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Movie Downloads are Becoming More Practical

Posted on Friday, February 9th, 2007 7:06 PM

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Two announcements this week have brought the concept of downloading movies and TV shows on demand and watching them on our TV's closer to reality.

The first announcement is from WalMart on Tuesday that they were releasing a Movie Download service, at least in "beta" form. A "beta" level of testing indicates that they realize there might be issues, but they want to expand it to a wider base of testing by releasing it to the public. It's also a crutch to lean on when something doesn't work as advertised. (Some of Google's beta tests go on for years!)

The WalMart service requires Internet Explorer to browse and download movies, but from everything I could see, you do not need software other than Windows Media Player or other compatible software (like the portable version of WMP that comes with PocketPC's) to play it.

Pricing is variable, from new releases (like "Hollywoodland," which was just released on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray) for $14.88 to catalog releases (like "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen") for $9.88. You can download TV shows for $1.96, with discounts for entire seasons.

The big question is, how do they look? Most shows are available in either portable or PC formats, or both. While not high definition, the supplied content is better or equal to what you're getting through a standard definition television / portable device. Unfortunately, my guess is that these movies and TV shows are coming in full-screen format instead of their original aspect ratio, which prevents them from being a viable option for discerning movie fans. I see the big appeal being TV shows that are disposable by their very nature, and a reduced experience isn't going to harm them much.

Getting this content to your television is still a little bit of a chore, but if you have a Media Center PC connected to your TV, or an Xbox 360 that can access content on said Media Center PC, you're good to go.

The bigger implication that this announcement has is that one of the biggest retailers in the world is now offering movie downloads. Agreements have been struck with 20th Century Fox, Disney, Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal, and Warner Bros., so this may open the door for other services to expand their studio offerings as well. Several studios expressed reluctance to join download services like Apple's iTunes after retailers like WalMart strongly objected to pricing that undercut the price of DVD's in their stores. Currently, iTunes carries movies from Disney family of studios and most recently, Paramount Pictures.

The second announcement is from Amazon.com and TiVo. Last September, Amazon.com released a movie and TV download service they called Unbox. On Wednesday, they announced that Unbox would soon be integrating with TiVo Series II and Series 3 digital video recorders. The service is starting to roll out to customers now, according to the information released. The full service is expected to roll out later this year (as in, it's in "beta").

This agreement between the two companies provides TiVo owners with the ability to order up movies and TV shows from the Unbox service and have them delivered directly to their Internet-connected TiVo's. The list of studios participating in this service at the time of this writing matched almost exactly with the list supported by WalMart's service, which is nice to see (studio exclusivity on any format is bad for the consumer).

Pricing is similar to WalMart's service, with Hollywoodland at $14.99 for "DVD-quality video" that is the original aspect ratio (yes!), and stereo sound (same as WalMart). A portable resolution is also included for that price. Movies will cost between $9.99 and $14.99 according to the Unbox web site. TV episodes sell for $1.99. An interesting additional service is that Unbox allows for renting movies as well. For example, Dances with Wolves is available for $3.99, and you have 30 days and/or 24 hours to watch it once you start playing it, whichever comes first.

Unlike the WalMart service, this agreement has the built-in convenience of being right on your TiVo box. Of course, that's assuming you have one, but if you don't, you really should. They're wonderful devices that literally change how you watch television forever. Seriously. (Search for TiVo's on Amazon.com)

These two announcements, combined with January's announcement by Apple of their Apple TV product that is due to be released this month, makes downloading movies to your living room much more of a reality than it was just a few weeks ago. We certainly live in exciting times!

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