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AOL Video review: AOL Video

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AOL offers movies from Sony and Universal. More will follow, though currently the listings aren't very fresh.

First, you'll need to sign in with your AIM or AOL screen name. You'll also need to have IE 6, Windows Media Player 10 (or higher), and the Hi-Q Delivery Manager installed before you can purchase and watch a video. If you're a first-time buyer, you'll jump to a screen that offers introductory details and the Hi-Q Delivery Manager download. "Hi-Q" is what AOL calls its high-quality TV shows and movies, and the download manager is a plug-in that manages your downloads (the back-end technology is provided by Kontiki, a peer-to-peer delivery company). The delivery manager pops up a windows when you start downloading; a more complete view with purchase/download history and the option to prioritize your downloads can also be found within the Web browser under My Videos. All premium content is played back in the AOL Hi-Q Media Player, which sits atop Windows Media Player. However, you can view video within WMP if you like. Videos will play progressively (you can start watching videos within five minutes or so depending on your Net connection), and you can watch them at full screen and resolution (though not true full screen: the player still shows).

Downloads can happen only with the Hi-Q Delivery Manager installed.

Playback quality is generally very good (though the DVD quality on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that we purchased was subpar), and we had problems just getting video to play on two different Windows systems. On one system, the playback windows would turn green, then open multiple browsers with Infrastructure Failure messages (AOL recommends that you lower WMP's video acceleration setting--in our case, our video went from green to worse). On the other system, the Media Player had issues with Windows Media Player not "performing the requested action" (see AOL's response here). We finally got a movie to play back on a third system, but two out of three just doesn't cut it, especially considering the negatives already built into the service, including no option to burn to watchable DVDs (see CinemaNow), and new movie prices that are often higher than a DVD. At least Amazon's much-criticized Unbox works reliably.

The Hi-Q Media Player (video not showing). You'll still see parts of the player in full-screen mode. You can also watch your content within Windows Media Player or a compatible portable device. Previews and free content are streamed within another Web-based window.

We were able to transfer video (including the movie RV) onto a Creative Zen Vision:M. However, the site lacks an easy-to-access FAQ on the process (though we found one by searching). Basically, you'll get the option to download a portable version after the PC version downloads; once you do, the file can be transferred within Windows Media Player. Usage rights per the AOL FAQ: "TV shows can be played on three different computers and each computer can be synced up with two separate portable devices. Each TV show video can be used on up to a total of six different portable devices. Movies can be played on two different computers and each computer can be synced up with one portable device. Each movie video can be used on up to a total of two different portable devices."

Overall, AOL Video is a good place to find some cable TV shows and some user videos, but until movies are available (and categorized) en masse and playback performance becomes more bulletproof, check out some of the other movie services first. Ultimately, there must be a better way to watch these movies on a TV, whether they are streamed or played back on DVD. In general, we consider these stores/services to offer more convenience than value.

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