Renting Movies Online: In-home movie streamers

Going to the movies isn't as cheap as it used to be. Fortunately, a new wave of set top boxes can bring the cineplex straight to your living room. From Roku's Netflix Player to Vudu's 1080p-capable BX100, we tested today's most popular movie streamers to find out which on-demand box can save you the most time and money.

Price: $99.99
Movie price: from $8.99/mo. for unlimited streaming + unlimited DVD rentals (1 DVD at a time)
Our take: Netflix subscribers who can no longer wait for their DVDs to arrive in the mail have a new alternative. Roku's Netflix Player is a paperback-sized box that hooks up to your TV and lets you stream movies from Netflix's Watch Instantly catalog. Setup is hassle-free and the player's on-screen menu is intuitive enough that even our parents could use it. The player also comes with built-in Wi-Fi (802.11g).

From a design perspective, the Roku Netflix Player isn't the most attractive box we reviewed, but it's small enough that it won't take up much space in your entertainment center. The box sports all the connections you need to get started including Ethernet, component, composite, and HDMI. After connecting the player to your TV, the installation wizard guides you through the rest of the setup process. Here, you can choose between a wired or wireless connection. (Your network password is entered using your Roku remote and a virtual onscreen keyboard.) Next, you're given a password which you must enter manually into your Netflix account. This requires signing in via your computer. Once a connection is established between the Roku player and your online Netflix account, you're ready to begin streaming movies. (You'll need to subscribe to one of Netflix's "unlimited streaming plans" if you haven't already. Plans start at $8.99/mo.)

Before streaming your first movie, you must log on to your Netflix account via your computer and add movies to your "Instant" queue. This can be burdensome if your computer is stashed away in another room, but it's a required step in the movie-streaming process. Fortunately, you can add multiple titles to your "Instant" queue so it's always filled with titles. We also liked that seconds after you add a Watch Instantly movie to your "Instant" queue, the movie's cover art appears on your TV screen. Clicking on it with the Roku remote begins the streaming process. Over Wi-Fi, a standard 2-hour movie takes roughly 30 seconds to begin buffering. Video quality is good, but don't expect to be wowed by anything you see. Playback controls are located on the Roku remote, which is small and stubby, but easy to use thanks to its simple layout. Unfortunately, movies don't include any bonus content, so alternate endings, deleted scenes, and director commentary are out. Furthermore, skipping through chapters during a movie is an awkward process. Rather than choose numbered scenes like you would on a DVD, the Roku player relies on a series of thumbnail screenshots to rewind and forward your way through films. The process isn't very intuitive and it makes finding specific scenes a hassle.

However, our main gripe with the Roku player is not so much with Roku, but with Netflix. Roku has done a good job with the box and its price, but Netflix's "Watch Instantly" catalog lacks sufficient content. At the time of this writing, the catalog holds an impressive TV roster, but blockbusters such as Iron Man and Dark Knight were not available for streaming. Instead, "New Arrivals" included The Fugitive, Ernest Scared Stupid, and Jackass 2.5. Recently, Roku released a firmware upgrade that adds support for streaming HD content. After three attempts, our Roku player recognized the download and updated itself. At the time of this writing, Netflix offers 171 streamable HD movies. Unfortunately, the list doesn't contain many blockbusters. Pan's Labyrinth, Dumb & Dumber, and Ace Ventura were a few of the more popular titles. TV fans, however, can find seasons of Heroes, The Office, and 30 Rock available for streaming. Quality-wise, we weren't impressed by the HD movies. They looked slightly better than standard definition movies, but were far from matching Hulu's quality. We watched Pan's Labyrinth and Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends in HD and noticed some picture improvements, but overall weren't impressed. There were still noticeable amounts of pixelation and noise in our movies. (Update: Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends is no longer available in HD.) Nevertheless, at $8.99/month for unlimited streaming, the Roku Netflix player is by far the cheapest way to bring movies into your home.

Of note, if you own an Xbox 360 or select Blu-ray players (like the LG BD300 and Samsung BD-P2550), you can bypass the $99 Roku box and stream movies directly from your device.

Verdict: Though we lament its movie selection, Netflix's tiny player is the most economical way to bring home movies to your living room.

Apple TV
Price: $229
Movie price: Rentals from $2.99; HD Rentals from $3.99; Movie Purchases from $9.99; TV Purchases from $0.99.
Our take: Whereas Roku's Netflix Player works in tandem with your computer, Apple TV is an all-in-one device that functions on its own. It ditches the all-you-can-eat pricing plan for an a la carte menu with the option to buy select content and watch it on the go via your iPhone or iPod. The device also lets you stream music and photos from your Mac or PC, a welcome option that neither Roku nor Vudu offer.

