VUDU Evaluation and Review

Rating: 5 WaterTowers (nearly perfect)

Before you read, you can watch my future Oscar winning documentary on “Using VUDU”. You will not be bored, but, in case you are interested to see what movie I used as an educational demo you can fast forward to minute 2:05 or so.

 

 

Goodbye, Blockbuster and Netflix. It’s been nice knowing you, DVD. Watch your back, Blu-Ray. There is a new kid in town, and that new kid is about to change the world. That new kid is VUDU.

“Dad, do we have to give the VUDU back?, I love it”. This is from my 16 year old daughter, Kristen. I love it as well which shows you that VUDU spans the generations from Kristen’s “Me” to my “Baby Boomer”.

As soon as this poor, retired, starving blogger gathers enough money to buy a VUDU, I will.

TelBitConsulting says: VUDU is the future. Downloading movies via the Internet will change the DVD and Blu-Ray industry as much as downloading music is changing delivery of music by CD. VUDU is extremely easy to use, feature rich, and the video and audio quality is superb.

Quick Look at Some Features

Spending almost two weeks with VUDU we have a great appreciation of several of VUDU’s features.

The search capability is very powerful allowing you to find a movie in one of several different ways. You can search by actor or director, by title, by genre, or you can use the icons at the main menu to search for “HD Titles”, “War Movies”, “Best Picture”, etc. See the picture below where I am ready to search for “Best Picture Winners from 1927 -2007”. Wickedly cool. As I finish up this Blog entry there are 5075 movies in the VUDU database.

Embedded in the search capability are interesting facts on the actors or directors and a quick synopsis of the movie with a rating. See the picture below. You can select an actor or the director and VUDU shows you what movies VUDU has in its database with that actor or director. For example, I can click on Nicolas Cage and see that VUDU has “National Treasure” and several other of his movies. By the way, “Next” is way better than 2 stars. Nicolas Cage rocks.

The remote is extremely easy to use. Of course I needed directions from Kristen, but, once I got the hang of moving the dial and also pressing the dial to select the chosen option, you can use the dial and 4 buttons to do anything you need. Since the remote is RF (radio frequency) you do not need to point it at the unit. You would not believe how hard that is to get used to.

Almost every movie has a “Preview”. We enjoyed watching many previews and found a few movies we would like to rent by watching the preview.

After finding a movie you can place that movie in your “Wish List”. Once there, you can easily find it again and select it to watch. See picture below.

The ease of starting a movie. No need to drive to a store, no need to get off the couch find a DVD from your own collection open the DVD player, etc. Simply find the movie and play it. See the Oscar winning documentary at the start of this Blog for a demo.

The video and audio quality are outstanding. In fact, the quality of a standard definition movie surpasses the quality we get with our progressive upload DVD player. The high definition movies are simply tremendous (see picture below). We watched several movies, both high definition and standard, and never once saw an Internet based glitch or slow down (I have DSL).

VUDU has mastered the art of video-on-demand with their “peer-to-peer” technology.

Need for Improvement

Although VUDU is nearly a perfect product, there is still some room for improvement…..but not much.

I would like to see a built in 802.11G wireless network capability. I would much rather pay for that capability built in at the factory than to purchase an external device for that purpose. To be clear, VUDU allows an external connection to a wireless Ethernet device. But, for this evaluation, I simply made a Cat 5 cable long enuf to connect my hub in the study to the VUDU in the Family Room.

I see VUDU is recommending a “power line” networking device from Linksys. Ah!! Another evaluation for my Blog! But seriously, this is a very cool way to move data around the house. Story: Many years ago, YeOldeTechy designed such a device for his modem (remember modems?), it worked really well, but every time the refrigerator fired up I got a ton of packet losses. Great design, huh?

Concerns

Fundamentally, the VUDU needs to be on all the time since it is part of the peer-to-peer delivery network. However, these days (and into the future) energy costs are increasing at a very rapid rate. Having yet one more electronic device on 24×7 is concerning. VUDU may be a power hog or it may be a power miser, I do not know. All I can request is that future units be designed with power consumption in mind. On the other hand, you do not need to get in your car to visit the rental store, so maybe the green equation tips in favor of VUDU. I suspect it may.

