New Blockbuster and Netflix devices
When Blockbuster bought Movielink from five Hollywood studios last year, the downloadable movie service was missing one very important piece. The anti-piracy software the studios insisted on made it hard for Movielink customers to watch downloaded films on their TV sets. A few weeks ago, however, the company started selling an inexpensive set-top box that transports movies from the Net to your TV screen. I played with one over the weekend, and it was a surprisingly good experience. It more than held its own against two alternative ways to move video from the Net to the big screen: the SlingCatcher from Sling Media, and a Samsung Blu-ray player with a built-in Netflix player.
The Blockbuster MediaPoint set-top is made by 2Wire, which manufactures broadband networking gear. The deal is well-nigh irresistible: for $99, you get the box and credits that can be redeemed for 25 downloadable movies. Those credits are worth up to $100 (new releases rent for $4, older titles for $2 to $3), so the box is essentially free. It can connect to a home network wirelessly (802.11b or g) or through Ethernet; I chose the latter for the sake of comparing it to the SlingCatcher and the Samsung player, neither of which have built-in wireless connectivity. In particular, I used a pair of Netgear's XAV101 HomePlug devices, which turned my home's power lines into an extension of my broadband network. The XAV101s performed brilliantly -- they instantly established a rock-solid connection that enabled the MediaPoint player in the living room to connect to the router in the kitchen two rooms away.
Setting up the box was fast and simple. After I connected it to my network by plugging it into the nearby XAV101, the box prompted me to create an account at Blockbuster.com and authorize my player. Within a minute or two I was ready to pick a movie to watch. Another nice surprise was the ease of MediaPoint's user interface, which translated the Blockbuster site into a series of simple menus and icons that could be navigated through with the player's remote. Selecting the "Browse" menu called up a list of genres; clicking on a genre filled the screen with a dozen or so images of the available titles (displayed with the artwork from their DVD covers), which I scrolled through until I found a movie to watch.
We sampled three movies -- Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Space Chimps and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The maximum resolution on the box was 1080i, but none of the movies was available in HD (good luck finding any HD titles in Blockbuster's OnDemand service). Instead, the picture quality ranged from aging VHS tape (in the case of Star Trek) to DVD (the other two). The animated "Space Chimps" looked great, which wasn't surprising -- cartoons do better at lower bit rates than live action does. "Indy" suffered from pixellation in fast-moving scenes, but was quite watchable overall. Because the movies were downloading onto the box, not streaming from Blockbuster's servers, they weren't ready to watch immediately. But both "Space Chimps" and "Indy" were ready to begin viewing within just a couple of minutes. "Star Trek" wasn't ready for about 15 minutes, a delay that might have been caused by other traffic on my network. Oddly, the sound on "Indy" fell behind the video gradually during playback, but I could re-synchronize them by pausing and then resuming playback. My guess is, I wouldn't have run into that problem had I waited for more of the movie to download before I began watching. The service enables you to download movies in advance and store them for up to 30 days. Once you start watching a title, however, you can keep it for only 24 hours more.
There are three main shortcomings in the Blockbuster service, from what I could tell. The first is limited selection -- downloadable titles become available later and are withdrawn sooner than Blockbuster's DVD rentals -- and the need to pay for each rental download. Second, the 24-hour viewing window is quite a bit more restrictive than the one-week rental period for most DVDs. And finally, the on-demand films aren't included in Blockbuster's monthly service, alas.
Netflix, on the other hand, charges no extra fee for watching titles on demand. The trade-off is, it offers significantly fewer titles than Blockbuster, and they tend to be older. In my test of the Samsung BD-P2500, the picture quality of Netflix's streamed videos was as good as Blockbuster's downloads (for the record, my DSL connection can usually be counted on to deliver 3 to 6 Mbps), and the films began playing within a minute after I chose them. I tried one supposedly high-definition feature, "The King of Kong," but the visuals were closer to DVD quality than a high-definition TV broadcast. (The Netflix website says you'll need 5 Mbps or more to view HD streams, so it's possible that the server bumped me down to a lower resolution.) A bigger issue was that I couldn't browse through Netflix's "Watch Now" catalog on the Samsung player. Instead, the player displayed only the titles I had already put into my streaming queue via the PC. That's not much of an inconvenience, frankly.
I also spent some time recently with the SlingCatcher, but it was quickly apparent that this box doesn't provide a convenient way to transmit movies from the Net to the TV. Here's how the process worked: I connected the SlingCatcher to my TV and home network, then loaded Sling's SlingProjector software onto my PC. At the PC, I picked a video to watch from Hulu.com -- just about any online streaming site would have worked, as well as files on my PC's hard drive -- and started the playback. The SlingProjector software took what was shown in Hulu's on-screen player and transmitted it to the SlingCatcher. It's a far more flexible set-up than the Blockbuster and Netflix players, which are tied to one online source of video each. The problem was that I couldn't select or start a video while sitting at my TV; instead, I had to get things up and running on the PC, then move over to the television set. That might work for a two-hour movie; it's not so swell for watching three-minute clips or doing the Net equivalent of channel surfing. The application also required a lot of PC horsepower, especially to display high-definition videos. (Sling warns that the box has trouble with some high-def streams that rely on specialized formats, such as ABC.com's.) My underpowered four-year-old PC was overtaxed by the SlingProjector's demands, which led to many technical problems, much fiddling with settings and an overall disappointing experience. SlingCatcher may be a great device for doing other things, such as tapping into a Slingbox feed or playing media stored on USB drives. But it's not well suited to the task of bringing the likes of Hulu, First on Mars or even Sling.com to the television set.
Samsung BD-P2500 and SlingCatcher photos courtesy of the companies' websites.
-- Jon Healey