With the update that'll bring VUDU to owners of the LG BD390 Blu-ray player on schedule for next week, the crew over at Engadget HD managed to get an early look. As you might expect, those HD snobs at EHD are hard to please, so that combined with the comparison to Blu-ray and Netflix's Watch Now, makes for an interesting read that you'll just have to click on through for. The bottom line though is that new features on existing hardware is always appreciated and if you've been waiting to pull the trigger on a Blu-ray player, this might just be the feature that'll make your finger twitch.
Lets start with the VUDU on the BD390 out of the box experience. By the time you read this, if you turn on your network connected BD390, you'll see that there's an update waiting for you. Once you click OK to install it, you'll find a new icon on the player's main menu. Upon selecting the new icon with the remote, you'll be faced with the main VUDU menu -- one that's remained virtually unchanged since the initial launch of the service. You can pretty much browse the entire selection, but when you try to buy or rent a movie you'll be presented with a simple activate screen that instructs you to go to your PC and navigate to a site. At which point you can enter an activation code from the screen and then eventually your credit card and other personal information. That's pretty much all there is to it, which couldn't be easier. We did also noticed that there is a overscan correction setting that's on by default, which you'll want to disable if your TV supports 1:1 pixel mapping.
Picture and Audio quality
Lets start with the good stuff which is the picture and audio quality. Like we said back when VUDU HDX was initially released, it is virtually indistinguishable from Blu-ray. Now we don't want to go as far as to say the quality is the equal to Blu-ray -- honestly we're not qualified -- but we will say that the picture quality has no noticeable compression artifacts like HD on cable and satellite does. The bottom line is that we'd be shocked if anyone had anything bad to say about the picture quality and the audio quality is pretty much in the same class. Thanks to the ability of the BD390 to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus or decode and output as LPCM, the VUDU HDX movies offer the next best thing to Blu-ray's Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD and the difference is so subtle that we can't tell the difference -- assuming it's even possible, we wonder what type of equipment you'd need to hear any difference that there might be. Of course we should mention that you might need as fast as a 9Mbps connection to get the same quality. In our tests we used a 20Mbps FiOS connection and the player always managed to negotiate an HDX quality stream for us -- more on that later. We do imagine that it might be a different story on a Friday Night at 8pm when more people are trying to stream a movie at the same time, but we suppose that's a problem VUDU would like to have.
Selection, Price and Usability
Now that we've covered the good, lets talk about the bad. We only wish the price and selection were as good as the quality. Just like the VUDU service on the dedicated box, the new release HDX movies are pretty expensive and don't offer the options we'd like to see. For example, you can pretty much only rent HDX titles and the cost is usually $5.99 with a 24 hour limit. As if this wasn't bad enough, although there are over 2000 HD titles most aren't what we're looking for. What we mean is that not all the Blu-ray new releases are there and most of the catalogs we own on Blu-ray aren't available to even rent in HDX.
Another issues we ran into was the fact that there aren't any English subtitles. Now obviously forced subtitles are there, but this hardly helps those who have hearing issues or that simply find it difficult to understand people with heavy accents. The other thing we noticed that's different in a bad way is that there are only 15 chapter markers in a movie and they seem to be based on time rather than the scenes of the movie. This isn't a huge deal and we did like the overall navigation -- we do prefer this to the original VUDU box, thanks to the standard remote. We were also disappointed to see that the next chapter button on the remote doesn't do anything, so you have to hit info, then the chapter icon, then browse the thumbnails, sans descriptions.
The last thing we want to mention here is the new preview feature that wasn't a part of the VUDU box back when we tried it. The cool thing is that you can sample most -- but not all -- of the movies and TV shows before committing to pay to watch it. The problem is that rather than show you an actual trailer of the movie or a specific sample that is a good example of the feature, it just shows you the first minute of the movie. This obviously doesn't always work as it might just be beginning credits, instead of something that will help you decide if you want to pay to watch the movie.
We'd also like to note that during our testing we checked out a variety of HDX content, but we only had time to watch one movie all the way through. The good news is that the overall experience was enjoyable, but the bad news is that the movie stopped a few times to rebuffer. This is really puzzling and concerning to us because we were able to verify FiOS was delivering the full 20Mbps to the BD390, and VUDU's bandwidth indicator always showed the full three bars. We just can't believe that this is normal, and are sure that VUDU is working diligently to ensure HDX streaming works, but it is something to consider as a pause in the action at the wrong time can really ruin a movie. We did ask VUDU what the deal was, and received a prompt response that logs would be reviewed, we'll let you know if there's a solution.
Your movie viewing options
VUDU is actually a pretty good supplement to both Blu-ray and Netflix Watch Now. We say that because all three services seem to have HD content that you can't get anywhere else. Of course it would be nice if you could just choose one, but you really can't complain about having more options. So maybe you rent Blu-ray Discs from Netflix or Redbox, but when the latest title isn't getting to you fast enough, then you could hit up VUDU to watch something without waiting -- or for adult content. Then if you wanted to catch up on your favorite HD show, you switch over to Netflix Watch Now and stream that -- of course the big problem with Netflix streaming for movies, and even TV, is that Netflix doesn't offer surround sound. So the fact that the BD390 offers all three of these great sources of HD is pretty compelling, add in the fact that the player supports MKV so you can playback other HD content you might have, and you pretty much have access to more high quality HD content then you have time to watch.
The bottom line here is that VUDU to the BD390 is a nice addition as owners now have a another source for HD content. Now because of VUDU's price and selection, we doubt anyone would use this as their primary source of HD content, but it does supplement Blu-ray better than any other streaming service. We would like to mention that if you're mostly interested in TV shows, just move along as the HD shows selection on VUDU is pretty pathetic. But to sumerize is in one nice and clean statement; Blu-ray is still our favorite source of HD, but HDX on VUDU is really the only acceptable source of on demand HD content available right now. Which means that now that we can access the content without yet another set-top-box, we look forward to using it.