The Best (and Worst) PC Movie and TV Services

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Best Buy CinemaNow
2.5 stars

One of the most venerable names in the movie-download game, CinemaNow became part of Best Buy, the behemoth of tech retail. It still shows signs of its old-school origins, including the fact that it works on Windows but not on Macs.

With CinemaNow, you buy content in your browser and watch it in an application, leading to a slightly disjointed feel.
By current standards, getting up and running with CinemaNow is a chore: On a Windows XP machine, I had to download and install a Windows app, a Windows Media Player update, and a Firefox plug-in. Once you have all the necessary software, you use the CinemaNow site to buy and rent movies, and the Windows app to watch them. You download video rather than stream it; items are ready to view about 30 seconds after the transfer begins, and are available even when you're offline.

The service's pricing varies a bit from the norm, in both directions. New releases that go for $15 at Amazon and iTunes cost a marginally pricier $16 here. But you can also find $1 rental deals on some recent movies--such as Kick-Ass and The Bounty Hunter--that are $4 elsewhere. No big-name content is available in HD.

I found the CinemaNow search engine frustratingly glitchy at times: It couldn't always find titles that were in the system, including Date Night and The Princess and the Frog, and some results bounced me back to the home page rather than to a full listing.

Bottom line: Though CinemaNow is better than Blockbuster On Demand, it isn't as good as Amazon and iTunes.

Blockbuster On Demand
1.5 stars

If Blockbuster On Demand is the future of Blockbuster, the once-mighty video retailer is in even more trouble than you might think. It provides an adequate selection of content, but the service (formerly known as Movielink) is just plain rickety.

Like IE? If you use Blockbuster On Demand, you'd better: The service requires Microsoft's browser.
Compared with other services, Blockbuster On Demand is built on archaic technology. You must use Internet Explorer on Windows to buy and rent items, as well as a Windows app to download them to your hard drive for playback. That's assuming you can get it to work at all: I got it to run on one Windows XP machine, but gave up on another XP system and a Windows 7 PC even after seeking help from a Blockbuster tech support rep. The service's help system seems to have been abandoned--it doesn't mention Windows 7, and more than one link led me to a dead end.

Blockbuster doesn't have any HD titles. Rental prices are typical: $4 for new releases and $3 for older ones. New releases that are $15 at iTunes and Amazon and $16 at CinemaNow, however, go for $18 here. Paying a premium for an experience this lackluster just doesn't make sense.

Bottom line: It's more flop than blockbuster.

Comcast Xfinity TV
2.5 stars

Wouldn't it be cool if you could watch, on any PC, all the cable TV you pay for? Comcast's Xfinity TV--formerly known as Fancast--doesn't let you do that, alas. This service is free for Comcast customers and has some exclusive content, but the current incarnation doesn't live up to the idea's potential.

Xfinity offers cable programs that aren't available elsewhere, but it also lists shows you don't qualify to receive.
If you don't pay Comcast for cable TV, Xfinity is a free fraternal twin of Hulu: Much of its material is licensed from that service. (You will see some differences--for instance, Xfinity has The Daily Show, but Hulu sends you to Comedy Central's site to watch it.) If you are a Comcast subscriber, you also get free access to on-demand versions of movies and TV shows from channels you pay for. Some of them are in HD, and you'll encounter some marquee stuff: Watchmen, for instance, and recent episodes of Entourage that haven't made their way to Hulu.

Much of what's available, however, is old, obscure, and/or uninteresting, not the latest and greatest. And you might find yourself trying to watch items you aren't entitled to view--Xfinity isn't smart enough to restrict its listings to content from your channel lineup, and determining which films and shows are associated with which stations can be tough.

This isn't even the best place to find cable shows that are available for free on the Web. For example, it provides eight History Channel shows--not including cult hits Pawn Stars and American Pickers. Both of those shows are on the History Channel's own site, as you'll quickly discover if you look for them using Clicker rather than Xfinity.

Xfinity doesn't let you watch on phones, Blu-ray players, or other gadgets. It does include a movie-download service, but that's incomplete (it has no TV episodes, and the only HD title is Religulous), pricey (titles that are $15 at Amazon and iTunes cost $18), and limited (the only devices supported are Windows PCs).

Bottom line: Worth a look if you're a Comcast customer, but keep your expectations in check.

Five More Hot Spots for Web TV and Movies

AMC: The American Movie Classics site has B movies (Hercules Unchained, anyone?) and the 1960s British-TV masterpiece The Prisoner in its entirety. Unfortunately, it has no full episodes of Mad Men.

CBS: Go here for shows from the Hulu-holdout network, ranging from The Big Bang Theory to The Young and the Restless.

Jaman: This specialist in international cinema has free and for-pay movies, including some you know (La Dolce Vita) and--even better--a wealth of ones you've never heard about.

Nickelodeon: The kids'-TV powerhouse offers full streaming episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, iCarly, and lots more.

Nostalgia TV: This time machine of a Website presents dozens of classic programs and curiosities from the past, mostly in living black and white.

This story, "The Best (and Worst) PC Movie and TV Services" was originally published by PCWorld.

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