VUDU XL Review
On-Demand Internet Movie Player, $499
Bandwidth. Any discussion of VUDU XL - or any other on-demand service where you download movies over the Internet - needs to begin with the topic of bandwidth.
If your Internet provider cannot furnish you a pipe big enough through which to quickly pump massive amounts of data, then waiting for that new high definition action film to download will be like watching a five gallon bucket of paint flow through a straw - and then dry.
Simply, to enjoy the full benefits of VUDU, you should have a bushel of bandwidth or a passel of patience. More about specific bandwidth recommendations later.
For now, let's talk about VUDU, which is a video on-demand service that connects through a VUDU set top box directly to your HDTV. Basically you buy the box, (VUDU offers three models) and then you either buy or rent the programming, which is downloaded to the hard drive in the box.
Currently, VUDU has over 13,000 movies and TV shows available. You can rent standard definition movies from 99¢ to $3.99, high definition and HDX movies from $3.99 to $5.99. Normally, you need to watch rented movies within 30 days of ordering them. And when you first begin watching, you have 24 hours to finish.
If you wish to purchase the movie, prices run from $4.99 to $23.99. You can only purchase TV episodes (no rentals at this time). The cost per episode is $1.99. There is no monthly subscription or contract.
The lowest cost box, (available at retail outlets for $149), is simply called VUDU. It contains a 250GB hard drive, which will store about 50 standard definition films.
The VUDU XL box includes a 1TB hard drive, which can hold over 1000 hours of SD content or over 500 of HD or over 200 hours of HDX, (a high definition VUDU format with Blu-ray like quality).
VUDU also makes the VUDU XL2 box, which is designed for rack-based home theater installations but still contains the same 1TB hard drive. The XL and XL2 are only available through VUDU authorized installers.
We have a VUDU XL in for review. The only major difference between the VUDU and its larger capacity XL brothers is the ability of the XL and XL2 to be integrated with IR and IP-based control systems, which are common in home theater setups. Other than that, this review can be applied to all three.
Out of the Box
The VUDU XL sports a glossy black top with matte black sides and cool rounded edges.
In the package are all the accessories necessary to set up the system, including an HDMI cable, an Ethernet cable, one Composite Video with Analog Stereo Audio cable, and an RF antenna that receives signals from the remote control.
If you don't have your Internet router close to where you want to locate the VUDU box, you can buy a VUDU wireless kit with two 802.11g wireless adapters for $79.
On the back of the VUDU XL box are one HDMI output, one Component Video Out, one Composite Video Out, an S-Video, one stereo analog Audio Out, one digital (coax) Audio Out, one digital (optical) Audio Out, a USB port, an Ethernet port and an I/O port.
Also back there is the connector for the RF antenna that works with the remote control.
The cute impish remote with its scroll wheel looks and acts more like a mouse. The VUDU designers ingeniously created an enormous amount of functionality from five buttons and that scroll wheel that can be pressed to select on-screen options.
Occasionally I found myself scrolling too much to reach my destination in the menus. But for the most part, navigation was fast and streamlined.
You might think that a little box like this can't really dent an electricity bill, but remember that a one TB hard drive is spinning inside. Also - and this is the big bugaboo with DVR-like devices like this - it doesn't really have a low power standby mode like Energy Star HDTVs.
We hooked it up to our watt meter, called Watts up? Pro, and took a reading during the playback of a movie. The reading fluctuated in the 17.5 to 18.5W range, which is reasonable.
The problem is that when we put the VUDU XL into standby mode, the the meter doesn't drop below 17W. The only way to reduce energy consumption is to unplug the box. If you don't, the VUDU XL is drawing at least 17W of current 24/7.
If we take the low end of 17W for our calculation, then the Estimated Annual Energy Use is 148 kWh/year. (Please note that this is not an official number.)
You need to check your electric bill to see how much you are paying for a kWh. The national average is 10.4 cents. Doing the multiplication, at that rate, the yearly energy cost is $15.49. It might not seem like much, but it's about a third of the amount of the 55" VIZIO LCD I just reviewed.
Hooking the VUDU XL was plum easy - made even breezier since VUDU supplies all the cables you need. You attach the RF antenna, plug in the Ethernet cable from your router, plug the HDMI cable to the HDTV and power it up.
You have to activate your account online and deposit $50, which will be drawn upon as you rent or buy movies. Once setup, the home page interface looks like this.
VUDU suggests movies or you can search by actor, director or title. If you find a movie or TV show of interest, you can select it and see a page like this.
Depending on the movie, you can decide to buy or rent it. Once you make your choice, the movie begins to download to the hard drive and you are provided with an estimate of download time.
I need to move the next part of this discussion into the Performance section.
VUDU provides some movies (not all) in three different resolutions, standard definition, HD and HDX. All movies are displayed in 1080p resolution at 24 frames per second. VUDU claims that their HDX is as good as Blu-ray quality. I won't say yes or no, but I will say that it's definitely in the ballpark. Perhaps as important, HDX is visibly better than HD. As for SD, fuggeddaboudit, it's not even close.
