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Hands-On with Walmart's Disc-To-Digital Program

Consumer Reports News: April 13, 2012 11:38 AM

If cloud-based services, which store digital content such as music and movies on Web-based servers to allow consumers nearly ubiquitous access, are all the rage, Walmart's new disc-to-digital program adds an interesting wrinkle. Earlier this week, I had a chance to preview Walmart's new disc-to-digital in-store program, which officially kicks off next Monday, April 16th.

The program—which works with Vudu, the streaming media service Walmart acquired two years ago—lets you bring DVDs and Blu-ray movies you already own into a store and, for a small fee, get a streaming version you can access from a Vudu-powered device. The disc-to-digital service will be available in about 3,500 Walmart stores across the country.

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In the Walmart store I visited in North Bergen, NJ, the disc-to-digital service, which flies under the Walmart Entertainment banner, is located in the photo-services shop in the front of the store. If that area gets too crowded, the wireless department is also equipped to handle disc-to-digital customers, I was told.

Once you reach the service counter, you fill out an order form with your name, the e-mail address you use for your Vudu account, and your phone number. You then list the full title of each the movies you'd like to digitize and whether you want a standard-def (SD) or high-definition (HD) copy. Straight conversions—DVD to SD or Blu-ray to HD—cost $2 per disc, or you can choose to upgrade a DVD to HD for $5 per disc. Because Walmart has licenses with most of the major studios, it is able to maintain master copies of every available movie, so your disc isn't actually converted and uploaded to a locker. Instead, you get access to a master copy whenever you want to view it.

Next, you surrender your discs to the store associate, who verifies that the movie and specific version (standard, director's cut, deluxe edition, and so on) is available. My guess is that he or she will also verify that the copy you bring in isn't a rental or pirated version. So far, five major Hollywood studios—Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros.—are participating in the venture, which uses the UltraViolet cloud-based rights-management service. [Update: DreamWorks Animation titles are now also part of the service.] The notable exception is Disney/Pixar, perhaps because it has a competing copy-protected locker scheme called KeyChest. Apparently, there are about 4,000 titles currently available, with plans to add more each month.

For my test, I brought in the two-disc Batman Begins Deluxe Edition package on DVD, a Warner Bros. release, as I wanted to get a high-def version. I quickly learned two things: One, the service was able to provide a digital copy of the movie but not of the second disc with special features. Apparently, the included extra material is determined by each studio and sometimes by the movie's director.

The other was that you can't get both HD and SD versions of the same disc. I wanted to do this so I could stream SD to mobile devices (where it might count against any data caps) but still have the HD version available on my HDTV at home. I found out later that even if I pay to get the higher-quality digital copy, the HD version is available only on my TV; the stream automatically defaults to SD when accessed by a computer or iOS mobile device. Also, even if the HD version is available, its quality will vary depending on my available bandwidth.

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Once my order was processed, a small price barcode was printed from a small Dymo labeler and attached to my order form and scanned by the associate. Since I elected to get the HD version, my bill came to $5.17 with tax. After I paid, the associate physically stamped the inner ring of the disc (as in the image above) with "Walmart Entertainment" in indelible ink, presumably to prevent me from lending the disc to friends who could then get digital copies without first purchasing the movie in a physical format.

Given the complexity of digital rights management schemes like UltraViolet, it seemed sort of funny that Walmart was using the same time-honored authentication method that's kept unpaid patrons out of bars and concerts for decades. But the disc-to-digital system worked smoothly, and the whole transaction took about 2 minutes.

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By the time I got back home, I had received a welcoming e-mail from Vudu that required me to complete my account setup, as Walmart's system is powered by the Vudu streaming-video service. If you want to rent or buy movies and shows directly from Vudu, you need to enter your credit-card information, but you can skip that step for disc-to-digital orders since you pay at the store. I also received a separate confirmation and receipt for my disc-to-digital transaction, which included a link to where my movie was stored in the My Vudu section of the website. But I also had to set up a separate UltraViolet account and password before I could access my movie.

With my Vudu and UltraViolet accounts now settled, I was able to go to the Vudu website to find Batman Begins, which was located under the My Vudu tab. Vudu lets you share information about what you watch and the ratings you bestow, and a social feed lets you connect via Facebook, though you can, as I did, set your preferences to Private.

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Once I tried playing the movie, I realized that my access to content varied by the device I was using to connect to Vudu. For example, using my work PC, I could either stream or download the movie, but the quality of the video stream was limited to SD, even though I paid for the HD version. The iPad was also limited to SD-quality video, and I wasn't able to download the movie. But when I connected to Vudu using a Boxee Box connected to my TV, I was able to get the highest-quality HDX version of the movie, though downloading wasn't an option. Upon closer inspection of the Batman Begins page of the My Vudu screen, small icons in the upper right corner indicate that PC and iOS access is limited to SD, while viewing on a TV gets HD quality.

The good news is that if you have the bandwidth to support it—at least 9 Mbps or better—the video quality of Vudu's HDX format is impressive, with HD-like detail and very few compression artifacts, at least on my system. But again, the quality of the video you'll receive really depends on the available bandwidth of your Internet connection.

So I guess the real question is whether Walmart's new disc-to-digital program is a worthwhile service. If you want to be cynical, disc-to-digital programs represent another opportunity for studios to resell you content you've already purchased, in some cases more than once. Certainly you've been able to rip CDs to create digital files for portable use for years—for free.

But for others, there are a few real advantages. One is that since almost all the heavy lifting is done by the sales associate rather than the customer, it's an easy way for technophobes or those not especially comfortable with technology to get streaming access to movies they own. And for those who'd like to bump up the streaming quality of their DVDs without springing for the Blu-ray version, disc-to-digital is an affordable option. Arguably, the $2 fee to get unlimited access to those movies (or $5 for a higher-quality version) compares favorably to a one-time Vudu rental, typically $5 for a first-run HD movie or $6 for an HDX version.

We'd like to hear what you think about Walmart's new disc-to-digital program and whether you'll try it. Let us know what you find most compelling about the service, as well as anything you didn't really like.

James K. Willcox


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