Movie Downloads

File this under "I pay attention to this stuff so that you don't have to".

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been a "bleeding edge" early adapter of online video. As such, I've used and tested most of the movie download sites. Here is a rundown of movie rental services that I have tried.

MovieLink - By far the best site. The MovieLink desktop software is top notch, customer service is as good as it gets, and the prices are competitive. Movies can be viewed within minutes of initiating the downloads and the file quality is very good. The movie selection is also good, though I hope it will get someday get bigger. (Most of these sites carry very similar selections. Apparently, Hollywood feels compelled to limit the number of movies for download). One great benefit of MovieLink is that they have $.99 daily specials and half price weekly specials.

Guba - This site was a good value when movies were only $.99. But it turns out that that price was a loss leader to get their premium service off the ground. Movies are now $2.99, with the exception of some truly horrible indy movies that are still $.99. The biggest problem with Guba is that they don't use any desktop software and the movies come as "naked" files. You can open the files before they are fully downloaded, but if the connection breaks (which is not uncommon), you have to start the download all over again. If you wait for the download to complete, the movies play well enough, but when the site is busy, the downloads can take up to four hours. Finally, the site doesn't work with Windows Vista and customer service is spotty. The CS chat people are nice but not well informed. The CS email isn't answered in a timely manner.

Amazon Unbox - I just started using this site recently. Like MovieLink, it requires desktop software which seems to work OK. When this service first came out, CNet complained loudly that the desktop software was riddled with spyware. I haven't noticed any, but as I said, I just started using the site. Amazon's selection is about the same as MovieLink's and the prices are a bit cheaper. Most movies are $3.99 but there are plenty for $2.99 and some that are only $1.99. The first movie I bought took a long time to download, but the later ones came more quickly. Can't explain that. One benefit of Amazon Unbox is that it offers HBO content and some good documentaries. I'll keep you posted on that.

iTunes - These comments can easily be challenged by regular iTunes users of which I don't count myself. Although I buy plenty of music at iTunes, I don't buy movies there. First, I don't like QuickTime very much. The free version of the video software has limited options and I just have never gotten comfortable with it. Also, the movies are expensive, they don't offer inexpensive specials, and the iTunes store isn't as easy to navigate as MovieLink or Amazon Unbox.

CinemaNow - This is the second of the two main movies sites (after MovieLink) and has an almost identical selection with its main rival. I tried CinemaNow when it first came out and didn't much like it then. It may have improved, but I can't say for sure. It used to be a streaming service which meant that the video quality was poor. Since the selection and pricing is so much like MovieLink, I have stayed with the service that I know.

WalMart - The big box store came out with a download site a couple of months ago and it was a mess. It didn't work in Firefox and the look and feel of the site was just plain bad. I haven't gone back to see if it has been improved. The selection is no better, and probably worse, than MovieLink's.

NetFlix - Like the WalMart, NetFlix recently starting offering downloadable movies. And like WalMart, it was not ready for prime time. The selection is miniscule and the pricing is just OK. I am very much rooting for these guys because they have a killer selection of content. I'm not sure if they'll ever get the rights to distribute all their movies online, but if they do, they will dominate the download space. We'll see how they develop.

Joost - This isn't really a download site, it is more of a Web 2.0 internet TV station. I downloaded the software and it works fine. These are the guys who developed Kazaa and (I think) Skype. They're still in beta and seem to be be tracking well. They recently came out with a great ad. But the content on the site is still pretty lame, despite announcements that they have done deals with Viacom and others. It is still too early to tell if Joost will be a paradigm shifter (like Skype), but I am rooting for them.

To sum up, I'll say two things. First, MovieLink is still the best option in this space. And second, we really need Hollywood to come to the table and let these sites offer better selections. With the thousands of classic movies languishing on the shelves of the Hollywood studios, I see no reason not to make them available for download. Think... The Long Tail.