Vudu is adding high-bitrate 1080p downloads and a $200 credit for new customers to its Internet video-on-demand box.
Starting October 2, Vudu owners will be able to download a small but growing roster of movie rentals at high-bitrate 1080p resolution--dubbed "HDX" by the set-top maker. The initial 65 titles available include such movies as The Spiderwick Chronicles, Speed Racer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Chinatown, Saturday Night Fever, In Bruges, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The 1080p HDX versions will co-exist with the "Instant HD" 1080p ones, and will be available for the same price ($4 to $6). Going forward, Vudu is planning to make any new movie available in Instant 1080p to also be available in 1080p HDX, and the company will backfill update older HD movies in its catalog to HDX as well.
The catch: while the 480p standard-def and 1080p Instant HD movies generally start within seconds, the 1080p HDX movies will require at least a 4-hour download time. Thankfully, Vudu is also updating its Web site, so users can start the streaming to the box remotely (queue up Close Encounters from work at lunch time, and it'll be waiting for you when you get home).
Vudu gave CNET a sneak preview of the HDX technology several days ago, and it was certainly impressive. To the company's credit, it's not claiming that HDX rivals Blu-ray. And, indeed, bit-rate is much more important than "resolution" when it comes to streaming media--not all 1080p is created equal. But it appears that Vudu has found a reasonable compromise between file size and image quality. The opening ice planet scenes of Riddick looked impressive at first glance, with no noticeable solarizing or pixelation; the soundtrack, meanwhile, offered full 5.1 surround. (A simulated example of the difference between HDX and standard-def--provided by Vudu--is available here.) By comparison, the 720p offerings from Apple TV and Microsoft's Xbox 360 Marketplace offer better than standard-res images, but at a bit-rate that's noticeably less than DVD--thus delivering artifacts that annoy eagle-eyed videophiles.
The other big news from Vudu is that--now through December 31--the $300 box includes a $200 credit when purchased at Best Buy (in store or online). There's a usual list of caveats--you'll have to burn through the credit within 4 months, and, tragically, it's not applicable to the box's adult channel--but it effectively lowers the end-user cost of the hardware to just $100. For those who bemoan the lack of "true HD" content on other VOD boxes--or even on their cable system--that may be a pretty compelling deal.
We'll have an updated review of the
Editors' Note: The original version of this post implied that the pre-HDX high-def downloads on Vudu were encoded at 720p. In fact, they were also 1080p resolution, albeit at a much lower bitrate. The post has been corrected to reflect that change, with the non-HDX low-bitrate versions referred to as "1080p Instant HD."