Gadgets
Rent or Buy: The Future of Movie Servers and Services
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December 21, 2012 by Grant Clauser

Years ago, when my wife and I were contemplating moving from an apartment and buying our first house, a realtor gave us the standard list of benefits of owning versus renting: it’s an investment, you can do whatever you want with it, etc. Now as the home video market evolves we need to go through that pro/con process again.

A couple of big things have happened recently that make the discussion very pertinent to people considering new or upgraded home theater systems. First, high-end home server maker Kaleidescape recently finalized a deal with Warner to offer high-quality downloads of Warner movies. Downloaded movies remain on the user’s Kaleidescape hard-disc server and can be viewed on any TV in the house that’s networked to the system. Through an Ultraviolet account, users can also view those movies on portable devices like tablets and smartphones. While the service is still in its early days, purchases presently cost about $20 for a 1080p resolution movie. Previously, the only way a user could get new movies onto his or her server was to buy the disc and load it (or buy Kaleidescape’s pre-loaded hard dives).

On the streaming front, Red Box, which for many people is the only physical rental option in town (as it is for me), finally launched its streaming service with Verizon. So far it looks less-than-competitive with other services, namely Amazon and Netflix, but it’s new, so we’ll give it time.

A recent study by Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group found that video streaming is now running neck-and-neck with viewing via physical disc, but that streaming is more popular than downloading.

I generally like the plan Kaleidescape has going—offer high-quality downloads—but the nuts and bolts of that system still need to be tightened up. Users report that the download time can be extremely long—as in hours, so you need to plan your viewing ahead of time. On the other hand, if you were buying the disc, you’d need to plan ahead too, whether you ordered it from Amazon or drove to Target to pick it up in person. 

The download to disc concept also beats out the cloud locker concept because once it’s on your hard drive, you don’t need an internet connection to access it (after the download is complete). Cloud locker stores such as Ultraviolet still rely on streaming, whereas a home hard drive keeps the whole movie local to the home where there are no worries about buffering or bandwidth.

What about cost? The subscription-based streaming services can’t be beat on that front. As long as your tastes are broad enough, Netflix’s $8/month plan can easily fill all your TV-watching hours.

So that begs the question, if there’s good content available to stream anytime, why build up your own library? Quality is one reason. While streaming services like Vudu and Netflix do offer limited 1080p videos, most of the online videos are lower quality and don’t compare to a Blu-ray disc or Kaleidescape’s bit-for-bit copies. If you’re watching old episodes of Dirty Jobs or viewing on a smallish TV, then the lower quality content will be fine. If you’re looking to fill a big screen in a home theater system that you’ve put a lot of effort and money into, then you’re more likely to expect the best picture possible.

Personally, I like the new Kaleidescape model. The convenience of a hard drive database and high-quality cancel out the the long download times, but I’m also a frequent user of both Netflix and Amazon streaming. Julie Jacobson over at Electronic House’s sister site CE Pro, suggested that Kaleidescape would be well served to come out with a less expensive version of its hardware so more people would be able to use the new download service. Presently getting into Kaleidescape can run you $25,000 just for the components (before installation costs). Part of the reason a Kaleidescape systems costs so much is licensing the company pays to permit local archiving of all those titles, though that situation has been a bit rocky for the company this year.

Would agreements directly with individual movie studios such as Warner allow the Kaleidescape to offer a more affordable system? We don’t know yet. The new model seems like an experiment, so we’ll just pay attention and see what happens.

I was describing all this to a friend recently, a friend who gets all his movies via his Apple TV or FiOS VOD, and he asked why he’d need to own any movies if they’re all available for streaming? He suggested that a long-term commitment to a movie is an old-fashioned way of looking at content. Considering my recent movie watching habits, I don’t entirely disagree with him, but I’m not willing to give up the idea of owning movies. In the meantime, the present world of streaming, renting and buying offers more access, and more decisions, then ever before, and that at least is a good thing.

Read more about Media Streamers and Servers here. 


 

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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