Editors' note, October 22, 2008: Amazon Unbox is now Amazon Video On Demand. Many of the features are the same as immediately before the name change, but there have been several updates since the posting of this review. For more information, click here.
Amazon Unbox, the online retailer's video download store, could be the Apple iTunes Store's biggest competition so far. It has the benefit of the Amazon name and the site's many regular shoppers, it uses a site interface we're all familiar with, and it offers a good selection of movies and television shows for rental or purchase.
While the service got off to a rocky start and took plenty of knocks from the press, including CNET, it has fixed early errors such as going online without permission and uninstalling difficulties, and now only suffers the same problems as nearly all the video download sites: while it offers a convenient way to rent or buy a movie, it doesn't let you burn a standard DVD from your purchase to watch on your big screen set.
Apple's way around this problem was to create the Apple TV , which lets you wirelessly transfer shows to your television. Amazon's solution was to partner with TiVo, letting TiVo subscribers with Series 2 or Series 3 boxes download video directly to their televisions. CNET's Webware has a complete look at the TiVo experience, so this review will focus on the PC experience.
Users can shop for Unbox titles directly on the Amazon site--look for the Unbox link high on the left side--but you'll need the Unbox downloader software to receive titles. Sorry Mac owners, but Amazon Unbox doesn't love you; the iTunes Store is still the only video-download site that works with Macs and iPods.
Unbox titles are divided into rentals and purchases. (There's no subscription plan, as with Vongo, and there's no streaming content except for previews.) Purchases are generally $1.99 for a TV show and run between $9.99 and $14.99 for a movie, while movie rentals are $3.99. We're not sure how many titles the store has because Amazon won't comment, but it looks comparable to the other stores. It carries most of the major film studios, with Disney as the glaring exception. It also offers an impressive selection of TV studios--seeing that it carries BBC content made our geek heart beat faster, but seeing that we could download Dr. Who episodes from several seasons, including the first, nearly made us faint.