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Nice Gear. More Flicks, Please


TECH & YOU PODCAST

About the last thing I want to do is connect another box to my big-screen home video system. Still, I just might have to make room for Vudu, a new service that delivers movies direct from the Internet to a TV. I have just one condition: If Vudu wants to hook me, it must persuade its studio partners to make far more movies available.

The $399 Vudu box—small, black, and inconspicuous—could hardly be simpler to connect. You just string one cable from the box to your TV and another to your home network. Because movie files are large, a wired Ethernet connection works best, but you can also link to a wireless network with an adapter such as the Linksys (CSCO) Wireless-G Ethernet Bridge ($90). Unlike Apple TV, which Vudu somewhat resembles, no computer is required. The chips in Vudu figure out how to download movies as soon as the network link is established.

Vudu has several attractive features. One is the quality of the video. It's the first download service I've seen that actually delivers images as good as a top-drawer DVD player. Vudu can show high-definition movies, too, but so far the studios have not made any available.

VUDU IS AT LEAST AS SIMPLE to operate as it is to set up. The remote control has four buttons, one of which is reserved for future use, and a scroll wheel that does most of the work. The remote uses radio waves rather than infrared light to communicate with the player. This means you don't have to point the remote to use it. The drawback is that it cannot control your TV's power or volume, nor can you program a universal remote to control the Vudu player.

To watch a show, you find the movie you want from the on-screen listing, either by browsing through various categories or searching by title, actor, or director. Click on the icon, and the movie starts. Vudu stores the first couple of minutes of the most popular films on a 250-gigabyte hard disk, a strategy that allows them to begin playing immediately. Other films start after a brief delay. The hidden technology here is file-sharing: Your machine is grabbing and assembling pieces of the film from Vudu users who already downloaded it. Other Vudu customers will be getting data from you, too, which means they are constantly sopping up some of the bandwidth on your network. But the result is much faster downloads.

What's not to like? Alas, there's the little matter of content. Vudu has deals with all the major Hollywood studios and claims 5,000 titles. Apple (AAPL) TV has only 500 movies and recently lost NBC Universal TV shows. But the Vudu catalog still represents at best 8% of all titles available on DVD from Netflix (NFLX).

Even that math is misleading, since most of the titles are films you probably wouldn't see at the local multiplex. The list is heavy with obscure independent films and forgotten B movies from Hollywood's past. Those are wonderful, but they're no substitute for recent releases and a core library. A total of two Martin Scorsese films won't do.

Pricing and terms of use are controlled by the studios—just like availability—and are also a mess. Some films can only be bought, for $5 to $20, some can only be rented, for $1 to $4, and some are available either to rent or buy. Rentals make more sense, but the terms are too restrictive: Once you start a movie, the rental dies after 24 hours, and you may have to pay again to finish watching it.

Although Vudu has worked hard to satisfy the antipiracy demands of studios, it's not getting much of a break. It's as though Hollywood wants to do the minimum it can while waiting for this whole download thing to go away. That's not likely to happen. For the sake of its own business, it's time for Hollywood to end this extremely tentative approach and make a wholehearted commitment to the digital future.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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