Setting up our Apple TV was just as easy as installing our Roku unit. In fact, both boxes contain the same video ports. However, unlike the Roku box, which supports 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, Apple TV only supports the latter, which means it only works with newer, widescreen TVs. Fortunately, Apple loads its set top box with better technology, including a 40GB hard drive (a 160GB version is also available for $329) and the speedier 802.11n wireless standard. The Apple TV unit is also far more attractive, with a slimmer and glossier design.

During setup, you can choose between a wired or wireless connection and you can also opt to sync your Apple TV with media found on other networked computers. (Media can be shuttled back and forth between your computer and Apple TV as long as the media's format is supported by iTunes.) Alternatively, customers can skip the syncing process and access Apple's video library directly from their Apple TV via the iTunes Store. The device's on-screen menu is simple and elegant, resembling that of an iPod. The left hand of the screen is typically reserved for contextual graphics, which includes cover art for DVDs and music, logo art for podcasts, and poster shots for TV shows.

Apple's pricing starts at $2.99 for rentals and can reach prices of up to $14.99 for new movie purchases. Iron Man, for instance, costs $3.99 to rent and $14.99 to own. (By comparison, Vudu charges $3.99 and $19.99 respectively.) Rentals must be viewed within 30 days (or 24 hours after you first hit play) and non-rentals are yours to keep, but they're protected with DRM (Digital Rights Management, or copy protection) so you cannot burn them to DVD or play them on devices other than your computer, Apple TV, or iPod. Nevertheless, we applaud Apple for allowing its content to be shuttled onto other devices giving you more value for your dollar.

In another effort to stretch your dollar, the iTunes Store offers a bargain bin with films priced at $4.99 or $9.99. This selection includes films like The Waterboy, Bad Boys, Ice Age, and others. However, as a dealnews reader, does a $9.99 movie sound "Bargain Bin" to you?

Performance-wise, Apple claims its videos are near DVD quality. Although its files are compressed down to about 1.5GB (from their 4GB to 8GB size on an actual DVD), the quality loss isn't high and most videos looked sharp on our 42" LCD TV. We noticed some blocky backgrounds, but for the most part, video was on par with or slightly superior to Roku's Netflix player. We also commend Apple for its HD selection, which includes both movies and TV shows such as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Office, and 30 Rock. In addition to paid content, Apple TV also delivers free content to your living room. There's a dedicated YouTube channel and, as we stated before, you can stream any media from your networked computer.

Overall, Apple TV offers a more elegant interface than its competitors. It's more affordable than Vudu (next page), it lets you take your content on the road, and unlike the Roku player, it features a hard drive and HD support. However, its tiered pricing keeps it from being the stand out set top box it could be.

Verdict: With its elegant interface and minimalist design, Apple TV is by far the most polished of the three set top boxes. It also offers the most features, with 802.11n support and the ability to stream content from your computer. However, despite having better content, it has the highest up-front cost, and its content is expensive unless you've already got a lot of content to stream to it.

Price: $299.99 $99.99 (limited time)
Movie price: Rentals from $0.99; Purchases from $4.99
Our take: Though it's the most expensive player of the bunch, Vudu's BX100 is nothing short of amazing. In terms of both style and operation, it's several cuts above the competition and offers the best video quality you can find from an on-demand box.

Weighing in at 4.2 pounds, the BX100 is the biggest and heaviest player we reviewed. Yet despite its noticeable heft, this is one set top box you won't want to hide. It features a glossy black exterior with curves that allow it to blend in with any home theater component. Under its hood you'll find a slightly loud 250GB hard drive whereas Ethernet, component, composite, HDMI, and two USB ports round out the rear (one of the USB ports can be used for expansion.) Generally speaking, we had no setup troubles with any of the three players, but Vudu takes the setup process several steps further by making installation foolproof. Just connect the box to your TV (an HDMI cable is included), plug the Ethernet cable into your router, and connect the Vudu box to a power outlet. After a 2-minute bootup, you're greeted with the Vudu home page. It's that simple. Unfortunately, the BX100 does not include wireless support, so you'll need to hard wire the device to your router. Otherwise, Vudu offers the Vudu Wireless Kit ($99, Best Buy), which comes with two pre-configured wireless adapters.

