Blu-ray may be the bee's knees, but it's not the only option out there competing for your high-def dollar. Are movie downloads really ready to compete with Blu-ray quality yet? High-Def Digest reviewer Joshua Zyber gives the VUDU BX100 a test run to find out.
I Do, You Do, We Do VUDU
By Joshua Zyber
In the first few years of its existence, Blu-ray fought a long, hard battle against Toshiba's competing HD DVD format to establish its position as the next-generation successor to DVD. In the end, Blu-ray won out, and became the movie industry's High Definition optical disc standard. In fact, many industry observers speculate that Blu-ray may be the last physical packaged media product to distribute movies to home video consumers. Internet downloads are the future, or so people say. Why go to a store to buy or rent a disc when you can just select what you want online and download it to your computer or home theater? In the modern technological age, convenience is king.
Unfortunately, to date, movie downloads have faced a host of legal issues, bandwidth constraints, and quality concerns. A number of options are available to viewers who wish to download movies off the 'net, some legal and some decidedly not. Even the legal, officially sanctioned products usually require hours to download Standard Definition movie files of sub-DVD quality. Most "HD" downloads look barely better than DVD in resolution, and are plagued by compression artifacts. For the discerning videophile with a large HD screen, movie downloads have been no competition for a good Blu-ray disc.
Enter VUDU. First unveiled in 2007, VUDU is a fully-legal video download service providing content from most of the major Hollywood studios for rental or purchase. Unlike most of its competitors, the VUDU set-top boxes connect directly to an HDTV or home theater display without interfacing with a computer first. (Of course, you will need to connect the box to high-speed internet via its Ethernet port). Initially, the service offered its movies and TV programs in standard-def resolution, but later added 1080p HD content as well. Most recently, they've introduced a new file type called HDX that promises high bit rate video of a quality on par with Blu-ray. Does the hype stand up to scrutiny? Let's take a look.
What does VUDU Do?
To use VUDU, you'll need to purchase a set-top box and establish an account on the official VUDU web site. The company's primary hardware offering is the VUDUBX100, under review here. The BX100 has a reasonable list price of $149. It's a compact, adorable-looking device. Although VUDU doesn't publish the file sizes of its movie downloads, the BX100's 250 GB hard drive is said to be able to store approximately 50 standard-def titles at a time. VUDU has not officially stated how many HD or HDX titles it will hold at once. For a bit more money (currently $299), hardcore enthusiasts can also purchase the VUDU XL or the rack-mountable VUDU XL2, either of which will hold up to 500 SD movies. The XL and XL2 are only available through authorized installers, whereas the BX100 can be purchased directly.
The BX100 has a standard bevy of connectors on the back panel, and is very easy to set up. While the unit has S-video and Composite outputs, if you want High Definition video, you'll need to use either the Component or HDMI (v1.1) options. Audio is available from Analog L/R, Toslink Optical, Digital Coax, or (again) HDMI. For best quality and ease of use, I recommend a single connection from HDMI for all your video and audio needs. The Ethernet port will connect you to the internet. As mentioned above, VUDU does not require a computer interface. You can hook the BX100 directly to your high-speed router.
VUDU recommends an internet connection speed of at least 2 Mb/s, which will give you instant viewing of SD content. HD downloads will take about 2 hours at that speed, while HDX files may take up to 8 hours. A 4 Mb/s connection should provide instant viewing for both SD and HD, and about 4 hours for an HDX download. The VUDU web site offers an internet speed test for prospective buyers, but I didn't find it very accurate. The speed test clocked me at well over 4 Mb/s, which is more than I currently pay my cable provider for. When I actually connected the BX100, the box forced me to use the 2 Mb/s setting.
The VUDU remote has a strange design that looks a little like… well, I'm not going to say it here. In any case, I found its contours surprisingly ergonomic. The remote has only five buttons and a clickable scroll wheel. The wheel handles the majority of control functions, as most of VUDU's user menus are scroll-based. The interface may be unusual, but is quite intuitive and shouldn't take very long at all to get used to. The box automatically prompts a video tutorial the first time you connect the device. The remote runs on RF frequencies (you must connect a small antenna to the back of the box), and doesn't need a direct line of sight to operate. That may actually be a disappointment for users who had planned to program its commands into an IR universal remote.
