Paul is one of the more ambitious Android apps I’ve come across in recent memory. Its Google Play banner makes a bold promise: “You will be enjoying videos from your favorite websites, with no buffering delays, and no worries about data overages from your mobile provider!” The page then goes on to explain that Paul uses “… powerful machine learning algorithms. To get you the videos and music you want, Paul learns your preferences and creates your personalized profile. Paul will preload the videos and songs you want before you want them.”
If this works, it means I can watch videos on the go with no data charges and no buffering, since they were all prepared for me in advance on my device. Let’s walk through the setup process and test these claims.
Getting Started Watching Video without Buffering
When you first launch Paul, its friendly octopus mascot greets you and gets you started on a quick onboarding process:
Paul prides itself on its predictive prowess, but in order for it to do its thing, you’ll have to allow its tentacles into your various social services:
Note that Paul only lets you connect to four services, but actually offers content from other services as well. You’ll see why this is important in a moment. I don’t have a Facebook account, nor a Last.fm one, but I’m very active on YouTube and Twitter, which should hopefully provide Paul with ample information for predicting my video-watching preferences.
Last but not least in the onboarding process comes an amusing bit: Paul wants you to authorize it as a VPN provider for your mobile (for the curious, we’ve explained what a VPN is here).This makes technical sense, but Paul goes out of its way to explain this in a friendly, non-technical way: They invite you to “PAUL-ify your phone” and provide a fun, very simple explanation:
This oversimplified explanation is disappointing if you’re technically inclined, but what makes it funny is what happens as soon as you tap the Approve button:
Android’s VPN warning is a far cry from Paul’s fluffy friendliness – it’s downright scary. Paul misses out on the chance to prepare me for this warning, and I’d bet many users would be put off by this seeming dissonance. Still, being the trusting reviewer that I am, I switched Paul’s VPN service on.
Interface and Visuals
The onboarding process takes just a few moments, after which you find yourself looking at Paul’s main screen:
Like the onboarding steps, this screen is pleasantly simple. The different content channels are clear, as is the pending video count for each channel. But here’s what’s interesting: While I didn’t say anything about my ESPN and CNN preferences, I already have ten different videos from these services waiting for me, taking up valuable space on my device. I don’t actually watch any CNN or ESPN, ever. YouTube, which I do watch tons of, has just a single video. To try and adjust the ratio, I tapped the “equalizer” button (top-right, next to the overflow menu button):
The channel logos fold back to reveal plus and minus buttons for adjusting the ratio of content pulled from each channel. The progress bar reflecting how much content is pulled in also has a very clear label for each state (none, few, etc.). Again, Paul gets it right: Adjusting your content preferences couldn’t be simpler.
Unfortunately, even after you adjust your content preferences, any videos Paul decided to queue up beforehand remain pending:
This is my “What’s Coming” queue after I’ve already adjusted Paul to say I don’t want any content from Facebook (“None” above), and specified I want “More” content from YouTube. Still, the queue contains three Facebook videos, versus just a single YouTube one. This is especially interesting in light of the fact I don’t even have a Facebook account – how can Paul possibly know which videos I’m going to like on Facebook?
But back to the UI: Paul’s Settings interface keeps things simple, but its defaults are worth noting:
So, by default, Paul will suck up an unlimited amount of space on your device, and will keep the cached content for a “long” period (whatever that means). That’s worth knowing, and possibly changing, if you don’t have a very capacious device.
And here we get to the crux of my issue with Paul, at least in this limited testing scenario: It’s so eager to please, it pulls in lots of video content – but much of it is irrelevant and just ends up wasting space. Case in point, my ESPN queue:
This is all content Paul already downloaded for me to watch, and it’s taking up space on my device right now. I don’t want it, and I’ll never watch it. I’ve never indicated to Paul I care about ESPN even remotely. The same goes for CNN:
So much wasted space. Do I want to see Catherine’s baby bump? No, but thanks all the same. This is while my YouTube queue sits all but empty – I’m subscribed to dozens of YouTube channels, and if Paul simply took my “recommended watching” queue and downloaded the whole thing, I’d get a much more relevant viewing experience right off the bat.
This, however, does not mean Paul’s machine learning algorithm is faulty. It mainly means its onboarding process needs work, and that it makes incorrect assumptions for new users. It is entirely possible that with continued use, Paul does become wiser and starts queuing up content you do want – but that’s something that will change from user to user, based on the content channels you switch on, and on your personal viewing habits. All I can prepare you for is that unless you’re an ESPN and CNN nut, it’s likely your initial Paul viewing experience will be underwhelming.
Verdict: Shows Promise, Needs Work
I really like what Paul is trying to do. I think it’s a much-needed service, and there’s a lot to be said for this sort of time-shifting from Wi-Fi. The app is pleasingly simple, but in its haste to prove itself, ends up cluttering your device with video you’re never going to watch. My advice to Paul’s developers is to tone down the marketing claims and reflect more realistically what the user can expect. My advice to you, if you watch video on the go, is to go ahead and grab Paul right now. It’s free, and it will save your mobile data charges and let you watch video without buffering. You just need to take the time to train it, and know what to expect. And of course, I’d love it if you shared your Paul experiences in the comments.