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Blockbuster upgrades its downloadable movies

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Blockbuster to Netflix: "I'll see your Roku box, and raise you $99."

Today, Blockbuster rolled out a set-top box that lets people watch movies downloaded from the company's website the way they'd watch any other Blockbuster rental -- on a television screen. The MediaPoint box, made by 2Wire of San Jose, sells for $99, but it comes with credits good for 25 free downloadable movie rentals. Those downloads are worth $3.99 each, so the price effectively is zero. Schweet! Oh and yes, the box supports high-definition video, although it's hard to find HD titles in the Blockbuster OnDemand service (formerly known as Movielink, back when it was owned by a group of Hollywood studios).

It's a compelling offer on paper, and it helps Blockbuster overcome the biggest hurdle to mainstream acceptance of its download service -- to wit, how hard it has been for most customers to watch a downloaded film on their TV set.* Consumers, however, can choose from a growing number of devices capable of bringing content from the Web to the TV. And although the competitors may not beat Blockbuster's price, some offer a stronger set of features. At least for now....

2Wire, MediaPoint player, Blockbuster, Roku, Netflix, Apple TV, PC-TV gap, Internet TV ... I haven't played with the Blockbuster box, so I don't know how well (or poorly) it works. But the company's approach has one advantage over sites that stream movies: It uses a technique called progressive downloading to cache scenes from the movie on the set-top box before playing them. The technique means you can't play a movie instantly -- the slower the Internet connection, the longer the delay -- but  it typically produces better picture quality than a stream. 2Wire says the images are "DVD quality" regardless of the customer's connection speed; Roku, by contrast, delivers "VHS quality" pictures to those with less bandwidth. Customers can also download movies in advance onto the MediaPoint's 8 GB of flash or, soon, to a storage device connected to the box via USB. Blockbuster rentals can be kept for up to 30 days before viewing, but the files' DRM software disables the movies 24 hours after you hit the Play button for the first time.

Unlike the Roku and other Netflix-enabled boxes, the 2Wire device isn't attached to a subscription service. You pay by the movie, not by the month, as you would with Netflix of Blockbuster's Total Access. If you already have a Blockbuster Total Access account, you'll still have to pay the same price to rent the downloadable titles as anyone else would. (Blockbuster doesn't have the rights from Hollywood to offer a subscription-based version of the download service; those are hard to come by, as Netflix has found.)

A bigger drawback to the MediaPoint set-top, though, is that it connects to only one source of content online. Jonathan Symonds, vice president of marketing and product development for 2Wire, said the MediaPoint software is designed to support a variety of online audio and video services, whether the content is downloaded or streamed (in H.264, not the popular Adobe Flash format). The software also can act as a bridge between home PCs and the TV. But "Blockbuster from a business perspective wanted to come out of the gate with a very clean message," which meant starting with a single-purpose box, Symonds said. The company has already developed a more full-featured set-top for AT&T's Homezone service, and may do more for its other telephone-company clients. In the meantime, though, the new MediaPoint has to compete with Apple TV, the XBox 360 and the new Neuros LINK (more on that one shortly), among other multi-purpose set-tops. On the other hand, none of them are free.

*Movielink relies on Microsoft's DRM, which conventional DVD players can't decrypt. So instead of just burning a downloaded film onto a disc, customers who wanted to watch them on a living-room TV would have to hook their set to a laptop computer or stream the film from a PC to the TV through an XBox 360 (provided their PC had Microsoft's MediaCenter software).

2Wire MediaPoint image courtesy of 2Wire.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

 
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