Vudu: Movies On Demand

Jan. 6, 2009
Technology Editor Bill Wong takes a look at Vudu’s Internet movie delivery service and hardware.

I’ve been in search of the best Internet movie delivery system for a while, and Vudu looks to have be one of the top contenders. It’s Vudu XL box (Fig. 1) has a 1-TB hard drive inside. The standard Vudu box has a 250 GB hard drive. Both support analog and digital audio/video outputs (Fig. 2) including 1080p HDMI support.

Movies and television shows can be downloaded from the Internet through Vudu and stored on the local hard drive. Rentals remain there temporarily while purchased movies reside there permanently. Video is available in standard def (SD) and high-def (HD) formats. SD costs less and takes up less space on the hard drive. An SD movie runs about 2 Gbytes. An HD movie is about four times that. Vudu has its own format called HDX that provides better compression but the same quality as HD movies. HD movies carry a $2 premium and SD movie prices range from $0.99 to $3.99.

On the plus side, there is no subscription fee. You only pay for what you watch. Unfortunately the hardware will only work with Vudu’s service but the initial investment is not that high. The standard Vudu box runs $299 with a 250 Gbyte hard disk but outfits like Best Buy give you a $200 movie credit so the real cost is $99. That puts it on par with hardware like Ruku’s Netflix player (which lacks Vudu’s hard disk drive). Also, rental and purchase charges are done in blocks of $20, $50 or $100 and a credit card must be kept on file.

Installation is relatively simple. There is a power connection, an Ethernet connection and HDMI connection in the simplest case. Analog audio and digital require additional cables but overall there is not a lot to connect. The system provides 5.1 audio support. A wireless option is available if an Ethernet connection is not nearby. I also had to screw in the antenna for the wireless remote.

The system fires up looking for Vudu’s Web site and you need to use a PC to set up an account on the site. A displayed serial number matches the unit to the account. That is the last time you need to touch the computer, although some things are easier to do on the PC.

The box is controlled by a wireless remote that has a clickable scroll wheel and minimal number of buttons. The advantage of the wireless connection should be obvious but it means you cannot use a universal remote to control both the television and the Vudu box.

The user interface (Fig. 3) is a simple two-level menu system. Movie and video selections are normally provided on the second level and the scroll wheel moves across the lists. Selecting an entry brings up a full screen description along with options for renting and purchasing. There are cross references for information such as actors and directors associated with a selection. You also get to select the resolution (SD, HD, or HDX).

Selections are queued and streaming to the hard drive starts immediately. Playback can also start immediately depending upon the resolution selected and the bandwidth of the Internet connection. The idea is to provide uninterrupted presentations and the system is relatively conservative so once it starts playing it should continue without a hitch unless you want to fast forward.

Rentals are downloaded immediately and one day rental periods start when the selection is first viewed. This must be within 30 days, so overall the model is reasonable and easy to understand. It does pay to queue up only a few movies depending upon your viewing habits. Rentals can be extended.

Queue management is not too difficult since there are usually not too many movies selected at one time. Navigation through the menu system is good with the usual groupings by type, popularity, etc. There is a wish list and it is possible to archive purchased movies.

As with most services like this, not all titles are available and some selections are only available in certain formats. The movie mix is fair and adult titles are available. The newly released selections typically match DVD and Blue-ray release dates so there is no need to wait in line at a store. We’ll have to wait and see if anyone gets around to releasing first run movies at the same time as they hit the theatre.

Closing Comments
Vudu’s business model and hardware is similar to Apple’s Apple TV. The challenge will be quantity of choices as Vudu’s quality is top notch. It has online specials like 99 for $.99 but new releases garner the premium prices as one would expect.

I found the ability to browse via the PC to be useful since navigation is easier and more selections are visible. Having a keyboard makes searches trivial whereas they can be time consuming via the TV interface. Likewise, you have access to the full power of the PC to check out reviews on other sites. Still, once you have your selections made it is definitely easier to stick with the TV and Vudu’s wireless remote.

The only thing that would make the Vudu nicer would be lower movie costs as well as the ability to stream any content from the Internet or from local servers. Pricing will be based on competition from other sources such as cable and satellite on-demand prices.

I am hoping DLNA support will show up sometime as I have a number of DLNA media servers. It would mean one less box attached to the HDTV. For now I am glad to have an HDTV with lots of connections since the Vudu is definitely worth keeping.



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