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Vudu BX100 review: Vudu BX100

Vudu BX100

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John Falcone
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John Falcone

Executive Editor

John P. Falcone is an executive editor at CNET, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

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12 min read

Editors' Note, March 16, 2009: The free Pandora Internet radio service is now available on Vudu.

7.7

Vudu BX100

The Good

Set-top box that plays Internet-delivered video content at resolutions up to full 1080p HD; solid selection of movies and TV shows, as well as adult content, for sale and rental; no monthly fees; standard-definition and some HD selections start immediately; excellent onscreen interface and scroll-wheel remote; simple setup and configuration.

The Bad

Best-quality HD content requires download queuing before viewing; can't stream media from networked PCs; can't transfer movies to portable devices for on-the-go viewing; no built-in Wi-Fi; rentals limited to 24-hour viewing period; impressive selection of titles still pales in comparison with the tens of thousands available from Netflix and Blockbuster; compatibility with universal remotes requires add-on dongle; box is worthless if company ever goes under.

The Bottom Line

Vudu sets itself apart from similar Internet video-on-demand boxes such as Apple and Netflix by delivering movies at better quality--up to full 1080p HD resolution and 5.1 surround sound.

Editors' Note, February 10, 2009: Vudu has cut the price of this product to $149.

When Vudu was first released in the fall of 2007, it was the first real Internet video-on-demand box worthy of the name. Unlike previous non-starters such as MovieBeam and Akimbo, Vudu offered a decent selection of movies from all major studios--and, later, TV shows--for instant on-demand viewing. Video quality was good to begin with (when compared with other online video offerings); a later software upgrade added HD video. Selections were available for purchase or rental, and they could be ordered directly from the TV screen. Unfortunately for Vudu, Apple updated its similar Apple TV box just a few months later to co-opt nearly all of the Vudu's once-unique features. The early 2008 "Apple TV Take 2" upgrade added on-screen ordering (no need to sync with computer-based iTunes libraries); HD video (and improved standard-definition video); near-instant viewing for standard-def selections; and movie selections from all major studios. Those upgrades were above and beyond some advantages Apple TV already had over Vudu: a lower price, built-in Wi-Fi, and the ability to stream photos and iTunes music and video files from networked computers.

Still, Vudu hasn't been standing still. Even while it's struggled at the corporate level, Vudu has added TV shows and adult content to its roster, as well as an accessory that adds wireless support. In addition to HD downloads, the company also now has a bargain channel that offers a rotating list of 99 movies for just a 99-cent rental. The latest feature hitting the Vudu docket is "HDX high-definition"--a selection of movies in 1080p HD resolution and 5.1 surround sound. It remains to be seen whether or not the improved video and audio quality will be enough to distinguish Vudu--now available for $300--from its competitors. But for purists who bemoan the lack of "true HD" from rival providers such as Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Netflix, the impressive picture quality offered by Vudu's latest upgrade may be just what the doctor ordered. Sweetening the deal is a $200 movie credit (when purchased at Best Buy before December 31, 2008), bringing the effective cost of the box to just $100.

Design
With its modest dimensions of 2.38 inches high by 8.88 inches wide by 7.25 inches deep, the Vudu BX100 box looks like a slightly oversize Apple TV or Mac Mini--though it's thankfully finished in black, so it won't clash with the rest of your home theater gear. Pick it up, and you'll feel its 4.2-pound heft; it's densely packed with components, including the 250GB hard drive. The front panel is barren, except for a couple of indicator lights and the Vudu logo. The real action, of course, is around back. The Vudu's rear panel includes every possible output you'd want on a networked audio-visual device. HDMI and component video outputs enable high-definition video output (you can specify 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions), and--unlike the Apple TV--the Vudu will also connect to older TVs via its composite and S-Video outputs. Digital audio can be sent to compatible TVs or AV receivers via HDMI, optical or coaxial jacks, and analog stereo RCA jacks are also available. The Ethernet port provides network connectivity, and a USB port is available for future expansion (a second USB port resides on the left-hand side).


