Vudu's in-home Disc to Digital service: Promising yet lacking

Vudu offers what seems an easy way to get all your DVDs and Blu-rays into the cloud. It does work, but not for all discs, and it comes with surprises.

It sounds ideal. Take all those DVDs and Blu-rays you own and, from the comfort of your own home, effortlessly gain digital copies for a low price. That's the promise of Vudu's new "In-Home Disc to Digital" service. Vudu delivers on that promise in some cases but disappoints in other ways.

Last year, Walmart-owned Vudu  launched  its Disc to Digital service that required people to go into Walmart stores for the conversion. Who wants to do that? This is where the "In-Home" version of Disc to Digital comes into play. Opened at the end of last month, the service lets you do the conversion right from your own computer.

You'll be hard-pressed to find the In-Home service at Vudu, however. There are no links to information about it from the Vudu home page or the regular Disc To Digital area, perhaps because In-Home is still considered a "beta" test service. For those who do want to try it, you'll find the information here.

Mac need not apply; also, got disc drive?
If you're a Mac user, you're out of luck. The required Vudu To Go 2 software is only available for the PC (Mac users can use Vudu To Go 1 for download and playback of movies, however).

You're also out of luck if you don't have a machine that can read DVDs and/or Blu-ray discs. Laptops now often omit these types of drives, which once were standard equipment.

Testing Disc to Digital
I put the service through its paces by grabbing a bunch of DVDs that I have, as well as some Blu-ray discs, to see what I could convert to digital. By "digital," I mean convert to purely digital copies, as opposed to the physical discs that themselves contain digital copies of these movies.

With the software loaded, you insert your disc, and Vudu looks to see if it can offer you a digital copy. With the movie "Blast from the Past," this worked perfectly:

You can see how I'm offered a choice of converting my DVD to a standard-definition digital copy for $2 or to a high-definition "HDX" copy for $5. If this had been a Blu-ray version I owned, then it would have been only $2 to convert to high definition.

A digital copy that seemed impossible to gain
Impressive, and the service was even more impressive when I fed it a DVD copy of "The Simpsons Movie." My copy is a Region 2 version, purchased when I lived in the U.K. I have a multiregion external DVD drive, so I could scan the disc. Vudu didn't care that it was a U.K. version. It just seemed happy that I had any version of the movie and offered me the ability to make a digital copy:

This made me pretty happy. That DVD, which has been effectively useless to me unless I dusted off our old multiregion DVD player, suddenly came back to life for the low price of $2. In fact, my sons both enjoyed it during a long car journey this week, since after the conversion, I downloaded it so they could watch for offline playback.

A second chance for when digital redemption codes expire
Ever had a DVD that came with a digital copy redemption code, only to find it expired? That sucks, and it's disappointing that Hollywood does this. But this is when Vudu, for a low price, can perhaps reduce some of that aggravation you might feel.

For example, I have a DVD copy of "Speed Racer" that came with a digital code I'd never used, one that expired in March 2009. I only discovered this when I finally opened the DVD a few weeks ago. Worse, I couldn't even try testing to see if the code might still work because the Warner Bros. redemption and playback software didn't consider Windows 8 to meet or exceed the Windows XP requirement:

By putting the disc in for Vudu conversion, my problem was solved. No fighting with a terrible redemption system. No being disappointed that part of the original value of my disc, a digital copy, was completely wasted. For $2, I gained an SD copy.

The price might not always be right
For $5, I could have gone up to HD quality. However, that highlights a drawback to the conversion system. There's no variable pricing. For $2, it was worth it for me to convert. For $5, I'm approaching the $8 that I can find a new Blu-ray version of the film selling for on Amazon, which might even include a digital copy.

Conversion pricing has no connection with whatever the current street price for a physical copy of a movie is. With "Speed Racer," I didn't want to feel like I was throwing more money after a movie I already owned on DVD.

Indeed, that was something on my mind with a number of these conversions. Was I paying to put movies into the cloud that might already be there and available to me in other ways, such as through Netflix?

The answer is that there's no easy way to tell, unless you want to check on each of your films. With "Blast to the Past," I found I wasn't going to get that with Netflix:

So pay to convert my physical copy? If I were a big fan of the movie, it might make sense, to know that I'd always have it available in the cloud. But if you really don't love that movie, conversion might not be worth it.

You can't convert everything
Unfortunately, some movies that I absolutely love and own on physical media came up as unabled to be converted. I had no luck with favorites like:

  • Better Off Dead
  • Tapeheads
  • Back To School
  • Family Guy: It's A Trap
  • Family Guy: Something, Something, Something, Dark Side
  • The A-Team
  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • Hot Tub Time Machine

Even "Old School" got rejected for conversion:

The problem is that the various studios that Vudu partners with don't give permission for all their films to be converted, even if they do offer them for rental or sale through Vudu.

