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Here's where we make sense of this whole downloading-service scene
This roundup is a study in compromises. All these services are superior to what the typical cable company has to offer—with Comcast serving as the definition of “typical.” Each one is also better than what you’ll get from satellite TV provider DirecTV, which has the same pay-per-view movies, but they’re available only at certain times. The other major satellite service, Dish Network, recently began offering a genuine on-demand service on its DVR tuners equipped with Ethernet ports, but the future of that device is clouded by an ongoing lawsuit.
And that brings us back to the services in this roundup. BitTorrent has great technology, but there’s nothing to recommend its legitimate movie-downloading service (although we did find some great old movies for free!). The service is a pain to browse from the couch, you can’t transfer movies to portable devices, and BitTorrent’s library was very light on new releases. We likewise recommend avoiding Movielink—at least until Blockbuster figures out what it’s going to do with the service.
If you want to rent the latest films and buy TV episodes that can be transferred to a portable device, CinemaNow, Amazon’s Unbox, and Apple’s iTunes are your best bet (iTunes if you own an iPod and CinemaNow and Unbox if you own a PlaysForSure device). We can’t recommend CinemaNow’s subscription offerings, however, unless you want access to its adult-film library.
If you demand high definition, Vudu has the best solution—provided the movie you want is available in HD. Vudu’s image quality is very good, but its SD mode is no better than what you’d get from your cable or satellite provider’s set-top box—and its HD content isn’t nearly as eye popping as what you’d get from a Blu-ray disc. You also need to take the cost of the hardware into account and the fact that you can’t stream the video from one room to another, transfer it to any other device, or burn purchased content to disc.
Apple’s iTunes with the Apple TV and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace come in next, overall, but both services offer HD movies in only 720p—and both their movie catalogs fall short when it comes to the latest releases. They require new hardware, too (unless you already own an Xbox 360, that is). We really like the TiVo integration and user-friendly DRM that Amazon’s Unbox service offers, but we wish the company had HD content. If we were to buy a downloadable SD movie, we’d get it from Amazon.
And that leaves us with Vongo. This subscription-only service was the first one we tried, and we were sure we wouldn’t like it. Not because its image quality was any worse than the competition’s—in fact, it offered the best WMV-encoded video of anybody—but because it doesn’t offer HD or new releases for rent. But the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea of watching as many movies as we want to on demand and on up to three devices (including non-iPod handhelds). It’s almost like having a Netflix account, but with real streaming and portability options. If we could rent new releases and TV episodes, it would be the clear winner.
The biggest attraction all these services have in common is the ability to watch movies on demand (or almost on demand; if you have a slow Internet connection, you might as well go to the corner store). The only true no-compromises solution, however, is buying or renting old-fashioned discs. Buy Blu-ray discs if you want image quality or DVDs if portability is your main concern.