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VUDU movie service on LG Blu-ray player

March 12th, 2010
VUDU brings streaming HD movie service onto new hardware

As the market for streaming video services continues to expand, the newcomer VUDU has evolved beyond its initial strategy based on a dedicated set-top box. As VUDU this year ceases to produce its own device, the same essential functionality is now available through many of the latest Internet-connected Blu-ray players, DVD players, or HDTVs.

Setting up the VUDU service on LG's BD390 Blu-ray player was simple and straightforward. After entering the password for a protected Wi-Fi network, the device was able to stay connected to the VUDU system. The screen was already aligned without further adjustments, although the VUDU menus include settings for overscan correction on TVs without 1:1 pixel mapping.

VUDU provides a range of content in various resolutions including SD, HD (720p) and HDX (1080p). The company recommends at least a 4.5Mbps Internet connection to effectively stream video in 1080p. The system did not run into buffering problems with a 5Mbps connection and 802.11n router, as long as the home network was free of other devices hogging the bandwidth. Movies always started within a few seconds, instead of requiring a long wait to pre-buffer the stream.

As expected, 1080p videos did run into a few buffering problems when the 5Mbps connection was being shared with a computer downloading files. If this is an unavoidable situation, VUDU allows users to quickly switch to a lower resolution without restarting the movie. After the system paused to buffer 1080p streams on a shared connection, moving down to 720p, which requires approximately 2.25Mbps, alleviated all of the problems.

Our initial expectations for streaming HD video on a 5Mbps connection were not the highest, especially after watching choppy YouTube videos in HD resolutions. The judgments were quickly proven wrong, however, as VUDU appeared to retain the full quality and smooth frame-rate of local 1080p and 720p content. From a casual viewer's standpoint, there was only a slight perceivable difference between 1080p video on VUDU and a Blu-ray disc.

Many owners of Blu-ray players presumably connect the device to a surround-sound system. For this group of users, VUDU may be a clear winner compared to other streaming services. Alternatives such as Netflix Watch Now provide audio only in stereo, while VUDU supports 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus. The surround-sound capabilities might be a deal maker for customers who do not want to downgrade the movie experience just because they are watching a streaming movie.

The VUDU interface is extremely easy to use, with several sections that allow users to check out the most popular content or new additions. While exploring the entire catalog, videos can be listed by genre or other details such as actors and directors. Users can also choose to search through HD-only listings or TV shows. The various options were necessary for finding obscure titles, but without cluttering the interface or making the search process more difficult.

To help pick a movie, or to learn more about a title, VUDU provides access to a wealth of additional material. Trailers make a good place to start, although users can also read in-depth critiques from RottenTomatoes. The service even links directly to Wikipedia content, which can be perused without leaving the interface.

VUDU utilizes a streaming user-interface on third-party hardware. Although this might not seem like too much of a big deal, it allows the company to regularly update the interface without the restrictions of firmware upgrades. Many devices support VUDU Labs, a collection of apps that allow users to access additional content such as YouTube, Picasa, on-demand TV shows, Pandora, news, and more. VUDU Labs is missing on the LG BD390, however, so we did not get a chance to try out the expanded functionality.

A wide range of content is currently available through VUDU, with more than 16,000 titles overall. Although certain movies are only available in SD, the company has already pushed its HDX list past 3,000 selections. According to the company, customers now have access to more HDX content on VUDU than they can find on Blu-ray. All new movies from major studios will be available in SD, HD and HDX resolutions.

Most selections can be rented, with prices ranging from a few dollars up to $6 depending on the quality and age. Certain movies, including many of the latest titles, are only available to purchase outright. This is not a limitation of VUDU, however, as studios dictate a 30-day period before the movies are available to rent. Most new movies are available to watch as soon as they are released on DVD.

VUDU also has a few drawbacks, including a 24-hour time limit to finish a rental after it has been started. Many users will find it frustrating to burn $6 on a rental if they get interrupted while watching a movie and can't pick it up again shortly thereafter. A modest fee to add a day, similar to a late fee at a brick-and-mortar location, would seem to be a reasonable compromise.

Aside from trailers, the service also provides short samples of each movie. Rather than selectively showing a segment that represents the movie, however, the sample just provides the first few minutes. Fast-forwarding is a bit trickier using VUDU compared to a Blu-ray disc, although this is a limitation shared with any streaming content.

Despite the short time-limit on finishing rentals, VUDU has proven itself a clear leader in the market for streaming services. Ditching the VUDU Box and pushing for integration with existing equipment appears to be a great move. Paying $200 just for the option to rent or buy VUDU titles, while trying to cram one more set-top box into the TV stand, might have turned away a large number of potential customers. Users can now rent one movie, or buy 200, without paying for anything more than the content itself.

-Videos play within seconds

-720p/1080p stream quality closest to Blu-ray

-5.1-channel digital audio

-Switch down to HD/SD without restarting video

-Over 3,000 1080p titles

-Attractive and intuitive interface

-Trailers, reviews, and Wikipedia integration

-24-hour time limit to finish rentals

-Samples only play first few minutes of video

-Certain titles must be purchased