Online Movies: Not Ready For Prime Time

Tired of those trips to the video store to rent the latest DVD? Hollywood says it has the answer in a pair of online movie stores that let you download the latest Arnold or Julia flick directly to your computer. But, like everything Hollywood offers up, the magic is getting it on the screen. Unless you've got an up-to-date PC and a broadband connection, neither site is a real, um, blockbuster.

For starters, neither Movielink nor CinemaNow stocks nearly as many titles as your local video store. Movielink has 450 films, vs. thousands at Blockbuster, and only about 150 are new releases. CinemaNow claims more than 1,200, but even fewer are new. Many of them are X-rated, or B-movie dreck. That makes the sites a poor substitute for your local video store, which gets films six weeks ahead of CinemaNow and Movielink and typically undercuts the nearly $5 rental fee the sites charge per film.

Still, there's a certain allure to calling up a movie on your PC. For me, the enchantment ended after it took nearly four hours to download MGM's James Bond flick Die Another Day. Both sites claim you can download a film in less than an hour -- and start watching the beginning of the film in only minutes as the rest of it continues to download.

That applies only to those with fast wires and modern equipment. Movielink recommends that in addition to a broadband connection -- I have DSL -- you should have a Pentium III computer, not my three-year old Compaq. In all fairness, it took my 19-year-old and her newer Compaq laptop 49 minutes to download John Travolta's Basic. But she also had the lickety-split Internet link that colleges now install in dorms.

The film looked great. It was DVD quality and both sites offer the ability to pause, rewind and then replay the film. But I was watching it on my computer monitor. If you have a PC with a video-out connection, and many new computers do, you can run an S-video cable from your computer to your TV and watch it in comfort. Movielink says that's how about 15% of its customers do it. It obviously works better if you have a laptop that you can plop down next to the TV rather than a desktop two rooms away.

Once you snag these movies, you don't own them. Both sites allow you to keep the flick on your hard drive for a while: 30 days, for instance, at Movielink. But once you start watching, the film expires in 24 hours.

Perhaps the smartest way to use these services is to download a flick to watch when you're traveling with your PC. Movielink allows that. Not so CinemaNow: You can't access a film to watch, even if it's on your hard drive, unless you're connected to CinemaNow's Web site.

CinemaNow does offer something you can't get on Movielink: adult films. They account for nearly 480 of the service's titles and cost between $4.99 and $9.95 each or $30 for a monthly subscription. For some folks, that may be the big attraction. But for those who just want to see Matrix Reloaded, the local video palace still beats these sites.

By Ronald Grover

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