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Hands on with the new Vudu

CNET's got one of the first in-depth look at the Vudu box, which delivers on-demand movies over the Internet to your TV.

That Vudu that it do: on-demand movies, via the Internet CNET Networks

Vudu won't be shipping for another few weeks, but I was fortunate enough to get one of the first review units of the device--and my gadget-jaded eyes were somewhat impressed. The Vudu box aims to deliver a wide variety of on-demand movies to your TV (no PC required) via a broadband Internet connection--think Netflix or Blockbuster, but with immediate gratification. The idea of a dedicated video-on-demand box has been tried before (Akimbo, MovieBeam), but the Vudu sidesteps many of the issues that made those previous boxes hard to recommend. It's got actual content that you want to see--all the major Hollywood studios are providing content, and you're bound to find a few movies worth watching if you peruse an overview of the available titles at Vudu's updated Web site. Movie downloads begin streaming instantaneously (assuming, of course, that you have a good broadband connection), so you won't have to pre-order films to queue up in advance. The audio and video quality is (for net-delivered video) excellent, and the intuitive interface and remote control and simple setup will appeal to non-techies who just want to watch movies.

What's not to like? Vudu is touting the fact that there's no activation fee or monthly subscription. Instead, pricing is strictly pay-per-view--you rent movies for $1 to $4, or buy them (as permanent downloads to the hard drive) for $5 to $20. That's pretty reasonable, but you also have to factor in the fact that you're buying the box for $400. Anyone who's maxing out their Netflix or Blockbuster accounts and watching more than a dozen movies for less than $20 a month may well blanche at that pricing--but then again, there's no waiting by the mailbox for your next movie with Vudu. Likewise, the DVD-by-mail services offer a giant catalog of more than 75,000 titles apiece, including TV shows; Vudu's library is expected to be in the 5,000 to 10,000 title range, and it's currently limited to just theatrical movies (though TV shows seem to be in the pipeline). And Vudu is pretty much a closed system: The Vudu-connected TV is the only place you can watch the movies you buy or rent; there's no option to transfer them to portable devices or PCs for viewing elsewhere in the house or on the road.

Of course, Akimbo and MovieBeam aren't the only competition for Vudu. At least three other mainstream contenders offer premium downloadable content: TiVo (via Amazon Unbox); Apple TV (which, to date, requires you to first download iTunes content to your PC); and the Xbox 360 (via its Xbox Live Marketplace). If you already own one of those devices, the allure of the Vudu is certainly diminished--though it meets or exceeds many of their features in the downloadable video department. Still, in its debut incarnation, the Vudu box is the first such dedicated device that's at all recommendable, and we're hoping that future firmware and service upgrades (and maybe a price drop or two) will enhance its appeal.

Vudu should begin shipping by the end of September and will be widely available at many online and brick-and-mortar retailers in October. In the meantime, check out our full hands-on review and video of the Vudu in action. And let us know if you think the Vudu is worth buying--or what you'd change to make it worth considering.