Editors' Note: As of December 2007, MovieBeam shut down its content service, making this hardware effectively useless.
Experts in the home video industry and the press, as well as people such as Bill Gates, say that the traditional method of renting a DVD or other physical media will eventually give way to a new method of simply downloading a file to watch on a TV at home. The main questions are when and how, and if you ask MovieBeam, the answers would probably be now and using our box. The company, a private venture backed by Disney, Intel, and Cisco, among others, is attempting to create a new avenue for movie rentals with the relaunch of its hardware and service, which allows rentals from a rotating list of 100 titles from almost every major movie studio, including at least 10 in high-definition. The first new MovieBeam player is called the System MB2160. At $200 with rental fees ranging from $2 to $5 for a 24-hour rental, the MovieBeam System MB2160 requires a strong initial commitment on the consumer end. Given the price, the issues we found with the hardware, and the paucity of movies available at launch, we can't recommend MovieBeam as a good alternative to traditional rental models, even for early adopters who crave films in high-def. The MovieBeam System MB2160 is an excellent example of minimalist style, and we found the slim, 2-inch-tall box uncommonly attractive for a home-theater component. Punctuating its silver face is a series of three status LEDs on the left side. The first doubles as power button and a status light, the second indicates the antenna status, and the third illuminates when your film is showing in high-definition. On the right side is a simple and unassuming menu navigation panel. There's nothing in the way of a front-panel display for time or the like, but this product doesn't warrant it.
A small, unique-looking, pear-shaped remote replicates the front panel's menu navigation and power button and adds the standard transport controls: rewind, fast-forward, play/pause, and stop, as well as forward and reverse skip. While the sparse layout keeps the remote compact and surprisingly ergonomic, it omits some important functions. We'd like to see a volume control, for example, especially one that could command a TV or a stereo system, so you could use the MovieBeam's remote exclusively. A dedicated subtitle key would also be welcome.
We found the MovieBeam System MB2160's menus straightforward and easy to navigate. The main menu has a dynamic listing of "top features"--the newest and most popular movies available on the service, at least according to MovieBeam--as well as options to jump to a list of your currently rented movies, the movie search page, or system settings. A preview of the featured films plays on a minidisplay on the bottom-left of the screen, and selecting the preview allows you to watch it in full-screen model. The main screen displays any major problems with the hardware, along with a troubleshooting option, if applicable. For example, if your antenna or phone line is disconnected, choosing the troubleshooting option will make the MB2160 try to reestablish the lost connection.
The Find Movies menu allows a multitude of movie-sorting options without seeming cluttered. You can view the list in alphabetical order, as well as by arrival or departure time (see Features), genre, rating, and actor or director name. If you've hooked up the MovieBeam via HDMI, you can pull up a short list of the movies available in high-definition. Once you've selected a movie, you're brought to a brief overview page where a preview clip is shown on a minidisplay alongside the movie details, including rental options (high- or standard-def), prices, and whether the movie is in wide-screen. If you choose not to rent the title, you can back out into the master list or skip through the movie pages with the forward/backward buttons.
The MovieBeam experience may be a bit off-putting for those weaned on watching DVDs. Movie navigation is not broken into coherent chapter skips; rather, pressing the skip-forward button moves the film ahead in 5-minute increments. The rewind functions are imprecise as a whole, as a quick tap of the button sends you back a good 15 seconds, with no slow-rewind option to cover smaller bits of action. However, we appreciate the "jumpback" of 2 seconds or so that a movie makes after being unpaused, ensuring we don't miss any action when play resumes. MovieBeam works like no other rental system we've encountered. When you buy the box in a store, you don't actually take it home; the company ships it to you in a day or so. Your new MB2160 arrives with its 160GB hard drive filled with the latest batch of 100 or so movies, up to 10 of which are in high-definition. As many as 10 new movies are downloaded each week via a proprietary antenna broadcast, and 10 older ones disappear. As a user, you have no control over which new movies arrive, which disappear, and which of the current rentable movies are available in high-def.
