- By Justin Case

There has been a lot of noise and fury surrounding the DVD by mail rental services, lately. In addition to the erstwhile NetFlix, we have Wal*Mart, Blockbuster, a host of lesser-known start up "small-businesses" (for lack of a better term) and now, if rumors prove true, the Big River (Amazon.com) is entering the game.

Of course, NetFlix's spin-meisters are out ahead of the game crafting their defense. Part of that defense includes touting a digital download partnership with TiVo and the future of digital downloads of movies over the Internet.

Already, in the digital download space two companies, CINEMANOW and MOVIELINK, are crafting a business to deliver Hollywood's hottest hits (and some of the cooler ones as well) to the digerati. Hampered by the availability of new releases (which have a protected "window" in video stores and at sell-through before being made available to digital download services in the pay-per-view window), these services offer a plethora of titles to consumers with fat-pipe and media-ready PCs.

Over the last 9 months or so, I've downloaded a few movies from each service. Mostly, these are the movies I didn't care to buy on DVD and didn't care enough to go through the trouble to rent at the local vid-store or order through my Blockbuster Online membership (see: Digi-Buster).

Included in this list are the following "gems":

Reign of Fire;

Never Die Alone;

Calendar Girls; and

3-Way

In all, I've given both services half of the above business, to be fair. Do I have a favorite? Not really. There are really very few differences between the two that are readily apparent.

CINEMANOW did prove to be a bit cheaper (up to $1 per title). Both services have a comparable selection of films (although if you're into adult, asian-cinema or want a huge selection of "B" titles to choose from, CINEMANOW is your easy choice.

I was a bit frustrated by both services in that they will have a film for a period of time and then they'll lose access to it. What is this about? Note to Hollywood...

Video-on-demand will only work if the library remains available. We want choice and lots of it!
I'd think it would benefit all involved to make films available and keep them available forever after. What do I know, though, I'm just a consumer.

Both services were reasonably fast to download on my 1.5 MB DSL line and let me start the film before the download was done. Both required that I download their media management and player software (a pain in the ass, if you ask me, because now MOVIELINK's system keeps routing out to the net, if I allow it past my firewall, every time I start up my PC).

The management software is what keeps track of your viewing and deletes the film after you've had it on your machine for the allowed time (30 days).

This brings me to another gripe. If I rent from the local video store and, let's say, pay the same price as a download ($3.99, for the sake of argument), I get to watch that film as many times as my heart desires during the time I have it. I can take it to my neighbor's house and watch it with them once, if I choose or (god forbid the piracy), lend it to my friends or relatives to view -- as long as we take it back on time. With both download services, I get ONE viewing and it must be completed within 24-hours of when I first hit that play button (or it's lost forever... or until I pay again). Nothing like making a fledgling service try to get off the deck with a major barrier to customer acceptance. With a PVR attached to my DISH system in both the bedroom and the living room, I have become a slave to the time-shift. I don't like being held captive to some viewing window imposed by "big brother". I like to start watching something and finish it days... or weeks later. 24 hours from when I hit PLAY? C'mon!

Another fairly major barrier is that the movies are really only available on your PC. Now, I've got a 23" widescreen LCD on my desk and a reasonably capable sound system. That, said, watching the films was "ok", although I just let them run while I was doing my work. I would never choose to sit in my office chair at my desk and watch a movie there when I've got a much better set-up (and more comfort to be had) in both my living room and bedroom. Both services give lip-service to having methods to get their films from your PC to your TV (in another room, presumably), but I've not invested the time or money in that to investigate. Perhaps that is a topic for a future colum?

There is one other element to consider. I've got a great little 23" LCD/HD TV from Philips on loan. Were I to swap that into the office to run both PC and TV on it, the sound and video quality would be pretty compelling. I'm sure a lot more people MAY be moving in that direction... with these types of monitors in their living rooms and bedrooms. But to be really certain you can play that video in high-quality on that monitor, you've got to have a PC hard-wired there in that room. A PC is still a "lean-forward" (or at best a sit-upright) device. A TV is a lean-back device (using our remote controls). While I've seen some pretty capable "media-center" PCs, especially, of late, from Sony's Vaio line, I've yet to see one that is as easy to use in a living room as any of my TVs.

In the end, I think digital downloads of feature films are still for the "early adopters". You need to be reasonably technically capable, have a high-band connection and a pretty high-power PC. While the offerings online are not "fully baked" yet, these two services are pretty promising steps toward an on-demand future and I, for one, look forward to the day when I can order-up any movie or TV show at any time, without regard for schedules, viewing time constraints or my location.