Editors' Note, March 16, 2009: The free Pandora Internet radio service is now available on Vudu.
Editors' Note, February 10, 2009: Vudu has cut the price of this product to $149.
When Vudu was first released in the fall of 2007, it was the first real Internet video-on-demand box worthy of the name. Unlike previous non-starters such as MovieBeam and Akimbo, Vudu offered a decent selection of movies from all major studios--and, later, TV shows--for instant on-demand viewing. Video quality was good to begin with (when compared with other online video offerings); a later software upgrade added HD video. Selections were available for purchase or rental, and they could be ordered directly from the TV screen. Unfortunately for Vudu, Apple updated its similar Apple TV box just a few months later to co-opt nearly all of the Vudu's once-unique features. The early 2008 "Apple TV Take 2" upgrade added on-screen ordering (no need to sync with computer-based iTunes libraries); HD video (and improved standard-definition video); near-instant viewing for standard-def selections; and movie selections from all major studios. Those upgrades were above and beyond some advantages Apple TV already had over Vudu: a lower price, built-in Wi-Fi, and the ability to stream photos and iTunes music and video files from networked computers.
Still, Vudu hasn't been standing still. Even while it's struggled at the corporate level, Vudu has added TV shows and adult content to its roster, as well as an accessory that adds wireless support. In addition to HD downloads, the company also now has a bargain channel that offers a rotating list of 99 movies for just a 99-cent rental. The latest feature hitting the Vudu docket is "HDX high-definition"--a selection of movies in 1080p HD resolution and 5.1 surround sound. It remains to be seen whether or not the improved video and audio quality will be enough to distinguish Vudu--now available for $300--from its competitors. But for purists who bemoan the lack of "true HD" from rival providers such as Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Netflix, the impressive picture quality offered by Vudu's latest upgrade may be just what the doctor ordered. Sweetening the deal is a $200 movie credit (when purchased at Best Buy before December 31, 2008), bringing the effective cost of the box to just $100.
With its modest dimensions of 2.38 inches high by 8.88 inches wide by 7.25 inches deep, the Vudu BX100 box looks like a slightly oversize Apple TV or Mac Mini--though it's thankfully finished in black, so it won't clash with the rest of your home theater gear. Pick it up, and you'll feel its 4.2-pound heft; it's densely packed with components, including the 250GB hard drive. The front panel is barren, except for a couple of indicator lights and the Vudu logo. The real action, of course, is around back. The Vudu's rear panel includes every possible output you'd want on a networked audio-visual device. HDMI and component video outputs enable high-definition video output (you can specify 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolutions), and--unlike the Apple TV--the Vudu will also connect to older TVs via its composite and S-Video outputs. Digital audio can be sent to compatible TVs or AV receivers via HDMI, optical or coaxial jacks, and analog stereo RCA jacks are also available. The Ethernet port provides network connectivity, and a USB port is available for future expansion (a second USB port resides on the left-hand side).
The Vudu includes every possible AV output you could want, including HDMI. The rear panel also hosts a little 4-inch antenna, but it's not for Wi-Fi. The antenna interfaces with Vudu's unique remote. The contoured clicker has a dual teardrop shape that fits perfectly in your hand (and lefties will appreciate the fact that it's ambidextrous). Taking a cue from Apple's intuitive product design, the Vudu remote has only five buttons--power, back, home, more, and play/pause. But the big innovation is a clickable mouse-style scroll wheel--it's used to navigate the Vudu's onscreen menus, as well as to fast-forward and rewind videos. The remote takes a minute or two to get used to; we were fighting the urge to tilt the wheel left to move up through certain menus--until we realized that's where the back button should be used. Once you quickly figure it out, however, it becomes second nature.
The only drawback: while the RF (radio frequency) control means you don't have to worry about line-of-sight issues--so, you can lock the Vudu box away in a cabinet if you'd like--the lack of an infrared sensor on the device precludes the use of most universal remotes. Thankfully, Vudu has added an IR remote dongle to its lineup. It should offer interaction with most programmable universal remotes, but the accessory will set you back about $40.
