Vudu Media Server 
Home Theater Media Servers Video Servers
Written by Jim Swantko   
Tuesday, 01 July 2008

With over 120,000,000 Apple iPods sold to date, most people have a pretty solid idea of what a media server is, even if the term media server isn’t an everyday part of the American lexicon yet. Apple brought video to the iPod and YouTube has brought video to the masses, but DVD remains the all-powerful king for movies late in 2008, even with the rise of the high-definition Blu-ray format. While many are willing wait for slow load times on Blu-ray players and funky HDMI connections, others (historically with tons of money) could buy a closed-ended system like Kaleidescape for upwards of $30,000 in order to get a slick, reliable broadcast of SD (yes, I said $30,000 for standard definition) video throughout their homes. Now there are new options on the market that are getting some buzz. Enter Vudu.

To be fully forthright, I had never heard of Vudu before I was asked to review their media server, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  At first glance, the Vudu server appeared similar to Apple TV, although it is designed more for the moviegoer than for the iPod generation, since it doesn’t offer things like podcasts or music downloads. However, it does seem to have faster access to HD movies, which start instantly, while Apple states that there may be a short wait before viewing starts of HD content.

When I received the Vudu box in the mail, I was very surprised at just how little clutter there was inside it. The system consists of a small black box that is a bit larger than a wireless router and weighs a little over four pounds.  The shipment also contained a small odd-shaped remote, a power supply, batteries and several cables, including an HDMI interconnect, which I was very happy to see. The front of the box has two LEDs, which indicate power and Internet connectivity, as well as a card slot location for your Vudu membership card, which contains your account information.

The rear of the unit has one Ethernet and one USB port for connectivity.  It should be noted that wireless Internet connectivity is an option if you use a power line adaptor or an Ethernet wireless bridge and 802.11G as a minimum. The back panel provides all the standard audio outputs, which include coax and optical digital, as well as RCA analog. A single HDMI v1.1 port, a single component video, S-video and composite video round out the video outputs. However, if you are still using composite or S-video connections, there is little chance you even know what the Internet is and I recommend you stick to VHS.

The included literature stated that Vudu has developed a distributed network model to allow for instantaneous delivery of movies across the Internet to your TV. I must say that I was skeptical, considering how slow my Internet connection seems to be at times; I’m certainly not downloading full-length HD movies. The Vudu box contains a relatively large 250 GB internal hard drive, which is enough to permanently store approximately 50 full-length movies. It should be noted that this space is not affected by rentals. 

In theory, the Vudu system replaces your video disc player and frees up all the space that you dedicate to disc storage. It also eliminates the chances of damaging any disks you own. Now consider that, with the Vudu server, you will never need to step foot in another video store again. No need to wait for the mailman to bring you a movie, either. You sit in the comfort of your own living room and browse the movie selections. When you see one you like, press a button and it instantly starts playing. Is that enough convenience for you? To me, it sounds just about perfect.

You are probably wondering what all this convenience is going to cost you.  The unit sells for $295 and the service is completely voluntary, meaning it has zero activation or subscription fees. You simply pay for the movies that you want to rent or own. Rented movies are viewable for as many times as you would like for a 24-hour period and range in cost from $0.99 to $3.99 for standard definition and $3.99 to $5.99 for high definition. There are some independent films that allow for a 48-hour viewing window. Movie purchases range from $4.99 to $19.99 and rentals from $3.99 for HD classics to $5.99 for HD new releases. These remain on the unit’s hard drive permanently. There are also several TV shows that are available for $1.99 per episode. Payment is done through an online account, which is accessible through the Vudu website. Vudu accepts all major credit cards and allows you to preload the account with $20, $50 or $100. As movies are rented or purchased, the balance is debited until your account reaches $5. Then the preload amount is replenished from your card.

Setting up the Vudu system couldn’t get much easier. You simply plug in your Internet connection to the back of the box, connect the box to your TV and power it on. I used the HDMI interface with the Vudu-supplied cable to connect it to my Sony 1080p SXRD rear-projection set.

The Vudu system walks you step by step through the set-up process, which is not much more than waiting for the system to update. It then gives you a quick walk-through of how to use the remote control, which is by far the coolest remote I’ve ever seen, as well as a great method of browsing for movies. The remote fits perfectly in your hand and is the shape you would get if you held a piece of soft clay and squeezed it. Your thumb lands on top of the roller wheel, which moves the pointer around on the screen. When you found what you’re after, you press down on the wheel to select. The remote also has a back button to move you back to where you came from, as well as a button marked “Vudu” that takes you back to the main screen. The remote rounds out with a combination play/pause button, a power button and a button marked “more,” which gives additional info.

