The Ultimate Guide to Movie Download Services

Nathan Edwards

Widespread broadband Internet adoption, not to mention pervasive digital rights management technology, has convinced Hollywood studios that it’s safe to make their best products available as digital downloads. And thanks to Windows Media Center and devices such as Apple TV and Media Center Extenders, including the Xbox 360, watching downloaded movies in your home theater no longer requires planting a PC in your entertainment center (although there’s nothing to stop you from doing that anyway). In fact, you might not need a PC at all.

No fewer than eight movie-download companies have jumped into the opening that Hollywood has provided, all of which promise to deliver the latest films fresh from their runs in brick-and-mortar theaters—TV shows, too—over the Internet. Netflix eliminated late fees and runs to the video store, but these on-demand services eliminate the need to wait for a disc to arrive in your mailbox.

But we wanted to know how these newfangled services compare to existing technologies, including DVDs and Blu-ray discs and the on-demand offerings from cable and satellite TV providers. So we brought each of them into our home theaters, watched movies on our big (and small) screens, tested the hardware (when it was required), and streamed videos from our PCs to our TVs (when it was possible) to see who best competes with the silver screen.

Buyer's Guide

If you’re going to download high-resolution movies, make sure your display can handle it. We used ViewSonic’s 42-inch N4285p LCD TV, which supports a maximum resolution of 1080p.

What to Know Before Logging On

Downloading movies and TV shows is a very different experience than renting or buying a disc

Connection

Maximum PC readers don’t need to be told that downloading movies and TV shows just ain’t gonna happen with a dial-up connection—this is a job for broadband: You’ll want DSL service with a download speed of at least 800Kb/s for standard-definition content; the faster your connection, the less time you’ll wait before you can start watching. Given the choice between DSL and cable, we’d take cable; fiber is even better—just make sure your ISP won’t throttle your connection if you start downloading a lot of content.

If you crave high-definition movies, you’ll want a much faster connection. Most of the service providers covered in this story recommend connection speeds of 2Mb/s or faster. Upload speeds are not nearly as important, since you’ll send very little data to these service providers.

Is HD an Option?

Make sure your computer monitor or television can handle HD content before you pay extra to download it. HD content is typically delivered in 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolution, with the “p” standing for “progressive scan” (all the horizontal lines are drawn in sequence: 1, 2, 3….) and the “i” meaning “interlaced” (the odd-numbered horizontal lines—1, 3, 5…—are drawn first, and then the even-numbered lines—2, 4, 6…—are drawn in the next frame). Many people can detect a flicker in an interlaced display, although a good HDTV will deinterlace content before displaying it.

Most large computer monitors (24 inches and up) can handle 1080p, although that’s often not their native resolution. Only enhanced-definition and high-definition TVs can handle anything beyond 480i. You should also keep aspect ratio in mind: Nearly all HDTV content is presented with a native aspect ratio of 16:9, so you’ll get the best experience from a display that has a native resolution of 1080p and a native aspect ratio of 16:9. Still, you probably won’t notice any difference from a monitor that has a native resolution of 1920x1200 and an aspect ratio of 16:10.

Watching on your TV

The service providers reviewed here have adopted one of three business models: Download content to your PC and view it on your computer monitor; download content to your PC and either view it on your computer monitor or stream it to your TV using your wired or wireless (you’ll need 802.11n) network and third-party hardware you’ve purchased; or download content to a set-top box that you’ve purchased and plugged into your TV or computer monitor.

Paying the Piper

While there’s plenty of free amateur video to be found on the Internet, Hollywood expects to be paid. The services reviewed here operate on one or some combination of three revenue models: subscription, an all-you-can-eat plan that allows you to download and watch as much content as you’d like for a monthly fee; rental, a pay-per-download model that typically gives you 30 days to begin watching and a 24-hour viewing window once you’ve initiated playback; and purchase, the model that gives you the most flexibility (but far less flexibility than if you’d purchased a disc).

Service providers take very different approaches to how they implement these models, so be sure you understand the terms of the service being offered. CinemaNow and Vongo, for instance, both offer a subscription service, but CinemaNow’s subscription offerings exclude most mainstream Hollywood releases.

Terms of Service

We can’t overstate the importance of knowing exactly what you’re going to get when you do business with any of these service providers. Here’s an overview of the questions you should ask, but we’ll cover the answers in detail in each review and in our comparison chart: Is the content in high definition or standard definition? Do you need to buy extra hardware? Can you stream the content from your PC to your TV? Can you transfer the content to a portable player? If so, which devices are supported? You won’t be able to burn rented content to a disc, but what about the TV shows and movies you buy? If your hard drive craps out or your download becomes corrupted, can you re-download content you’ve purchased?

