Hands-on with the Vessel beta

Vessel.tv home page

The Vessel subscriber's homepage as of Monday afternoon. The big image at the top is actually a short loop from the video being teased.

Credit: Vessel

Vessel, the new 'short form video' site, launched its private beta recently. I got in last Friday and have spent some time with the site over the weekend and thought I would share my findings.

Before I get into what Vessel is today, let me recap what I thought it would be. When I first heard about Vessel back in December  it was expected to be a subscription-based competitor to YouTube. Content creators would pledge to put content on Vessel at least three days before they uploaded it to YouTube or any other site. In return, they'd get paid more than they do on YouTube (70% of ad revenue versus the 55% that YouTube offers, and 60% of subscription revenue would go to the content creators based on traffic).

Content consumers would be asked to pay $2.99/month to get this earlier access to content, or they could not pay and see the same content after that 3-day exclusivity period expired. Both paying and non-paying viewers would be exposed to ads.

So that's what I was expecting. What I got was a 30-day free trial (though I had to give them a credit card number and they'll charge me in a month if I don't cancel) and no mention of free access (at least not yet).

Content is still pretty sparse and almost everything I've watched on Vessel I've also been able to find on YouTube or another site. That's the bad news. The good news is that I haven't encountered any ads.

Vessel.tv topic page Vessel

This is how videos are teased; nice big images (or short loops) rather than tiny thumbnails

During the on-boarding process I had to pick topics, content brands (e.g. The Wall Street Journal) and musicians that I am a fan of. When I hit Vessel.com now I see one featured video at the top and then a selection of videos based on my areas of interest. The layout is more Hulu or Netflix than YouTube. Instead of dozens of small thumbnails I see three for each section. Personally I find it a lot more appealing than YouTube.

When you're watching a video (I did all my testing on the web interface) you get a nice clean presentation. There are no comments, no controls for sharing or embedding content. The size of the video changes with browser window size, or you can opt to watch full screen. There is a 30 second rewind which I appreciated. Jumping around in a video is quite fast.

Vessel video page Vessel

A video from RedBull Media being played. Focus is on the video without a lot of clutter.

Below the video are tabs for Recommended additional videos, more from the current content creator, and more details about the video.

I came into this beta pretty skeptical. Why pay for video on Vessel that you can find elsewhere for free? I'm less sure now. If the service remains ad-free it'd be a huge incentive for me. If ads just haven't arrived yet, it'll depend on how intrusive and how long they are.

As the service stands right now I like the idea of it, but they need to get more content in there quickly. A lot of brands that are there aren't doing much. Gaming site IGN is on Vessel but it's most recent video is from a month ago. The newest stuff from The Verge was five days old when I checked yesterday afternoon. On the other hand Time Magazine seems to be putting content on Vessel soon after it appears on Time.com and it's much easier to find on Vessel, so that's a win.

They also need to get apps out as soon as possible. There is an iOS app available but for now that's it. I want Vessel on my Roku, Apple TV, on my game consoles, on Android (that, at least, we know is coming) and on Fire OS. Basically I want it wherever I am.

But it's beta and its early beta so there's time for the content to get up to speed, and time for apps to roll out. I think I might end up a fan; there's something relaxing about watching these videos without the cesspit that is the YouTube comment section laying in wait at the bottom of the screen, and I like the bigger, bolder stills for the videos. At the same time I worry about discoverability; without an easy way to share videos (and a free membership) there's no way for this content to go viral.

I think for me it'll all come down to ads. I'll pay $3/month to watch short videos without ads. With ads, it's going to be a much harder sell.

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