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Published: 2006-10-20 - 01:10:00
Home Theater : Reviews : Services

CinemaNow? More like CinemaWow! Review

By Joe Lozito

CinemaNow? More like CinemaWow!

In 1999, CinemaNow was the first of the movie download contenders to securely distribute a pay-per-view studio movie (Russell Crowe's 1997 vehicle "Heaven's Burning"). Over the years, CinemaNow has amassed 4,000 feature-length films, TV shows and concerts in its catalog thanks to licensors such as 20th Century Fox, Disney, Lionsgate, MGM, Miramax, NBC Universal, Sony, Sundance Channel and Warner Bros. In 2006, CinemaNow scored another first by offering studio movies on a "Burn to DVD" basis. More on that later.

So on to the important stuff…

Cost

CinemaNow offers the largest range of options, which is quickly apparent from the Buy, Rent, Burn-to-DVD, Free and Subscription tabs on its homepage. Movies are available for purchase for anywhere from $9.99 to $14.95. This'll get you a Windows Media Player file which you can play on up to three PCs. For about the same price you can choose the Burn-to-DVD option for certain titles. This option allows you to download a film and burn it directly onto a playable DVD (complete with cover art!). You can also rent films for up to $3.99 (some are as little as 50 cents!) for a 24-hour viewing period. The "Free" section gives you access to streaming video but the pickings are slim (think old war documentaries and episodes of animated shows you've never heard of).


Create Your Own DVD
For a monthly ($29.95) or yearly ($99.95) rate, you get unlimited access to their catalog of "non-premium" (re: non-Hollywood) videos, as well as unlimited minutes on their (ahem) "Mature content" website (for yearly subscribers only). Keep in mind, the cost to buy, rent and burn-to-DVD still applies for premium titles.

As with all of these services, CinemaNow offers a free-trial for 7 days. Each service also offers convenient gift cards so you can bequeath a film unto your favorite movie fan. Makes a great gift!

Selection

Across the board, the current selection of movies on all these services is slim. While numbers like 1500-4000 movies may sound like a lot, when you compare it with the number of movies out there, it's a drop in the well. I had a tough time even finding a movie with which to test out CinemaNow's Free area. I finally decided on old "Superman" cartoons. iTunes in particular has a surprisingly small selection of movies so far, most of them appearing on the Movie store homepage.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'm happy we're at the point that movies are being distributed online, but we have a long way to go before the online browsing experience mirrors that of a Netflix, Blockbuster or independent video store.

Interestingly, CinemaNow is the only company to offer an adult channel. Through a partnership with alladultchannel.com, which features a convenient single-sign-on, once you login to CinemaNow, you get access to the alladultchannel.com content. While this may be a story for another article, the adult film industry is known for being on the front-lines of digital media. This partnership is a smart move for CinemaNow.

Usability

In general, movie download sites work like any other e-Commerce site: you browse, you fill your shopping cart, you checkout. That's when the downloading starts. Once you have the file downloaded, you play it in the company's player of choice. CinemaNow and Movielink use the native Window Media Player which offered a far smoother playback than iTunes' or Vongo's players (both skin Quicktime and WMP, respectively).

It takes some time to decipher CinemaNow's various download options in its tabbed interface (Buy, Rent, Burn-to-DVD, Free and Subscription). You need to search each section for a while to get an idea of the kind of content that's out there. While its QuickBrowse area offers an iTunes-like interface to browse content, its site search left a little to be desired (I couldn't find that "Superman" cartoon again, for example). As mentioned earlier, CinemaNow runs its download manager in a separate pop-up window.

downloadmanager.jpg
Seven hours? I could open my own video store in that time!



The danger there is if you navigate away from that window - either by accident or by clicking on another icon that takes control of that window - you will terminate your download. Further, you can't add another movie to your CinemaNow downloader once you've kicked one off. You'll need to wait until the first one finishes before starting another.

CinemaNow, Movielink and Vongo are all tied to the Windows platform and Windows Media Player 10.

Speed/Quality

The movies on these services usually top out at about 1GB. For testing purposes, I always tried to pick films that were around 100-120 minutes and contained some amount of visual flair so I could test the quality (though due to the limited selection, that was sometimes a problem.

