Walt Mossberg

A Launchpad for Watching TV, Movies on the iPad

Watching movies and TV shows on an iPad is a pleasure. Deciding what to watch, and then figuring out which iPad app offers which film or show at that moment, isn’t.

There is a growing crop of video services available for the popular tablet, but each seems to have its own rules, pricing plans and changing catalogs, often due to policies laid down by the media companies.

Enter Fanhattan, a beautiful, versatile new iPad app that aims to be a navigator on this sea of movie and TV services. It doesn’t just help you find a show or movie you might like, or tell you which app offers it. Fanhattan actually will launch the app where the content resides and take you right to the page inside that app from which you can stream, rent or buy the particular video you want. For instance, it can take you directly to a specific episode from a specific season of a TV show, on whichever service you prefer.

It currently works with Apple’s iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and the free ABC-TV app on the iPad, and has hopes of linking up with other video services. Of course, to see the films and shows offered by the first three services, you must have an account or subscription. But that has always been true, and Fanhattan, which is free, doesn’t add any fees or ads to the video services.

The company that produces Fanhattan, a Silicon Valley firm of the same name, has plans to offer the service eventually on tablets running Google’s Android operating system, but its biggest goal is to be directly on TVs, via set-top boxes.

I’ve been testing Fanhattan on the iPad 2 and the original iPad. While it has a few drawbacks, I consider Fanhattan a smart and attractive product, and can recommend it for people who frequently use their iPads to watch TV and movies. It is available in the iTunes app store.

Fanhattan has multiple tools for narrowing down your choices or searching for particular shows or movies. It includes plot summaries, cast details, video clips and reviews, and also helps you buy the soundtrack songs, DVDs or merchandise related to the film or TV series. You can even buy movie tickets for films still in theaters, from Fandango. And you can share your picks via email or Facebook, from right within Fanhattan.

It is basically a meta service for movies and TV shows on the iPad. The idea is to focus on the content first, rather than the service that hosts it. Once you’ve decided what you want to watch, you’re offered a choice of where you can find it.

When you launch Fanhattan, you’re first offered a simple choice between movies and TV shows, with large, vivid, rotating pictures of the options.

Then you enter a screen that has tiles at the top to help you narrow down which type of film or show you want, and a strip of colorful, smaller icons showing the posters for the specific films or shows running across the bottom. As you change your focus using the top tiles, the icons at the bottom change. You can swipe through these icons to choose the one you want.

For instance, you get a different set of movie icons if you choose to see the newest movies than if you choose to see all available comedies. For TV, the icons also change as you choose specific networks, or days of the week when shows first run.

Once you tap on a movie or TV-show icon, you get a quick summary and an indication of which services offer it. If you tap again, the screen becomes all about that movie or show (for TV, down to the specific episode). By swiping left or right, you can read plot summaries and reviews, watch clips, preview (or buy) the soundtrack from iTunes, and see and buy merchandise from Amazon.com — and more.

When you’re ready to watch a film or show, a large tile labeled “Watch Now,” gives you choices. If a film or show is available, say, on both Netflix and iTunes, you can choose to either stream it immediately from the former or rent or buy it from the latter, via download.

How does Fanhattan make money? It gets a small cut of any movie or show you buy from iTunes, and is paid something by Netflix if a nonsubscriber is guided to streaming a show from Fanhattan and decides to sign up.

PTECH

With Fanhattan, a large ‘Watch Now’ tile gives you a list of the services where the film or TV show you’ve picked is available for either streaming or downloading.

In my tests, Fanhattan did its job. I successfully used it with all four services, for both TV shows and movies. But, as noted above, it does have some drawbacks.

For one thing, the Facebook connectivity in the initial release is broken. I have tested a new version where it works, but the company says the revised release probably won’t make it to the iTunes store for a week or so.

In a couple of cases, Fanhattan didn’t take me to the right content in iTunes, and several times, over the four days I tested it, the app crashed.

Also, when you’re done watching a film or show, there is no way to get back to Fanhattan automatically or directly. This is partly due to the desires of the content services to keep users in their own environments, and partly due to technical limitations.

And, despite the fact that Fanhattan is a handsome app, it takes awhile to get the hang of navigating around it. There is no back button, for instance.

Instead, you have to perform a giant downward scroll to return to a prior place. There are also various tapping and swiping motions to learn. Fanhattan includes an overlay guide to all of this, but the fact that the guide is needed isn’t good.

Finally, I was annoyed that Fanhattan sometimes shows you options for watching shows on services that don’t exist as iPad apps, such as Amazon’s video-streaming service. The company defends this practice as a discovery mechanism, but I found it frustrating. Luckily, there is a setting that limits the choices to only the four main iPad services with which Fanhattan works.

All in all, I really liked Fanhattan and will be interested to see it migrate to even larger screens.

Find all of Walt’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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