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Movie Downloads, Direct To The Living Room

Paid movie downloads to computers have yet to see anything close to the success of music downloads. But that isn't stopping the movie industry from trying. The latest attempts aim to eliminate the need to watch the movie on a computer--not in the most obvious way, which would be to let you burn a DVD of the download--but by sending the download to a box that plugs into your TV.

For example, about two weeks ago Amazon launched a verson of its Unbox video service that allows users to download movies to their TiVo digital video recorders. Apple, meanwhile, is apparently now shipping the Apple TV set-top box that will extend its iTunes Store to the TV.

But will a bigger, easier viewing option be enough to make these stores more appealing? I didn't like the prices, much less the selection, of either one when I tried them in September.

Then there's the example of one earlier attempt in this category: MovieBeam, the set-top-box-based service that I reviewed almost a year ago, shows signs of circling the drain. The company--once backed by Disney--was recently sold to Movie Gallery, a small chain of video-rental stores, for a measly $10 million.

Do the Amazon and Apple viewing options make their video stores more appealing to you? If not, what would?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 20, 2007; 5:21 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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Re. movie downloads, one point to ponder is -- downloading 50Gb+ of files every wk or month, will the cable companies tolerate this "high" bandwidth usage without penalizing the customer? An economical way out for the customer may be to use BitTorrent.

Posted by: Sal | March 20, 2007 7:47 PM | Report abuse

If downloads are a problem then Apple would just buy the cable companies, right? :)

And then they'd implement BitTorrent.

Posted by: DJ | March 20, 2007 7:52 PM | Report abuse

As long as Hollywood is in charge, paid movie downloads are absolutely doomed. They want to lock them down with ridiculous DRM. You can't play your movie when and where you want. As though DVDs aren't already impaired with enough DRM!

As bandwidth to the home increases, people will get more and more illegal movies. People would pay for movie downloads if there were a good service for it, but Hollywood will give them garbage services locked down with DRM. People will be smart enough to realize that the pirated product, with its ability to be freely copied, is superior to the paid product with its draconian lockdown.

Posted by: massysett | March 20, 2007 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Why would BitTorrent help? On the consumer side (where the download is occurring) the same amount of data is flowing over your cable/dsl connection. It's the source location that realizes the benefit of BitTorrent. In fact your broadband usage would increase by using BitTorrent, because you would become a distributor of Bits of the files you downloaded.

A little technical knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Posted by: PFL | March 20, 2007 11:42 PM | Report abuse

An analyst on CNBC predicted the death knell (again) for Tivo as devices like the Apple TV comes out.

I don't understand their thinking. Is this going to allow people to record to the Apple TV box like Tivo and include the ability to program it for TV, or is it just a movie/iTunes store service?

My cable company (Time Warner) box has gotten better in the software aspect, but it still has a way to go before it overhauls Tivo from what I have read about those boxes.

Posted by: Jim | March 20, 2007 11:49 PM | Report abuse

I think all this talk of movie downloads is moot as long as the bandwidth is not available. Even under current cable and DSL speeds, downloading an HD movie will still be excruciatingly slow.

Posted by: Ardi | March 21, 2007 1:20 AM | Report abuse

"Movie Gallery is the second largest North American video rental company with over 4,600 stores located in all 50 U.S. states and Canada operating under the brands Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video and Game Crazy." That's not a small chain, Rob.

Posted by: RL | March 21, 2007 6:10 AM | Report abuse

Xbox 360 users can also download and play movies, some of them in high definition formats. The selection is actually a lot deeper than I expected it to be -- I thought it would just be recent films, but they also have older movies I wouldn't expect, like Chinatown or Marx Bros comedies. Even the standard-definition stuff looks better than the Comcast onDemand movies, quality-wise. The main downsides are the cost and having to wait until you've downloaded enough to start watching.

Personally, I still prefer Netflix. Nothing can compare with their selection, and their 1-2 day turnaround time is basically the same as "on demand" to me. (I just started trying out their new streaming movies, which look great on my home connection. But I think I still prefer the actual DVDs, as those come with special features and surround sound.)

Posted by: Adam | March 21, 2007 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Sending a downloaded movie to my TiVo? Seems like a good idea until you realize that it takes up space on your TiVo hard drive and will have to be deleted at some point. What's missing from movie downloads is permanence. When you download music from iTunes, it's yours. Put it on your iPod, burn it onto a CD, you can play it anywhere. But until you can burn a downloaded movie onto a DVD that plays anywhere, it will never take off.

Posted by: Stefanie | March 21, 2007 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I just watched my first Unbox-Tivo rental last night. Here's my take.

(1)Easy and hassle-free ordering. I logged into Amazon, linked my Tivo to my account, and was able to search and select movies to rent or purchase without needing to use IE7 or install any viewer software.
(2)Remote downloading. The movie downloaded directly to my networked Tivo at home while I was at work. I could order the movie from any computer.