For example:

On CinemaNow, a purchased copy of "Underworld: Evolution" downloaded in about 30 minutes on my cable modem! Conversely, downloading a rented "Hard Candy" took 8 hours over the same bandwidth (though after 4 hours, when it buffered 50%, I could start watching it). I'm not sure what the thought process is there. I would think, if you want to rent a movie, you'd want access instantaneously.

CinemaNow's "Free" option, on the other hand, buffers and begins playing immediately in a Windows Media Player window. It also allows you to switch bandwidth options from low to medium in case playback is choppy (as it was in my case). Unfortunately, switching bandwidth selections reloads the video from the beginning (no avoiding that, I'm afraid).

cn_player.jpg
Don't hate the player...



In all cases, the film quality was excellent. Not DVD-quality, but more than adequate for downloading.

Interestingly, none of these services have embraced bittorrent as a downloading application.

Portability

CinemaNow allows you to authorize up to 3 PCs to play your titles on, but it also offers the killer ability to Burn-to-DVD (for certain titles). This option, still in Beta, requires the download of CinemaNow's proprietary DVD burner. Once that's installed (yes, it requires a reboot so make sure you're not in the middle of downloading anything) you're able to choose "Download and Burn" from your CinemaNow shopping cart. Checkout then launches the DVD burner which simultaneously downloads the film and burns it (make sure you put a blank DVD in your drive).

cinemanow_burner_001.jpg
CinemaNow's DVD burner doesn't make "Dune" a better movie



I chose David Lynch's epic debacle "Dune" to test out this process, figuring its notoriously two-plus hour running time and sandworm effects would put the resulting DVD through its paces. To CinemaNow's credit, the download and burn process worked flawlessly. On the minus side, however, it took a full 8 hours for the download and burn process to finish (only about 40 minutes of that was burn time). Strangely, the resulting DVD caused Windows Media Player to crash on several attempts. I was able to use VideoLAN's VLC media player to play it. But CinemaNow did say this was a Beta product and anyway I didn't burn a DVD to play it on my PC! Moving over to my Onkyo DVD player, the resulting DVD played fine with menus intact. There were a few more artifacts than I'd expect from a store-bought DVD, and it didn't anamorphically fill the screen, but not a bad start. Plus, keep in mind I was watching it on a 98-inch projection screen.

Also, since CinemaNow (and Movielink) uses the native Windows Media Player, it plays nicely with "placeshifting" services like Orb Networks. No such luck with iTunes and Vongo.

Security/Ownership

The sense of ownership gets a little tricky in the online downloading world. With the strange exception of iTunes, all the companies offer a rental option which allows you to download a film for a limited time (usually 24 hours - longer for Vongo's pay-per-view). A rental download works the same as any other download, but when you first click on the file to watch it, your time limit starts. So don't make the mistake I did and open the file immediately to test its quality. Once you launch the file, it queries the site's license server and the clock starts. 24 hours later, you'll find that the license server won't validate your copy, so you've got a 1GB memory hole sitting on your hard drive. There's no returning to the video store: license revoked.

cn_no_license_001.jpg
License revoked!



With CinemaNow and Movielink, you're buying DRM-protected wmv files which you can play whenever you want on your authorized PC. So you are actually purchasing something for your money, just make sure your PC is authorized properly.

Only CinemaNow offers DVD burning to a playable DVD. The rest of the options mention DVD burning "for backup only" - and you know what that means.

Final Thoughts

I really like CinemaNow's Burn-to-DVD feature and large selection, but they should take a few cues from Movielink's superior download manager and they need to speed up rental downloads. In my book, eight hours to download a rental title does not qualify as "instant gratification" and isn't that the point?

Though in the future we will hopefully move beyond media, right now CinemaNow's Burn-to-DVD feature is the only option from any of the services that actually makes you feel you've gotten your money's worth. There's still no substitute for holding a DVD in your hand and being able to play it on the computer, in the car and in the home theater.

Special Sign-Up Offer:Company Information

CinemaNow, Inc.
4553 Glencoe Avenue
Suite 200
Marina del Rey , CA 90292
www.CinemaNow.com



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