The Vudu includes every possible AV output you could want, including HDMI.

The Vudu includes every possible AV output you could want, including HDMI. The rear panel also hosts a little 4-inch antenna, but it's not for Wi-Fi. The antenna interfaces with Vudu's unique remote. The contoured clicker has a dual teardrop shape that fits perfectly in your hand (and lefties will appreciate the fact that it's ambidextrous). Taking a cue from Apple's intuitive product design, the Vudu remote has only five buttons--power, back, home, more, and play/pause. But the big innovation is a clickable mouse-style scroll wheel--it's used to navigate the Vudu's onscreen menus, as well as to fast-forward and rewind videos. The remote takes a minute or two to get used to; we were fighting the urge to tilt the wheel left to move up through certain menus--until we realized that's where the back button should be used. Once you quickly figure it out, however, it becomes second nature.

The only drawback: while the RF (radio frequency) control means you don't have to worry about line-of-sight issues--so, you can lock the Vudu box away in a cabinet if you'd like--the lack of an infrared sensor on the device precludes the use of most universal remotes. Thankfully, Vudu has added an IR remote dongle to its lineup. It should offer interaction with most programmable universal remotes, but the accessory will set you back about $40.


The remote uses a click wheel for quick and easy access to the intuitive onscreen menu.

Vudu's first-time-out-of-the-box setup is about as simple as it gets for a networked home entertainment product (assuming you have a nearby Ethernet connection). If you use the included HDMI cable, the box can have as few as three wires total: HDMI (to your receiver or TV), power, and the network cable. After the initial power up, Vudu presents a narrated onscreen walk-through that ensures you're getting working audio and video signals and network connectivity, explains how to use the remote, and helps you set up your Vudu account. Vudu does not charge a monthly fee, but you must link a credit card to your Vudu account and preset it to charge in increments of $20, $50, or $100; your rental fees are then debited against those charges. Once it zeros out, your card is recharged that preset amount, and the debit process begins again.

While basic setup is really easy, advanced users will appreciate a variety of expert options, including video, audio, and network tweaks. For instance, stereo or surround signals can be prioritized for HDMI output, specific high-definition resolutions can be set, and Vudu's data stream can be prioritized on your home network. We particularly liked the flexible aspect ratio control (zoom, stretch, or full screen on 4x3 or 16x9 TVs) and the capability to customize the overscan setting.

Like Slingbox and TiVo products, there's no built-in Wi-Fi option on the Vudu. If there's no nearby Ethernet connection, you'll need a wireless bridge or powerline adapter to get the Vudu online. Vudu also offers its own option: the Vudu Wireless Kit is a pair of plug-and-play plastic bricks that wirelessly communicate with one another. Plug one into the Vudu and another into your home router (or any free Ethernet port on your network), and you'll be good to go.

The interface
Of course, a video device such as the Vudu lives or dies by its onscreen interface--and Vudu's got one of the better ones we've seen to date. It lacks the fancy animations of the Apple TV interface, but it's far more vibrant and interactive than the Roku Netflix Player, with a clean, straightforward, and easy-to-navigate experience. Movies are represented by their posters, and the menu has just five main areas: Most Watched; New on Vudu; Explore catalog (where you can search by title, star, director, or genre); My Vudu (films and TV shows you've already rented or purchased); and Info & Settings (audio, video, and network setting options, as described in the section above).

Maneuvering through each area is dead simple, thanks to the scroll-wheel remote. Movies have full summaries and rating info, and they're all cross-referenced by genre, stars, and director. And because all of that info is essentially "hotlinked" (think IMDB), it's easy to navigate between them--jump from Aliens to all Sigourney Weaver movies, for example, or everything directed by James Cameron. (The resulting lists are limited to titles available on Vudu--not the entertainers' entire filmographies.)

