By Sean Captain – True to its name, online video service Vudu seems to have found some magic to do what had long seemed impossible—stream Blu-ray-esque video to TVs. Embedded in four new LG models (with more coming) the video app plays in real time, with no hard drive or flash memory to store up even a few minutes as a cushion against clogged-up networks. And while you won’t get the full experience on bargain-basement DSL, even a decent cable broadband connection appears to be enough.
Those with long memories (like two years) will recall Vudu as a pioneer, introducing in 2007 the first Internet set-top box with good performance and good content. Having pre-loaded the first few minutes of every title on it hard drive, Vudu could start playing movies and TV shows instantly, in standard definition. But as quality went up, so did the wait time—running to several hours to download 1080p movies in a format the company calls “HDX.”
Oh yeah, John Voigt was in “The Rainmaker.”
With the streaming service, Vudu gets back to its impatient-user roots. Using the directional arrows on the LG set’s remote, I was able to zip around the on-screen interface. Choosing categories of video (high-def, standard-def, recent releases) and also dig quickly into an IMDB-like database of background info. While reading about “National Treasure,” for example, I could dive into info about John Voigt to see that he has also starred in “The Rainmaker.” I’d forgotten about that.
Kate Winslet looking great in “Revolutionary Road” in HDX.
But then, when doesn’t she look great?
OK, so how is the quality? Definitely very good. But exactly how good, I can’t say, because the Internet connection wasn’t fast enough. Vudu assess the connection speed and adjusts video quality accordingly. In Vudu’s hotel suite in Manhattan, we were able to get the entry level bitrate of 4.5 megabits per second for and HDX showing of “The Watchmen.” At this level, I’d say it’s about as good as the HD movies on Apple TV or the PlayStation 3 – which is quite a compliment. Those movies are “only” 720p, but bitrate is as important as pixel count when it comes to quality.
Nicholas Cage explaining…something…in “Knowing” in HDX.
Even this is great – especially because, while Apple and Sony require at least a partial download, Vudu’s service starts instantly and lets you quickly fast-forward or rewind to anywhere in the film. The bitrate can go as high as 9Mbps, if your connection supports it, which could look fantastic. (Finally, a use for those new 101Mbps Internet connections—multiple HDX video streams into one house.) That’s not quite Blu-ray, which can exceed 40Mbps. But it may be at the point where a non-video-fanatic can’t really tell the difference.
Selecting a movie in HDX
The experience wasn’t perfectly smooth. A few times I saw what may be come to known as the “Red Corkscrew of Death,” as a spinning icon indicated data interruption. “Ugh, hotel Internet connection!” one of the flaks scoffed. But fluctuating bandwidth is pretty common on home Internet connections, too. So, if you’re at the ragged edge of the minimum speeds for HDX and/or you have other Net users in the home, you may have to deal with some corkscrews.
Of course, you can opt for the 720p HD or even the SD versions (the latter looking about as good as a nice DVD in my preview). But the beauty of Vudu is the HD. All titles will be high def (up to HDX quality), going forward, said company VP Edward Lichty. That’s quite a contrast from other Net video services. Amazon and Blockbuster, for example, offer scarcely anything in HD. And others such as Apple and Xbox are hit and miss. Vudu already has 2,000 high-def titles, mostly movies. (“We don’t have a ton of TV,” said Lichty.) And, Vudu may be the first service that lets you own a high-def movie. According to Lichty, Disney is the first big studio to license HD purchases, and Vudu is the first service they have made that deal with. (Despite Apple’s Steve Jobs being on the Disney board.)
You don’t physically own the movie. It exists “in the cloud” and will go away if Vudu does. So far, LG TVs are the only way to access the cloud, but Vudu has announced a “partnership” (lacking any product details) with Vizio, the biggest seller of LCD TVs in the US. And Lichty says that any Internet-connected TV or Blu-ray player (such as those from Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and ever more vendors) has the capability to run the Vudu applications. “We’re working hard…We’re certainly under discussions with all kinds of folks,” said Lichty about future partnerships.
The first LG equipped sets will be available in August, and other, already-shipped connected models from LG will be able to download a software upgrade to add Vudu capability. There is no subscription fee for the service, but a wide range of prices. Movie rentals start around $3 for SD and $4 for high-def (HDX). Purchases start at $10 for SD and $14 for HDX.
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