The main screen offers five sub-menus, which include “most watched,” “new to Vudu,” “explore catalog,” “my Vudu” and “info and settings.” “Most watched” brings up a list of the top 100 movies for the week. The movies are not simply listed by name, but also displayed as you would see the title on a DVD box, including graphics. As you roll the pointer over each title, a snapshot of the DVD box comes up and gives a description of the movie, as well as some metadata, which includes how people have rated the movie, release date, genre and movie length. Click again and the cast is displayed. Click on a cast member and instantly all the movies they appear in are displayed. Use the back button to get back to where you were. You can also watch the trailer for the movie before making the purchase. I used this list more than any other, since I seem to share the taste of other Vudu users and like their top 100 picks.

The next menu is called “new to Vudu” and, as you would expect, it lists the latest titles to be released and also has a list of upcoming releases.
The third option is “explore catalog.” This allows you to search for movies by genre and also to create highly customized searches, based on criteria like title, release date, MPAA rating, critics rating, movie studio, actor/director, language and display resolution. I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had playing with these searches.
The “my Vudu” menu holds programs that you have purchased or rented and allows you to delete or archive them. The last option is “info and settings,” which is exactly what you think it is. Here you can check on service quality and you can even limit the amount of bandwidth that you allow Vudu to use.  Parental controls allow you to filter what types of movies can be rented and places a password on the account so your kids can’t go crazy and rent 20 movies in a day.

Music and Movies
My first selection was No Country for Old Men (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), which tells the story of a sadistic killer who relentlessly hunts down the main character after he accidentally gets involved in a drug deal gone bad. This was a standard-resolution movie. It started the instant I pressed play. I was expecting some delay while the movie buffered, but there was absolutely none. The picture was as clear as any DVD that has ever been displayed on my screen with the various players I’ve used, which range from Oppo to Esoteric brands. Sound quality was superb as well. I was able to pause, fast forward and rewind to my heart’s content, with no glitches at all.

The next movie I watched was the fact-based Into the Wild (Paramount Home Entertainment), which follows the life of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) after college graduation. He has grown bitter and tired of society’s lust for money and lack of honesty and compassion. He continues to isolate himself throughout the film and ultimately decides to strike out alone in the Alaskan wilderness and be one with nature. He quickly realizes that survival is much harder than he anticipated and ultimately pays the ultimate price for his decision. The scenes are breathtaking and Vudu delivered all of it with striking clarity.

I decided to try one of the HD offerings. What better to illustrate the beauty that HD offers than Saw IV (Lionsgate)? This time, I was sure that there would be a delay, as the additional data needed for HD content was loaded. I was wrong. Again, the film started instantly. The picture was every bit as good as what I get from my Playstation3 Blu-ray player. Incisions oozed blood with clarity normally found only in an operating room. The sound of saws cutting bone and limbs snapping was realistic enough to make my wife leave the room. I did notice that I couldn’t fast forward very far past where I was in the film. As the film continued to play, the movie must have buffered more and allowed me more flexibility in how far forward I could go. This wasn’t really an issue to me, as I always watch movies straight through.

I was bored one night, so I started browsing through the catalog to see how deep it went and was happily surprised to see old Lost in Space TV episodes available. I grew up on this show and watching it really brought back some good memories. Some other series worth noting include 24, NYPD Blue, Prison Break and Family Guy. If you can’t find something on Vudu to entertain yourself with, then you have other issues.

The Downside
While a library of 6,000 movies may seem like a lot, there were a few films I looked for which currently aren’t on the Vudu system. For example, the ‘70s horror movie The Car, which I remember watching late at night with my dad when I was a kid, was not listed in the Vudu catalog. I have little doubt that eventually the library will be as vast as any video outlet, but right now, there may be some movies that you can’t find.

Fifty movies may seem like a lot, but if you are like me, then you already own many more than this amount. Vudu says that a larger drive is in the works and possible even an external drive may be on the way, so this may be much ado about nothing, but I feel I should mention it.

Vudu rocks. It truly brings the movie store to your living room. It’s easy to use. It has no lines to wait in, no screaming kids to have to listen to and avoid stepping on, no fighting traffic and burning $4-a-gallon gasoline. The Vudu box is about the same cost as any other disc player you might consider purchasing. It provides access to tons of content with absolutely no hassle and no subscription fee. I sincerely recommend that you take some time and consider Vudu if you are thinking of getting a new player. It just might end your relationship with movie discs of all varieties.
Manufacturer Vudu
Model Box Media Server
Reviewer Jim Swantko

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