The Vudu offers an attractive industrial design, but it stays cool enough that you can hide it in the depths of your entertainment center.
Vudu delivers more HD content than any other service, but achieving that image quality requires you to purchase a $300 box that can’t be truly integrated into the rest of your home network (meaning you can’t stream the content downloaded to it from one room to another). And the company currently has HD licensing deals with only Lionsgate, Paramount, and Universal; the rest of its offerings are limited to standard definition.
Seduced by what we thought was terrific image quality, we spent a long honeymoon with the Vudu. The box is cool and extremely quiet (it had no issues with being tucked inside our entertainment center), the intuitive user interface is superior to any of the web-based alternatives, and the custom remote control is sheer genius. Vudu encodes the films it offers in a proprietary flavor of MPEG-4, and the box downloads films in the highest resolution your display will support (from 480i to 1080p). But since the Vudu’s 1080p output is timed at 24 frames per second (to match the original film), the box had to drop down to 1080i in order to be compatible with our ViewSonic N4285p television (which can display 1080p, but only at a refresh rate of 30Hz or 60Hz).
But our newlywed bliss evaporated when we finally compared the downloaded HD versions of movies played on the Vudu box to the same films played on the Blu-ray drive in our home-theater PC: Vudu’s versions offered significantly less detail. Video image quality was leagues beyond the soft-edged offerings on tap from the standard-definition services, but it wasn’t nearly as good as what we saw on the disc.
Movie buffs should also bear in mind that movies encoded in high definition make for much larger files than what the other services have to offer. Vudu, like all the other services reviewed here, uses a progressive download system, so you don’t need to download the entire movie before you begin watching it. But if your broadband Internet connection is 1.5Mb/s or slower, you will experience a significant delay—it could be an hour or more—before you’ve grabbed enough of the file to start. Vudu recommends having at least a 2Mb/s connection for standard-definition movies and a 4Mb/s connection for HD content.
Vudu offers movies for rent and purchase and TV shows for purchase. The service operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, but your credit card is billed in $20, $50, or $100 increments, as opposed to the per-transaction basis that the other services operate on. Movies downloaded to the Vudu’s 250GB hard drive are stuck there; they can’t be burned to disc (even for backup purposes), streamed across a network using a Media Center Extender, or transferred to a portable device. Vudu tells us its customers will be able to re-download purchased movies in the event of a hard-drive failure or other catastrophe.
Vudu’s back catalog listed three of the AFI’s top 25 movies for sale (Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, and Chinatown), but it didn’t offer any of them for rent. Reservoir Dogs (available for $10) was the only movie on our list of cult classics we could find for sale or rent.
At press time, the Vudu box was about $50 cheaper than the least-expensive Blu-ray drive and about half the price of a Blu-ray-equipped DIY home-theater rig, but is the instant gratification of watching a movie without having to go to the store (and hoping it’s in stock) or waiting for it to show up from Netflix (with the same caveat) worth knowing that the image quality is worse than what you would get from a disc? We’re not so sure the trade-off is worthwhile.
Hardware: $300 Movie rentals: $4 to $6 Movie purchases: $10 to $20 TV episodes: $2