By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 21, 2008
The quest for an affordable and convenient movie-download service has been one of the longest-running plotlines in Hollywood.
Such a thing ought to work like the best online music stores, which combine inventories of millions of songs, discounted prices and files that play on your choice of devices. But legal movie-download services all suffer the same flaws: small selections, relatively high prices and inflexible restrictions on their use.
It only makes sense that DVDs remain the movie medium of choice.
Two newer video services, however, offer benefits missing from such rivals as Amazon.com's Unbox and Netflix's online-viewing option. Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace video store (introduced in late 2006 and since upgraded) and the just-relaunched movie department of Apple's iTunes Store let you rent movies without a computer, play them on an HDTV and view some of them in high definition.
And unlike Vudu's new video-download system, those offered by Apple and Microsoft run in familiar online stores and on affordable devices that do more than just download movies. Apple's $229-and-up Apple TV media receiver puts your computer's music, photo and video libraries on an HDTV. (Apple's service also works with its iTunes software for Mac OS X and Windows.) Microsoft's Xbox 360 -- a model with a hard drive is required, at $350 and up -- plays some of the most popular video games. Each costs less than a Blu-ray high-definition disc player.
Apple's and Microsoft's offerings could work for some viewers who have avoided the download market. But not many other movie fans are likely to applaud them.
Both iTunes and Xbox Live Marketplace make the fundamental mistake of not stocking enough movies.
Apple does better than Microsoft, with 352 titles from all of the major studios (Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal, Warner and Sony), and plans to offer 1,000 by the end of the month. But this inventory features puzzling omissions -- for example, "The Matrix: Revolutions" is available but not the original "The Matrix."
Microsoft's less-organized store offers a thinner selection: 302 movies, including titles from Disney, Paramount and Warner, plus many obscure short films.
Almost a quarter of Apple's movies and a bit less than half of Microsoft's are available in high-definition versions.
The Apple and Microsoft stores also suffer from the movie industry's counterproductive "release window" scheduling, in which rental titles vanish from the virtual shelves after a certain time. Microsoft lists the expiration dates, while Apple leaves viewers guessing.
Prices at either download service undercut real-world rental rates by only a dollar or so -- not counting savings in time and money from not having to make a round trip to a video store. Apple charges $2.99 for older movies and $3.99 for new releases. HD versions cost a dollar more.
Microsoft rentals cost about the same, except for a $6 charge for HD rentals of new releases. But you must pay in Microsoft Points, a made-up currency you buy in advance ($6.25 gets you 500) and then redeem for video rentals or other items at the Marketplace.
Microsoft is also less generous in its terms of service. It gives you 14 days to start viewing a rental, after which you have 24 hours to finish viewing it. Apple allows 30 days to start viewing and lets users exceed its 24-hour limit: If time runs out while you're watching the movie -- or even if you've paused it -- you won't be cut off.
These companies advertise instant viewing -- like most download services, these let you start watching as the download continues-- but slower broadband services will nevertheless require a wait.
On a 1.5 megabits-per-second DSL connection, for example, a standard-definition film wasn't ready to watch on the Apple TV until after about 45 minutes of downloading. Fetching an HD release was an overnight undertaking. On the Xbox, a standard-definition title wasn't ready to watch until an hour and a half after starting the download.
Unfortunately, standard-definition titles looked blurrier and fuzzier than DVDs. High-definition rentals, on the other hand, looked magnificent, with far less evidence of the compression used to squish a movie into a downloadable file.
Apple offers one feature that Microsoft can't -- the ability to watch a rented movie on an iPhone or on most video-capable iPods, as long as you first download the flick with iTunes instead of an Apple TV.
But this option subjects you to a stringent one-screen-at-a-time policy. Moving a movie to an iPod or an Apple TV causes it to vanish from the computer; sending it back to the computer wipes it from the other device. And you can't put the movie on a second computer at all.
All those these restrictions make for a very narrow target market. Somebody who doesn't subscribe to an on-demand cable-TV service, but pays for a faster-than-usual broadband connection. Someone who isn't satisfied with the movies on premium channels like HBO but doesn't want anything too esoteric-- and doesn't watch movies often enough to justify a Netflix subscription.
What about all the other customers? Are the studios that scared of making money off of them online?