Nathan Edwards Jun 23, 2008

Amazon Unbox

At A Glance

Outside the Box

Portable support, easy to use, reasonable prices. TiVo integration.

Boxed In

No HD, software slightly buggy. WMV codec isn't the sharpest.

One of Unbox’s strengths is its tight integration with TiVo. You can queue movies for download to your TiVo from any PC.

If you’re like us, you’ve bought a lot of traditional media, be it DVDs, CDs, or—gasp!—books, from Amazon.com over the years yet have downloaded little or no content from its digital stores. After spending some time with Unbox—Amazon’s relatively new movie and TV download service—we’re about ready to start using it regularly. With a broad selection of inexpensive content and an easy and cheap way to get Unbox content to your living room, we initially thought this would be the service to beat—despite a complete lack of HD content.

Rental prices range from $3 to $4; purchases range from less than $10 to around $15. As with the other services, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing downloadable movies—given the usage restrictions—but Amazon does make some allowances to fair use: Your purchase lets you download a TiVo-friendly file, a PC-friendly file, and a file that’s optimized for PlaysForSure portable players. If you’re browsing the web interface, there’s even a handy chart on every page that tells you the aspect ratio, audio format, and file size for each of the different formats. We’d rather just buy an unencumbered DVD, but this is among the most consumer-friendly services we tested.

Unbox’s PC software is unremarkable and a little buggy. It handles the file downloads and playback for both PCs and mobile devices. As with all the other services we examined, it operates on a progressive-download model that enables you to begin watching the movie while the download is in progress (as soon as it grabs enough data to fill its buffer). Unbox’s integration with TiVo, however, sets it apart from the competition. Using any network-connected Series2 or Series3 TiVo (Series2 boxes can be found for around $100), you can watch rented or purchased movies on your big-screen TV. (But you’ll have to wait for the entire file to be downloaded first; progressive download isn’t available on the TiVo.)

You can also purchase content directly from your TiVo using the remote. The TiVo ordering interface isn’t bad, but we prefer the extra information Amazon provides through the web browser. Once you make your purchase, you can choose to start downloading to your PC or send the file to your TiVo. We’d like to see support for high-definition content, but Amazon needs to switch to a more efficient codec before that will work—even standard-def movies are larger than 2GB.

The content library is impressive, with good coverage in new releases as well as a decent number of classic titles and cult classics; the price is right, too. We’re fond of Unbox, but it’s certainly not perfect. The service uses WMV, which leaves a lot to be desired in the image-quality department. The video we downloaded was decent but a bit soft, similar to that of the other WMV-powered services we tested and clearly inferior to the quality of video we downloaded from the iTunes Store, which was itself inferior to DVDs.

Still, we wouldn’t say the video quality from Unbox was unacceptable, and combined with its easy method for getting content to the living room, support for portable devices, and reasonable pricing, we believe this is a fairly compelling service. The only thing missing is high-definition content using a better codec, which would make Unbox the clear winner here. We won’t buy movies from Unbox anytime soon, but we’re perfectly content renting from the service.

Movie rentals: $4
Movie purchases: $10 to $15
TV episodes: $2

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Amazon Unbox

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