The only way to play videos from the Xbox Marketplace is with your Xbox 360; any hard-drive-equipped 360 can download and play them.
It turns out that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is good for more than just playing games and streaming the occasional transcoded video file. Indeed, the game console can also be a source of movie and TV-episode downloads using Microsoft’s online store, Xbox 360 Marketplace.
Unlike most of the other services we tested, Marketplace doesn’t have a PC component. You rent movies using the Xbox’s interface and the videos are downloaded directly to the Xbox’s hard drive, where all the standard rules apply: You have 30 days to begin viewing and 24 hours to finish once you start. Of course, you’ll need a network-connected, hard drive-equipped Xbox 360 to play. And you should know that the browsing interface uses the Xbox’s standard design, which isn’t exactly “mom” friendly. TV content is for purchase only and typically costs $2 per episode. Each network’s key programming—think Lost and CSI—is available in high def for an extra buck, but don’t expect to see much from NBC here.
There isn’t a massive library of back content available—the service featured fewer than 400 movies as we went to press. In our catalog tests, Marketplace fared OK in the new-releases department, offering the same titles you’d have to fight over at the video store. It didn’t fare as well with classic and cult titles, but the good news is that much of the content for sale is also available in high definition. Like the other services that use WMV technology, videos rented from Marketplace suffer from the soft edges and large file sizes common to the codec. Standard-def movies look slightly worse than traditional DVDs, and the high-def content is noticeably inferior to Blu-ray.
For whatever insane reason, Microsoft chose to base the payment scheme for Marketplace around Microsoft Points, which have an extremely confusing conversion scheme. One dollar buys you 80 points, and each movie rental costs 360 points for standard-definition files and 480 points for high definition. For folks who have trouble with math, SD movies cost $4.50, while HD films cost $6. That makes SD movies on Xbox Live Marketplace pricier than the competition, but HD content is on par with Vudu’s prices for 1080p content. What’s more annoying is that you can’t buy just the number of points that you need. Instead, you have to buy points in multiples of $5. So, to rent a movie for $6, you need to buy at least $10 worth of points. Lame. Points are tied to your Xbox Gamertag. Assuming you have the points to make the purchase, click the purchase button and the video will start downloading. As soon as the Xbox has sufficiently filled its buffer, the content will begin playing.
Like the other WMV-powered services, Marketplace could use a codec refresh. Despite the outdated codec, this is one of the few services that actually delivers HD content. We’d also like to be able to play downloaded content on portable devices and our PCs. That just seems like a natural option, especially given the rich ecosystem that Microsoft has built for media playback. Finally, we’d really like to see a lot more content on the service. Three hundred movies and change just isn’t enough for serious movie buffs.
Hardware: $350 Movie rentals: $4 to $6 Movie purchases: N/A
TV episodes: $2