Tons of companies are vying to deliver movies over the Internet, from CinemaNow and Vongo to Apple TV and Amazon Unbox. But none of these solutions simplify watching what you what you want, when you want, from the comfort of your sofa. Vudu, on the other hand, is all about instant gratification. The startup's innovative movie box ($399) grants users quick access to more than 5,000 movies from all the major studios. Although we'd like to see even more top-tier titles and high-definition content added to the mix, we were won over by the device's simplicity, speed, and video quality. We were also impressed by how easy it was to search for movies. In many ways, Vudu is what Netflix should be.
If there were an award for foolproof setups, Vudu would win hands-down. This is how simple it is to get up and running with this glossy black box, which is only slightly larger than the Apple TV: Plug the Vudu into your home network router, then connect the Vudu to your big-screen TV using an HDMI cable (or other A/V connection). After you plug in the AC adapter, the Vudu boots up, and within a couple of minutes you're greeted with a main menu screen with several easy-to-understand selections, including Find Movies, New Releases, My Movies, My Wish List, and Info and Settings. Along the bottom of the slick interface, you can scroll through a selection of 20 movies ready for download, which constantly refresh.
Slick Remote, Swift Downloads
Part of what makes using Vudu a joy is the streamlined remote control. This sleek black device sports a scroll wheel that makes navigating the menus quick and downright fun. You just move the scroll wheel up and down to navigate menus and then press down to make a selection. The remote also has a Back button (used most often when jumping to the left side of the screen once you've narrowed down a search), a Play/Pause button, a Home button, and a More button (for more information on the movie you're watching). Once you've made a selection, your movie will start in about five seconds, and that's where Vudu's magic comes in.
Unlike competing services like Amazon Unbox, which require you to download a movie to your TiVo before watching, Vudu leverages the bandwidth of all of the Vudu boxes currently online. This sort of P2P technology on steroids ensures that you'll have the first few seconds of any given title already stored on your box' 250GB hard drive. That's enough room for more than 100 hours of owned movies, which cost anywhere from $4.99 to $19.99 (depending on the release date). Rented titles range from 99 cents to $3.99. The company plans to let users add even more storage via the box' USB port within the next six months.
Video quality was surprisingly good on our 37-inch, 1080i Philips LCD, especially since Vudu upscales standard-definition content (480p) to high-definition output (1080i or 1080p). We noticed some artifacts during one darker scene of Night at the Museum but were otherwise pleased with the crispness and how rich the colors looked. In general, Vudu movies looked just as good as on-demand movies from our cable provider and significantly better than Apple TV's "near-DVD" quality. The sound was always in sync with the action. The bottom line is that Vudu makes you forget you're watching a movie downloaded over the Web, which is no small feat.
So What's On?
Justifying the $399 premium depends on whether you'll always be able to find something you want to watch. During our testing, we found the selection of titles to be pretty good. We were happy to see current DVD releases like 300 and Wild Hogs, as well as classics like Blade Runner and To Kill a Mockingbird. Vudu claims that it has 82 to 85 percent of the current top rentals in its collection, most of which will be available within 48 hours of the DVD release date. That's a good start, but we found several holes in the lineup. For example, when we searched for Star Wars, the only result that returned was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And a search for Rocky returned Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Vudu scores points with its versatile and fast searching functions, however. You can explore 18 genres and search by title, actor, director, Vudu's Top Rated, and Staff Picks. You can also add subgenres while doing a search. So, for instance, you could look for an action with comedy, and then filter the results by release date, critics' rating, or the ability to rent or own the title.
We also like how easy finding more movies based on your preferences is. Clicking on Similar Movies when we pulled up Talladega Nights returned a list that included Happy Gilmore and Dodgeball. Yet another cool perk is that the cast for a movie you've selected appears on the left side of the screen, enabling you to select any actor to find more movies he or she has starred in. (Many of these headshots were blank during our tests, but we're assuming Vudu is filling them in.) When we clicked on Will Ferrell, Vudu returned a list of five movies, including Zoolander and Stranger than Fiction but not the classic Old School.
The biggest hole in Vudu's content lineup is the lack of TV shows. Some of the most popular DVDs available from Amazon, Blockbuster, and Wal-Mart are full seasons of the hottest prime-time shows, including Grey's Anatomy, Heroes, House, and The Office. Vudu told us it wanted to concentrate on movies first, but we think adding TV shows should be a top priority. Another drawback, depending on your perspective, is that Vudu movies don't come with the extra features we've come to expect from DVDs. If you like watching deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes commentaries, Vudu isn't for you. To be fair, though, you don't get these features from on-demand movies via cable, either.
Vudu Vs. Apple TV and TiVo
So what can you do with your content once you've ordered it? Not much. While Amazon Unbox and iTunes support viewing on PCs and portable devices, all of your Vudu movies are trapped on the Vudu box. (We're assuming this has a lot to do with the movie studios' need to lock down their content with DRM.) The Vudu box is certainly light enough that you could take it with you, assuming you'll have an open broadband connection where you're going, but business travelers and commuters will want a more seamless solution that synchronizes with portable media players or cell phones. We hope Vudu enables that USB port for more than just storage or devises a Web-based synchronization option for mobile devices.
A lot of companies are vying for your multimedia set-top-box dollar. The new $299 TiVo HD, for example, lets you record high-definition television, access your photos and music, and order movies directly from Amazon Unbox. However, you have to wait for the whole movie to download before you can start watching, which is annoying. And although Apple TV ($299) works with iTunes and lets you stream YouTube movies, its movie selection pales in comparison to Vudu's, and you can't download movies directly. For $100 more, you get instant gratification and a wide range of films, if you can live without music and photo streaming and access to viral videos.
Assuming you do most of your movie watching at home, Vudu provides a satisfying experience for those who don't have the time or patience to deal with mail-delivery DVD services like Netflix. And it's the most elegant solution yet for bringing movies into your abode via the Internet. While we give the technology an A-grade, the content selection for now is more like a B. If Vudu adds TV-show hits and can somehow convince the movie studios to offer high-def movies--and end the stupid Blu-ray/HD-DVD format war--this set-top will be much more compelling.
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