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Vudu Lives (Outside the Box)

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. But if that’s true, why do we eat stuff we know isn’t good for us, fall for people who treat us badly and text while we drive?

Source: lg.com

And for heaven’s sake, why is the movie industry so determined not to make money? Hollywood executives seem determined not to sell what the world really wants: any movie, any time.

DVDs are “any movie,” but not “any time.” Movies from the Internet are “any time,” but not “any movie,” thanks to the industry’s self-defeating system of rights and availability windows. (You know: a movie plods first to hotel rooms, then pay-per-view, then airplanes, then DVD.)

Netflix offers a solution in two halves: recent movies by mail, old movies from the Internet.

But if you want recent movies on demand (legally), the best bet has been Vudu, a set-top box that connects to the Internet. You can watch any of its 16,000 movies and TV episodes instantly on your TV.

Vudu gets movies the same day they arrive on DVD. The quality is much better than on Netflix, pay-per-view or any other Internet service; you can get high definition — the high-end 1080p kind — and even surround sound. And there’s no monthly fee; you pay only when you watch a movie ($1 to $7, depending on the age and the quality level you choose). For busy people, that’s far more economical in the long run.

But there was one small problem with the Vudu box: nobody’d ever heard of it, nobody bought it and the future looked bleak.

Last month, Vudu revealed its new business plan, which boils down to this: It’s a feature, not a box.

Vudu no longer manufactures stand-alone boxes. Instead, the same service (actually, an improved one) comes built into TVs and Blu-ray players from other companies: LG and Mitsubishi right now; Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Toshiba and Vizio this summer. (Those later companies will also offer Vudu apps: a suite of 100 free Internet services like Pandora, Picasa, Flickr, The New York Times and The Associated Press.)

This approach is all the rage, of course. TV makers are happily building in Internet services like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Cinema Now and Vudu. And why not? It’s just software. Everybody wins: the TV maker gains features without adding new hardware; movie services gain millions more potential customers; and you get to ditch a couple of boxes and remotes.

I tried out LG’s first Vudu-equipped Blu-ray player, the BD390. It’s been around since last May, but it picked up the Vudu service in a free software upgrade.

It’s a heckuva great player. Low, sleek, smoky-mirrored front panel. Built-in Wi-Fi, so you don’t have to trail ugly wires across your living room.

The remote isn’t illuminated, but it’s uncluttered. Unfortunately, you really miss the scroll wheel (like the one on a mouse) that was on the original Vudu remote — a brilliant touch on a gadget whose interface consists primarily of lists.

The BD390’s Blu-ray picture looks terrific. It could also be the model for built-in Internet services; in addition to Vudu, this one has Netflix, YouTube and CinemaNow. It can also play movies on a drive you connect to its U.S.B. jack (this means you, Divx cultists).

But sure enough, there’s Vudu, with the same clean, sharp software design the box used to have. You can sort movies by release date, genre and so on; you can search by movie name, actor or director, and watch previews and trailers.

Vudu boasts that its interface is not built into the BD390; instead, it’s rapidly downloaded each time you click the on-screen Vudu button. That way, it can constantly change, like a Web page.

And sure enough, Vudu has already used this trick to add new features. For example, when you’re considering a movie, you can read capsule critiques from every major reviewer (courtesy of RottenTomatoes.com). You can see more movies like this one, or even call up the movie’s Wikipedia page. (“Whip It,” we’re told, “grossed $13,043,363 in North America.”) This thing is a veritable Internet movie database.

As promised, almost all recent DVD releases are available on Vudu: “Couples Retreat,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “This Is It” and so on. (Available to buy, that is, for about $20 for a new release. Most movies aren’t available to rent until 30 days later, an obnoxious studio restriction that, according to Vudu, is slowly improving.)

You generally have a choice of three quality levels on the Vudu: standard, hi-def and something called HDX, which is higher hi-def (sharper picture than DVD, though not as good as Blu-ray) plus 5.1 Dolby surround sound. A recent release might cost $4 for a standard-definition rental, $5 for hi-def and $7 for HDX.

In a delicious twist, Vudu says that it has more movies in HDX (3,000) than are available on Blu-ray.

The limitations

Vudu’s “trick play” features are also impressive. Remember, these videos are streamed to your TV (in other words, played from the Internet as you watch), so fast-forwarding and rewinding is a problem. The part of the movie you’d want to fast-forward to hasn’t arrived at your house yet.

Netflix pioneered the clever workaround: when you press the right-arrow key, little thumbnails of coming scenes flash by, representing 10-second intervals. You wait about 15 seconds for Netflix to resume playback at the new spot.

Vudu uses a similar system, except that thanks to some clever Vudu engineering voodoo, resuming playback takes only three seconds instead of 15.

Despite all of this progress, Vudu still isn’t perfect movie heaven, for lots of reasons. Internet speed can be a problem; Vudu recommends a 2-megabit-a-second Internet service (ask your Internet provider what you have) for standard-def movies; HDX requires at least 4.5 megabits.

When the LG player was connected wirelessly, I saw some “please wait” messages while watching HDX movie versions; Vudu says that’s not uncommon over Wi-Fi connections.

Note, too, that Vudu is still as much a victim of Hollywood’s nutty “window” system as it’s ever been. Movies from all seven major movie studios appear on the Vudu the day the DVD comes out. But movies from Warner, Universal and Fox may subsequently disappear into the “HBO hole” — the studios are bound by exclusivity arrangements with premium movie channels, which makes some movies unavailable for streaming after they’ve already been available online. Bizarre and frustrating.

You have to finish a movie 24 hours after starting it, which is ludicrous. Why do you get only a day for an Internet rental, but three or five days for a DVD rental? Vudu says that it’s pushing the studios to double the time period. But meanwhile, sadly, Vudu has eliminated the “pay $1 for another day” deal it pioneered last year.

Of course, all Internet movies lack director’s commentaries, subtitles, DVD extras and so on.

Finally, it’s cool how the elapsed time of Vudu streaming movies appears right on the BD390 front panel. Not so cool: you have a choice of three speeds of rewind/fast-forward, but the chapter-skip buttons don’t work at all. Over all, though, Vudu-as-service beats Vudu-as-box. Among other things, you don’t have to buy the $150 box itself. Having access to Vudu, in other words, costs you nothing above the price of your new TV or Blu-ray player. If you only watch one $4 movie in 10 years, great — that’s all you pay.

And what’s good about Vudu is still good: no monthly fee, same-day availability with the DVD releases and much better quality than any other Internet movie services. No, it’s not any movie, any time — but it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what that happy future may look like.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.