The Vudu remote is our favorite remote of the bunch, with a mouse-like scroll wheel that lets you quickly navigate through the device's on-screen menu. The remote is oddly shaped, but fits comfortably inside the palm of your hand. You can even adjust the remote's sensitivity via the BX100's control settings.

The Vudu homepage consists of five tabs which include Most Watched, New on Vudu, Explore Catalog, My Vudu, and Info & Settings. Below the tabs you'll find a row of cover art for about 20 movies. Once you select a movie, you're taken to a new page which offers a synopsis and rating of the movie along with a brief preview and a column of actor and director info. Clicking on any of the actors' names takes you to a list of movies they've starred in. The Vudu interface is like a streamlined version of the Internet Movie Database, which is what makes it so much fun to use.

After you select to purchase or rent a movie, playback begins instantaneously. Standard def movies looked crisp, with little to no pixelation. HD movies (1080p) were noticeably sharper, yet loaded just as fast. Vudu's claim to fame, however, is its HDX movie lineup. HDX movies are displayed in 1080p at 24 frames per second, which preserves the native 24-frame-per-second rate of film. This means you'll get the absolute sharpest image available. However, if your TV doesn't support that frame rate (and many new TVs don't), you won't be able to watch HDX movies and will have to choose the 1080i output instead.

Each HDX rental takes about 5 hours to download. Fortunately, you can begin the download process online by signing into your Vudu account and selecting the movie you want to watch at a later time. So if you're at work, you can begin the download process in the morning and have a new HDX movie waiting for you by the time you get home. While not ideal, the HDX movies are worth the wait, and Vudu offers over 11,000 HDX titles including The Dark Knight, Iron Man, The Strangers, Hancock, and Sex and the City. Detail in HDX films is incredibly sharp to the point where it almost reaches Blu-ray quality. Specks of dirt, beads of sweat, and facial imperfections pop out just like you would expect them to on a Blu-ray disc. If your TV supports 1080p/24, the BX100 is the best way to flex its inner muscle. Prurient viewers can also appreciate Vudu's adult AVN channel, which includes titles in 1080p. (Of note, parental controls are available if you want to block certain movies.)

Price-wise, Vudu relies on an a la carte pay scale. After inputting your credit card information, you're charged $50. Each time you buy or rent a movie, that movie's price is deducted from your $50 credit. Once you reach $5, another $50 is automatically charged. Like Apple TV, the BX100 comes with restrictions. Rentals, for instance, are only good for 30 days (or 24 hours after you initiate play). There's also no way of transferring purchased movies from the BX100 to a portable video player, like the iPod.

Bargain hunters will be glad to know that Vudu offers a bargain bin option with 99 titles each priced at $0.99. They're not the newest titles, but the selection includes HDX movies and rivaled Netflix's Watch Instantly catalog.

Currently, Vudu is offering the BX100 for $99, $200 off, when you purchase it directly through Vudu. At that price, the BX100 sounds like the best bargain of the bunch. But even at $99, there's no way around the cost of the content. In addition, the company is still fairly new. Others, such as Moviebeam, have tried this market and failed. The last thing you want is a $99 paper weight. Fortunately, Vudu has upgraded the player's firmware and added free on-demand channels along with support for YouTube and Flickr. The on-demand channels feature lifestyle, travel, cooking, and tech segments, with the average clip ranging just below 10 minutes.

Verdict: Despite being the new kid on the block, the Vudu BX100 is a couch potato's dream set top box, delivering more movies and TV shows than you know what to do with. HD quality is top of the line and the service's HDX format kicks things up further, reaching near Blu-ray quality. However, the BX100 makes it dangerously easy to spend too much money on movies, and with its pay-as-you-go pricing scheme, things could get expensive, which prevents us from recommending the Vudu box to anyone who's looking to save money. As a result, despite its spectacular video quality and superb features, the BX100 remains the movie box of choice for well-minted movie fans who can afford it.

dealnews Pick
At $99, the Roku Netflix Player is the most affordable on-demand box on the market. Coupled with Netflix's $8.99/mo. unlimited plan, it's also the cheapest way to enjoy movies at home. Although we aren't fond of Netflix's current movie (or TV) catalog and its HD quality, the library is constantly growing as Netflix continues to enter new markets. In addition, Roku plans on adding channels to its player with talks of YouTube and Hulu support. This, along with new competition from its competitors, can help increase the value of the player while potentially driving its cost down in the near future. As a result, our pick for the budget-conscious moviegoer is the Roku Netflix Player.

Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.

DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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