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A hands-on look at Amazon Unbox on TiVo

We take a hands-on look at the new Amazon Unbox on TiVo service, which allows you to download Amazon Unbox videos straight to your TiVo.

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Amazon Unbox on TiVo launched yesterday, which means TiVo subscribers will be able to download selected Amazon Unbox videos straight to their TiVo box. We were pretty excited about the announcement, because at first glance Amazon Unbox on TiVo looks to be a possible replacement for a DVD renting service like Netflix, or Pay-Per-View services available on cable or satellite. The service works on any broadband connected Series2 or Series3 TiVo, and we took it for a spin on our Series2 TiVo.

We had absolutely no trouble linking our TiVo with our Amazon account, and we were selecting movies in just a couple of clicks. The interface to select movies will be familiar to anyone who has used Amazon, which is to say it's pretty painless. The only knock we had is that Amazon doesn't seem 100-percent ready for TiVo fans, as the method of filtering TiVo-transferable files from other Amazon Unbox files is just using the search term "tivo" in the Unbox section. A separate section of Amazon Unbox would be preferable.

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We found the initial selection to be a little meager. Not all Amazon Unbox videos are available to be transferred to TiVos, presumably because of the need to convert the files to a TiVo-friendly format. As of press time, 1,433 videos were labeled "TiVo", which is a combination of TV shows and movies. Sure, that's a lot of videos for any one person to watch, but it's not much of a library. However, Amazon claims it will be adding new titles every week, so you can expect this library to grow. In terms of cost, most movies we saw were $15 to buy and $4 to rent, while TV shows were $2 to buy.

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Download speeds were variable, but took longer than real time for us. For example, downloading the 103-minute long Little Miss Sunshine took us two hours and 27 minutes while a 21-minute long episode of My Name Is Earl took 24 minutes. That won't satisfy those looking for instant gratification, but it's still a whole lot faster than waiting for Netflix movies to arrive. Outside of Pay-Per-View, it's probably the fastest way to get a movie delivered to your TV without going outside. One feature we would have liked is the ability to start watching a movie before it fully downloads--currently you have to wait until the entire file downloads before you can start watching it.

The restrictions on rentals are either reasonable or restrictive, depending on your perspective. If you're used to using online movie rental services or Pay-Per-View, the terms of the rental will be pretty average--once you hit Play, you can watch as many times as you want within a 24-hour period, but then it's gone. On the other hand, if you're used to, say, renting movies via Netflix or at a brick-and-mortar store like Blockbuster, this might seem a little strict. Considering that the rentals cost $4, we think you should at least get a three- or four-day window to watch it as many times as you'd like.

Our biggest disappointment was apparent right off the bat--the movies are not available in true wide-screen format. For example, our first download was Sideways, and with our TiVo and TV set in wide-screen mode, the image was stretched horizontally. We changed the picture mode of our TV from Wide to Normal, and this gave us the correct aspect ratio, but now the picture was windowboxed, which means there were black bars on all fours side of the picture (see our Quick Guide to Aspect Ratio for more info). Luckily our TV has a Zoom mode so we could fill the screen, but this isn't an ideal situation. Considering that even our rather old Series2 TiVo has no trouble recording downconverted wide-screen HDTV, there shouldn't be a problem with Amazon delivering true wide-screen videos.

On the Amazon Unbox on TiVo FAQ, TiVo says that "Unbox videos watched on a TiVo are of better quality than videos recorded at the Best Quality setting on a TiVo Series2 DVR". We're not so sure about that. Of course a lot depends on exactly how you have your TiVo connected, and what your source is, but we felt the video quality of the Unbox videos was definitely worse than Best Quality recordings we've made. Luckily we had some My Name Is Earl episodes already on our TiVo--recorded from downconverted high-definition--and were able to compare the same episode, both downloaded and recorded. There was no contest--the recorded episode looked much better than the downloaded episode. Whenever the camera would pan quickly on the downloaded version, there would be a flash-like effect, and objects would smear, while the recorded version exhibited none of those faults.

We also took a look at some movies, and we'd say it's a pretty significant step down from watching a DVD. In mostly still shots, it's not that bad, although there's still a loss in terms of resolution. However, compression artifacts again became really obvious in Sideways whenever the camera panned or there was a lot of motion. It's not unwatchable, but anybody that is sensitive to video quality will probably be a little disappointed.

The important caveat in our comparison to DVD is that our Series2 TiVo only has an S-Video output while we always use the component video output of our DVD player. That is certainly going to account for some of the quality difference, and while that might not be the fault of Amazon's files, people with older TiVos can't avoid this shortcoming.

Audio quality of the files was pretty good and we couldn't hear much in the way of compression artifacts. We should note that the files we downloaded only came with a stereo soundtrack. That's fine for Series2 owners that only have a stereo output, but Series3 owners might be looking for surround sound. This is also important to anyone comparing the service with DVD rentals, since many DVDs come with either Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound soundtracks.

With prices at their current levels, the aspect ratio limitation, and the mediocre video quality, we can't see ourselves using Amazon Unbox on TiVo that frequently. Most movies are close to the same price as the DVD, and rentals don't offer much advantage over Pay-Per-View for cable and satellite subscribers--at least until the library expands. On the other hand, it's a pretty painless way to get movies and TV shows delivered to your TiVo, and it could be useful when you want to watch something on an impulse. With some tweaks, an expanded library, and a lower cost, we could see Amazon Unbox on TiVo service being a lot more attractive. TiVo subscribers interested in the service can check it out risk-free, as Amazon is offering a $15 credit to anyone that signs up before April 30.