Editors' note, October 22, 2008: Amazon Unbox is now Amazon Video On Demand. Many of the features are the same as immediately before the name change, but there have been several updates since the posting of this review. For more information, click here.
Amazon Unbox, the online retailer's video download store, could be the Apple iTunes Store's biggest competition so far. It has the benefit of the Amazon name and the site's many regular shoppers, it uses a site interface we're all familiar with, and it offers a good selection of movies and television shows for rental or purchase.
While the service got off to a rocky start and took plenty of knocks from the press, including
Apple's way around this problem was to create the Apple TV , which lets you wirelessly transfer shows to your television. Amazon's solution was to partner with TiVo, letting TiVo subscribers with Series 2 or Series 3 boxes download video directly to their televisions. CNET's Webware has a complete look at the TiVo experience, so this review will focus on the PC experience.
Users can shop for Unbox titles directly on the Amazon site--look for the Unbox link high on the left side--but you'll need the Unbox downloader software to receive titles. Sorry Mac owners, but Amazon Unbox doesn't love you; the iTunes Store is still the only video-download site that works with Macs and iPods.
Unbox titles are divided into rentals and purchases. (There's no subscription plan, as with Vongo, and there's no streaming content except for previews.) Purchases are generally $1.99 for a TV show and run between $9.99 and $14.99 for a movie, while movie rentals are $3.99. We're not sure how many titles the store has because Amazon won't comment, but it looks comparable to the other stores. It carries most of the major film studios, with Disney as the glaring exception. It also offers an impressive selection of TV studios--seeing that it carries BBC content made our geek heart beat faster, but seeing that we could download Dr. Who episodes from several seasons, including the first, nearly made us faint.
Amazon does an excellent job of spelling out the usage rights before you buy a video--we wish the other stores would follow suit. On each page, you'll find information telling you either that rentals can be kept for 30 days but must be watched in a 24-hour period, or that purchases can be watched on as many as two PCs. That seems stingy, but it's standard for most video sites.
Purchasing on Unbox is strictly one-click, so be sure of your selection before you hit that button. Downloads are definitely on the slow side, but on the other hand, Unbox gives you a higher-quality video than most--2.5Mbps--so it's going to take some time. Downloading an 85-minute movie, for example, took us 80 minutes. Luckily, Unbox's progressive downloading lets you start watching while the movie is still downloading. We were able to start watching that 85 minute movie in only 10 minutes. You watch and transfer movies directly through the well-designed Unbox software.
Image quality is noticeably sharper with Unbox titles, although you'll never forget that you're watching on a computer monitor. We'd prefer to burn a DVD, but so far only CinemaNow and Movielink allow users to burn DVDs that will work in any DVD player.
Downloads can be transferred to any Windows-compatible PMC, and we transferred purchased movies to a Creative Zen PMC in our testing with no problems; rentals, however, can't be transferred. When you download with Unbox, you automatically get a separate, smaller file for portables. (No, they're not compatible with iPods.) If you run into problems with your download, Amazon Unbox offers easy support pages where you can look up an answer or send an e-mail request.
It's still questionable how successful online downloads can be without easy television support, so Amazon Unbox's appeal will certainly be limited unless you own a TiVo. But if you don't mind watching on your monitor or you have a Windows PMC you want to fill up, Amazon once again makes the shopping experience easy.