I had a concern about backup. When you purchase a movie now, you have a hard copy of it. I asked that question of VUDU and they will have (starting this week with version 1.3) an archiving capability where you can backup your purchased content to a “VUDU vault” (an email from VUDU tells me this in in Beta as of 3/4/08). If you happen to lose the hard drive, you can then download your vault contents for no cost. Very cool.

This is not VUDU’s fault, but, I like to watch the “special features” that come with a disc. In an email response to my question, VUDU replied with the following: “So far, the studios have not made special features available for digital distribution. It is VUDU’s hope that they will be able to deliver them in the future.”

Cost Comparisons

As far as I can tell, VUDU is not a clear cost saving alternative. All things considered, depending on what you have, or need to purchase, it is pretty much a wash. Let’s look at my particular situation.

My goal is to watch high definition movies. I already have a progressive upload DVD player and a high definition TV. To watch high definition, I would need to replace my “old” DVD player with a Blu-Ray player then rent, or purchase, Blu-Ray movies.

The Blu-Ray player costs about $400 at Best Buy (but I can also spend up to $1000). I could then rent Blu-Ray movies at Blockbuster for $4.99 plus tax or I could purchase Blu-Ray high definition movies at Best Buy for around $29.99.

The VUDU player costs $295.00 with free shipping but I would need to spend the money saved on a permanent Ethernet connection (either wired or wireless) near my TV. The VUDU high definition movies rent for about $5.99 or I can purchase a high definition movie for $24.99. VUDU rentals start about 30 days after they are available for purchase.

The typical rental cost of a VUDU movie is between $2.99 and $3.99 for a standard definition movie (with some really old Westerns going for 50 cents or for free). At Blockbuster we can rent a standard definition movie for $3.99 plus tax.

Depending on the rented movie, you have 24 to 48 hours to watch it. We did a test with “The Waitress” and started to watch it for the second time 5 minutes before it’s expiration. Sure enough, when that 5 minutes expired the movie stopped playing and we saw this on the screen: “The viewing period for this movie has expired”. Darn, those VUDU designers are way too smart.

VUDU sets up an account for a certain value (from your credit card) of your choice. As you watch the movies the rental fee comes out of your account. When the account reaches $5.00, VUDU automatically ups the account to the specified $$.

Future Directions

According to VUDU there will be the ability to connect an external hard drive, via it’s currently unused USB port, to expand the local VUDU capacity (it now has a 250 gig hard drive). VUDU will automatically format that drive. With 1 Terabyte drives now on the market, your movie storage capability will be greatly enhanced with this future capability.

In fact, in the Winter of 2008, VUDU XL will arrive with it’s own internal 1 Terabyte drive. The thought of 2 Terabytes (one internal and one external) just for videos, to me, is mind boggling! I received an email and the VUDU XL with 1TB disk is available now…March 4, 2008 ! Great news.

Summary

I cannot say enough good things about VUDU. This is simply the most outstanding new product I have evaluated since ooVoo. It is good to know that innovation is alive and well and living on Tasman Drive in San Jose. I wish VUDU the best of luck, and who knows, a Tasman neighbor may be interested in you!

I already miss my VUDU…boo hoo.

+++++

Technical Evaluation

 

The following section is included for the more adventurous, or self hating, individual who likes to get into the nitty-gritty (Dirt Band?) technical stuff. J


Set Up

Refer to the picture of the VUDU back for much of the following discussion.

 

 

Real Time: Hmmm, the first thing I need is Ethernet to my TV. Since my house is fairly old, I do not have wiring there and I cannot purchase a wireless Ethernet adapter to connect to my wireless router (poor and starving blogger, remember). Sooooo, I will need to find a long piece of cat 5 cable and drag a line through the house. Arrghhh.

