If Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has an Achilles Heel, it’s that most of its amazing entertainment services also require an Xbox LIVE Gold account, an additional $60 fee each year that makes this video game console a bit less enticing as a living room set-top box. But even users of the free Xbox LIVE account can take advantage of a few useful entertainment services. And the big one is the ability to rent and buy HD movies.
In this capacity, the Xbox 360 can be used as an alternative to the On Demand system on your cable system or to the Apple TV. And like that latter device, the Xbox 360 provides seamless access to its maker’s online services for music, movies, and TV shows, in this case Microsoft’s Xbox Marketplace. (In the current Dashboard version, this Marketplace still usually uses the obsolete Zune branding, but that will be changing later this year.)
While the Xbox 360 is perhaps a bit less well known for its media serving prowess than Apple TV, truth is, it has some advantages over the Apple offering.
For example, the Xbox 360 utilizes an instant-on streaming technology in which the video appears right away, in low quality, but improving with playback as the content caches. It’s pretty amazing to watch: The first few seconds can resemble the typical SD You Tube video on a slower connection, but the quality ramps up quickly and, if the video stream and your own bandwidth support it, the video will hit 1080p quality in just a few quick seconds.
It also has some disadvantages. The Xbox Video Marketplace library is not as voluminous as that of Apple’s, and it currently lacks subtitles on virtually all of its content, save some foreign titles where it’s of course required. But since there is a subtitle notation on the buy/rent confirmation screen, I suspect this capability is coming.
Movie rental and purchase pricing seems to be a bit more expensive than iTunes, and Microsoft’s continued use of Microsoft Points is both tiring—requiring constant in-head conversions to US dollars so you can figure out how much you’re really spending—and tedious, since you must buy these Points in bulk, and not on a per-rental or per-purchase basis.
I also think Microsoft Points are used to obscure the real price of things. On Xbox, new movie rentals are typically $6 for HD (480 Microsoft Points) and $4.50 for SD (360 Microsoft Points). On iTunes, it appears to be $5 for HD and $4 for SD, for newer movies.
Movies rented from the console play immediately; the assumption, apparently, is that you intend to stream it right there and then. As is common with such services, once the video starts playing, you have 24 hours to complete watching it. And unlike on some services, such as Amazon’s, you won’t see an option to continue watching a rented movie on another device. It can only be played on the device to which it’s rented.
That said, items you purchase are available for streaming (or downloading) later from the My Movies (and My TV Shows) tiles in the Video Collection area of Xbox Video Marketplace. (Rented movies are available there, too, albeit only for that 24 hour window, and only on the device on which you rented it.)
Xbox-based video services are also available from Windows 8- and RT-based computers and devices, courtesy of the new Xbox Video app. (Users of earlier Windows versions can access the services through the Zune PC software.) On the PC, you choose at rental or purchase time whether to stream or download the video, and previously purchased content—TV shows or movies—can be streamed immediately, or streamed to your Xbox using the new Play on Xbox 360 feature.
There isn’t currently a way to rent or buy movies (or TV shows) directly from Windows Phone. However, you can do so from the Zune PC software and then transfer the video to the handset if desired. Hopefully this limitation will be removed in Windows Phone 8.
While the Xbox 360 may not seem like an ideal solution for rented or purchased movies, it’s worth remembering that this console’s true value is only achieved when you purchase an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription, which costs $60 per year. This subscription opens up an amazing world of video (and other) content through services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Videos, Verizon FIOS, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Vudu, and many, many others, and many each of those of course come with their own subscription fees, the ability to access all of them in a single place is unsurpassed by other devices. Yes, you could access movie rentals on an Apple TV and get Netflix too. But only the Xbox 360 offers such an amazing array of media services that goes well beyond what Apple provides. You just have to be willing to pay a bit of a premium for it.
I’ll be writing more about the evolving benefits of Xbox LIVE Gold soon.