In addition to Disney, MovieBeam has an unprecedented range of support from almost every major Hollywood studio--namely, 20th Century Fox, Lions Gate Entertainment, NBC/Universal, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures, and Warner. The one missing link is Sony/Columbia Pictures, which MovieBeam claims will be onboard soon. Studios will enable select titles to be available for rental the same day they're released on DVD, but support has been stingy so far, with no recent movies available in HD. Why The American President and Analyze This are in HD while newer, more visually intensive films such as Batman Begins and The Chronicles of Narnia get the standard-def treatment is a mystery.
Compared to DVDs commonly available for rental, the films on a MovieBeam box are more like VHS than state-of-the-art. First off, not every wide-screen movie is actually shown in the correct aspect-ratio format. Many are "modified to fit your screen" (a.k.a. 4:3), including films we'd like to see in wide-screen, such as Flightplan and The Transporter 2. On the audio front, only HD movies get Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound (DTS isn't supported), and in a survey of the HD movies on our review sample box, only about half had 5.1-channel soundtracks. The rest, along with all of the standard-def movies, were basic stereo. MovieBeam flicks are mostly devoid of the special features common to DVDs, such as deleted scenes, commentaries, and extended making-of features. Thankfully, some of the movies were the extended unrated versions, particularly The 40 Year Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers. We also discovered two or three making-of shorts tucked away in a menu separate from the movies, none of which lasted longer than five minutes.
It's tough to pick 100 movies when the studios supporting the service have libraries in the thousands, so MovieBeam deserves credit for providing a range of relatively new movies, hits from the last few years, and a couple obscure flicks (try The Gingerdead Man--evil really hasn't ever tasted so good!). There isn't much in the way of classic movies, though--we couldn't find any movie made before 1994. While we give the MB2160 credit for listing movies that it's about to delete, we wish that the customer had more control over which movies enter and leave the player.
Rentals are strictly pay-per-view--there's no all-you-can-watch subscription plan--and break down into four price categories. Older standard-definition movies cost $2, older high-def movies are $3, newer SD movies go for $4, and newer HD movies run $5. It's worth noting that, as of the date of the review, there are no $5 movies. Paying the rental fee allows you to view the movie as many times as you want within a 24-hour period. While that's par for the course for many on-demand services, we felt it was a bit short. A 48-hour rental period would have been better suited to those frenetic weekends.
The MovieBeam System MB2160 offers a multitude of A/V output options. For standard-def, there are composite- and component-video jacks, as well as S-Video; you'll find an HDMI output for high-def. A set of stereo analog audio outputs joins one output each for coaxial and optical digital audio for surround soundtracks. A composite-video pass-through allows the MB2160 to serve as a receiver for a single device, such as a cable box, when the MovieBeam unit is idle--a useful addition for TVs where inputs are scarce. Three ports currently go unutilized: an Ethernet jack, an SD memory card slot, and a USB port. The system ships with a small antenna used to download new movies via proprietary broadcasts. The box isn't sold in cities that don't receive MovieBeam broadcasts; you can check availability in your area on the company's Web site.
The device's output is limited to 720p high-definition--no 1080i or 1080p--and only via the HDMI connection. Unfortunately, the component-video output is restricted to standard-definition 480i or 480p. Not only is this an annoying copy-protection countermeasure that renders MovieBeam's HD films unwatchable on HDTVs that lack digital video inputs, it caused early incompatibility with Mitsubishi HDTVs.
