Movie Downloads Remain a Production Worth Skipping

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 17, 2006

If anybody can fix the broken movie-download market, it ought to be Amazon or Apple.

Both companies have solid track records of selling recorded entertainment online -- one on discs, the other as downloads -- and making Hollywood gobs of money in the process.

Between Amazon's new Unbox store and Apple's addition of movies to its iTunes Store, the pros have arrived in the market.

But neither company can order a studio to sell a digital copy of a movie in a way that buyers will want. The shortfalls of Apple and Amazon's ventures are the same as ever: a maddeningly thin selection, uncompetitive prices, middling video quality and no DVD-burning option.

Amazon's Unbox ( ) does get some things right. It offers as broad a selection as any other movie outlet: more than 1,000 movies for sale (from $3.80 to $23.99) and almost 400 for rent ($1.99 to $3.99, with one $9.99 exception), plus episodes of TV shows, at $1.99 each.

But those numbers hide the essential randomness of the movie selection. If you hit Unbox looking for something interesting to watch, you can probably find it. But if you want a specific title, good luck.

The movie prices are even more random. Judging by how steep they are for some releases -- exceeding Amazon's $10 to $15 range for DVD releases -- the studios involved must not want anybody to download them.

Surprisingly enough, Unbox's listings don't inform you what Amazon charges for DVD copies of the same titles.

You need to install a separate, Windows XP-only program to download and watch Unbox purchases or rentals; the Amazon Unbox Video Player, in turn, may require an extra software download from Microsoft.

Amazon didn't complete the handoff from browser to player in one case; the site took my money, but the download never started. (It took a 16-minute phone call to Amazon customer service to get the charge reversed.)

Unbox downloads are slow by even video-download standards. Each purchase comes as two files, one full-resolution copy for viewing on a computer and a second, lower-resolution copy meant for viewing on a portable device. A 45-minute Discovery Channel documentary -- 857 megabytes for the desktop copy, 219 MB for the portable copy -- took almost two hours to download over a home DSL connection.

You can, however, use Unbox's clever "RemoteLoad" option to direct a download to another Internet-connected computer-- say, to send the movie to your home machine while you're at work.

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