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A Hands-on Review of VOD

Assessing Ps Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, Apple Tv, And Vudu

In our business, if you spend too much time maintaining the status quo, then you will suddenly wake up to find that you’ve fallen behind. That’s why I was so happy to get up to speed, recently, on the latest in video download and streaming services from PlayStation Store, Xbox LIVE Marketplace, Apple TV, and VUDU (aka Video on Demand, or VOD.)

Of the four services that I evaluated, the PlayStation 3 is the most difficult to integrate because of its Bluetooth control interface. The Xbox 360 is something of an improvement in this regard, because it will accept IR commands. Both of these boxes, however, are saddled with the user interface of a gaming system. They’re great for playing and connecting

Even though VUDU is the easiest VOD box to integrate, its HDX format is no match for Blu-ray. with friends online, but media playback gets lost in the shuffle. What’s more, Xbox LIVE Marketplace currently only rents HD movies, which makes building a library something of a challenge. The PlayStation Store, on the other hand, offers HD movies for purchase.

Fortunately, Apple TV and especially VUDU are much more integrator-friendly. Apple TV is still typically controlled via IR commands, but its user interface is totally geared toward cataloging and playing media (including automatically syncing with iTunes). The iTunes Store pages are simple to navigate, and content is easy to find. You shouldn’t have trouble building an interface into your touchpanel layout.

Things really get interesting with VUDU, though. Not only does it have a new rack-mountable hardware box with a larger 1 TB hard drive, but it also includes a SIMPL Windows module for Crestron and Net Remote documentation for integration into a Netlinx program (via Ethernet in both cases). This box was specifically designed for storing and playing movie libraries in screening room installations, which is an encouraging sign that VOD providers are starting to recognize the custom market as an important part of their business.

VUDU’s HDX format produced the best overall picture quality of my four VOD contestants, but it is no match for Blu-ray. Nonetheless, I am happy with the picture quality of HD downloads from all four providers. In these low-bit-rate applications, quality is all about video compression, and each of the services deserves credit for achieving great picture quality under extreme data constraints. Yes, VUDU HDX may

look a little better, but a two-hour movie took me about five hours to download, which is at least twice as long as the other services.

For my 6 Mbps downstream connection, Apple seems to have hit on a great balance between quality and download time for content from the iTunes Store, but the PlayStation Store and Xbox LIVE Marketplace are no slouches. You will run into some quality issues for streaming video, as I experienced with Apple TV while running the hacked Boxee application and streaming content from Hulu. But neither Boxee nor Hulu is “officially” supported by Apple TV.

The results here are a little more disappointing. All of the above support lossy compressed 5.1 audio, but the ratio of 5.1 to 2.0 is discouragingly small compared with the number of HD titles. If your application is a bedroom TV, then I wouldn’t make big deal about this. However, we’re talking about playing this content in screening rooms with big 7.1 sound systems, and a 2.0 setup isn’t going to cut it.

My time with these VOD services was so enjoyable that I’m going to plead with each company to let me keep their product. The PS3 is a killer Bluray player that’s also useful for an occasional download. The Xbox 360 is my preferred platform for online gaming, but it’s nice to be able to watch video with it, too. Apple TV’s look and feel is just plain cool, especially with the Boxee hack providing a seemingly unlimited supply of content. VUDU reigns supreme in the picture quality and integration departments. Of course, these are only four of myriad VOD systems available to you. Truthfully, I don’t care what service you use, as long as you do something. Learn what you need to know about VOD and make it part of your new status quo.

Chase Walton and Tommy Brandt contributed to this column.

Anthony Grimani (agrimani@ is president of Performance Media Industries, a California-based acoustical engineering firm specializing in home theater design and calibration.