Katherine Boehret

Downloadable Movies in a Box: Where’s the Magic?

With help from the Web and a little extra cash, almost everything becomes more convenient. Groceries are delivered directly to homes using services like Peapod, rental cars are available in easier-to-reach locations using Zipcar and movie tickets are bought in advance through Fandango.

But how much is too much when it comes to shelling out a little more for convenience, and are you really getting what you pay for? This week, I tested what could be thought of as the ultimate convenience: a box that plugs into your television and Internet connection, letting you download movies whenever you want to watch them. The box costs $399 and doesn’t include the price of movies, which must be rented or purchased for fees as high as $4 or $20 each, respectively.

This box, called Vudu, comes from a Silicon Valley company of the same name (www.vudu.com). Vudu’s biggest strengths are its easy setup, good picture quality and simple user interface, easily navigated using a scroll-wheel remote control.

Vudu costs $399 plus prices to rent or own each movie title.

If the director yelled “Cut!” right here, Vudu would be a box-office smash. But actually using this device is just one problem after another. For starters, though Vudu says it has relationships with the major Hollywood studios, many of the 5,000 titles it offers don’t seem to be popular by mainstream standards. Lots of them are old or obscure. For instance, you won’t find any of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, but how about a 1984 sci-fi/fantasy movie called “The Ice Pirates,” instead?

If you do find a movie that you’d like to watch, you must have a bandwidth speed of at least two megabits per second to download it instantly; millions of broadband homes have slower connections than that. Vudu offers to measure your bandwidth on its home page before you buy it. I tested Vudu for a week on a typical home-type DSL line, and my connection only clocks about 1.5 Mbps, so it took me about 45 minutes to download each movie.

While Vudu’s $399 price tag might take some getting used to, its fees for buying or renting each movie could be harder to swallow after a month’s worth of use: as much as $80 if you bought one top-tier movie a week. Worse, you have to pay in advance. Rather than charging your credit card on a pay-as-you-go basis, Vudu customers must choose a $20, $50 or $100 amount at setup from which movie fees are deducted. When your account hits $0, the amount selected at setup is charged and the debit process begins again.

On top of all this, Vudu relies on a peer-to-peer network system for faster downloading. So, essentially, this company is using your bandwidth to help it save money it would have otherwise spent on its own servers and bandwidth.

I set up Vudu in a snap, plugging it into three things: a wall outlet, the back of a high-definition Sony Bravia television and an Ethernet cord. Wireless connections won’t work with Vudu without a special “bridge” or a power-line adapter. Once Vudu turned on, a friendly voice guided me through setting it up, and I got started in minutes.

Vudu’s home screen is broken down into five menus: Find Movies, New Releases, My Movies, My Wish List and Info & Settings. I used the tiny remote, which fits perfectly in a hand, and rolled through menus using its scroll wheel. This wheel can be pressed down to select something, saving me from glancing down at the buttons. Also, Vudu uses an RF (radio frequency) antenna so you don’t have to point the remote at it.

In Find Movies, I looked through 18 genres, including biography, romance, family and historical. A sorting feature can filter movies by release date, MPAA rating, critics’ rating, studio, availability to rent and availability to own. An on-screen alphabet can be used to type in names of actors, directors or movie titles; the scroll wheel speeds up this process.

Parental controls, which are only accessible with a special code, can be set to block a child from buying or renting movies with certain ratings.

Vudu likes to think of itself as the instant-gratification alternative to running to the video store. But not many people I know still go to Blockbuster for a DVD; instead, they use mail-delivery services like Netflix. Compared with the 85,000 titles offered by Netflix, the selection at Vudu is pretty slim. A more similar comparison might be Amazon’s Unbox for TiVo, which has slightly less than 5,000 movies.

Though I couldn’t find numerous titles, I did discover plenty of movies I’d never heard of. A search for last year’s “Casino Royale” returned Robert DeNiro’s “Casino” from 1995, as well as two Asian films, “Casino Tycoon” and “Casino Tycoon II.” Since I never saw Helen Mirren’s “The Queen,” I tried to find her Oscar-winning performance on Vudu. But the closest I came to royalty were “Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy,” an alternative name for the cheesy 1968 Jane Fonda sci-fi flick, and “Prom Queen,” which fell under the Gay and Lesbian category. I tried to laugh this off by watching Steve Carell’s “Evan Almighty.” But typing “E-V-A…” into a title search only returned “Deliver Us From Eva,” an R-rated 2003 comedy starring LL Cool J.

I searched and found the same three titles on Netflix, though Amazon Unbox only had “Evan Almighty.”

I downloaded two romantic comedies: “Music and Lyrics,” starring Hugh Grant, a $4 rental, and a Diane Keaton movie called “Because I Said So,” which I bought for $20. I also rented “Zodiac,” a suspense movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal, for $4. Movies that you own never expire, but rented flicks must be watched within 30 days and expire 24 hours after you start watching.

In the case of each movie, the original estimates for time to download were daunting; two started out by estimating “Available in a few hours” and one movie’s estimate read “Available in a few days.” But all three finished downloading in about 45 to 50 minutes. Only one movie can download at a time.

While watching movies, the remote’s scroll wheel can be used to fast forward or rewind scenes. Scrolling faster moves you farther ahead or back (the fastest jump moves you 30 minutes); the slowest scroll moves you ahead or back five seconds.

Vudu might cast a spell on users who don’t mind its poor selection and high-bandwidth requirement to deliver instant downloads. But for me, the convenience of Vudu is no convenience at all. As is, its lackluster selection, high prices and slow downloads make it more of a letdown than anything else.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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