Screenshot_20160213-152718We’ve carried a few stories about Hoopla Digital before—when we discussed its app adding Chromecast support last year, or when it added e-books in 2014. Hoopla is a digital media streaming service featuring a catalog of literally hundreds of thousands of audiobooks, movies, music albums, comics, e-books, and TV shows. Like Playster, which sponsored a post here a few days ago, it offers multiple different forms of media under one web site. But unlike Playster, it’s free—sort of.

A week or so ago, Hoopla Digital contacted me with a press release announcing it was adding thousands of e-books and audiobooks from Open Road Integrated Media to its service, and asked me if I’d like to try the service out. I said sure, they set me up with a VIP demo account, and I started checking it out. Subsequently, Publishers Weekly reported that Hoopla has reached a deal with distributor Ingram to add titles from Ingram’s CoreSource Plus digital distribution service. So, clearly, Hoopla isn’t exactly sitting still.

Hoopla Digital positions itself as an additional digital media service that libraries can offer to their patrons, in addition to whatever digital media services the libraries provide themselves. There are no commercials or advertisements; the library pays to subscribe, while the library’s patrons get limited access for free. The patron creates a Hoopla account with a supported library card, then has access to check out a set number of titles per month—from 4 to 15, depending on the library’s subscription. (The Indianapolis/Marion County Public Library just signed up for 10 titles per month, for example, and the Johnson County Public Library in Greenwood, IN offers six per month. Do a Google site: search for “Hoopla” on your own public library to see if yours offers it—and if not, you could always ask it to.)

Movies and TV check out for 72 hours, music albums for a week, books, comics, and audiobooks for three weeks. They are returned automatically when they expire, and there’s no limit on how many people can have a title out simultaneously—a very different model from the Overdrive model where libraries have to purchase as many copies as they want to lend out at once. The publisher of the media gets paid each time a patron checks it out—but only when a patron checks it out, so libraries don’t have to take the risk of paying for an Overdrive title that their patrons may not actually want to read. The media can be checked out and played or read either through a web browser, or via Android or iOS applications.

I spent some time checking out media and reading, watching, or listening, both on my desktop and on my Android devices. All in all, while I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a perfect service, I was actually a lot more impressed than I really expected to be.

For starters, the selection is a cut above what I had expected. I suppose that, to be honest, I must admit that I hadn’t actually anticipated that the service would actually have titles I was genuinely interested in seeing. I had expected all the pay services would have the most popular titles locked up. And yet, when I went exploring, I was able to find a number of titles that were worth checking out.

Another benefit is that, even if you aren’t a member, you can still browse the collection via the Hoopla Digital web site to your heart’s content. It’s just that you won’t be able to check anything out until you sign up.

So, let’s get “knee deep in the Hoopla.”

E-Books and Comics

Screenshot_20160213-152749Starting off with e-books, Hoopla has a huge selection. Even drilling down to fiction, and within that to science fiction, there’s a huge number of titles. Even clicking “View More” doesn’t get you all the way out of the “A” titles. There are a number of collections of well-known authors’ works, such as many of Arthur C. Clarke’s titles, or Piers Anthony, or even Kurt Vonnegut. (Regardless of how he might have felt about e-books, at least you can now read them for free!) And that’s not the only genre represented. Noted prolific mystery author John Creasey has over 100 titles available here as well, and Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and others are also represented. There are also a number of Star Wars tie-in titles—not surprising given that Disney is one of Hoopla’s partners. There are plenty of audiobook titles, too.

But fiction is only a portion of Hoopla’s library. There are plenty of fiction and non-fiction categories ranging from Antiques & Collectibles to Young Adult Fiction. The “Electronic Publishing” subcategory of “Computers” even included a book that might be worth looking into for TeleRead: Using e-Books and e-Readers for Adult Learning.

If there’s a problem with Hoopla’s e-book selection, it’s that there simply aren’t enough ways to sort it. Once you drill down into a book category, you get the option of sorting by popular title, new titles, or title, A to Z. There’s no way to sort them by author A to Z, and no way to get a list of names or titles—you just get as many rows of thumbnails as will fit, then an option to click to see more. You end up finding things more by using the search box on authors or titles to see if anything’s there, because browsing any category with as many titles in it as most of the book categories have will take forever. This isn’t a problem that the movie and TV sections have as much, given that they tend to have more relatively limited selections.

