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For more than a year now, music lovers have enjoyed all-you-can-eat subscription services such as Napster To Go and Yahoo Music Unlimited. Now movie lovers are in for the same treat, courtesy of Starz Vongo. After months of beta testing, this first-of-its-kind service is finally ready for its close-up. For a flat rate of $9.99 per month, you can download and watch all the movies you want from the service's library of more than 1,600 titles.
That's a refreshing change of pace from existing movie-download services such as CinemaNow and Movielink, which charge you by the movie and impose various viewing restrictions. What's more, Vongo works with the new breed of Portable Media Center devices, including Toshiba's killer Gigabeat S, with more devices running PMC 2 coming soon from LG, Philips, and Tatung. That means you're not limited to watching movies on your desktop or notebook; you can also view them on a pocket-size player. (CinemaNow, for its part, supports some older PMC players but offers only a handful of Z-grade titles for them.) Your account entitles you to watch content on up to three PCs and/or devices. In addition, you can transmit movies from your device to a television if you have the proper TV-out hardware.
Vongo's attractive Windows XP/2000 client software is required to browse, download, and watch movies and to transfer them to a player. Although the software is fairly easy to navigate, with colorful DVD cover icons and an embedded video trailer window, we found it somewhat sluggish and didn't like the limited sorting options. For instance, you can sort movies by title and MPAA rating but not user rating. Also, you can't maximize the window to see more movie titles in the browser pane. Starz plans to roll out movie recommendations based on your user ratings.
Those are minor quibbles. Our major one is with Vongo's title selection. Although you can find a smattering of A-list movies (The Bourne Supremacy, The Incredibles), many of the films fall on the B-list and below (Cellular, Mr. 3000, Shall We Dance). We had to dig deep to find worthwhile movies we hadn't already seen or wouldn't mind seeing again. And our delight in finding a real gem--The Chronicles of Narnia--turned to disappointment when we discovered it was one of Vongo's handful of pay-per-view titles. We had to pay $3.99 over and above our subscription fee, a major annoyance. If there's a plus side, it's that the pay-per-view selection allows nonsubscribers to use the service. You may also search Vongo by actor, keyword, rating, language, and category.
Movies were also surprisingly slow to download. Over our relatively speedy home broadband connection, Sin City took around 50 minutes, and we waited even longer to download Hitch using our Wi-Fi-connected notebook. At CNET's offices, however, movies arrived in less than 15 minutes, so your mileage may vary. Either way, if you're planning to stock up on multiple movies before a trip, make sure you plan a day or two in advance so that you have time to download them.
Another hitch is that not all movies are available in a portable-friendly format, and there's no way to make the determination at a glance. For any given movie, you have to click Preview/Details, then scroll down to the bottom of the description to see if Portable is among the formats. If it is, you have to remember to download that version of the movie (an easy selection in the options pane). Although this is something of a hassle, it saves the Vongo software from having to perform time-consuming conversions before transferring movies to your player.
Speaking of transfers, we encountered a few problems on that front. The Vongo software sometimes failed to detect our Toshiba Gigabeat S. And when it did establish a connection, we couldn't get movies to copy over. Vongo is aware of this issue and is working to remedy it. When that happens, we'll update our review and report on transfer times, video quality, and more.
As for desktop video quality, movies played silky smooth and looked at least as sharp as you'd see on the Starz cable channel, which, in a nice touch, you can stream live. We watched Sin City on our TV-connected Media Center PC and saw little difference between the Vongo version and a DVD. Speaking of which, some movies come with DVD-like bonus materials: interviews, making-of featurettes, and so on.
Vongo is close to being an outta-the-park home run, an unbeatable service for frequent travelers, movie buffs, and PMC-toting gadget freaks. But until there's working support for those PMCs and a better selection of movies to watch, we'll stop short of giving Vongo our unequivocal recommendation.