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Review: Vudu

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Broadband Internet users all have one thing in common: they want fast downloads. In this regard, movie watchers will be pleased with Vudu. Using streaming technology, the Vudu TV set-top box offers an online movie rental and purchase system, allowing you to choose a movie from a vast collection and watch it immediately with the click of a button. Though speedy delivery is Vudu’s strength, the device doesn’t fall short in quality. Movies streamed from Vudu look comparable to those on DVDs, and the sound is excellent. I personally was a little disappointed in the breadth of new releases that are offered by Vudu, and the fee structure—which Vudu says is imposed by the movie studios—is somewhat complicated and frustrating. But since Vudu is in its very early stages, I’m optimistic it can expand and improve.

Setup and hardware

A compact, black box weighing 4.2 pounds, Vudu connects directly to a broadband connection and a television or display. The setup is as simple as plugging in the audio, video, power, and Ethernet cables and powering on the device. You’ll see Vudu’s startup screen on your television, and after setting up your Vudu account at the company’s Web site, you’ll be able to rent or purchase a movie and watch it.

The Vudu box contains a 250GB hard disk drive—enough to store approximately 100 hours of movies. Vudu’s movies are encoded in the MPEG4 format, and the hardware supports HDMI v1.1, component, S-Video, and composite connections. For audio, Vudu supports HDMI v1.1, digital optical, digital coax, and RCA. Although Vudu supports HD output, the service currently doesn’t offer any HD movies. However, Vudu representatives say that HD movies will be available once deals are finalized with studios.

You can also set up Vudu to work with your wireless network by connecting the device to a wireless bridge. Vudu’s specifications recommend at least an 802.11g or faster router to ensure speedy delivery. But since you probably won’t be moving your Vudu very often, I’d suggest connecting directly to the network via wired Ethernet.

Usability and interface

The Vudu service is innovative, and so is Vudu’s remote control. Small, black, smooth, and shaped like an overgrown peanut, the remote rests very comfortably in the palm of your hand. The most innovative feature on the remote is its vertical scroll wheel for navigation and selection, which eliminates the need for excessive button mashing to get to the movie you want to watch. There are four other buttons: a Back button, a Play/Pause button, a Vudu Main Menu button, and a More button. Overall, I found the remote very intuitive and fun to use.

Vudu’s main menu is a black screen containing five options: Find Movies, New Releases, My Movies, My Wish List, and Info & Settings. Below those options are side-by-side poster images of currently featured movies, which you can quickly choose to watch. After selecting the Find Movies option, Vudu’s menu gives you several options for choosing a movie: Explore Genres, Search By Title, Search By Actor or Director, Vudu’s Top Rated, and Staff Picks. Selecting a movie brings up a window containing details, such as the movie’s cast, director, synopsis, star-rating, studio, and run time. From here, you can also click on the director or actor names and browse through other movies by that director or featuring those stars.

How it works

Vudu doesn’t achieve the impossible by downloading an entire video the instant you click the rent or buy button. Vudu streams video, which means that you watch the video as it downloads; you can only fast-forward through the entire video once it finishes downloading.

Something less obvious to Vudu users is that they’re not only downloading—they’re uploading, too. With the box connected to the Internet, each Vudu user essentially contributes to a peer-to-peer network to ensure the delivery of every movie. The upload rate is capped at a reasonable rate (300 Kbps), so Vudu won’t make your Internet connection sluggish.

Speed and quality

In my First Look at Vudu, I performed testing over a high-throughput connection in our office. But to test Vudu in a more realistic setting, I took the device home and plugged it into my 3 Mbps cable modem connection, which is the minimum speed that Vudu recommends in its specifications. Even though I met only the minimum requirements, I was able to select a movie and watch it the whole way through without any interruption. Those of you with broadband connections below 3 Mbps, don’t say you weren’t warned: I also tested Vudu on a 1.5 Mbps DSL connection, and I had to wait 20 minutes before I could watch an entire movie uninterrupted.

I watched movies from Vudu on a Toshiba 26HF85 HD-ready CRT television. The movies I watched matched DVD quality, with accurate colors, and sound was crisp and clear. I noticed some pixelation due to compression among brighter colors when watching digitally animated movies such as Monster House . But this pixelation was negligible, and overall I had a very pleasant viewing experience with Vudu.

Fees and selection

The Vudu box costs $399, and there are no subscription or activation fees. One-time rentals range from $1 for older films to $4 for new releases. Renting a movie immediately activates a 24-hour clock: during that time you can watch the movie as many times as you wish. The price for owning movies ranges from $5 to $20, depending on the film’s studio, age, and popularity, among other factors. When you choose to purchase a movie, Vudu streams and stores the movie on its 250GB hard drive. Interestingly, Vudu currently doesn't offer an option to delete any movies you purchase. According to Vudu, a delete option will be added eventually. The company also says that the device will include support for external hard disk drives to store movies at some point in the future.

Vudu’s rental and owning fees can seem somewhat complicated since the company is licensing in coordination with movie studios. An annoying side effect to this is that when Vudu first adds a title to its collection, for an unspecified number of days that title is only available for purchase. After that, the movie will be available for rental. I think this marketing strategy is a hindrance to the idea inherent in the digital movie era—sparing you a trip to the video store. If I felt like watching a recently added movie on Vudu but I were only given the option to own it, I would rather drive to the video store and rent the movie at a lower cost. I realize that Vudu isn’t necessarily at fault for this, since the studios determine these time windows. I’m hoping that after some experimentation, the studios will work out a deal with Vudu to abolish these time windows.

Vudu has partnerships with every major studio and 18 independents, offering 5,000 movies as of this writing—greatly exceeding the iTunes Store’s current offering of only about 500 movies. Though Vudu’s library is impressive, I was a bit disappointed with the service’s New Releases selection. When I tested Vudu, titles such as 300 and Disturbia were available for viewing in this section; these were released on DVD about two months ago. I personally would prefer it if Vudu focused on keeping its New Releases up-to-date while slowly adding older titles to the library. However, Vudu is still in its early stages, and the service will be adding more movies to its collection on a weekly basis. I’m confident that, with time, Vudu’s library will expand to keep up with the constant flow of new releases.

Macworld’s buying advice

Vudu is an impressive device that brings instant movie entertainment to your living room. Fun, easy to use, and offering great video and sound quality, Vudu has the potential to become a revolutionary device in the digital-movie era. But before purchasing Vudu, you may want to wait until studios work out a more reasonable, less complicated fee structure. Waiting for Vudu to mature may also be beneficial to allow the service to get its New Releases up-to-date—and add high-definition offerings to the library.

[ Brian Chen is an assistant editor at Macworld.]

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