Hardware Review: VUDU Video On Demand (Set Top Box)

vuduI’ve been intrigued by ‘Video On Demand’ or streaming media for some time.

When I ran across the VUDU box at a deep discount, I picked one up for review, and also got some hands on time with it’s two main competitors: the Roku box, and AppleTV.

Are streaming set top appliances the next big thing, or are they still a pipe dream?

Jump inside to get my take.

The first thing I noticed when I saw the VUDU on the shelf was a sign with bullet points. I like bullet points, it gives me the pertinent information quickly.

  • 1000’s of FREE titles
  • No subscription fees
  • HDMI interface
  • HD movies on YOUR schedule

Okay… full disclosure: the sign looked like it was made by a store employee, and was probably not an official piece of VUDU marketing, but I have to say, it’s misleading.

After getting the box home and connecting it to a TV, running through a software update, and getting the network settings working properly, I was initially impressed.

Setup was easy, didn’t take as long as I thought it would, and it detected my internet connection as being more than fast enough to handle the highest quality video the device could offer.

So far, so good.

It’s when I activated my account that things got a little fishy. The VUDU service requires a credit card. I know that’s not an issue for a lot of people, but nowhere in any of the material did I see this pointed out. It’s a good thing I had one handy.

Not ONLY does it require a credit card, but it also requires you keep a balance on your account at all times. The minimum amount they’ll let you put on your account at a time is $20. They also warn you that it will automatically charge your card for another $20 when your balance reaches zero dollars unless you turn off the automatic renewal ‘feature’. I’ve been playing with the service for a few weeks now, and I still can’t find it in the options.

With activation out of the way, and the annoyance at having to spend more money without even getting a test drive, I sat down to check out the 1000’s of free titles available to me.

I looked for a couple of hours before I found anything other than a handful of movie trailers.

To date, the only ‘free’ content I’ve found is in a ‘beta’ area that provides access to video podcasts. You know, the stuff we put out, the material you can get on the Zune Marketplace and iTunes. The stuff you can stream through a Playstation 3 or watch on a PC… also for FREE.

This would probably be a great feature for me (I watch a lot of video podcasts), however the selection of titles is incredibly limited. Other than a handful of G4TV ‘casts, and some material from Revision 3 (not all of it, CO-OP is surprisingly absent) there wasn’t much for me.

For the podcasts that were listed, performance and quality were excellent… no problems at all.

I then started spending my $20 blood money… err… account balance on movie downloads.

Each title has the ability to preview trailers, and a variety of options for rental, purchasing, and quality levels like SD, HD, and HDX (their proprietary High Quality HD compression). Prices range from $.99 to $6.99 for rentals (HD is more expensive) and $.99 to somewhere around $20 for purchase.

Overall, the service costs about the same as running down to your local video store for most titles, and you can find a few obscure titles Blockbuster or Hollywood Video don’t carry… and those ones tend to be cheaper. There’s also a few cases were it’s MORE expensive to rent a video through VUDU, and purchasing a title is almost always a kick in the wallet.

For all that, the HD video looks great. Almost as good as Blu-ray, and noticeably better than streaming Netflix through your XBox 360. At least they got that part right.

The experience has left me wondering exactly why I spent the money on the box.

If I want an ‘on demand’ movie experience, my satellite provider (and nearly every competitor) has an easy to use, high quality, CHEAPER alternative. My XBox 360 and Playstation 3 also have healthy options in the arena.

If you don’t have a gaming console or cable/satellite TV provider that gives you the option of on demand viewing, it’s not that much of a hassle to run down to the corner video store for a movie to rent, and with outrageous prices, if you’re going to BUY the video, just get it on disk.

If you’re really into the idea of having a library of films awaiting your digital download, but don’t want a gaming console, there are other options like the Roku player.

The Roku can stream video from various internet sources (like video podcasts, without limiting your selection) AND can tie into several on demand services like Amazon On Demand and an active Netflix account… and the box is substantially cheaper.

On the high end, you could always spring for an AppleTV which has a hard drive for storing your rentals and purchases (for when your internet connection is down) AND it has the full power of the iTunes store for music, movies, and podcasts.

For me, I can’t see the need for any of these devices with services like Vuze and Hulu offering great material for free, with no specialized hardware other than a PC  (if you have a Playstation 3, it works remarkably well). And don’t get me started on Boxee… there are alternatives for less money, or completely free (and almost always legal too).

At a time where I’m having to be more careful with my entertainment spending, I think the technology is almost to the point where I can completely ditch my satellite provider, and stop making trips to the video store… I’m just not convinced that the solution is going to come from a dedicated set top box.

There’s just too many ways to get my content for less with hardware I already own. Feel free to DODGE the VUDU player. You’re not missing anything.

LINKS:

VUDU Set Top Box for Movies On Demand
Roku Digital Video Player
Apple MA711LL/A TV with 40GB Hard Drive
Vuze
Hulu
Boxee

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