VUDU – Video On Demand Perfected?
I recently took a look at VUDU’s high-definition (HD) video on demand (VOD) service by viewing Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Inception. While watching using my Samsung TV’s built-in VUDU app, I experienced something amazing. Was it a dream or a dream realized?
VUDU promotes itself as a premium, instant and “eye-popping” 1080p streaming VOD service with day-and-date release and the most HD titles. VUDU has also recently announced their carriage of 3D content which is welcome in today’s 3D-starved content market. A quick check of their catalog reveals more than 3600 titles available in VUDU’s HDX streaming format.
What is this HDX you ask? HDX is VUDU’s top streaming quality tier featuring 1080p resolution and a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. Viewing Inception in HDX was eye-opening, to say the least. Internet streaming video, while convenient, is often associated with poor quality video and audio lacking surround. HDX is a bright exception to that notion. HDX has different levels of streams with the minimum being 4.5 mbps and the maximum being 9 mbps. I had the good fortune of watching at the highest HDX bit rate as indicated by the VUDU app.
Over the viewing, there were a couple of instances where the quality degraded slightly for a brief moment, but this is to be expected when streaming (especially at 9 mbps). Otherwise, the picture far exceeded my expectations. The quality was not quite equal to Blu-ray disc (BD), but it was better than broadcast quality and certainly better than DVD. I don’t happen to have Inception on BD (yet) to allow me to perform a side-by-side comparison, but the VUDU HDX quality exhibited fine details such as grains of sand, skin pores, water droplets, etc. The grain structure of the film also seemed intact and there didn’t seem to be any offensive noise reduction resulting in soft images or waxy faces. Some scenes had quite a bit of contrast in the image though without a reference, it is difficult to know whether the HDX stream was lacking some dynamic range or it was the source. The contrast certainly wasn’t offensive and is a technique that is often employed in film and TV. One thing I found during the viewing was that I had no control over my Samsung display’s “Cinema Smooth” mode which provides proper cadence for 24p content which is quite a shame and will hopefully be enabled with an update of the application.
Unfortunately, I do not have a Dolby Digital Plus capable receiver, but I was able to enjoy the Dolby Digital (AC3) soundtrack bitstreamed to my receiver via optical S/PDIF connection. Though I do not know for sure what the audio bit rate was, the soundtrack was consistent with 640kbps AC3 tracks on BD as opposed to the typical lower bitrate DVD AC3 tracks.
The VUDU app allows for navigation via chapters and also the typical fast-forward and rewind capabilities. Amazingly, HDX streams only take a few seconds to buffer before playing. Notably absent from non-foreign VUDU titles are subtitles.
It appears VUDU charges $5.99 for most HDX rentals, but they also have some titles as low as 99 cents. The typical rental period lasts 24 hours from the time of purchase so it can be viewed an unlimited number of times during that window of time. There is also a free, 2-minute viewing period to help ensure that the stream can be viewed properly during the viewing session. If $5.99 is too rich for your blood, there are cheaper HD (720p) and standard-definition (SD) offerings. While VUDU can be found on the PC via Boxee, the offerings are sadly SD only. VUDU compatible devices are listed here.
Considering the state of video and audio quality in Internet streaming video, VUDU certainly appears to be the quality champion and something that I hope other services try to emulate. While my experience wasn’t perfect, it was a lot closer to the dream of high quality streaming than I expected. If you’ve tried VUDU, I’d love to know what you think, so please comment below.