Region unlock and streaming services

Even though streaming services for both music and video have been around for a while, the state of affairs is that content licensing is subject to territory restrictions. One of the practical implications is that Netflix Brazil's catalogue is not the same as it is in the US, or in the UK for that matter.

Now, none of these catalogues are inherently better or worse. If I want to watch American TV shows, the US catalogue is the obvious choice, but Brazilian TV shows are mostly available only on the Brazil catalogue. However, if I want to watch, say, The Hobbit, I'd better be in either the UK or Ireland catalogues. Subtitle and audio options also differ by region, so if I want to watch a movie with someone who needs Portuguese subtitles, we're mostly stuck with the Brazilian catalogue. It is a mess.

When it comes to music though, things aren't that complicated region-wise. I will take the US catalogue over the Brazilian one for any of the major services. Most (though not all) Brazilian artists available on our catalogue are also available on the United States, but the converse is frequently not true. However, some of the services aren't available in Brazil, notably Spotify and MOG - which has been stagnant but might see a revamp next year. While the catalogues for these different services are roughly equally large, there are significant differences such as Spotify recent licensing of Led Zeppelin as well as being the only to feature all of Metallica's albums.

Of course, content unavailability on certain territories has been a solved problem for a while, through the use of VPNs. Those, however, significantly compromise connection speed both while using the services affected and during regular browsing. More recently, DNS based unblock solutions have proved to be an improvement, by enabling only traffic to the affected services to be redirected, while also allowing to constantly switch Netflix regions to enjoy different catalogues.

None of the above is big news for anyone, and, unless you're confortable with outright pirating of content and could care less about streaming movies and music legally, you're probably aware of everything I wrote so far. Of course, the legality of tricking such services to believe you are in a different territory than you really are can be argued, but definetely not by me, since I'm not equipped to engage in such discussion. I can only make the case that I'm paying for the content to the providers, which are paying the copyright owners their share. That is enough to make me feel okay about it, but I'd be happy to hear different thoughts on this.

In the last two months, two events have given me the incentive I needed to jump through the hoops required to set everything I needed up. First, I bought an Apple TV. Second, I started working from home. The Apple TV made me want to switch Netflix catalogues easily to watch in the evening. Working from home made it possible to actually rely on streaming to fuel my severe music dependency during the workday.

After a little research, there were two major recommended solutions. Adfreetime, at $1.99 per month, and Unblock-Us at $4.99. Most of what I read suggested Adfreetime was better all around, and, being it cheaper, it was a no-brainer to go with that. Everything is pretty easy to setup, as they provide guides for each internet connected device you may own, as well as a guide to setup the router directly, which would obliviate the need to configure each device individually. Though it is very easy to setup, there is no easy way to verify things are working other than trying to access the services you knew you couldn't before or compare Netflix catalogues while switching back and forth. Other than this minor annoyance everything seemed ok.

After a few weeks of use, a few drawbacks emerged. On the movie side of things, switching Netflix regions worked fine on the desktop, but my Apple TV would take a while to reflect the changes, taking it multiple reboots, and some switching back and forth. Most of the time, after a region switch it would return an error message that told me Netflix was unavailable at the momment. I figured it was the Apple TV's fault, and decided I could live with that and plan my region switches ahead.

On the music side of things, the unlock provided by Adfreetime doesn't include Spotify. That shouldn't have been an issue, since according to their website, they supported both MOG and Rdio. Now, I had tried Rdio before on the Brazilian catalogue, but I was turned off by the lack of many artists I wanted to listen to. MOG had never been available to me, so I decided to give it a shot. While the sound quality was great, and I was pretty satisfied with the catalogue, I didn't enjoy the app's design in any of the available forms, web, iOS or desktop. Collection management also seemed clumsy and browsing my favorites was confusing. I remembered Rdio's apps being really good about that, and knowing it is usually highly praised, I decided to give it another shot, now on the US catalogue. However, even though my Adfreetime service was setup correctly and otherwise working, I was still stuck with the Brazilian catalogue. I tried, without success to create a new account, but there was no way Rdio would believe I wasn't located in Brazil. I tried contacting Adfreetime's support, but they couldn't clarify this. I canceled my subscription and decided to try Unblock-Us.

I'm currently on my one-week trial, but I am very likely to subscribe by the end of it, regardless of the price difference. The setup experience was a breeze. Unblock-Us, very similarly to Adfreetime, offers per-device guides. It also lets you know if you've set everything up correctly with no need for accessing the services to verify it. I now have full access to Rdio's US catalogue (though I had to start a new subscription), and while it does offer Spotify, I can only use its free plan, since none of my payment methods are accepted (much like the iTunes US store, which will only take a credit card with an US billing address). I'd love to try Spotify, but I guess it's out of question. As to Netflix on the Apple TV, turns out that region switchs are now reflected on the catalogue almost instantly, with no reboot required.

I am sure Adfreetime will eventually improve on these aspects, but I guess for now I'll stick with Unblock-Us.