Blockbuster Video has had a rough transition to the 21st century, thanks in large part to Netflix. That flat-fee, subscription-based DVD-by-mail concern became the first major challenge to Blockbuster's once lucrative brick and mortar storefronts--a business model that was based largely on profits derived from late fees. Then, just as Blockbuster followed Netflix online with its own Internet-based DVD mailing plan, Netflix raised the bar again, adding online video streaming (albeit for a small portion of its overall catalog). Originally available only on Windows PCs, the Netflix "Watch Instantly" feature is now available on a rapidly growing number of living room-based consumer devices--Blu-ray players, TiVo DVRs, the Xbox 360, and the sub-$100 Roku Digital Video Player, with many more products coming in 2009 and beyond.
However, Blockbuster now has its own streaming video solution in the form of the 2Wire MediaPoint Digital Media Player. Unlike the Netflix devices, the "Blockbuster Box" doesn't require a monthly subscription fee. It also offers an array of more recent films closer to the date they're first released on DVD. Perhaps the biggest selling point, however, is that the $99 box includes a 25-movie rental credit, effectively making it free. Even with that final bullet point, though, we found the Blockbuster Box to be a rather middling experience. While it delivers on its basic mission, it's not really raising the bar versus the competing video-on-demand/pay-per-view options that are already available (Apple TV, Vudu, and the growing number of devices that support Amazon and Netflix). Whether its problems--which are more issues of software and service than of hardware--can be addressed with future firmware updates and content offerings remains to be seen.
The box itself isn't terribly different from rival products such as Apple TV or Vudu. The 8-inch square is just over an inch high and its entire rear quadrant is bristling with most of the audiovisual outputs you'll ever need. HDMI, component, and composite video connections ensure that it'll connect with nearly any TV, new or old; that's a nice step up from the Apple TV, which only works with HDTVs.
While the hardware can support output at resolutions up to 1080i, the actual Blockbuster content is currently limited to 480p (the box will scale it to whichever output resolution you choose). Likewise, the HDMI and the optical digital audio output can theoretically send surround soundtracks to AV receivers, but all of the Blockbuster content is currently limited to stereo. By comparison, chief rivals Netflix, Apple TV, and Vudu each offer several hundred titles in HD, with some of those titles supporting 5.1 surround sound as well.
The 2Wire Blockbuster Box pulls video straight off the Internet via your home network. Except for creating an account at Blockbuster's Web site, no PC is necessary. The flip side of that equation is that the box is a one-trick pony: it only streams movies from the Blockbuster service. It can't pull any videos, photos, or music from a networked PC, nor can it access any other online content services--no Amazon Video-on-Demand, no Pandora, no YouTube.
The unit connects to your network via Ethernet (wired) or Wi-Fi (802.11g wireless). One big shortfall: it doesn't yet support WPA2, so those of us using that wireless encryption will have to roll back our network to less secure WPA or WEP. That's not acceptable for a network media device in this day and age.
On the bright side, the unit includes 8GB of onboard storage and it supports progressive downloading. That's great news for anyone with a broadband connection that's less than lightning fast. If your DSL or cable connection can't handle real-time streaming, up to six videos can be fully buffered for later viewing. (Netflix's instant-only playback pretty much requires a solid broadband connection to work properly.) For anyone with half-decent broadband speeds, videos should start within 60 seconds of selection--more or less equivalent to fare on Apple TV, Vudu, and Netflix.
The box includes 2 USB ports (one front, one rear) and an SD slot, but none of them are currently active for consumer use. It would've been nice, for instance, if these could be used to read digital photos, music, and videos--the sort of standard features we're seeing on many DVD and Blu-ray Disc players these days.
The included remote is a bit of a nightmare. In addition to the expected five-way directional pad and video transport controls (play/pause, forward and reverse), there are 11 additional keys, including five multicolored buttons that are spaced so closely together they're impossible to depress independently for anyone with adult-size fingers. Thankfully, the system uses an IR remote (not the Vudu's RF or the PS3's Bluetooth), so any decent universal remote can be programmed to control the 2Wire box instead.
Once you connect the box to your TV, an onscreen setup wizard runs you through the basics--getting you connected to your home network, and linking the box to your Blockbuster account (the box will give you a one-time alphanumeric code that links the box to your online account).
If you don't already have a Blockbuster On Demand online account, of course, you'll need to create one first. That entails little more than providing a credit card number, so the company can charge you once the $99 credit is exhausted. To be clear, the On Demand account is separate from other Blockbuster options you may be subscribed to: the monthly fee Blockbuster DVD-by-mail service and the Blockbuster store memberships are basically unrelated (at least from a cost perspective), so the only On Demand cost you're paying is for what you're watching on the box (after, again, you empty out that $99 credit that's included in the price of the box).
Movies and TV shows can be chosen directly onscreen. Use the remote to navigate to see lists of top rentals, genres, and the like. Alternatively, you can use an onscreen keyboard to search for specific titles. This would all be easier with a better remote, but it works well enough, allowing you to access the full range of available movies and TV shows from your sofa. (The Blockbuster method is a notable contrast to what you'll find on all Netflix-compatible devices, which require you to add selections to your online queue via a computer.) Unfortunately, the Blockbuster interface is rather sluggish and not particularly attractive; both Apple TV and Vudu offer better onscreen experiences. However, parental controls are in place so you can restrict content by rating and require a key code for ordering (to avoid family members running up the credit card bill).
Once you choose what you'd like to watch, you can either start downloading and watching it immediately, or "bookmark" it for later viewing. Viewing restrictions are fairly standard: prices are between $1.99 and $3.99 per download, and videos expire within 24 hours of first viewing them, or within 30 days of download, viewed or not. If that sounds too draconian for you, complain to the Hollywood studios, not Blockbuster; these are basically the same restrictions and pricing levels you'll find on any video-on-demand platform, including Vudu, Apple TV, Xbox 360 Video Marketplace, and PlayStation Video Store.