While the abundance of inputs and outputs on the MB2160 are welcome, we felt the designers could've done a lot more to reduce cable clutter. At the very least, you'll run four sets of cables to and from the MB2160: the power cord, A/V wires, the antenna cable, and the phone jack. Add a stereo output and an A/V input for pass-through, and it gets uglier. The antenna receives movies, and the phone jack provides MovieBeam with your rental records, all while an Ethernet input that could've handled both tasks goes unused; we hope it'll be activated in the future. The double whammy of needing a landline phone and a residence suitable for receiving antenna signals (we experienced problems in a basement apartment, for example) severely shrinks MovieBeam's potential audience. For its part, MovieBeam claims it makes sure that any interested customers meet both requirements before shipping an MB2160 to them. While noncritical viewers, especially those with smaller televisions, will likely have no problems with MovieBeam's image quality, we felt that as one of the first sources available that can deliver movies in high-definition, its images should look better. For image-quality comparison tests, we matched both a standard- and a high-definition MovieBeam film presented via HDMI against its DVD counterpart, upconverted to 720p via HDMI from a Denon DVD-3910. We first watched the HD version of The American President, and while the image looked demonstrably better than the nonanamorphic DVD version, it still had a couple of issues. We noticed more video noise than we expected in certain areas, such as the white wall behind the president as he walks toward the Oval Office. Furthermore, quick movement degraded the image significantly. When the camera jerked to follow a character, for example, the noise intensified noticeably, making the wall appear blocky and discolored instead of white. Scenes with less camera movement had less noise, naturally, but it was still there.
We also noticed a few compression artifacts in The American President that we hadn't seen before. As the camera pushed toward the White House at night, for example, we saw a brief reddish-blue trail that followed the branches across the night sky--it disappeared soon after. We didn't see that artifact on the DVD. Detail in areas such as the stitching of the stars in the flag in the intro and the newsprint in the papers thrown on the table were comparable to that of a good DVD but didn't have the sharpness and pop we've seen on some HD images. The newsprint appeared a bit softer than it could have, for example.
The image quality of other HD movies we watched varied noticeably. The animated The Iron Giant, for example, evinced many of the same issues as The American President, including some roiling video noise, false contouring that looked like bands between lighter and darker areas, and a generally softer image than we expected. A presentation of Mission to Mars, on the other hand, looked better than either of the others. There was little false contouring in Luke Graham's dreadlocks, and background video noise appeared somewhat less prevalent than we'd seen before. There was still some softness in the image such as in the Mars patch on the older astronaut and in the blades of grass in Graham's garden. We'd expect that an HD presentation of the film on HBO, for example, would look more detailed.
We also compared a standard-def movie, The Bourne Identity, to its DVD doppelgänger, which was presented in anamorphic wide-screen. On the MovieBeam's SD presentation, the opening nighttime sequence, where Jason Bourne is found at sea, appeared littered with artifacts, to the point where the stormy sky seemed nearly indistinguishable from the rough waters. Later on, when Bourne retrieved his valuables from the bank, the lack of detail in the MovieBeam version of the film became glaringly apparent. The textures of his many foreign passports were barely noticeable, and the fine print on them was illegible, whereas both were much more easily seen on the DVD. The vibrant colors of the scene--Bourne's brown sweater and the garbage pail's red lining, in particular--looked washed out and pallid on the MovieBeam presentation. In all, the MovieBeam version of The Bourne Identity fell well short of the DVD and looked worse than many VOD movies we've seen on cable TV.
Many of these issues can be chalked up to the highly compressed nature of the films stored on the MovieBeam box. If the 100-movie roster filled the hard drive to capacity, the average movie file would be 1.6GB. High-def movies take up more space, obviously, and according to MovieBeam's rep, the numbers come out to roughly 5GB for a HD movie and 1GB to 1.5GB for a normal movie. Those numbers are significantly less than those of a typical high-quality DVD, which can hold up to 8.5GB, while Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs start at 25GB. MovieBeam utilizes powerful Windows Media Video compression, as opposed to the older MPEG-2 compression used for DVDs, but even so, its films could benefit from less aggressive bit crunching, either by using larger files for fewer movies or a bigger hard disk.