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.

After downloading, Amazon grants you little leeway to enjoy your purchase. You can't burn it to DVD and can keep it on only two computers at a time. You can't copy the movie from one to the other via an external hard drive; you must download it again. (Rentals stay on the PC for only 24 hours after you begin viewing them.)

The full-resolution copy, advertised as "DVD-quality," isn't. It looks terrific on a laptop's screen, but on a 40-inch HDTV, you can see how compressed the Windows Media video files are: grainy, noisy backgrounds and some pixelation around edges. Not all Unbox movies have surround sound; none include closed captioning or any DVD bonus features.

I couldn't gauge the quality of the portable copy. Although Microsoft's database of Windows Media-compatible players said the iRiver Clix I tested should have worked, the Unbox software didn't recognize it.

Movie purchases from iTunes are free of that kind of nonsense. They work just as smoothly as music purchases, flowing from store to computer (Windows 2000 or XP, Mac OS X 10.3 or newer) to iPod.

You can watch any movie on three computers at once and copy it to as many video-capable iPods as you want. You still can't burn it to DVD. Apple says it plans to sell a wireless media receiver next year that will stream your purchases from computer to TV.

iTune's movie prices aren't as simple as its music prices. Most titles go for $9.99, but new titles can initially sell for $12.99 before jumping to $14.99 for an undetermined period.

Apple offers no rental option, which feels like a mistake. Many movies are a single-viewing proposition.

The iTunes selection is microscopic: about 70 titles from Disney studios. At least most are movies that people might actually want, instead of the drivel that fills out Unbox.

Apple's hope is that other studios will join in soon, just as TV networks rushed to sell shows on iTunes after the success of the first few pioneers. The company is probably right.

Apple seems to be using more effective video compression than Amazon: The same Discovery Channel documentary was about half the size on iTunes, just 487 MB. The Amazon copy looked a little more crisp, but in no way was its twice-as-large download twice as good.

Most iTunes movies lack surround sound and, as with Amazon, subtitles and extra features. Apple does, however, include chapter headings for easy jumping back and forth.

If you want to download a movie, Apple offers the best option now. But the iTunes store doesn't provide a great reason for you to want that download in the first place.

Buying music downloads has an obvious benefit: the ability to cherry-pick a record for the two or three songs you like. What's the reward for buying a movie as a download and giving up the flexibility of watching it on any DVD player? You're spared only the wait for the Netflix envelope or the walk or drive to a video store. You may not even save money.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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