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MovieBeam Proves a Novelty With Lukewarm Reception

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Eight of these movies were also available in high-definition format for an extra $1 each -- making MovieBeam the only way to rent a flick in high-def at the moment.

But you can only see that extra resolution if your HDTV is new enough to provide an HDMI digital input. And if it does, everything MovieBeam rents will look about as good -- the receiver automatically "upconverts" every release to a high-definition resolution. (The MovieBeam box also includes analog component-video outputs, plus S-Video and composite jacks for older analog TVs.)

A MovieBeam receiver's inventory changes each week, as up to 10 new releases arrive over the air and old ones are removed -- this catalogue works much more like a movie channel's schedule than a video store's inventory.

For example, last week's additions consisted of "Jarhead," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "The Polar Express" and "Venom." Note that three of those releases arrived on DVD weeks or months ago -- a situation that applies to most MovieBeam releases. That undercuts MovieBeam's "our movies are never out of stock" sales pitch; how often is a new DVD still back-ordered a month after its release?

Renting and viewing movies using this box usually involved next-to-zero work, but I encountered some hiccups, as well. The unit once locked up before spontaneously rebooting, and another time, it lost the over-the-air signal, requiring the same reacquisition process as before. The cooling fan inside can also make a noticeable whir. And the box desperately needs a way to shut off the fanfare theme that plays Every. Single. Time. you bring up its main menu or select a movie.

MovieBeam says it's working on a couple of potentially interesting additions to this device's capabilities. For instance, it's planning to activate the receiver's Ethernet networking port to allow it to connect to home networks -- opening up the possibility of movie delivery via your broadband Internet service. It's also looking into letting customers use the receiver's USB port to transfer their 24-hour rentals to portable devices running Microsoft's Windows Media software.

Even with those potential features, however, MovieBeam feels like an expensive novelty. The pricing may be too high, given the inflexible 24-hour viewing period, and the selection is definitely way too limited, especially compared with the seemingly endless catalogue of Netflix. A MovieBeam box might make a pleasant supplement to all the other video sources out there, but it can't replace any of them.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.


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