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HDTV Home Theater Summer Blockbusters

Now playing: HDTV movies in your home, with a little help from Apple TV, Blu-ray, Netflix Player by Roku, Vudu, and Xbox Live Marketplace.

Let's face it: movie theaters aren't what they used to be. Between the overpriced tickets and snacks, the chatty grandmas and obnoxious teenagers, the endless trailers and commercials, and the likelihood that the minimum-wage projector monkey in the booth won't even bother to focus the film, it's no wonder movie buffs increasingly prefer to stay home.

Fortunately, giving up the local multiplex doesn't mean giving up movies. If you've got an HDTV and a decent sound system -- well, they don't call it a home theater for nothing.

Thanks to a growing number of on-demand devices and services, you barely have to get off the couch to order up last summer's blockbusters, the latest home-video releases, and beloved classics.

The only caveat, at least for now, is the limited selection of HD titles. But that will change over time, and if you believe the Hollywood rumor mill, it might not be long before you can dial up new theatrical releases the same day they appear in theaters.

Let's take a look at a few systems for bringing the cinema into your home.

Apple TV




Apple TV makes renting movies a snap, though the selection of HD content is limited for the moment.
(click for image gallery)

Don't let the name fool you: Apple TV does more than just television. Indeed, the stylish white box can play music from your PC, stream YouTube videos from the Web, and rent movies from the iTunes Store -- no computer required. Better still, the store carries both standard-definition and HD titles, though you have to pay a bit extra for the latter.

Apple's "library titles" (i.e., older movies) cost $2.99 apiece, while new releases run $3.99. Tack on an extra $1 if you want high-def versions of either -- assuming that's an option. The entire library contains only about 1,000 movies, and, of those, only about 100 are available in HD. On the plus side, all movies feature Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

Once you commence downloading a movie, you can start watching it within a few minutes -- though you can also wait up to 30 days. Once you press play, you have to finish watching within 24 hours before the movie "goes back to the store" (i.e., your rental period ends). As for quality, standard-def movies look, well, standard-def (don't be surprised to see artifacts and other image aberrations). And HD titles, while nowhere near the quality of, say, Blu-ray, look at least as good as up-converted DVDs.

Apple TV's babysitter-friendly interface and more-than-just-a-movie-box versatility make it an excellent choice for home-theater buffs. But we'd hold off buying until Apple expands its library of HD titles.

Blu-ray

Far and away the best option for watching movies at home, Blu-ray delivers theater-quality video and audio. Indeed, pair a Blu-ray player with an HDTV and surround-sound speaker system and you'll say goodbye to the multiplex for good. However, there are a couple big caveats to consider, not the least of which is that Blu-ray requires physical media: You'll have to head to the local video store or wait for the likes of Netflix to deliver movies to your mailbox. So much for on-demand.

Check Blu-ray movie release dates here.

You'll also have to pay a pretty penny for a Blu-ray player: They cost around $400 on average and aren't expected to get much lower than $300 for the holidays. Your best bet: a Sony PlayStation 3. The popular game console includes a full-featured Blu-ray player, costs the same as a standalone player, and serves up killer games to boot.

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