(1) High prices. $3.99 for a rental that I can only watch for 24 hours once I start playing seems awfully high. Not to mention the purchase prices are ridiculous.
(2) Image quality. The quality of the movie was okay, but not even SD quality from my impression. Forget HD. I suppose a certain amount of compression is necessary, but it was too much IMO.

Posted by: M Street, D.C. | March 21, 2007 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Not interested until HD is available. Considering SD, the limited selection and long download times, Unbox service offers no premium over Netflix service.

Posted by: Ronnie | March 21, 2007 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I haven't seen anyone discuss Netflix's 'Watch it Now' feature. While the content is only about 1,200 movies/television shows, the quality is pretty amazing. There's very little buffering going on and you can watch a movie with VHS quality in about 10 seconds after you select it. You can also advance to the end of the movie in about 20 seconds or so.

I'm not sure if Netflix is using some sort of proprietary compression technology, but it's pretty damn impressive.

I could probably pick up Apple's iTV and transmit to my 30 inch HDTV, but I'm not sure what the quality would look like.

Posted by: Steve | March 21, 2007 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Re: Netflix's streaming movies. I've also tried out this feature. I like it but it suffers from at least two flaws: You can only watch on your computer with IE7 and the movies available are pretty meager.

And, to respond the previous poster about Unbox not offering any premium over Netflix, Unbox offers near immediate gratification (no waiting for the DVD in the mail) and there is never a "wait" for popular movies.

Posted by: M Street, D.C. | March 21, 2007 11:59 AM | Report abuse

How about the Xbox 360? You can download movies and TV shows and they offer it in HD. The deals are good, the content is good, and its already hooked to your TV so you don't need a computer.

Posted by: Leo | March 21, 2007 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I consider myself - as a 50+ year old - to be savy and on the cutting edge of technology and embrace what is envisioned in the movie download arena. Indeed VHS is yesterday's news and DVD's from the rental store will eventually go away too.

What Apple et al - along with Hollywood - will have to do is allow me a cost effective way to rent a movie via download in the sub $5.00 range to play on my TV, and purchase a movie via download in the sub $15.00 range, a download that I can burn to a DVD for my own use.

Without this, it will be more cost effective to buy my movies at the Big Box stores, and pick up DVD's from my local rental store. If Apple is going to move into my living room, they need to provide an economical and efficient means to view current movies.

Posted by: Bob | March 21, 2007 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Are people downloading HD to PS3 yet?
I heard you can't do anything until the download is finished on a PS3. Maybe they can fix that with a software update.

And while I would like to burn movies instead of watching them within 24 hours, how often do people watch movie multiple times, short of kids?

Posted by: BAC | March 21, 2007 12:53 PM | Report abuse

One thing to remember, that computer plays dvd, yet often not with full amount of data that set top dvd player does, in fact only 1/4 data of home dvd player will most computers send to display. about 200 x 300 lines. So actual HDTV, although machine will read & play disc, isn't going to be anything close to amount of data that bluray or hd have in them. Total data processing thruput is less than 15, no 10 ,no often 5 mb/sec to mix image together, way less than 75? mb blu ray or hd games would require? So more pass thru, less creation of content by machine is result.
Within few years level of data thru put will reach required levels as radical changes in core symetry with hundreds of gpgpu, cpgpu & multi core cpu all on same computer leaping into higher data rates, post Vista.

Posted by: thomasxstewart | March 21, 2007 8:48 PM | Report abuse

My desirable system allows me to get movies while I am not using my computer. It downloads several movies/TV shows. I can then copy them to a portable hard drive, and plug it into a portable PC to watch anywhere (or where kids can watch it), anytime. I can watch a show over a period of days or weeks, a little bit at a time (as I get interrupted or get bored). When going out, can convert to a portable video device or copy to a DVD to see with a portable device. The forma is compatible with all PCs and easily converted to other formats with off the shelf conversion software. It can also be recorded and converted from higher to lower definition (so kids shows or lesser important shows are recorded at lower definition). I can keep 100+ hrs of TV/movies because some shows my kids watch them multiple times or it takes me weeks to see them.
Multimedia PC and presumably windows vista premium meets these requirements. It costs zero per month for the TV guide. Although it is difficult to record premium channels (at least with older versions, may be newer versions would make it easier), it is easy to record off the air or regular channels. So, why bother paying for other recorders or other complex features? Why bother with wireless? It takes very little time to copy a movie to a portable hard drive and plug it into the PC connected to a large TV screen. Given the cheap prices of PCs and hard drives (and their use as internet machines, computers and back up), I wonder why people have not adopted them more.

Posted by: E siguel, Rockville | March 22, 2007 10:23 AM | Report abuse

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