Video Download Sites Offer Different Experiences
By Christopher Bray, with Jim Bray
A while back I mentioned how, now that the format war for high definition discs is over, some people are predicting that Blu-ray may lose the war for consumers' dollars anyway, thanks to competition from video downloading.
I still don't think it'll happen; downloading will merely be another consumer choice. But there are several companies betting that enough of us would rather save our favorite movies and TV shows onto our hard drives than get up out of the easy chair and sally forth to the video store.
Two such services offered to let me try their wares recently: the whimsically-named Bell Video Store in Canada and the U.S.-based EZTakes, websites at which you can scroll and point and click to purchase (or perhaps rent) whatever title may take your fancy.
Well, not whatever title, at least not yet. Bell says they have over 1500 movies and shows, which is okay for a start-up – and certainly beats the 80 or so with which my partners and I kicked off our first brick and mortar video store back when most people had never heard of a VCR. And from those humble beginnings we managed to create an empire, so you never know.
EZTakes seems to have a similar number of titles, but they're often more obscure or niche-oriented than what's available at your average brick and mortar store. Titles originate from smaller distributors such as Koch Entertainment, First Look Studios, and Razor Digital Entertainment. EZTakes also has a pretty good selection of concerts, ranging from Frank Sinatra to The Who, with prices mostly in the $2 to $16 range.
With both services, you pay your money (via credit card) and download your chosen title to your computer's hard drive.
From there, however, the experience is very different: Bell's is a more "traditional" online video store, which means you're stuck with a movie you must watch on your computer or other digital device, while EZTakes lets you burn the title to a blank DVD and take it right to your home theater. Or to a friend's.
What a concept! Who'd have thought a company would make it convenient to be a customer? Way to go, EZTakes!
On the Bell Video Store site, I managed to find the old H.G. Wells/Raymond Massey classic Things To Come – which I downloaded via a process that was a true ordeal but which worked eventually. And thanks to the ridiculous and annoying digital rights management system inflicted on consumers (ostensibly to prevent piracy, but in my never humble opinion it's really about ultimate control and maximizing profit), I can't watch the Things to Come in my home theater (where it belongs) unless I take my PC down there and hook it into my front projector. Ain't going to happen; it's far more hassle than I'll put up with. I'll wait for the Blu-ray.
That's what turns me off about downloading: the lack of freedom to enjoy the product in the manner I see fit. And of course the hassle of having to burn a download to disc (assuming it's even allowed) before I can watch it on my big screen. This is why I believe there'll be room for physical storage, whether it be Blu-ray or an eventual replacement such as memory cards, for the foreseeable future.
Anyway, the movies I surfed through at Bell's site were priced at $9.99 for purchase, which isn't bad I suppose, and the rentals start at $1.99 for a 24 hour period. That 24 hours means you can watch the movie as many times as you want for 24 hours, and you have 30 days in which to initiate that 24 hour period, after which the movie magically disappears from your hard drive.
Bell's system does allow you to watch your program on more than one platform, but it's a real pain in the neck accomplishing it. I had so much trouble getting my download to work on both my desktop and notebook PC that I could've rounded up enough venture capital to open a competing business – or just headed over to Blockbuster – in the time it took to get the issues resolved. It was a process that included nearly an hour "chatting" online with a service person, not a happy start to the relationship.
The bellvideostore.ca website lists what devices are compatible, the rules of engagement, and the like.
EZTakes.com also makes you download software (With Bell it's a "Player", with EZTakes, it's a "Download Manager") before you can get your online video fix. They'll ship you a real DVD if you prefer, though you can't get the "instant" gratification of a quick download/burn that way.
I found plenty of titles I'd like to own if I weren't so cheap, including many concerts I'd never heard of but would love to see at least once. For my freebie I chose The Who – The Vegas Job, a supposed reunion concert EZTakes sells for $15.99 (many titles are cheaper than that). I chose the download route instead of the DVD shipment, since that's what I was comparing.
The download went smoothly, and afterward the download manager software converted the files into DVD-compatible ones (without prompting, too) I promptly burned directly to a blank disc. The "Who" download filled a single layer disc without compression; the download also included image files of the package and disc label I could print out.
I burned the files to disc using DVD Shrink, with no fuss whatsoever.
Whether Bell or EZTakes, the movies appear to be only of about DVD quality, if that, which will help speed up the downloading process, but which is also no substitute for Blu-ray's high definition audio and video.
That's another aspect of the service that'll limit the appeal of downloading, at least until there's enough bandwidth available affordably (and Blu-ray burners and blank discs are cheap enough) to allow practical HD downloading.
Of the two services, I preferred EZTakes hands down. Not only did EZTakes allow me to burn my download to DVD and play the concert on my big screen and BIG speakers (the way a concert should be played!), but the whole operation just plain worked better, with less hassle.
But I still prefer my Blu-ray discs.
June 1, 2009 Reader's comment:
I spent two days trying to burn a DVD from a downloaded movie from EZTakes. Downloading was no problem, but burning a DVD playable on anything but my computer was another story. After wasting hours and 4 DVDs I gave up and asked EZTakes to refund my money. I tried their burn function, I tried a Microsoft program bundled with Windows Vista and nothing worked - but it took a LONG time! This system is not for the average computer user!
Copyright 2008 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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