Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

A New Way to Avoid the Video Store

After a long day at work, there’s something calming about filling a bowl with popcorn and watching a movie at home. But the experience can be diminished if you have to drive to the video store to rent a DVD. And it’s worse if you get there only to find that the film you want is out of stock.

Even if you subscribe to a DVD-by-mail service, like Netflix, you may have to wait for the most popular films, and the movies you have on hand at any one time might not fit your mood. Plus, you have to pay a monthly fee.

Now, a new company called MovieBeam is aiming to ease those DVD issues. It is selling a $200 digital gadget prestocked with 100 movies — some in high definition — that you can rent at the click of a remote-control button for as little as $1.99. There’s no drive to the video store, no chance of a movie being out of stock, no monthly fee, no waiting for the mail.

The MovieBeam box plugs into your TV and comes loaded with a selection of 100 movies that could include titles such as 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' and 'Cinderella Man.'
The MovieBeam box plugs into your TV and comes loaded with a selection of 100 movies that could include titles such as “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Cinderella Man.”

The MovieBeam service doesn’t require a computer or Internet connection, and it operates independently of your cable or satellite provider. The MovieBeam box, which looks like a slim DVD player without a slot for DVDs, is basically a smart hard disk drive that connects to your TV and receives new films every week via a small, inconspicuous indoor antenna.

MovieBeam’s service isn’t available everywhere, but is up and running in 29 metropolitan areas that cover a fair sprawl of the country, including Boston, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia.

We’ve been testing MovieBeam, and we generally like it. But it has some drawbacks — most notably its limited selection, which is nowhere near as large as a video store or Netflix, and omits many movies that are newly available on DVD.

MovieBeam, which was developed by Walt Disney Co., and is now an independent firm partly owned by Disney, is only one of a number of new digital services aiming to compete with the likes of Blockbuster and Netflix.

Most of these competitors, including older services like MovieLink and CinemaNow, and newer ones like Vongo, are based on the Internet. They offer downloadable movies for a per-film fee, or via a subscription.

But these sites require a high-speed Internet connection and, even then, you may have to wait while a film slowly downloads. Also, the movies they sell wind up on a computer, and aren’t sent directly to a TV set, where most people prefer to watch movies.

Others, such as Comcast’s On Demand service, do arrive directly at a TV set, and are instantaneous. But they can be costly, and also suffer from a limited selection.

This $200 (after a $50 rebate) MovieBeam product consists of three main pieces: the thin, flat box that resembles a DVD player, an antenna and a remote. The box comes with cables so that you can attach it to your TV, your phone jack and the antenna. A one-time $30 activation fee is applied when you first use it, and each individual movie can be rented or selected for either $1.99 for older titles, or $3.99 for newer ones. Certain titles that are available in high definition cost a dollar extra. A credit card that you designate when buying the device is charged appropriately.

The MovieBeam’s antenna is the key to this device. It receives movies through a “datacasting” service that is run invisibly from Public Broadcasting Service stations. One hundred movies are always on your box; about 10 leave and 10 arrive each week, constantly changing your library. On average, each movie stays on your system for 10 weeks, so you’ll have plenty of time to watch it, if you choose.

After a consumer buys the device online or in a store, it is loaded and shipped with 100 movies already on it, just as ours was sent to us. You can’t choose which 100 movies you get. They are preselected by MovieBeam. This is a major downside, which the company aims to fix later this year by introducing an option that will allow users to fill at least some of the 100 slots with films of their own choosing from an Internet-based catalog. But these will be older films, not hot new ones.

We set up MovieBeam in just a few minutes, positioning the antenna near a window for the best reception before walking through the on-screen setup steps. The main box must attach to a phone line because once every two weeks, it automatically calls MovieBeam to update its records of the movies you’ve watched; your credit card is charged once monthly.

We liked MovieBeam’s interface, and its chunky little remote was simple to use with just a few buttons — though we found it annoying that it lacked any volume controls. We easily searched through movies using a main menu that displayed the DVD case of each movie. For faster searching, movies can be sorted by genre, actor, director, arrival time and title. A special section labeled “Leaving Soon” lists the 10 titles that will be deleted next, including dates when they’ll leave the system.

When we selected a movie to get more details about it, a screen appeared including the title, date until which the movie was guaranteed to be on our box, names of the actors and director, rating, release year, duration, genre and summary. A small window in the right corner of this screen even played the movie’s trailer, which could also be watched in full-screen view. If a movie is available in high definition, a tiny “HD” is marked next to its title.

To rent a movie, we simply selected an on-screen button labeled “Rent Now” and listed the movie’s price. We watched “Cinderella Man” and “Wedding Crashers” — each cost $3.99, and all rentals are viewable for the next 24 hours. The quality of each film was very good, like that of a DVD.

The selection of movies is far smaller than Blockbuster or Netflix offers. But it was fair, including older favorites like Jim Carrey’s 1994 hit, “The Mask” and “Erin Brockovich” from the year 2000, as well as newly released titles like “Hustle and Flow” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Child-friendly movies like “Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus” were also available, and parental controls are offered, including weekly spending limits and other restrictions.

But some movies just were not on MovieBeam, even though they were already out on DVD. Under Hollywood’s release policies, MovieBeam can’t get most films until 30 to 45 days after they appear on DVD. Because of Disney’s role in the company, movies released by Disney do appear on MovieBeam as soon as they come out on DVD. Thus, “The Chronicles of Narnia” will be on MovieBeam, as well as DVD, on April 4.

Other prominent films, like the Oscar-winning “Walk the Line,” which is already out on DVD, won’t show up on MovieBeam for another month or so. Others, like Best Picture winner “Crash,” have passed the point, under Hollywood rules, when they can be shown on services like MovieBeam, even though they remain available on DVD.

Still other films, like “Junebug,” aren’t on MovieBeam because they were released by Sony, the one major studio that hasn’t agreed to distribute its films through MovieBeam.

Another downside of MovieBeam: It lacks the extra features, like deleted scenes, interviews and commentary, found on most DVDs. There are some of these extras on MovieBeam, but only for a scattering of the films, and only in limited amounts.

In some ways, we liked having a variety of movie genres on our box — some of which we might not have chosen otherwise. But we wished we could fill the hard disk with films of our own choosing.

Still, MovieBeam is a smart solution for users who don’t like the hassles of renting DVDs, and don’t want to fool with their computers for downloading movies.

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