Do you have a Blu-ray drive?
When it came to my Blu-ray movies, conversion came to a halt when I realized I had no Blu-ray drive to connect to any of my computers. My 2011 MacBook Air, my 2012 MacBook Pro Retina and my 2013 Lenovo Yoga all lack internal drives. Older Macs and PCs I have around the house do have drives, but they only read DVDs. My two external disc drives aren't Blu-ray capable.

Yes, ironically, my attempt to put my movies into the cloud was hobbled in part because my computers have long since assumed I'm already in the cloud so much that I don't need to use physical media.

Of course, I could take my Blu-rays into a Walmart store for conversion there, as I could with both Blu-rays and DVDs, if I didn't have a disc drive at all.

Completing the conversion
In the end, it was checkout time. I was able to review the movies I wanted to convert. After pushing the checkout button, within seconds, the films were confirmed as purchased:

Right after that, I found them all available within Vudu for streaming through various devices or download:

Limitations
Despite having done the digital conversion, one drawback is that various limitations are still associated with my films. For example, even though I paid for "The Simpsons" in HD, it's only available for download to PCs and Macs in SD quality. If you want to watch in HD, you have to stream.

Why? Probably because the studio that owns the film, 20th Century Fox, has put some idiotic restrictions on HD downloading. Similarly, if you have a Disney film, on the Mac, you're restricted to SD playback, even if you stream.

Beyond this, I can't download for offline viewing on an iOS device, nor Windows Phone. For Android, I can only download in SD quality -- and even then, only for some Android tablets, not for Android phones. See also my previous column " How trapped are your digital movies and TV shows? " for a full rundown.

Advantages
That previous column also highlights one of the great advantages to the service. Vudu is the only one of the major video marketplaces with a conversion service that in turn makes your content available through the cloud.

Sure, I could use software to rip these films and have all-digital copies. But paying as little as $2 per film to Vudu instead is well worth it. There's no time-consuming ripping required. My content is hosted in the cloud, made available on a variety of devices and, importantly, my ownership is recorded via Vudu into Hollywood's UltraViolet digital locker.

The UltraViolet factor
I'll be coming back to UltraViolet in more depth in a future column. There's a bigger promise-and-disappointment story there. The promise is that we can buy our movies in any way and watch them however we like. That's very attractive. Potentially, your UltraViolet-registered film could be made available to you through iTunes or Google Play, and thus out to iOS and Android devices using their native players, with full HD download support. Wouldn't that be nice?

The reality is that UltraViolet has terms that, if you dig into them , can leave you feeling uncertain about how much you really own your films. What happens if a studio pulls out of UltraViolet? Do your films disappear from your UV locker? Do they also get pulled out of places that depend on UV, like Vudu? And who wants to convert a film when you get a message like this:

"Buying a title lets you download or stream the title for an extended, but not perpetual, period of time." Wow. Can you imagine buying a DVD or Blu-ray with a similar warning? "This disc might self-destruct at some unspecified point in the future." No thanks.

That screenshot above with the scary message isn't from Vudu, by the way. It's from Best Buy's CinemaNow, which has a conversion service similar to Vudu. But the same scary language might apply to Vudu, since in the end, it depends on UltraViolet which both assures that your rights never expire, then explains how after a year, your right for free streaming might indeed expire and be subject to further fees.

BestBuy's CinemaNow conversion service
As for how CinemaNow's conversion service works, I looked at it briefly and may take a longer look in the future. But the pricing is the same as with Vudu, and it seems likely that it can only convert the same titles that Vudu can. I tested a couple of the films that Vudu couldn't convert, and CinemaNow couldn't convert them either.

Still, the services aren't identical. For example, "Stripes" is only available for conversion and viewing in SD format with Vudu, but CinemaNow offers it in HD format.

Technically, it shouldn't matter which you use, Vudu or CinemaNow. Both interact with UltraViolet, which means what you buy through Vudu should be available through CinemaNow and vice versa, as long as you link those services to your UltraViolet account. However, I found that some of my Vudu purchases, despite being listed in CinemaNow through my UV connection, weren't available to stream or download. As it turns out. not all UltraViolet titles are available through CinemaNow, according to its site. Vudu may have similar issues.

Paying for convenience, not ownership?
In the end, I'm left with mixed feelings about both conversion services. It's annoying having pay yet again for movies you already own, and more so with lingering questions about what you really own and limitations on viewing. But if you think of the cost as more a convenience fee, of paying to save the time of doing your own manual conversion and transfer to different devices, then you might feel much more positive about it.

 

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