The Good: Easy setup, fast downloads for instant at-home viewing
The Bad: Pricey, limited selection of movies
The Bottom Line: A simple-to-use device limited by movie selection, but good for current DVD releases
If you're like me, there's nothing like kicking back with a good movie in those increasingly rare moments of downtime. But you don't want to hop into a car to get that movie. You just want to have it there. That's why I'm a big fan of Netflix (NFLX). Once a month, I load up my queue with films I think I'd like to watch, and for $35 a month I get five at a time from which to choose.
Now there's another company, named Vudu, that aims to make the experience even simpler. It's an Internet-based video download service that delivers movies like 300 and Syriana directly to a compact console. The device costs $400. Movies can be rented for 99¢ to $3.99 apiece, or purchased for $4.99 to $19.99 each, depending on the title. It all works smoothly, but for now, the movie selection is lacking.
Simple and Straightforward
Vudu designed its device and download service to appeal to even the least tech-savvy among us. Right on the box, you're told you need a fast Internet connection, either cable modem or premium DSL, to give you the bandwidth to download DVD-quality films.
You can plug the Vudu unit to a high-definition TV using the HD multimedia interface cable or composite video cable, both of which come in the box. That's a nice touch, as many companies force you to buy an HDMI cable separately. For those without HD sets, there are also jacks on the device for component and S-video cables as well as optical and coaxial audio jacks to hook it up to a multimedia receiver. (You need to purchase all but the analog stereo cable separately.)
The teardrop-shaped remote control feels great in your hands. Unlike remotes that are overloaded with buttons, this one's simple and straightforward, looking more like a computer mouse, with just five buttons and a thumb-dial scroll wheel.
Once you get everything hooked up, the device checks your broadband line to make sure you truly have a fast Internet connection. Then there's a brief tutorial that you can't skip. That's unfortunate, because it is annoyingly elementary. You also need to set up a credit-card account to pre-authorize rentals and purchases with Vudu's download service.
The on-screen navigation is simple. Five tabs run along the top: Find Movies, New Releases, My Movies, My Wishlist, and Info & Settings.
As with other download services, you need to watch a rented movie within 24 hours of the time you download it. After that, the video is automatically wiped off the machine. When you purchase a movie, the film resides on the Vudu's hard drive, but it can't be transferred to a computer or copied. The hard drive has 250 gigabytes of capacity, which is enough to hold about 50 movies. In November the company plans to offer a software update that will enable users to hook up an external hard drive to the Vudu box for extra storage, though you still won't be able to watch those films on a computer.
Short on Titles
The biggest problem is movie selection. Although Vudu's library offers 5,000 titles from all the major Hollywood studios as well as 17 independent and international studios, I had a hard time finding movies I had not already seen or would want to watch. I've had this same issue with similar video download services. In my opinion, this severely hampers the notion of delivering "the right movie, right now," as Vudu promises.
Netflix, by comparison, boasts 85,000 titles, with an extensive back collection of classics and new releases. What's more, with Netflix there's no initial cost for a box (assuming you already have a DVD or HD video player in your home). And movie watchers might be just as happy with on-demand and pay-per-view services from cable and satellite TV providers, which feature the latest movies with no need for a DVD or a box like Vudu.
A Vudu spokesman promises the company will be adding movies at a quick clip, potentially making the purchase of the box worth your while. Until that happens, though, I'm sticking with my Netflix subscription.