Using Vudu: Renting and buying movies and TV shows When you've settled on a movie or TV show you'd like to view, you'll often have several choices, depending on the type of content: resolution (SD/480p, HD or HDX--more on that later); version (in cases where there's, say, a theatrical or unrated director's cut); and whether you want to rent or buy. Not all content is available in all formats; some are standard-def only, and some content--especially new movies--is often limited to purchase-only for several weeks, after which it becomes available as a rental as well. Movies rent for $1 to $6 each, with newer and HD titles skewing at the top of the price scale; you can also buy them--that is, have them live on the hard drive "forever"--for $5 to $20 (purchases are standard-definition only). For the moment, TV episodes are also SD only, and they can only be rented for $2 apiece.
The box boasts have 250GB of space, which should be enough for about 100 hours of standard-def video (less for high-definition). (Vudu had pledged to enable add-on storage--by connecting an off-the-shelf hard drive to one of the USB ports--but to date, that promise remains unfulfilled). If you choose to rent, there are limitations: you have up to 30 days to watch the movie before it evaporates, and once you start watching, the viewing period is only 24 hours long. After that, if you or a family member wants to watch it again, it will cost you another rental fee. (The fee is lower if you rewatch within 7 days of the original rental's expiration.)
As indicated, some movies are available in up to three resolutions: standard, HD, or HDX. The first two--480p or 1080p--will begin streaming in within seconds of hitting the "rent now" prompt. Quality on the instant-viewing tiers is very good. "Near-DVD quality" is a term thrown around with reckless abandon these days, but for once, we found the description to be pretty truthful. As always, quality varies according to the source material, but the standard-definition images generally looked good. The "Instant HD" tier looked better, with sharper picture quality in evidence, but--like most Internet-delivered video to date--it didn't quite seem as good as DVD. Truly critical viewers--those who can appreciate the better resolution of Blu-ray versus standard DVDs--will notice that details can exhibit some softness and backgrounds can sometimes "swim" during shots where the camera remains stationary.
However, the newer HDX videos were a totally different experience altogether. HDX movies are also encoded at 1080p resolution, but the bitrate is noticeably revved up from the middle HD tier. As a result, HDX movies aren't available immediately--you'll need to queue them up and wait several hours before viewing. (Thankfully, you can manage this remotely by logging into Vudu's Web site. Start a download to the box while you're at work, for instance, and it should be ready to go when you're at home.)
For viewers with large HDTVs, the wait will be well worth it. We auditioned three HDX movies--Lord of War, surfing documentary Step into Liquid, and The Chronicles of Riddick. The films exhibited excellent detail, and even high-motion action scenes were free of the solarizing and blockiness often noticeable in competing "high-def" content available on Apple TV and the Xbox 360. About the worst we could say was that the films exhibited visible film grain and some softness. the But we did head-to-head comparisons on Liquid and War to their Blu-ray counterparts, and the discs tended to show similar instances of graininess in the same scenes as well--so the softness and grain were inherent in the source and not, as far as we could tell, an issue with the encoding. (Likewise, we consider the preservation of a certain degree of film-induced graininess to be preferable to excessive edge enhancement.)
Also, much like Blu-ray movies the Vudu HDX files are in 1080p/24 format. They preserve the native 24-frame-per-second rate of film, which should be great news for film buffs with displays, such as many 120Hz LCDs and Pioneer's Kuro plasmas, that can accept and properly display 24-frame material. Conversely, some displays can't accept 1080p/24 at all, so owners of those displays with a Vudu will have to choose the 1080i output instead.
While Blu-ray still had the edge, the Vudu HDX movies were, hands-down, the best Internet-delivered video we've seen to date. They're also the first that noticeably outclass standard DVDs, as well as the on-demand HD offerings from many cable and satellite providers.
Audiophiles note: Audio quality was also excellent. Many films offer full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround that many listeners will find to be on par with DVD soundtracks.
One of the big drawbacks of the Netflix Player from Roku is that the content--while improving--is still somewhat on the lean side. Vudu, by comparison, has cut deals with pretty much every Hollywood content owner out there. That includes all the major studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, Warner, Paramount, and Universal), plus a host of minor and specialty players (including Image, Granada, and PBS). That doesn't mean that the Vudu box instantly has access to the entire catalog of those partners, but it at least offers the possibility that their movies will become available on the box.
According to Vudu, its current library to be 10,000-plus titles strong, with about 10 to 20 new titles per week being added. That includes movies that are hitting DVD the same week (alas, because of rights issues, they're for purchase only). The "99 titles for 99 cents" channel has a rotating list of grade A movies as well.
Vudu also offers about 50 TV series, but the list is much spottier than the selections you'd find on competing services such as Apple TV, Xbox 360, and the Roku Netflix Player. The company also offers adult content (that is to say, porn) on the AVN channel. Strict parental controls mean that this content needs to be activated from the Web site and can be easily hidden from view--so it's existence won't even be visible to those who don't want it. (Likewise, the Vudu's parental controls can even hide mainstream movies at any rating level--so you could create an all G/PG viewing environment at times, if you prefer.)
Vudu's Web site lets anyone explore the current Vudu catalog offerings, so prospective buyers should definitely check out what's available before taking the plunge.
What we don't like
There's a lot to like about the Vudu, but it's not without its shortfalls, either. Most notably, it's a closed system: unlike the iTunes Store, which lets you buy one file that can be watched on your TV (Apple TV), computer (iTunes software), or portable player (iPod or iPhone), Vudu downloads are limited to the one Vudu box to which you download them, with no option to offload to a portable device or PC. And despite its obvious networking and AV aplomb, the Vudu can't be used to stream any digital media outside the Vudu ecosystem. It would be great, for instance, if the Vudu could double as a digital media receiver, letting you stream at least some of the video, music, and photos from your PC's hard drive for enjoyment on your big-screen TV. And while the lack of Wi-Fi makes for easier networking configuration, many will be forced to use a bridge of some sort to get network connectivity for the box.
We could also criticize Vudu for things like its pricing model, and the limitations on viewing--a viewing window of 48-72 hours would be preferable to the 24-hour one, for instance. But those issues are effectively dictated to hardware manufacturers by the studios, so they're largely the same on competing products, and outside Vudu's realm of control.
The other issue is one of Vudu's financial survival. Products like Xbox 360, Apple TV, and Slingbox could still function, at least partially, in the unlikely event their corporate parents faded away. But Vudu is essentially a start-up, and the box is completely dependent on the company pumping content to it. If the company ever folds--like Akimbo and MovieBeam before it--the hardware essentially becomes an expensive paperweight. (That's yet another reason that adding PC-based media streaming--which would work even if Vudu terminated its online service--would be a welcome upgrade.)
Conclusion: Vudu or Vu-don't?
Is the Vudu worth buying? Indeed, it's a much better deal now than it was when it was first introduced. The addition of more movies, the superb HDX video quality option, and the lower sticker price make the product more enticing than ever. At the same time, the competitors have stepped up their game as well. Apple TV offers much of the same functionality, and the Roku Netflix Player delivers a growing amount of content at a flat monthly fee. That said, Vudu is setting itself apart as the current the king of picture quality in the set-top arena. As such, it remains recommended for owners of big-screen HDTVs who want the best possible picture quality from their on-demand videos.