Within the BX100's setup menus are some unexpected options, including overscan control and audio delay. For some strange reason, the device defaults to a high overscan setting out of the box. I really can't imagine why anyone would want to add more overscan beyond what their TV already forces. Fortunately, you can dial that setting right down to zero. However, it does not offer any negative values, which might have been useful to compensate for overscan at the TV.
VUDU advises to leave the BX100 connected to both your power and internet at all times, so that it may continually refresh content such as title selection menus and instant-viewing previews. The device has a cooling fan that runs continually, even in Standby mode, and is disappointingly audible in an otherwise quiet room.
Ordering a movie from VUDU is incredibly easy. Simply scroll through the on-screen title artwork until you find what you want, then click on it and follow the directions. Through the menus, you can sort the browsing options a number of ways, such as new additions, most popular downloads, genres, or other categories (including HD files only). If you know specifically what you're looking for, you may search by title, actor, or director using an easy keypad simulator.
You can also order movies remotely. If you're at work during the day and decide that you want to have a movie waiting for you when you get home, visit the VUDU web site, log into your account, and initiate the download right there. The web interface is just as intuitive to browse and sort. The company even offers a free iPhone app to do likewise.
At the present time, most SD rentals are priced at $3.99, while most HD and HDX rentals are $5.99. Once you've downloaded a rental, you have 30 days to begin watching it. After you've started a viewing session, you're typically given 24 hours to finish it. If you wish, you may rewatch the content as many times as you're able during that 24-hour window.
Some (but not all) titles are also available to purchase, from around $13.99 to $23.99. If you run out of space on your BX100 hard drive, you may choose to archive purchases on the VUDU server, from which you may download them again for free whenever you want. (Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I'm not sure what would happen to your purchased titles if the VUDU company ever went out of business.)
VUDU licenses content from most of the major studios, and has quite an impressive catalog available. However, they may not necessarily have every new release, and the ones they do have may not always be available day-and-date with the DVD or Blu-ray. I found it frustrating to see a number of titles listed as "Available Now" on the main menu page, only to discover that they were really only available for immediate purchase (SD resolution), with rental dates and HD versions in the near future.
With that said, VUDU offers over 1,000 titles in 1080p HD, and thus far over 500 in HDX format. Among those are numerous movies not yet available on Blu-ray. Browsing idly through the HDX selections, I was amazed to find the likes of 'Blue Velvet', 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams', 'Once Upon a Time in the West', 'Cube', 'The Hudsucker Proxy', and many more intriguing options unlikely to see release on Blu-ray in the near future.
The VUDU listings are a little vague about technical information. From what I've seen, most HD movies appear to be presented in their original aspect ratios and languages (with English subtitles if foreign).
In addition to movies, VUDU also offers a limited selection of TV content, mainly older seasons of popular shows. Through the VUDU LABS menu, you can access Pandora Internet Radio, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, and On Demand TV (primarily news, sports, and other informational programs, rather than shows). For viewers over 18, adult videos are available in the AFTER DARK section.
How Does It Look and Sound?
VUDU's downloads come in three formats: SD, HD, or HDX. Since this is High-Def Digest, my testing focused exclusively on the high-def offerings. All HD and HDX files are encoded at 1080p24 resolution with MPEG-4 compression. Due to bandwidth concerns, 1080p60 is not an option. If your HDTV can't sync to a 24 fps signal, you should set the VUDU box for 1080i output.
Of course, the resolution only tells you the number of pixels being used, but says nothing about the actual quality of the video image. I downloaded several HD and HDX rentals, and made a point of choosing some titles that I'd be able to compare directly to Blu-ray.
The HD files are very highly compressed. From what I observed, they're noticeably softer than the Blu-ray editions of the same movies, with sporadic color banding and digital compression artifacts. Nonetheless, they were quite watchable overall. I'd equate them to the quality of a typical HD broadcast on cable. I specifically chose to rent 'Planet Terror' because I knew that its grainy photography covered in artificial film scratches would be a difficult compression challenge. Even that looked pretty decent, though the Blu-ray was decidedly better.