Depth of Catalog

Don’t assume all these services have the same movies and TV shows on tap. Each company negotiates independent deals with the Hollywood studios that control the bulk of the top-shelf content. We’ll grade each provider’s catalog in our individual reviews, based on the availability of new releases, depth of their catalog, and their collection of cult classics (we’ve posted our complete findings at http://tinyurl.com/yp7w8u). We’ll award extra points for high-def content.

Reviews:

Comparison Chart

Closing Credits

Conspicuously Missing

Netflix offers a movie streaming service, so why aren't we reviewing it alongside the others?

Netflix is legitimately awesome. For a few bucks a month, you get all the movies you want delivered straight to your door, and if you’re committed to a monthly subscription plan costing $9 or more, you get access to Netflix’s streaming service at no additional cost. This gives you instant access to hundreds of movies, ranging from direct-to-DVD releases such as Superman: Doomsday to cult classics like A Boy and His Dog .

But the service isn’t perfect. Netflix relies on WMV, so its video quality suffers many of the same problems as the other WMV-based services we tested, namely, soft edges and resolution limited to 640x480. The service is included with the company’s existing disc-rental subscription plans, so they don’t offer newly released feature films (and they’re contractually barred from streaming any older films that Vongo has the rights to).

You can use the freeware program MyNetFlix (the author accepts donations) to browse Netflix’s offerings within Windows Media Center, and the program will even allow you to stream movies from another PC on your network using a Media Center Extender, but the software is Vista only. Netflix says it plans to build a set-top box in partnership with LG Electronics, but that announcement was way back during CES in January—the hardware is looking pretty vaporous right now.

Still, the convenience of having access to a large online catalog of back content, while simultaneously getting new releases on DVD—or even Blu-ray for the same price—renders Netflix a compelling solution in our eyes, even if you do have to wait for snail mail.

Yesterday's Revolution

Divx was supposed to change the movie rental scene—what happened?

In 1998, Circuit City and the Hollywood law firm of Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer launched the Digital Video Express (Divx) format, a direct competitor to DVD. The idea was that you would rent movies on disposable discs that gave you 48 hours of viewing time once you started watching the movie (you also had to buy a Divx player and plug it into a phone jack). If you wanted to watch the movie beyond the 48 hours, you could extend the viewing time for another rental fee or permanently unlock the movie by buying it.

Divx ultimately failed due to consumer backlash: Environmentally conscious folks didn’t like the idea of disposable DVDs clogging up landfills, and movie buffs didn’t like the fact that Divx discs lacked the extra features—commentaries and “making of” segments—that they’d come to enjoy on DVDs.

The people had spoken. By mid-1999, Divx backers cancelled support for the format, destroyed all the unsold media, and prepared plans to discontinue the service entirely. When you think about it, the only difference between today’s downloadable movie rentals and yesterday’s Divx is the disposable disc—and 24 extra hours of viewing time.

Movie Download Service Comparison Chart
Amazon Unbox
BitTorrent
CinemaNow
iTunes
Movielink
Vongo
Vudu
Xbox Live Market-
place
Business Model
Rent or Buy
Rent or Buy
Rent, Buy, or Subscription
Rent or Buy
Rent or Buy
Subscription and Rent
Rent or Buy
Rent
Video-Encode Format
WMV
WMV WMV MPEG-4, H.264
WMV WMV MPEG-4
WMV
Monthly Subscription Price
N/A
N/A $8 to $30 (optional)
N/A N/A $10
N/A N/A
Price Per Movie Rental $4 $3 to $4
$2 to $4 $3 to $5 $3 to $4 $1 to $4 (if not included in subscription)
$3 to $6 $3 to $6
TV Episode Purchase Price
$2
$2 $2 $2 $2 $2 $2 $2
Movie Purchase Price
$10 to $15 $10 to $20 $9 to $20
$10 to $15 $8 to $20 N/A $10 to $20 N/A
Hardware Required
PC or TiVo
PC
PC
Apple TV
PC
PC
Vudu Movie Box
Xbox 360 w/ hard drive
Media Center Extender Compatible? No
yes
Yes
No
Yes
Yes No
Yes
Resolutions Supported 480p
Up to 1080p
480p
Up to 720p
480p
480p
Up to 1080p/24
720p
Portable Devices Supported
PlaysForSure
iPod or iPhone
PlaysForSure
iPod or iPhone
None
PlaysForSure
None
None
Burn Purchased Content to Disc? No
Yes, with restrictions
Yes (limited titles)
No
Yes, but only as a data file
No
No
No
Verdict
7
4
6
6
5
7
7
6

The Closing Credits

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.

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