Vudu's first-time-out-of-the-box setup is about as simple as it gets for a networked home entertainment product (assuming you have a nearby Ethernet connection). If you use the included HDMI cable, the box can have as few as three wires total: HDMI (to your receiver or TV), power, and the network cable. After the initial power up, Vudu presents a narrated onscreen walk-through that ensures you're getting working audio and video signals and network connectivity, explains how to use the remote, and helps you set up your Vudu account. Vudu does not charge a monthly fee, but you must link a credit card to your Vudu account and preset it to charge in increments of $20, $50, or $100; your rental fees are then debited against those charges. Once it zeros out, your card is recharged that preset amount, and the debit process begins again.
While basic setup is really easy, advanced users will appreciate a variety of expert options, including video, audio, and network tweaks. For instance, stereo or surround signals can be prioritized for HDMI output, specific high-definition resolutions can be set, and Vudu's data stream can be prioritized on your home network. We particularly liked the flexible aspect ratio control (zoom, stretch, or full screen on 4x3 or 16x9 TVs) and the capability to customize the overscan setting.
Like Slingbox and TiVo products, there's no built-in Wi-Fi option on the Vudu. If there's no nearby Ethernet connection, you'll need a wireless bridge or powerline adapter to get the Vudu online. Vudu also offers its own option: the Vudu Wireless Kit is a pair of plug-and-play plastic bricks that wirelessly communicate with one another. Plug one into the Vudu and another into your home router (or any free Ethernet port on your network), and you'll be good to go.
Of course, a video device such as the Vudu lives or dies by its onscreen interface--and Vudu's got one of the better ones we've seen to date. It lacks the fancy animations of the Apple TV interface, but it's far more vibrant and interactive than the Roku Netflix Player, with a clean, straightforward, and easy-to-navigate experience. Movies are represented by their posters, and the menu has just five main areas: Most Watched; New on Vudu; Explore catalog (where you can search by title, star, director, or genre); My Vudu (films and TV shows you've already rented or purchased); and Info & Settings (audio, video, and network setting options, as described in the section above).
Maneuvering through each area is dead simple, thanks to the scroll-wheel remote. Movies have full summaries and rating info, and they're all cross-referenced by genre, stars, and director. And because all of that info is essentially "hotlinked" (think IMDB), it's easy to navigate between them--jump from Aliens to all Sigourney Weaver movies, for example, or everything directed by James Cameron. (The resulting lists are limited to titles available on Vudu--not the entertainers' entire filmographies.)
Once a video is started (rented or purchased), it can be paused, rewound, and (once it's fully downloaded) fast-forwarded. A DVR-style progress bar is shown when any of those controls is engaged, and you can rewind and fast-forward as quickly or as slowly as you spin the click wheel. If you leave a movie, it will automatically resume right where you left off (assuming, for rentals, that you return to it within the 24-hour viewing window). But the key is the instant gratification that Vudu offers, which differs from the "queue and view" methods employed by Amazon On Demand and Apple TV/iTunes, as well as older Internet video-on-demand solutions such as Akimbo.
Using Vudu: Renting and buying movies and TV shows When you've settled on a movie or TV show you'd like to view, you'll often have several choices, depending on the type of content: resolution (SD/480p, HD or HDX--more on that later); version (in cases where there's, say, a theatrical or unrated director's cut); and whether you want to rent or buy. Not all content is available in all formats; some are standard-def only, and some content--especially new movies--is often limited to purchase-only for several weeks, after which it becomes available as a rental as well. Movies rent for $1 to $6 each, with newer and HD titles skewing at the top of the price scale; you can also buy them--that is, have them live on the hard drive "forever"--for $5 to $20 (purchases are standard-definition only). For the moment, TV episodes are also SD only, and they can only be rented for $2 apiece.