Storage

Two weeks with VUDU

Over the past few years, I have been tinkering with new ways to watch movies in my manroom. I've subscribed to Netflix, Blockbuster Total Access, ripped my DVD collection to a media server and streamed movies from XBOX Live to my XBOX 360.

I recently tried a new set-top box from VUDU that promises access to 5,000 movies, on-demand streaming (with the proper broadband connection) and near-DVD video quality. The video-on-demand, set-top box market is littered with products that promised similar features, but failed to deliver (Apple TV, MovieBeam, etc.), so I was a bit skeptical going into this review.

Overview

VUDU is a sleek-looking set-top box and remote combo that allows you to stream movies over your broadband connection. Unlike other services, like XBOX Live, that require you to wait until the movie has finished downloading before you can watch, something that often takes hours, VUDU allows you to start watching movies immediately (as long as you have 2+ Mbps connection). How do they do that? They have the first 30 seconds of all of the movies on the hard drive of the unit.

VUDU with remote

The VUDU set-top box and remote

The good

After using VUDU for the past few weeks, there is definitely a lot to like.

Video quality is where VUDU really shines. It is very difficult to tell the difference between a VUDU-streamed movie and a DVD. I have a 65" HDTV in my manroom and I expected a screen that size to really magnify any flaws or artifacts in the VUDU streams. I was pleasantly surprised not to really see any. I also showed several people a movie playing on VUDU and none of them could tell that it wasn't a DVD.

The remote is another strength of VUDU. So many consumer devices get their remotes wrong. VUDU uses a unique shape and simple controls. There are only 5 buttons and most of your onscreen movement is controlled with a scroll wheel. The remote also feels very comfortable in your hand due to the shape.

VUDU supports a variety of standard and high definition resolutions including 1080p/24, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i using four different video output options: HDMI v 1.1, Component, S-Video and Composite. It also supports Dolby Digital 5.1 audio output.

VUDU back

The back of VUDU

Video selection was also better than I expected. New DVD releases were plentiful. I watched "We Are Marshall" the first day that it was released on DVD. I had no problem filling my Wishlist with 15-20 videos right away.

The VUDU interface was very slick and easy to use. Everything in the UI was optimized to be controlled with the scroll wheel on the remote. This makes zipping around menus and lists of movies a snap.

VUDU UI

The main VUDU screen

The VUDU also included couple of options that I thought were nice touches. One is configurable overscan settings which allow you to tweak the size of the VUDU screen to properly fit your particular display. The other is bandwidth management options that allow you to configure how much bandwidth you want to dedicate to VUDU streaming.

The bad The biggest beef I have with VUDU is their pricing structure. The box itself is $399. For that, you get the OS and 250GB of storage for saving movies. That seems way too high to me.

In order to get any content piped through the box, you have to pay around $3 for a rental that expires 24 hours after you start viewing it. You can also opt to buy a movie for around $19.99. This puts the cost of the content in the same price range as rental or buying a physical DVD. I'd rather buy the physical DVD and then rip it for streaming to my XBOX 360 than pay the same price for a digital copy that is locked inside my VUDU box.

There were a couple of other minor issues that I encountered throughout the course of my tests.

First, the remote wasn't synced with the box when I got it. This meant that I couldn't do anything with the system initally. Because I was using a review unit that didn't have the retail packaging and manual, I had to contact VUDU to find out the button sequence I needed to enter on the remote to get the two items back in sync. Not a big deal, but not the best out-of-box experience. Hopefully, they include the re-syncing instructions in the VUDU manual.

The other issue I ran into was the VUDU box forgetting my overscan settings. My display required tweaks to all four sides the display in order to get it to fit my screen properly. On more than one occasion, I would fire up VUDU only to find that it had forgotten my overscan settings from the previous session.

The bottom line

VUDU is well-designed product with excellent video quality, an easy-to-use interface and a nice selection of content. Unfortunately, it is too expensive for what it delivers.

If VUDU were to switch to an all-you-can-eat download service where I could pay a monthly fee to rent movies, I would have absolutely no problem recommending (and probably buying) the product. However, when the only real upside over renting a DVD through the mail or in-store is convenience, the $399 cost of the hardware and the $3-4 per movie rental is difficult to justify.

Offer the set-top box for $249, allow streaming of other files on my network and offer video rentals as part of a montly subscription and I'm all over it.

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