VUDU review: the HD perspective

VUDU's self-titled set-top-box has certainly made quite the name for itself in the few short months that it has been on the market. Whether or not that name is positive one, however, is most certainly up for debate. Soon after launching at $399, reviews came pouring in that seemed to harmoniously shout "meh," but we still had hope for it. Upon speaking with company representatives at CEDIA, we knew that potential was still untapped at its coming out party -- the only question was how much support would it get from studios when pleading for their precious content in high-definition. Needless to say, garnering said backing still seems to be an uphill battle, but we managed to wrap our paws around the now-$295 device and put it through the paces that we HD junkies care about. Follow us after the break for the full spill, won't you?

For those still unaware, VUDU began pushing out its v1.2 software to owners on the final day of last month, and merely 24 hours later, we had our first glimpse at the (admittedly underwhelming, but quickly expanding) HD movie library. As of the time that this article was published, we found some 86 high-definition flicks listed, though not all of them were accessible immediately.


Upon unwrapping the VUDU, hastily scanning the instructions for anything out of the ordinary, and plugging in our HDMI and optical audio cables, we were greeted with a simple, albeit well laid out home screen. Unfortunately, we were forced to stare at said home screen for half an hour before a technical representative walked us through the steps to re-pair the remote with the box. Granted, we're chalking the mishap up to having a very early production unit, but still, this isn't exactly the way you want to start off your experience with a device that truthfully has little value if it can't provide instant gratification.


Once we had a way to actually surf around the UI, set up our audio / video preferences and get situated to watch a film, we were yet again let down. As we expected, there is no way for a user to manually initiate the v1.2 update, and worse still, technical support can't push it to your box on command. Upon inquiring if there was any way to receive the upgrade immediately so that an HD film could be rented, we were casually informed to simply "check back tomorrow" to see if v1.2 had arrived. Trust us, we know this sounds absurdly nit-picky, but again, when you remove this unit's ability to dole out desirable content on demand, it starts to lose whatever luster it had -- and fast.


After we painstakingly walked away from the box and allowed it to suck down the oh-so-necessary update, we returned a day later -- popcorn in hand -- ready to rock. As we've pointed out on so many standalone HD movie players, startup time is one aspect that can truly grate one's nerves. Of course, VUDU suggests that you leave your unit plugged in at all times (à la Nintendo's Wii) so that hopefully, future updates will arrive overnight and you'll never be forced to twiddle your thumbs when you're ready to be entertained. Still, the initial boot up sequence took around 30 seconds, which in the grand scheme of things, didn't seem all that bad. After v1.2 hit our box, we were treated to an easy to find "HD" selector in the Genre search. It should also be noted that every menu responded lickity split, and overall, we were thoroughly pleased with the interface and the remote -- both of which we'll touch on more in just a bit.


Scrolling through the selection of HD films, we found that a number of titles were temporarily out of reach thanks to a message that stated: "Updating box -- available soon." Nevertheless, we settled on 3:10 to Yuma, dimmed the lights and began taking notes. The actual procurement of the rental was completely painless (save for the slight sting felt anytime you watch $3.99 to $5.99 vaporize before your very eyes), and within seconds of hitting Purchase, our film was underway. We greatly appreciated the intuitive process of locating and purchasing a film, and the fact that even an HD rental required absolutely no wait time to begin was quite impressive. For what it's worth, we had our VUDU connected via a standard 5Mbps cable internet connection, and it never once proved to be too slow -- throughout a number of HD movies, we were never forced to hurl nearby objects in order to deal with an unwanted encounter with Mr. Buffering. Also of note, The Bourne Ultimatum was the only high-definition title on tap that could actually be purchased outright rather than rented, but we're hoping this situation will change in the future.

