We take a front-row look at sites that offer movie downloads onto mobile devices: Amazon Unbox, BitTorrent, CinemaNow, iTunes, Movielink, Vongo, and ZML.
Forget rentals and purchases: Vongo lets you watch all the movies you want, as many times as you want, for a flat fee of $9.99 per month. Now for the bad news: The selection comes courtesy of cable network Starz, which has a blockbuster-to-dreck ratio of about 1:10. For every Spider-Man 3 and Ratatouille, you'll find about a dozen Cutthroat Islands and Home Alone 2: Lost in New Yorks.
On the plus side, Vongo refreshes its 1,000-title strong library weekly, adding roughly three dozen new titles (though not necessarily new releases) and removing the same number. To browse, download, and view movies, you must install the Vongo client application -- an attractive and easy-to-navigate tool. The software also includes a killer front-end for Windows Vista Media Center users.
You can download all the movies you want (immediately or at scheduled times -- handy if you prefer to conserve your bandwidth until after hours) and watch them an unlimited number of times; they don't "expire" unless they get pulled from the library as part of the weekly refresh.
Vongo delivers all-you-can-watch movie downloads, with some of the best portable-player support around. Too bad the selection's not better.
Vongo plays nicely with portable players from Archos, Creative, Samsung, and Toshiba. There's no extra charge to copy movies to these devices, though you have to make sure to select the "portable" version of any given movie when you queue it for download. A typical two-hour flick consumes about 800 MB, so a player with just 4-GB of storage could still carry about five movies.
It's worth noting that Vongo does offer a smattering of pay-per-view titles -- better fare like Enchanted and No Country For Old Men -- for $3.99 apiece. If you can live without that option, you're better off subscribing to Verizon Starz Play: It's the exact same service (minus PPV) for just $5.99 monthly.
Remember AllofMP3, the notorious Russian music-download site that sold DRM-free MP3s for pennies? Turns out it has a cinematic imitator: ZML. The site offers thousands of high-profile movies -- including many not available anywhere else -- at wallet-friendly prices. For example, a DVD-quality download of Star Wars: Episode IV costs just $4.99. An iPod-ready version of Raiders of the Lost Ark: $1.99. Oh, and DRM? Nowhere to be found. You can almost hear Hollywood lawyers cocking their shotguns.
Assuming you're willing to hand your credit-card number to a Russian Web site that lists no company information and provides only a generic contact form, there's a lot to like about ZML. Most movies are available in at least two of four available formats: DVD, Divx, iPod, and PDA. Resolutions vary accordingly, starting at 720-by-X for DVD and dipping to 320-by-X for iPod and PDA. All formats except iPod rely on either Divx or Xvid encoding, so you'll need a freely available codec pack and/or player to watch movies on your PC. ZML provides handy download links for both.
Unfortunately, you can't buy movies a-la-carte: You must add a minimum of $19.95 to your account, and do so using a Visa or MasterCard. It's not immediately clear where in the purchase process you're actually getting charged for the selected movie -- the first time you click Download? The second? -- but ZML shows your available credit at all times, so you'll know right away when the transaction is done. To ZML's credit, you're allowed to re-download movies once you've paid for them. And because there's no DRM, you can play them on as many PCs (or iPods) as you like.
None of this would be legal in the U.S., of course, and it remains to be seen whether ZML (and a crop of other services like it) can survive an inevitable legal onslaught. But here's a note to Hollywood studios: This is just the kind of movie-download service you should offer here at home. Great selection, fair prices, no restrictions -- what's not to like?
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