If all things were equal, I would definitely always choose HDX. Then again, all things are never equal. To begin, HDX rentals usually cost more. For example, the HDX or HD rental of Hellboy II is $5.99. The SD version goes for $3.99. Often HDX purchases are $4 more than SD. Again, the quality difference is significant and for many, worth the extra couple of dollars.
Though, perhaps a bigger burden is the extra time required to download the much larger HDX files. (In the Archive section of the VUDU XL menu, it indicates that the 1TB drive can hold about 200 hours of HDX content or over 500 hours of HD or over a 1000 hours of SD.)
For example, I downloaded Pineapple Express in HD in less than two hours. (Remember, HD is the middle resolution available.)
As a comparison, it took about eight hours to download the HDX version of What Just Happened, which is a one hour and forty three minute film. (VUDU had estimated that it should take about four and a half hours.)
And we return to bandwidth. VUDU has a little utility program that will measure your network's upload and download capacity. My AT&T DSL service peaks out at about 2Mbps, which is a rate good enough for instant SD playback. VUDU recommends twice that, 4Mbps, if you desire instant, unstuttered HD, not HDX, playback.
Of course, if anybody else on your home network is demanding bandwidth, download performance can tank pretty quickly. I found on my network that the VUDU box can be a bandwidth hog, basically slowing even Internet surfing down to a crawl. And I just gave up trying to download a software update on a separate computer when VUDU was capturing a movie.
In the Settings menu, you can limit the amount of bandwidth VUDU can access, but I would suggest that you plan to download your movies at night when VUDU can run free.
Let me be clear that when a movie is downloaded to the hard drive, playback is smooth and flawless and does not require any bandwidth. And you can pause, fast forward and reverse without a hitch. But if you are trying to watch a movie as it is downloading, you really don't want to be stressing the network.
Also, to reiterate, the picture quality of HDX is excellent. And I hooked up a digital optical audio cable from the VUDU XL box to a Pioneer VXS-82TXS A/V receiver and the sound output was great.
Video on-demand solutions seem to be popping up everywhere, from cable and satellite providers to Internet sites to companies like VUDU with their proprietary boxes. And let's not forget the original video on-demand outlets, your local video stores, which have morphed into conglomerates like Blockbuster and the online Netflix.
Since this website is called HDTV Solutions, at the top of my list when judging all these on-demand alternatives is picture quality. And high definition programming is the starting point.
The next consideration is selection. Not every movie in VUDU's 14000 item catalog is for rent in HD. But in a recent press release, Edward Lichty, VUDU's EVP of Strategy, said that VUDU was building, "the world's largest HD library of more than 1,300 titles." Though fewer HDX movies are available to buy.
Newly released movies from major studios are available from VUDU on the same day as the DVD is released.
If you are a foreign film fan or are a genre junkie, I suggest that you go to VUDU's website and see if they carry a good selection of films in your favorite category.
VUDU has begun to explore other content possibilities, which are highlighted in their VUDU Labs section. Like many others, VUDU is establishing relationships with Internet content providers like YouTube Flickr and Picasa. You can find links to these sites in the Labs menu as well as games like Kuiper, Freecell, Klondike and Concentration that you can play with your VUDU remote.
For those of you with more "mature" predilections, VUDU now offers an AVN (Adult Video Network) library of over 600 films with titles like Sex and Violins and Kayden Exposed. (Many of the titles are too explicit for the faint of heart.)
You must go online to activate access to this library and VUDU has implemented a password protection scheme to keep this content away from younger inquisitive eyes. Also, most of the movies are only available in SD and rental prices are $6.99.
Which brings our value discussion to a fundamental item, cost. With VUDU, first you need the box. Even though VUDU recently cut the cost in half for the basic 250GB VUDU to $149 and reduced the VUDU XL to $499, it's still a hurdle for many. Hopefully you already have the fairly robust Internet service that you'll need for quick downloads.
Of course, if you haven't purchased a Blu-ray player yet, you could save that expense (at least $200) by watching HDX films on VUDU.
VUDU's average price of $23.99 to buy a newly released movie in HDX is about what you might pay for the Blu-ray DVD at Walmart. But $5.99 for HDX rentals seem a little steep. Even $3.99 seems high in comparison to a monthly Netflix fee of $16.99 for their three-at-a-time Blu-ray movies delivered by mail.
So, finally we come to convenience. It takes at least three days to exchange discs by mail with Netflix. Depending on your bandwidth capacity, you can access SD movies instantly with VUDU. More importantly, you can receive HD and HDX films in a few hours instead of a few days.
Picture quality, selection, cost and convenience, only you can decide how all these elements factor into your value equation.
With the superior picture quality of its Blu-ray like HDX format, VUDU has become a major contender in the crowded video on-demand field.