Let's say you're ready to chuck your DVD player and make the jump to renting digital content from a box near your television. Congratulations! You've discovered Pay Per View. But PPV has few choices and even less flexibility: What if you want to store content, own it, or move it to your computer? In that case, you may be ready for one of the newish digital boxes that people have been talking about lately. There are several companies out there, including Vudu, Apple, and TiVo that are trying to bring downloadable content to your television, though none has had tremendous success so far.
At Macworld 2008 Apple announced new software for its Apple TV (the device that links iTunes with your TV but now can serve as a standalone movie-renal box) as well as a new model with more storage space. In January Vudu lowered the price of its box by $100. Meanwhile, TiVo has had a relationship with Amazon Unbox for direct downloading for quite some time. Each system has different rules and content, and the differences are hardly intuitive. To help you tell them apart we've created a handy chart comparing the specs on the three systems — Click Continue below to see it.
Conclusions? Vudu has many more movies than iTunes and is the least expensive overall in terms of how much memory you get. And while on paper Vudu is the winner when it comes to image quality, in practice consumer download speeds aren't fast enough for users to download movies
that look like HD DVD or Blu-ray images in a timely manner. These companies' versions of "HD" may not live up to your expectations for the medium.
Other systems have clear advantages as well: They let you remove content from the box. Apple has Wi-Fi and computability with YouTube and Flickr. And TiVo is a DVR — the best DVR out there, really. Significant perks.
Our advice? Wait this one out. We predict that to stay competitive Vudu is going to have to go wireless and to offer more than its own content. Apple will have to improve its library until it has the same breadth and depth that iTunes does for music. Amazon's going to have to go HD, and we hope that Unbox will add Apple support. Plus there's that Netflix/LG box way down on the horizon.
The game's still open to anyone: choosing now is akin to having purchased an HD DVD player in January 2007: You'll get some use out of your system without any guarantee that prices will remain high or that the system will have staying power.
CORRECTION: There was a miswording in the original piece that implied that bandwidth influences download quality. What we meant to say was that at current download speeds have influenced the quality of downloads: even supposedly HD downloads are not at the quality of high-def disc formats like HD-DVD and Blu-ray because the amount of data required can't be downloaded in a timely manner. Additionally, we would like to clarify that the Wi-Fi category in the table refers to what comes in the box. Consumers can purchase wireless network adapters for both Tivo and Vudu.