HDX files are encoded at a significantly higher bit rate and are much closer to Blu-ray quality. Sharpness and detail are improved. Compression and banding artifacts are much less of an issue. In a direct comparison, I still think that I'd generally find Blu-ray superior in mostly subtle ways. Blu-ray encodes tend to be optimized for the best picture quality, whereas HDX encodes still need to make some compromises to ensure smooth downloading. I spotted some aliasing artifacts in 'The Dark Knight' that weren't present on the Blu-ray, for instance. Even so, HDX will usually get you about 90% of the way there. For a rental download, this is a tremendous leap forward in quality over services offered in the past. The 4-8 hour download times are a drag, but not unreasonable so long as you plan your viewings in advance. I just wish that all of VUDU's HD offerings were also available in HDX. (There is no HDX option for 'Planet Terror' at this time, for example.)
Since VUDU doesn't perform any of their own film-to-video transfers, the company is naturally at the mercy of the licensing studios to provide them with high-quality HD transfers. When it comes to movies also available on Blu-ray, you can generally count on the VUDU download being sourced from the same master. There are exceptions, though. 'The Dark Knight' is presented at a consistent 2.35:1 aspect ratio, like the movie's 35mm theatrical screenings, which means that it's probably from the same master as the DVD edition. On the other hand, the Blu-ray opens up to 16:9 during the IMAX segments. Those IMAX scenes are also distinctly sharper on the Blu-ray, while the 35mm scenes are about equivalent on both. (The Edge Enhancement artifacts that plague the Blu-ray are here as well.) Catalog titles without corresponding Blu-ray releases are hit-or-miss, and may be sourced from older masters originally prepared for DVD or broadcast. That doesn't mean they'll look terrible. Just don't expect any full-blown restorations on VUDU-exclusive titles; if the original studio were going to that much trouble, they'd no doubt also want to issue a corresponding Blu-ray.
VUDU claims that its movies are authored with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio. Unfortunately, the company's set-top boxes are only capable of outputting in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 format. As a result, the DD+ must be downconverted before it gets to your A/V receiver. That's disappointing, to be sure. Still, the movies I watched all had fairly robust audio for basic Dolby Digital. It may not be up to the same standard as the lossless formats available on Blu-ray, but the sound quality is perfectly adequate for rental purposes.
[Note: Although all of the movies I rented during the evaluation period had 5.1 audio, I've been informed by readers that a number of titles in the VUDU catalog have only Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks. Among these are some surprising titles such as 'The Matrix Trilogy' and 'Superman Returns', which have aggressive 5.1 mixes on DVD and Blu-ray.]
The Bottom Line: Is It Worth It?
These days, it seems like the movie download market is growing more crowded by the minute. VUDU faces competition from the likes of Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Blockbuster, XBox Live, and the PlayStation Store, as well as On-Demand programming from cable and satellite providers. All these (and more I'm no doubt forgetting) are competing for your attention and money. I haven't tried all of these services, nor do I plan to. As a videophile first and foremost, my priority will always be for quality over convenience, and I have no interest in ever watching movies on my computer screen.
To that end, VUDU strikes a nice balance. The service is reasonably priced and easy to use. The BX100 set-top box requires no computer interface and will connect directly to a High Definition display. HDX downloads offer video quality nearly on Blu-ray's level, including numerous titles not yet available on Blu-ray.
I don't know whether internet downloads are really the future of all media delivery. The bandwidth caps being imposed by Time Warner Cable and other internet providers will no doubt pose a major obstacle to those plans. For that reason and others, VUDU is not a replacement for Blu-ray, or even a direct competitor. The two products serve different needs.
For movie ownership, Blu-ray still offers the best video, lossless audio, and supplemental content. Of course, not every movie is worth owning, or at least not worth purchasing blindly. For the purposes of one-time rentals, VUDU fills its niche nicely. The product is worth serious consideration for any home theater fan.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.