Once a video is started (rented or purchased), it can be paused, rewound, and (once it's fully downloaded) fast-forwarded. A DVR-style progress bar is shown when any of those controls is engaged, and you can rewind and fast-forward as quickly or as slowly as you spin the click wheel. If you leave a movie, it will automatically resume right where you left off (assuming, for rentals, that you return to it within the 24-hour viewing window). But the key is the instant gratification that Vudu offers, which differs from the "queue and view" methods employed by Amazon On Demand and Apple TV/iTunes, as well as older Internet video-on-demand solutions such as Akimbo.

Using Vudu: Renting and buying movies and TV shows When you've settled on a movie or TV show you'd like to view, you'll often have several choices, depending on the type of content: resolution (SD/480p, HD or HDX--more on that later); version (in cases where there's, say, a theatrical or unrated director's cut); and whether you want to rent or buy. Not all content is available in all formats; some are standard-def only, and some content--especially new movies--is often limited to purchase-only for several weeks, after which it becomes available as a rental as well. Movies rent for $1 to $6 each, with newer and HD titles skewing at the top of the price scale; you can also buy them--that is, have them live on the hard drive "forever"--for $5 to $20 (purchases are standard-definition only). For the moment, TV episodes are also SD only, and they can only be rented for $2 apiece.

The box boasts have 250GB of space, which should be enough for about 100 hours of standard-def video (less for high-definition). (Vudu had pledged to enable add-on storage--by connecting an off-the-shelf hard drive to one of the USB ports--but to date, that promise remains unfulfilled). If you choose to rent, there are limitations: you have up to 30 days to watch the movie before it evaporates, and once you start watching, the viewing period is only 24 hours long. After that, if you or a family member wants to watch it again, it will cost you another rental fee. (The fee is lower if you rewatch within 7 days of the original rental's expiration.)

As indicated, some movies are available in up to three resolutions: standard, HD, or HDX. The first two--480p or 1080p--will begin streaming in within seconds of hitting the "rent now" prompt. Quality on the instant-viewing tiers is very good. "Near-DVD quality" is a term thrown around with reckless abandon these days, but for once, we found the description to be pretty truthful. As always, quality varies according to the source material, but the standard-definition images generally looked good. The "Instant HD" tier looked better, with sharper picture quality in evidence, but--like most Internet-delivered video to date--it didn't quite seem as good as DVD. Truly critical viewers--those who can appreciate the better resolution of Blu-ray versus standard DVDs--will notice that details can exhibit some softness and backgrounds can sometimes "swim" during shots where the camera remains stationary.

However, the newer HDX videos were a totally different experience altogether. HDX movies are also encoded at 1080p resolution, but the bitrate is noticeably revved up from the middle HD tier. As a result, HDX movies aren't available immediately--you'll need to queue them up and wait several hours before viewing. (Thankfully, you can manage this remotely by logging into Vudu's Web site. Start a download to the box while you're at work, for instance, and it should be ready to go when you're at home.)

For viewers with large HDTVs, the wait will be well worth it. We auditioned three HDX movies--Lord of War, surfing documentary Step into Liquid, and The Chronicles of Riddick. The films exhibited excellent detail, and even high-motion action scenes were free of the solarizing and blockiness often noticeable in competing "high-def" content available on Apple TV and the Xbox 360. About the worst we could say was that the films exhibited visible film grain and some softness. the But we did head-to-head comparisons on Liquid and War to their Blu-ray counterparts, and the discs tended to show similar instances of graininess in the same scenes as well--so the softness and grain were inherent in the source and not, as far as we could tell, an issue with the encoding. (Likewise, we consider the preservation of a certain degree of film-induced graininess to be preferable to excessive edge enhancement.)

Also, much like Blu-ray movies the Vudu HDX files are in 1080p/24 format. They preserve the native 24-frame-per-second rate of film, which should be great news for film buffs with displays, such as many 120Hz LCDs and Pioneer's Kuro plasmas, that can accept and properly display 24-frame material. Conversely, some displays can't accept 1080p/24 at all, so owners of those displays with a Vudu will have to choose the 1080i output instead.

