Movie streaming: Vudu can do HD

Consumer Reports News: October 12, 2009 08:08 AM

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A comparison of HDX (left) and SD (right) streaming video quality, provided by Vudu, for the movie "Chronicles of Riddick." One might argue the quality of the picture exceeds the quality of the film. (Click to enlarge.)
[ PHOTO: Courtesy of Vudu ]

We recently had a chance to try out some of the newer streaming movies services that are available to owners of newer Internet-enabled TVs (as well as some Blu-ray players). What we've found, as we did several month ago when we tested a number of standalone streaming players supporting services such as Blockbuster OnDemand, Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand, is that all of the services are capable of sending decent-looking, DVD-quality video streams. However, none lived up their their HD billing.

The sole exception was Vudu's HDX-format video. When we tested it previously, it did look like real HD but was available only as a download, which could take several hours to process before it was stored on the playback device's internal hard drive. More recently, however, HDX video has become available as a stream on TVs from LG and Mitsubishi, as well as on LG's BD390 Blu-ray player. So naturally we were curious to see if the streaming version of HDX could match the picture quality we saw as a download.

Much to our—well, at least my—surprise, our preliminary tests showed the Vudu HDX movie streams continue to be head-and-shoulders above the other streaming offerings in terms of picture quality. They also include the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtracks that were available on the downloads. During our preliminary testing of streaming HDX, performed on LG's 60-inch 60PS80 plasma TV, the HDX version of "Lord of War" started up quickly, and image quality was impressive. We were able to pause, rewind, and fast-forward with no buffering delays, just as you do on a disc player or DVR, and return to the movie at the point we left off.

The picture wasn't perfect, though. We did see small image artifacts and some jaggies on the edges of objects (the type we normally see from 1080i video, not the 1080p Vudu says it sends). But our overall impression was that it was comparable to the HD we get from cable, though a notch below that offered on Blu-ray titles. So far, it's the best streaming video we've experienced.

Curious about how the company has been able to maintain quality in the jump from download to stream, I asked David Speiser, Vudu's press relations specialist, how Vudu's streaming technology worked. He said that while the HDX downloads used a mix of downloading, streaming, and peer-to-peer technologies—which required a long download time in order to buffer enough data to make the presentation seem seamless—the newer service is 100-percent streaming. Because newer TVs and Blu-ray players have more processing power and improved chipsets, they're able to process streams more efficiently, maintaining picture quality and enabling the movie to start playing almost immediately. (That's also why older Web-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players can't be upgraded to accept HDX streams.)

So far we've been impressed by our initial tests of Vudu's HDX streaming service, and look forward to more viewing. We just got a Vudu-enabled Mitsubishi LCD TV in our labs, so we'll be doing more tests of Vudu and other services. But for now, Vudu HDX is the only streaming-movie offering we've seen that justifies its HD moniker. —James K. Willcox

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