Result: I went to Radio Shack and purchased a 100 foot long roll of Cat 5 wire. I had everything else I needed to make a long cable connecting my Ethernet switch in the Study to the VUDU in the family room. Once I did that, I cracked the VUDU box and started the install process.

In the box is almost everything you need to connect the VUDU to the network and to your TV. It has an Ethernet cable which was too short for my evaluation, an HDMI cable, RCA cables and a small RF antenna. It has a sleekly designed remote control and batteries. The hardest part of the installation (other than making the cable and running the line) was installing the batteries in the remote. The cover is darn hard to get off and back on. The RF antenna screws on the back of the VUDU unit, very simple, and then I needed to connect the “coax” output for audio to our Bose sound system.

Before I get too far ahead, I had to do some pre-installation thinking about how to connect the VUDU into my existing home theater (if you can call my kludged mishmash of components a “theater”). After making some drawings, the solution was obvious. All I needed to do was replace my DVD player with the VUDU. After all, that is the point of the VUDU, right? All my videos for the evaluation period were now on the VUDU or in cyberspace. See my drawings below.

 

 

 

The picture at the start of this section shows the back of the VUDU. It has component video, S-Video , analog and digital “coax” audio outputs. It has an HDMI connector , an Ethernet 10/100 Mbps port, a USB port (not used in this version, but, will be used in the near future), an I/O port, a switch for 480i and 480p if you are not using the HDMI connection, and power. You can see the RF antenna on the left and the remote sitting on top. The remote is an RF unit and it took a bit time to get out of the habit of pointing the remote at the unit.

The VUDU found an IP address automatically when it was turned on. Unfortunately, it grabbed my printers IP address and I could not get the printer to work after that. Luckily, the VUDU device has a way to manually enter an IP address (and gateway and DNS). I did that and experienced zero network issues ofter that.

Speed Test

I connected my laptop to the end of my new, homemade, super fast Oscar winning, Cat 5 Ethernet cable (where the VUDU would connect) and did a DSL speed evaluation for VUDU from their web site . It is good to do this before purchasing a VUDU to ensure you have a sufficient high speed connection. They recommend at least 2 Mbps downstream, which means you need DSL, Cable modem, or better. Dial up will not work.

Video Quality

Outstanding. It uses MPEG-4 and has resolutions of 1080p/24 (24 frames per second), 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i. I talked about these resolutions in a previous blog entry on HDTV here. The high definition movies are received using Dolby 5.1 surround sound.

The family agrees that the standard definition video is better than DVD’s played back using our Sony DVD player with progressive upload. The picture is significantly clearer. I see no movement effects and have not yet had any problems watching a movie all the way thru without interruption. In other words, the downloading of the movie outpaced watching it.

VUDU offers a free HD version of “The Bourne Identity” but I suspect that the movie is already on the hard drive (I now know it is). As you can see from the picture the quality is terrific.

 

How VUDU Delivers the Video

According to VUDU, they have developed a “hybrid peer-to-peer” delivery network where every VUDU box on the Internet can hold portions of videos available for playback. As you play a movie, you are actually getting the movie from other VUDU boxes. Extremely cool. This concept is essentially the same as I reported in this Blog awhile back for Meraki Internet access. I can only imagine the complexity of the VUDU software. But, even with that, the performance in the two weeks I had the VUDU was absolutely flawless.

VUDU tells me that less than 10% of your disk space is used to hold video’s being watched by others and that VUDU is careful not to overdrive your network if you are using the network for another purpose (like watching a movie or intense computing).

The picture below shows what VUDU thinks of my Internet connection. I did have to wait for the high definition movie to download. Not a problem at all, I just continued with my day while the movie was getting ready.

 

Limitations and Requests

I would like to be able to see the hard disk space remaining and some usage stats (BW being used, packet loss, etc) while being used. In the videoconferencing world we can see this kind of information and it is very helpful when questions arise if there are problems.

The RF antenna may be a bit high if you have a location that is tighter. You can turn it sideways if you have to. I did that and it worked fine.

