Nothing makes a trip go faster than a few good flicks. While DVDs have long been the gold standard for movie-watching on the move, they're not always the best option. For starters, they're one more thing to pack. They can get lost or scratched. They suck up notebook battery power like nobody's business. And they're useless if you're traveling with only a cell phone or portable media player.
Now might be a good time to try one of the growing number of movie-download services that let you rent or buy movies online for PC or portable viewing. They're not perfect yet: most of them impose annoying DRM restrictions and others offer limited support for mobile devices.
But they're undeniably convenient, letting you download movies anywhere there's an Internet connection, like a hotel room or airport. (Thankfully, you don't need a live connection to watch your downloads.) And movies spun from a hard drive consume less juice than their DVD counterparts.
Unfortunately, the only cell phone that can get in on the movie-download action -- for now, anyway -- is Apple's iPhone, by way of iTunes. While many phones can play 3GPP-formatted videos, none of the services offer movies in that format yet. Check your phone's user manual to determine whether yours has this capability.
Amazon Unbox offers a mammoth library of movies for sale or rent, and it's compatible with a good selection of portable players.
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In the meantime, you can use a utility like Xilisoft DVD to 3GP Converter or Nidesoft DVD to 3GP Converter, which rip DVDs and turn them into phone-friendly files. Just copy the 3GPP-converted file to a compatible memory card, pop it in your phone's card slot, and enjoy.
For this roundup we're looking exclusively at movie stores that offer downloads. Although services like Hulu and Netflix Watch Now let you stream movies, they require high-speed Internet access and unlimited battery life -- two items not usually available when you're in a plane, train, or automobile.
Amazon Unbox is like iTunes for the rest of us. The service offers an expansive library of DRM-protected movies (TV shows, too) for rent or purchase, and lets you view them on your PC and various non-iPod portable players. In fact, it smokes iTunes in the selection department, with nearly 6,000 titles available for rent and over 7,000 available for purchase.
Most of the rentals cost $3.99, though Unbox does showcase plenty of decent titles (Batman Begins, Super Size Me) for $2.99 or less. As with other rental services, you must begin watching your movie within 30 days of downloading it, and finish within 24 hours of starting it (hereafter known as the 30/24 Rule). Purchase prices range from $9.99 for older titles to $14.99 for newer ones, though you'll also find movies selling as low as $5.99.
Whether you rent or buy, movie downloads require Amazon's Windows-only Unbox Video Player. It's used to not only view your movies, but also to transfer them to portable players (Unbox supports PlaysForSure-compatible models from the likes of Archos, Creative, and SanDisk). The player is a bit confusing when it comes to transfers, if only because you can't just drag and drop; you have to click the View button before you get the Transfer-to-Device button. Furthermore, the integrated video store is a nice touch, but you can't browse the library by category or even run a search. For that, you have to head to the Unbox Web site.
Those gripes aside, Amazon Unbox is arguably the top destination for anyone seeking movies to go. Anyone not part of the iPod/iPhone/Mac ecosystem, that is.