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June 23, 2008
14 Min Read
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.
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.
Like Napster before it, BitTorrent began life as a legally iffy file-sharing service and evolved into a legitimate media distribution service. Specifically, the Torrent Entertainment Network serves up nearly 4,000 movies (many of them "mature" titles, so parents beware) you can rent and/or purchase. But they're for PC viewing only. You can't copy them to a portable player (yet -- BitTorrent's help page says the capability is coming soon).
The service offers a good mix of current releases and classics, everything from Michael Clayton to Dial M for Murder. As with Amazon Unbox, purchases range from $9.99 to $14.99, while rentals (which obey the 30/24 Rule) cost $2.99 to $3.99. You'll need the BitTorrent client to actually download the movies and Windows Media Player 10 or later to watch them (sorry, Mac users). The client isn't exactly user-friendly, and it may require some fiddling with your firewall settings.
Although BitTorrent, the company, has gone legit, programs that run BitTorrent's peer-to-peer file-sharing technology, also known as BitTorrent, remain viable for those seeking to procure DRM-free (and just plain free) movies from their fellow users. Doing so isn't legal, and we're not going to explain the mechanics of it, but we just didn't want you to confuse BitTorrent with, um, BitTorrent.
One of the old-timers of the movie-download biz, CinemaNow is home to 11,000 movies -- new releases and older titles alike -- you can rent and/or buy. There's also a subscription option that affords unlimited downloads, plus support for portable players. However, like a Hollywood blockbuster with gaping plot holes, CinemaNow may leave moviegoers unsatisfied.
For starters, while most rentals cost $3.99, the purchase price for most new-release movies is $19.95 -- five bucks more than you'll pay just about anywhere else. The service does have some cheaper deals in its Video Vaults ($1.99-and-up rentals, $3.99-and-up purchases), but they're mostly Z-grade titles.
Speaking of Z-grade, a CinemaNow subscription ($29.95 monthly or $99.95 annually) entitles you to unlimited downloads, but mainstream, major-studio movies aren't part of the deal. At least your subscription also includes access to CinemaNow's sister site, AllAdultChannel.com -- if you count that as a benefit.
As for portable player support, CinemaNow works only with the Samsung P2 and various Archos models. A few of the latter have built-in CinemaNow stores that let you buy and download movies directly -- no PC required. But with portable players, you don't get the option of renting.
Thus, CinemaNow is worth a look for notebook/PC movie rentals (standard 30/24 rules apply), but for everything else, you're better off with another service.
If you own an iPhone, iPod, or Mac, it goes without saying that you'll look to iTunes for your movie downloads: it's the only viable option. Fortunately, it's a good one (for Windows users as well), with a small but solid selection of mainstream movies you can rent or purchase.
Older movies (which Apple dubs "library titles") each cost $2.99 to rent and $9.99 to buy, while new releases fetch $3.99 and $14.99, respectively. Alas, some movies can only be rented (the 30/24 Rule applies), while others can only be purchased. Unfortunately, the iTunes Store doesn't let you browse based on viewing option; there's no easy way to know if a given movie is available for rent or purchase unless you click through to its summary page.
That glitch aside, iTunes offers user reviews, trailers, and a generally pleasant shopping experience. It also simplifies stocking your iPod or iPhone with movies -- just tick the ones you want to copy the next time you sync -- though obviously it won't do likewise with other players. You can watch on your PC or notebook, but because movies are encoded at a relatively low resolution (usually 640 by X), they tend to look soft when viewed full-screen.
Like CinemaNow, Movielink is a movie-download veteran. However, while the Blockbuster-owned service offers easier navigation, a better (though not larger) library, and lower purchase prices, it shares several of CinemaNow's shortcomings.
Rentals cost between $1.99 and $3.99 (the 30/24 Rule applies), while purchases top out at $19.99. However, most of the latter -- which include recent releases like Fool's Gold and Jumper -- sell for a more reasonable $14.99. Curiously, Movielink seems to discontinue movies at regular intervals. For instance, The Simpsons Movie was recently marked "Last chance to rent!" Currently Movielink carries more than 4,000 movies for purchase, but just 1,800 or so for rental.
According to Movielink's help page, movies can be copied to "portable media center" devices when you see the PMC-format option on a movie listing page. However, we couldn't find that option for any movie, and Movielink offers no way to search or browse compatible titles. In other words, portable-device support appears to be a forgotten and, for the moment, non-existent option. That's a shame, because Movielink is a polished, appealing service that's nicely suited to notebook-toting travelers.
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 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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