Once you find an e-book you want, you can read it only in Hoopla’s own web e-reader or one of the mobile apps. Unlike with Overdrive, you don’t get the option of exporting it into Adobe Digital Editions or Kindle. This is probably for the best, from a piracy perspective—it means patrons can’t use one of the DRM cracks out there to convert a library checkout into part of their personal library. And it’s not too hard to read, either; the app offers a decent amount of font and margin choices to help readability.

Comic books worked about the same way. I checked out The Flash: Rebirth and read it on the desktop. I had the choice of reading it in whole page-view, or viewing one panel at a time and jumping forward. Neither one was really perfect, as there wasn’t actually any way to zoom in, and some of the panels were teeny-tiny. But on the other hand, I was getting to read it for free, so I was happy enough all in all.

The one drawback with this approach is that it means the books can only be read via a computer, or a compatible tablet or phone running Hoopla—not an e-ink reader such as the Kindle or Nook, which can support Overdrive titles. But, again, you are getting to read it for free, and you’re not having to wait until someone else checks it back in. And signs are that tablets and phones are by and large supplanting e-ink readers as people’s preferred way to read e-books anyway, so it may be they’re not losing that much audience regardless.

Movies and Television

hooplalockdownBut moving on to movies, there were just as many titles here I was interested in seeing. There’s a pretty large selection of subtitled Chinese action movies, including Jackie Chan’s recent suspense title Police Story: Lockdown. There was the Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly vehicle Xanadu, which wasn’t a big hit but has developed some cult popularity. There’s Truffaut’s 1967 movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (not to mention a fair amount of other Bradbury-related material—do you suppose he would approve?).

There are eleven different Mystery Science Theater 3000 titles. The BBC television productions of Discworld miniseries Hogfather and The Colour of Magic are represented as well. There are also a number of Disney titles, from well-known (20,000 Leagues under the Sea) to fairly obscure (The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark). There are decently-stocked anime listings for both TV and movies with a number of well-known titles, including both the OAV and movie editions of Macross Plus.

I could go on and on—literally. I kept running across “Oh, I can’t believe they have that!” or “I’ve been wanting to see that but couldn’t find it anywhere” titles. But, really, you can go and browse for yourself.

Watching movies was just as simple as reading e-books. You checked them out and then could watch them either via the app or via the web. On the app, you could either watch in streaming or download the whole movie into the app and then watch. Downloading a movie took about ten or fifteen minutes, but once done it tended to play better than trying to stream it.

I couldn’t figure out how to tell what resolution the video was displaying at, but I don’t think it was high definition. Nonetheless, it was amply watchable, either on the web or on the app—and what more can you ask, for free? The only problem I ran into was when I started watching one movie on my phone and later tried to continue it on my desktop, it said there was an error and it couldn’t play it on the desktop whenever I tried. But I later checked the same movie out again, once it had expired, and it worked fine. Another slightly odd thing was that the description of the Macross Plus movie lists the cast for the English dub, and says that the language was “English”—but the video itself is actually the Japanese version, subtitled in English.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try the app out with a Chromecast, so I can’t say how well it works for broadcasting movies that way. I do plan to try it next time I’m at my brother’s house, though.

Music and Audiobooks

Music is represented in abundance—as with books, there’s so much of it you could find yourself lost browsing it. But just browse the genres or collections, or search on a favorite artist or a movie franchise like “Star Wars” or “James Bond”, and you’ll get an idea of how much there is to offer. By the same token, there are also plenty of audiobooks to be had. And in both cases, they work the same way—they play in the app (via streaming or download), or in a pop-up window on your desktop browser. I certainly had no complaints about how either sounded—though again, the utility is slightly limited in that you can’t transfer the music or audiobook to your preferred app or player, or mix it in with the rest of your library for random play. Also, you can only check out a given music album twice per month.

All in all, Hoopla seems like a great service, and I’ve been enjoying using it. And best of all, if you’re a member of the more than 900 libraries who use it so far, its use to you is free. The one drawback is that the number of items per month you can check out is so low, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to up your checkout count. I could see some people running up against the media limits set by their libraries and then having to wait another month to get more. I wonder if there might be a way for Hoopla to offer additional titles for a small subscription fee to the user? Or, likewise, a solo user account for those who don’t belong to any of those libraries?

Regardless, if you do belong to one of those libraries, it seems fairly obvious that it’s worth checking out. Perhaps you’ll find some things you’ve been wanting to read, watch, or listen to as well.


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