Thursday, December 20, 2007
NEW YORK —For a few years, technology companies have been racing to find a way to get movies from the Internet to the living-room TV in a way that will get consumers excited.
The Vudu, a black $399 box from a California startup, is the best attempt yet. It's easy to use and offers a large library of movies. There are even a few movies in high definition.
The device, half the size of a lunch box, plugs into the TV and a broadband Internet cable. It comes with a small, admirably simple remote with just five buttons and a scroll wheel. There's no monthly service fee _ you pay for the hardware and the movies and TV shows you buy or rent. Most movies start playing the minute you buy them.
People who want to get away from high monthly cable bills should be pricking up their ears now. Yet it's difficult to see the Vudu as something that's going to bust the living room wide open to the Internet, at least not yet.
The reason has little to do with technology and much to do with Hollywood: the movies are rented out in a way that has studios dictating how quickly you need to finish them.
In this respect, the Vudu is no different from other video-on-demand options, like those provided by cable companies through their set-top boxes or on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360. They all demand that once you've started watching a rented movie, you finish it within 24 hours. If you don't, you need to pay full price, usually $3 or $4, to finish watching.
There are people out there who sit down at 8 p.m. and watch a movie for two hours. I'm not one of them _ as the parent of a small child, I watch movies in half-hour snatches here and there. I can finish a movie in a week, if I'm lucky.
Most of the approximately 5,000 movies on the Vudu are available for purchase as well as rental, which gets you around the problem of having to rent the same movie again and again, but the purchase prices aren't attractive.
New releases are usually $19.99. For that, you could probably buy the DVD, which is much more useful, because you can take it with you and play it on different DVD players. A movie on the Vudu stays there (though you can always plug the Vudu into a different TV if you don't mind carrying it around.)
Vudu movies also lack the special features of a DVD. What's more, the capacity of the Vudu's hard drive is limited to about 50 standard-definition or 25 high-definition movies. If you have to delete a purchased movie to make room for a new one, it's unclear yet whether you'll be able to download the deleted movie again for free.
With all these drawbacks to buying, it's also vexing that about a thousand of the movies are available only for purchase. Approximately 1,000 TV episodes are available of shows like "24" and "Family Guy," for purchase only, at $1.99 each.
There's nothing about the Vudu's technology that forces it to price movies this way _ it could very well let people watch a rented movie for a week. In fact, Vudu Inc. is just now starting to allow people to watch rented independent movies, which make up about half of its catalog, for 48 hours. We can hope that will pressure the Hollywood studios to ease their policies as well.
Apart from that issue, I have only good things to say about the Vudu. The picture quality is excellent: I played the same movie from a DVD and the Vudu and could detect no difference on a 46-inch LCD HDTV.
For high definition, the options are as yet limited, but if you like Matt Damon, you're in luck. Vudu Inc. added the three Jason Bourne movies as its first HD movies in December. Unlike standard definition, HD movies don't play immediately _ they take about four hours to start. The HD movies have surround sound, and it's coming to standard-definition as well.
The HD movies will screen in the very high-resolution 1080p mode if your set can handle 24 frames per second, which not all do. It will use the slightly lower 1080i quality setting on other sets. "The Bourne Ultimatum" looked very good in HD. The only image flaw I could find was occasional "false contouring," which is when a color gradient, like a sky going from light blue to dark blue, breaks up into distinct bands of color. That's something you'll see on cable and satellite HD broadcasts, but not on Blu-ray or HD DVD, the two competing HD video discs.
Under the hood, the Vudu's workings are both innovative and complicated, but happily it's not something the user should notice. It actually uses peer-to-peer filesharing technology, better known as a vehicle for movie and music piracy. The Vudu is one of a number of new applications of this technology that are designed to legally deliver copyrighted content.
What it means is that your Vudu box stores not only the movies you're watching, but snippets of many other movies in the catalog that are invisible to you. It uploads those to Vudu users who have bought a particular movie. So the Vudu is constantly working, uploading and downloading through your Internet connection. That's one of the reasons it has no "Off" button. In theory, you could notice a slowdown in your Internet uploads, but I didn't.
You may find the Vudu's constantly working hard drive annoying if you keep the unit in the bedroom. You don't need to worry much about the power consumption, though _ I measured it at 17 watts, which is quite modest. It would cost me about $25 a year to keep the Vudu running around the clock.
The Vudu compares well to the competition. Its picture quality is much better than that of iTunes movies watched on the Apple TV, though it doesn't link to your PC's media library the way Apple Inc.'s product does, nor does it have built-in Wi-Fi. It's quieter and smaller than Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 game console, which also allows you to rent movies. The Vudu's movie catalog is much larger than rivals' offerings.
The really tough competition comes, I think, from Netflix Inc. DVD rentals and TiVo Inc. digital video recorders, which allow you to watch movies and shows recorded off the TV when you want to. The Vudu's restrictive pricing scheme is going to keep them in business for a while yet.
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