It's going to be a few more days before the world gets a crack at the new and improved Apple TV. Looking to kill some time during that interminable delay? It's a perfect opportunity to check out the major competing hardware options that already offer the same on-demand Internet movie rental functionality.
Xbox 360: The 360 offers standard-definition and HD movies (rentals) and TV episodes (sales) from Paramount, Disney, Warner, and MGM. Additionally, of course, it's also a top-notch game machine. The Xbox 360 plays DVDs, streams video, audio, and photos from networked PCs, and it works as a full-on Windows Media Center Extender (when on the same home network as compatible Windows XP and Vista machines). Alas, it can also be as noisy as a jet engine, and it still suffers from an all-too-frequent hardware failure rate.
TiVo HD: Our initial experience with Amazon Unbox on TiVo didn't blow us away, but subsequent software upgrades added two big improvements. TiVo added on-screen access to Unbox content on the TiVo (you no longer have to make your viewing choices on the PC) and "progressive downloading" (you can begin watching films before the download is complete, without interruption). Unbox delivers a good amount of content, including movies (for sale or rental) and TV episodes (for sale) from Paramount, Fox, Warner, MGM, Lionsgate, and Universal. Nothing's in high-definition--and some of the video is not even wide-screen. But the TiVo is also a full-on HD DVR, so you can record hours upon hours of live cable or over-the-air TV programming--something you won't be doing on the Apple TV soon, if ever. But it's also the only one of these four products that requires a monthly subscription fee (which pays for the electronic programming guide--not any of the movies).
Vudu: When Vudu first hit in the fall of 2007, we called it "the closest thing to Netflix in a box." It delivers thousands of movies from all the major Hollywood studios for sale or rental, and the movies start streaming within seconds (on normal broadband connections). But unlike the Apple TV, Xbox 360, or TiVo, the Vudu is a one-trick pony. It can't stream media from your PC, it can't play games, and it's not a DVR. To make things worse, the new Apple TV/iTunes Store features (see below) co-opt nearly all of Vudu's once-unique features. That said, Vudu has already added TV shows and HD movies in the months since its debut, proving that potential additional functionality is just a firmware update away. And the recent price drop doesn't hurt.
Apple TV: Apple TV is only about a year old, but it's getting a complete makeover on the eve of its first birthday. In addition to the existing features--the ability to stream digital photos and all the iTunes music and video from your computer to your living room TV--Apple TV will soon be getting nearly all of the once-distinct features of the Vudu. It will be getting HD video, instant streaming of standard-definition video, movie rentals (from all the major studios), and on-screen access to the iTunes Store (no more running back to the computer to make your movie or TV show choices). Unlike all of the video services listed, the iTunes/Apple TV combo is the only one that will also let you also enjoy your rented or purchased video on your iPhone or iPod. (As always, caveats apply: HD rentals aren't transferable, and only the latest model iPods and iPhones are rental-compatible.)
Which is the best option? As always, that answer will come down to personal preferences and needs. Just remember that all of these options are pay-per-view--with prices ranging from $2 to $6 a pop--and all of them impose some strict limits on viewing. Rentals must be watched within 30 days of download (14 days for Xbox), with only a 24-hour viewing window once you start watching--after that, the file evaporates, regardless of whether you've finished watching the movie. (Direct your complaints to the Hollywood studios, not these hardware manufacturers--they're the ones imposing these limitations.)
For me, the answer remains "none of the above." I'm sticking with Netflix for the time being. Yes, DVD by mail is so twentieth century--but it still gives me access to the largest rental library (tens of thousands of movies and TV shows, rather than the relative handful available on each service above) at a flat monthly fee. And the occasional scratched disc notwithstanding, DVD remains the closest thing to a universally compatible "file format" there is. I can play the discs anywhere, without fear of incompatibility. There isn't a countdown clock, so I can watch a movie in 30 minute chunks over the course of a week--if that's most conducive to my schedule. With any luck, the studios and hardware manufacturers will work on bringing that same Netflix-style convenience, flat pricing, and expansive library to the download arena. Who knows, maybe it'll even be Netflix itself.
What do you think? Are any of these products your choice for next-generation movie rentals, or are you sticking with the tried and true video-on-demand offerings on cable or satellite?