I also set the sensitivity to the remote to “Low” and a lot of the false hits I was getting using the remote went away.

Email Questions and Response from VUDU

Answers to your questions are below. Have a good weekend.

1. Is there a way to see how much VUDU disk space has been used?

The current box has room for unlimited rentals and approximately 50 owned movies. The next software release (1.3, due next week) will allow for deletion of previously purchased titles to free space on the drive and, where permitted, archiving of owned titles (currently available for select movies and all TV shows). Archiving transfers owned titles from the box’s hard drive to the “VUDU Vault” where they are stored and may be downloaded again for no additional cost. Further, VUDU is planning to upgrade the box’s software to support off-the-shelf external hard drives and will eventually format the drive and make it an extension of the VUDU box.


2. Do you “pre-position” the content closer to the customer? Or is the video sent from a central location? If central, are your servers in San Jose? How many simultaneous customers can you handle?

Vudu utilizes a hybrid peer to peer system so that every VUDU box—yours, mine, your neighbor’s, etc., contains some pieces of movies that are streamed to other boxes when users want to watch those movies. From VUDU’s side, this means that when they know a big blockbuster movie is coming online, they can pre-position content around the network so there isn’t buffering or too much pull on one specific copy. From the VUDU owner’s point of view, it means you can get access to movies whenever you want – less than 10% of your drive holds these pieces of movies that are streamed to other boxes, so it doesn’t adversely affect your watching behavior. And VUDU is careful not to use your box if you have a heavy network load – e.g. you are watching a movie yourself or doing some super computing in your study.


3. Will the USB port be used for an external hard drive? Will it be plug and play? Will any hard drive manufacturer work?

The VUDU box was designed to be flexible, able to adapt to the changes and improvements we plan to make to the product and service in the future. VUDU intends to introduce software to support off-the-shelf external hard drives for additional storage and will eventually format the drive to make it an extension of the VUDU box.


4. Will you include, do you include, backup software?

Back-up software is not included. VUDU has the ability to reset the box to its factory settings if needed. Software updates are performed automatically through the service.


5. If someone loses their content, do you have a record of that, and the ability to refresh a lost disc?

VUDU has a record of all rentals and purchases made on every box. VUDU’s one-year warranty dictates that should the hard drive fail and content is lost, VUDU will replace that content or offer credits should some titles no longer be available.

6. Do you have 24×7 support via telephone? Via email? Via web pages?

VUDU’s Customer Care is available at 1-888-554-VUDU (8838). Hours are Mon-Fri 9 to 7 and Sat-Sun 11-7. They may also be contacted via email at support@vudu.com.


7. Why are some movies “buy only”? Will they be able to be rented in the future?

Whether a title is available for rental and/or purchase is determined by the studios. Generally, new releases are available to own the same day that they’re available on DVD. They become available for rental roughly thirty days later.


8. Do you have the ability to view statistics? Packet loss? BW used? Other stats?…..while the machine is operating?

Users can test their bandwidth and gauge VUDU’s usage of their bandwidth within the Service Quality Screen in Info & Settings. They cannot view statistics or packet loss.

9. Will you include “special features” in the future? For example, with a DVD we like to watch the special features….bloopers, how they made the movie, etc.

So far, the studios have not made special features available for digital distribution. It is VUDU’s hope that they will be able to deliver them in the future.

10. Are the movie “previews” loaded on the disk or are they downloaded via the Internet in real time as you watch them, like the movies?

Previews are pre-loaded onto the hard drive so they are instantly available. Similarly, the first 20 seconds of every available title is cached to enable instant playback.

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About Mike Pihlman

I am the Director of ForCarol.com a 501c3 non-profit that awards college scholarships to Tracy, CA scholars in honor of my daughter's best friend, and our part-time daughter, Carol Phan who we lost on Sept 18, 2010. I am a: Book Review (TracyReaderDad.com), Technology (TechyMike.com), and Movie Review (ForCarol.com) blogger.

Posted on March 3, 2008, in Internet Movies, Product Reviews, Streaming Video and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

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