While Blu-ray still had the edge, the Vudu HDX movies were, hands-down, the best Internet-delivered video we've seen to date. They're also the first that noticeably outclass standard DVDs, as well as the on-demand HD offerings from many cable and satellite providers.

Audiophiles note: Audio quality was also excellent. Many films offer full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround that many listeners will find to be on par with DVD soundtracks.

The content
One of the big drawbacks of the Netflix Player from Roku is that the content--while improving--is still somewhat on the lean side. Vudu, by comparison, has cut deals with pretty much every Hollywood content owner out there. That includes all the major studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, Warner, Paramount, and Universal), plus a host of minor and specialty players (including Image, Granada, and PBS). That doesn't mean that the Vudu box instantly has access to the entire catalog of those partners, but it at least offers the possibility that their movies will become available on the box.

According to Vudu, its current library to be 10,000-plus titles strong, with about 10 to 20 new titles per week being added. That includes movies that are hitting DVD the same week (alas, because of rights issues, they're for purchase only). The "99 titles for 99 cents" channel has a rotating list of grade A movies as well.

Vudu also offers about 50 TV series, but the list is much spottier than the selections you'd find on competing services such as Apple TV, Xbox 360, and the Roku Netflix Player. The company also offers adult content (that is to say, porn) on the AVN channel. Strict parental controls mean that this content needs to be activated from the Web site and can be easily hidden from view--so it's existence won't even be visible to those who don't want it. (Likewise, the Vudu's parental controls can even hide mainstream movies at any rating level--so you could create an all G/PG viewing environment at times, if you prefer.)

Vudu's Web site lets anyone explore the current Vudu catalog offerings, so prospective buyers should definitely check out what's available before taking the plunge.

What we don't like
There's a lot to like about the Vudu, but it's not without its shortfalls, either. Most notably, it's a closed system: unlike the iTunes Store, which lets you buy one file that can be watched on your TV (Apple TV), computer (iTunes software), or portable player (iPod or iPhone), Vudu downloads are limited to the one Vudu box to which you download them, with no option to offload to a portable device or PC. And despite its obvious networking and AV aplomb, the Vudu can't be used to stream any digital media outside the Vudu ecosystem. It would be great, for instance, if the Vudu could double as a digital media receiver, letting you stream at least some of the video, music, and photos from your PC's hard drive for enjoyment on your big-screen TV. And while the lack of Wi-Fi makes for easier networking configuration, many will be forced to use a bridge of some sort to get network connectivity for the box.

We could also criticize Vudu for things like its pricing model, and the limitations on viewing--a viewing window of 48-72 hours would be preferable to the 24-hour one, for instance. But those issues are effectively dictated to hardware manufacturers by the studios, so they're largely the same on competing products, and outside Vudu's realm of control.

The other issue is one of Vudu's financial survival. Products like Xbox 360, Apple TV, and Slingbox could still function, at least partially, in the unlikely event their corporate parents faded away. But Vudu is essentially a start-up, and the box is completely dependent on the company pumping content to it. If the company ever folds--like Akimbo and MovieBeam before it--the hardware essentially becomes an expensive paperweight. (That's yet another reason that adding PC-based media streaming--which would work even if Vudu terminated its online service--would be a welcome upgrade.)

Conclusion: Vudu or Vu-don't?
Is the Vudu worth buying? Indeed, it's a much better deal now than it was when it was first introduced. The addition of more movies, the superb HDX video quality option, and the lower sticker price make the product more enticing than ever. At the same time, the competitors have stepped up their game as well. Apple TV offers much of the same functionality, and the Roku Netflix Player delivers a growing amount of content at a flat monthly fee. That said, Vudu is setting itself apart as the current the king of picture quality in the set-top arena. As such, it remains recommended for owners of big-screen HDTVs who want the best possible picture quality from their on-demand videos.

7.7

Vudu BX100

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 7
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