stream had no ability to handle subtle gradations; what should have been wispy clouds of stellar dust instead looked like 1980s videogame graphics.

Cosmos is a beautiful production, featuring spectacular graphics and surround sound; it deserves a better presentation than what Hulu offers. On the other hand, since Hulu is a subscription service, watching Cosmos costs nothing extra, and all the episodes that have aired already are available.

Amazon HD ($2.99/episode)

Total of data transferred: 2.0 GB

Average transfer rate: 6.4 Mbps

Soundtrack: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1

Resolution/Clarity: 7/10

Black level/Shadow detail: 6/10

Color reproduction: 8/10

Fleshtones: 7/10

Compression: 6/10

I was optimistic about watching Cosmos on Amazon. I knew it did not feature as high a bit rate as Vudu HDX; however, in the past I’ve found Amazon’s HD video looks very good, so I was not sure what to expect quality-wise. What I got was video that was a fair bit better than Hulu, but it still contained a distracting amount of visible artifacts during the space scenes. Also, Amazon’s HD video was not quite as sharp as what I saw with Vudu HDX—although it was noticeably superior to Hulu and cosmosontv.com.

To Amazon’s credit, sound quality was great—full Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. If it were not for the poor performance during space scenes, I would rate it as acceptable. However, because the space scenes have too many distracting artifacts in the deep shadows, I recommend skipping Amazons offering.

Vudu HDX ($2.99/episode)

Total of data transferred: 2.9 GB

Average transfer rate: 9.3 Mbps

Soundtrack: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1

Resolution/Clarity: 8/10

Black level/Shadow detail: 7/10

Color reproduction: 8/10

Fleshtones: 8/10

Compression: 7/10

Until two weeks ago, Vudu HDX was the only format in which I had seen the new Cosmos. The quality level of Vudu HDX is so high, I became spoiled, which is why I was so disappointed with CosmosonTV, Hulu, and Amazon’s HD offerings. Although not perfect, Vudu HDX managed to render the outer-space CGI accurately the vast majority of the time. Maybe it’s something in the compression algorithm, and Vudu does use a higher bitrate than other streaming services—all I know is the HDX version looked great 99% of the time.

When artifacts did appear in the Vudu HDX version, it was only for a brief moment—a flicker of banding or macro-blocking would occasionally flash on screen, but not in the same distracting manner as with the other three formats. Furthermore, Vudu HDX looks visibly sharper throughout. Finally, the sound quality matched Amazon’s; both formats use Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio and sounded excellent.


Screenshot Comparisons

I recommend clicking into each image, then clicking “original”

 

This scene contains lots of fine detail, Vudu HDX is clearly the sharpest 

 

 

Compare the sharpness of the text in the credits (Braga) and the asteroid debris

 

 

Vudu HDX wasn’t just sharper, it also featured the most accurate color

 

This screenshot reveals how each format deals with dark shadows in space scenes

 

In motion, this was one of the toughest scenes for any of the formats to deal with

 

Vudu’s HDX format consistently brought out the most detail among the four formats