Movies to Go: Better than Ever but Not Perfect

Over the years, I've examined various ways you can download and view full-length Hollywood movies on your PC, Macintosh, or portable device, but major changes are now happening in this market. Partially due to the success of Apple Computer’s video iPod, and the accompanying selection of downloadable legal video content at the iTunes Music Store, movie and TV companies are looking at new ways to provide content to customers. Interestingly, some of those ways have actually been with us for years. But thanks to renewed interest in downloadable content, existing services such as MovieLink and CinemaNow are gaining valuable new functionality that makes them much more viable than before. And newcomers to the video-download arena, such as Apple and Vongo, are arriving to offer some competition as well.

About 3 years ago, I started experimenting with online video-download sites such as CinemaNow and MovieLink. Back then, the services were pretty weak, with a limited number of movies for rental only (there were no digital purchases to be had) and middling quality. Still, at the time, it was handy to download movies to the hard disk of the notebook I was using then, as the machine didn't include a built-in optical drive on which I could play DVD movies. Also, because the system sported a measly XGA (1024 x 768) screen, even the low-resolution movies available at these services looked pretty decent in full screen. It wasn't horrible, but these services couldn't really offer a complete solution.

Fast forward 3 years, and things have changed, for better and worse. As with the music industry, there are two camps, Apple and Microsoft. In the Apple camp, we have the iTunes Music Store, which offers 320 x 240 movies that work via a Windows PC or Mac (through iTunes) and the video iPod, but no other portable devices. In the Microsoft camp, we have a variety of services, including CinemaNow, MovieLink, and Vongo, and a variety of portable devices, including Windows Powered PDAs and SmartPhones, and Portable Media Centers (as well as Windows-based notebooks and PCs), but not iPods.

The Apple service is limited in many, many ways, but Apple should be credited with taking digital movie downloading to the mainstream. Thanks to the company's success with iTunes music downloads, movie and TV companies are looking seriously at Apple for the first time and considering iTunes as an outlet for on-demand content. Today, Apple offers several TV shows, some Pixar short films, and some music videos for purchase at $1.99. That's a great price, but the 320 x 240 resolution betrays the problem: Movies this small don't look great on a PC screen, especially the expansive widescreen displays I use, which enable resolutions of 1920 x 1200 (desktop) and 1680 x 1050 (notebook).

On the Microsoft side, things are improving. Existing services such as CinemaNow and MovieLink now offer movies for sale as well as rental, although the purchasable movies, especially on MovieLink, are still hard to find, as most of the offerings are still rentals. Full-length movies on CinemaNow typically cost $9.99 to $19.99, but they don't time out like rentals do, and you can watch them whenever you like—with certain qualifications related to the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme.

Best of all, both CinemaNow and MovieLink are starting to offer HD-quality content. These movies look great even on my highest-resolution screens, and they nicely show off the capabilities of Microsoft's WMV-HD format. On the flipside, these 720p (1280 x 720 recorded at 8000Kbps) movies take a long time to download. For example, I purchased the 43-minute Coral Reef Adventure, a WMV-HD showcase narrated by actor Liam Nielson. The movie is 2GB large and took over 25 minutes to download on a Verizon FIOS fiber-optic connection. This isn't something you'd want to try on a slow broadband connection like wireless.

The latest entry into the downloadable video arena is Vongo, an online service from the people who bring you the Starz cable channels. Vongo boasts a friendly, Web-based interface; Windows (but not Mac or iPod) compatibility; and a decent collection of 1000 movies. What it's lacking is HD movie support. However, the big schtick at Vongo is that you can subscribe to a service for $9.99 per month and get unlimited access to Vongo's catalog, in addition to individual movie downloads. I'll look at this service more closely in the future, but it appears to be a decent offering.

What all the services—Apple, CinemaNow, MovieLink, and Vongo—do offer, sort of, is the ability to view movies outside of the computer. With TV shows and other videos downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, for example, you can output the display of a video iPod to your TV using an optional Universal Dock and AV Cable. The quality isn't half bad on a standard-definition TV, at least not until you compare it with a DVD movie. But almost any PC or Mac can output their display to a TV, usually with an S-video cable. If you have a PC equipped with such a port, you can enjoy your CinemaNow or MovieLink HD content on the big screen, and it will look even better than a DVD movie. Standard-definition content from these services offers approximately four times the resolution of Apple's videos.

The long and the short of it is that no one service handles all scenarios. Although the video iPod is currently the ultimate portable video device, it's compatible only with Apple's limited service. And although CinemaNow, MovieLink, and Vongo offer much higher quality, they won't work with the iPod. But let's not forget TiVo, which is offering TiVo To Go for a variety of devices, including iPods, Portable Media Centers, Windows Powered PDAs and Smartphones, and Windows-based notebook computers. All in all, there are a lot of options out there if you know where to look. We might not have arrived yet at the logical conclusion to our quest—where we can access the content we want no matter where we are or what device we use—but we're getting closer every day.

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