Another small (but totally welcome) perk was the complete absence of pre-film trailers. Once you commit to renting a title, you're immediately presented with the feature presentation. During the film, there aren't too many tweaks you can make within the box itself. The video / audio settings provide no wide array of advanced preferences, but this low-fi approach was actually admired in-movie. Fast-forwarding and rewinding were handled by simply scrolling the wheel on the bundled remote forward and back, and while we went in expecting to see quite a bit of lag when zooming long distances, there was essentially none to speak of. Of course, you can only fast-forward as far as the movie has currently downloaded -- which is slightly depressing, but equally understandable.


Playback impressions

For those that scrolled directly to here in order to find out whether or not the VUDU actually can deliver high-def rentals worth swooning over, here's the long and short of it: HD films looked better than upscaled DVDs, but honestly, they simply can't compete with bona fide HD DVD / Blu-ray discs. Of course, this shouldn't come as any huge surprise. After all, we just got finished praising the thing for popping out an HD movie with zero wait time, which certainly leads us to believe that there's some seriously sophisticated compression (or caching) going on in order to provide content so instantaneously. Additionally, we don't suspect this thing was ever created to go mano a mano with physical discs, but it could certainly run with the HD VOD pack.

While watching, we spotted minor blurring during fast moving scenes and on facial closeups, and there was (very) small amounts of artifacting present just about anytime a vivid tone took over the screen (i.e. an explosion of some sort). We weren't quite floored (nor appalled) with the level of detail, but again, it's difficult not to expect some trade-offs when accessing high-def movies via the internet. For the average joe / jane, the results would certainly suffice -- after all, we are picking things apart with a critical eye -- but for videophiles and even casual HD fanatics, VUDU's visual performance in the high-def department leaves a bit to be desired.

Thankfully, the audio department was an entirely different ballgame. In every title that we peeked, we were thoroughly pleased with the sound quality. Surround sound tracks were recognized by our receiver and piped out accordingly, and despite fooling around with the fast-forward, rewind, and pause functions entirely more than necessary, we never experienced a single audio hiccup. No sync issues, no audio lag, no problems whatsoever. In case you couldn't tell, we had to give this side of the equation a hearty applause -- 'tis a shame the video end wasn't quite up to this level.


Comparison with SD movies

For baseline purposes, we also took a gander at a number of SD movies offered up on the VUDU. To be entirely honest, we were actually fairly pleased with how SD content managed to trounce our expectations, though it was a touch depressing to really visualize how much the HD content needs to improve before it truly stands out from its low(er)-resolution counterparts. Overall, SD flicks tended to exhibit some of the same blurring quirks that we noticed in HD footage, but it was closer to true DVD quality than HD footage was to being in line with HD DVD / Blu-ray. On the audio front, we were yet again left smiling -- it's clear that VUDU's engineers have the sound delivery mechanisms down pat at this point.


We wanted the VUDU to deliver in such a way that HD freaks could really grab hold if those excruciatingly long wait times encountered with Netflix / Blockbuster were pushing them to find an alternative. Unfortunately, we still can't wholeheartedly recommend the VUDU to those who appreciate high-definition. To be honest, the device still seems grossly overpriced when you consider that the aforementioned rental-by-mail options can be turned on and off on a whim, provide flicks that don't vanish 24 hours after you hit play for the first time, and have HD libraries that far exceed that found on the VUDU. The primary selling point of this device is its ability to provide absolute instant gratification, but with HD VOD quickly expanding into more markets across the nation -- not to mention the smattering of local B&M video stores surrounding most everyone -- we're still left scratching our heads trying to uncover exactly what niche this thing is aiming for.

At the end of the day, our time with the VUDU could be described as generally enjoyable. We were pleased with the interface, thrilled with the ease of use and particularly wowed by the audio quality. Still, those flashes of greatness can't overcome the subpar HD video quality, high initial cost of ownership and unfortunate rental restrictions. Is the VUDU a unique and nifty gizmo for acquiring HD movies? Unquestionably so. Is it something that's ready to replace your satisfactory relationship with HD VOD, Netflix / Blockbuster or HD DVD / Blu-ray? Not just yet.