Vudu Delivers High-Quality Video on Demand--For a Price

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Cable box, DVD player, TiVo, home-theater receiver, maybe a Slingbox--serious TV fans have a lot of boxes in their living rooms these days. Vudu, a new $400 device from a startup company of the same name, is yet another entrant contending for space in your entertainment center. In various ways, Vudu significantly improves on earlier passes at the concept of delivering movies to a TV via the Internet. But its cost of admission and less-than-comprehensive selection of movies are major disadvantages for any movie lover who might be interested in practicing a little Vudu.

Vudu's goal is to be a virtual video store that provides immediate access to an array of movies. Previous gadgets such as MovieBeam have attempted to deliver movies on demand, without much success. Like MovieBeam, which we reviewed a year ago, Vudu uses a highly graphical interface to help you select movies that are accessible via the box. Vudu is significantly smaller than MovieBeam, though, and it has much simpler and more visually engaging user interface. But Vudu is also considerably more expensive--costing twice as much as the MovieBeam box.

Another core difference relates to the way the box delivers content. Vudu uses an ethernet connection to grab movies directly across the Internet, taking advantage of peer-to-peer connections with other Vudu boxes to speed things up. Unlike with Apple TV, a device Vudu superficially resembles, no PC is involved in the equation. (And unlike Apple TV and other media streamers, Vudu focuses entirely on movies: You can't use it to listen to music or look at photos.)

From a design and engineering standpoint, Vudu is impressive. The box is quiet and compact--closer in size to a beefy Wi-Fi router than to a TiVo--and runs cool. Inside, it relies on quiet fans and heat sinks to dissipate the heat generated by the 250GB hard drive.

The remote control is sculpted to fit the contours of your hand. It sports so few buttons that you can use it without looking at it; and it talks to the Vudu box via an RF radio rather than infrared, so you don't have to worry about keeping a clear line of sight between the box and the remote. A scroll wheel handles most of the navigation chores, smoothly zipping around the interface options.

Vudu doesn't require an HDTV--the movies it delivers are in standard definition for now--but its polished user interface would be easier to read on a high-def set. You also need a 2-mbps or faster broadband connection near your TV; most cable connections will suffice, but a DSL line might be fast enough. (Vudu Labs offers a bandwidth test to determine whether your service connection can handle the bandwidth requirements.)

In our tests, the experience of renting and watching movies went smoothly in most ways. The on-screen user interface is slick and extremely easy to figure out. And whenever we chose a movie and rented it, it began playing instantly with no hiccups.

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