Part of the challenge of being a busy gamer is finding the energy to interact with a game rather than simply kicking back with less engaging fare such as movies and TV. Games take a certain mindset that you may have a difficult time easing into after a busy, stressful day. Watching a movie, particularly one that you know well and quote often, can relax you and help get you ready to get your game on.
If you're like me, you also find it soothing to listen and half-watch a favorite flick while performing a repetitive work task. The challenge there is portability and the ability to get in and out of your movie collection quickly.
You could watch a DVD or Blu-ray, but those take so long to load. You could sacrifice a second screen and some of your computer's processing power to stream a movie, but I find this slows me down too much and blocks me from my second screen, which I use constantly.
So I prefer using my iPad, much in the same way people will listen to music in the workplace. Then, in the evening, I'll frequently pipe a favorite flick to a small TV in our kitchen while I cook or clean dishes. Then, after dinner and some light TV, most nights I'm ready to play.
It required a lengthy adjustment for me to appreciate the value of keeping movies in the cloud. Years ago, when digital download codes were first being bundled with DVDs, I resisted redeeming them due to what I imagine was a common misconception. The codes were generally only good for a year, but I thought this meant that the digital downloads themselves were time-bombed and would stop working after the date had passed. When I realized my mistake, I redeemed all of the codes I could find that still worked. Some studios are more forgiving than others. Disney codes routinely work after the expiration date, while I've found that Warner Bros movies consistently fail.
The nice thing about iTunes Digital Copy downloads is that there is, in fact, a feeling of permanence. Once redeemed, you "own" the downloaded files and can easily transfer them to digital devices on demand (well, as long as they're iOS-based). Also, there's no need for an Internet connection to access them. Downsides? They take up a fair amount of space, so you must pick and choose. And they're not quick to sync over USB, so if you're in a rush you're out of luck.
Another point of confusion: Some Blu-Rays now come with codes for BOTH UltraViolet and iTunes Digital Copy, though the boxes don't always list both on the front. When I first started seeing these, I thought that you had to choose one service or the other. Perhaps it's the way the code slips are designed, with one code in the middle of the page and the directions for the two different redemption methods listed above and below it. I'm a reasonably smart person, so if I believed this there are bound to be others with the same mistaken belief. Unfortunately, I seem to have recycled a few of these slips including the code for one of our favorite films, Cabin in the Woods. I desperately want to add this to our UltraViolet library (despite the movie being on Netflix Instant at the moment).
Best practice: Keep your codes, even the ones you've already redeemed, in a shoebox or something until you're sure you won't ever need them again.
We understand if you have a sudden need to dash off and rummage through your movie collection in search of lost treasure: any digital download codes you might have missed. We're still finding them! Just in the past few weeks while working on this story, I found unredeemed codes still nestled in Blu-Ray cases for Kick-Ass, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. All of them worked!
UltraViolet came onto my radar about a year ago. There was a code included with our Blu-Ray copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I put off redeeming it, but eventually took the plunge. The hassles surfaced almost immediately. First, I needed to create a UV account. Then I needed a Flixster or Vudu account to access my digital stash. Each studio and/or service you sign up with usually needs its own login name and password. Some movies can only be redeemed on one service (Sony, for instance, is both studio and service provider), so you can't just select one and always stick with it. On top of that, I accidentally created multiple Flixster accounts, presumably when I clicked an offer for a free movie one day and it registered a new account using my Facebook credentials without my knowledge. I only noticed when the UV copy of Life of Pi was mistakenly added to the wrong account. It is possible to merge multiple UV accounts, though it's incredibly confusing. Flixster really should verify your login before crediting a code redemption, but I encountered a similar problem with Cloud Atlas just this past week.
Oh, and when I first tried to download a movie to my PC for local playback from the Sony site, it failed. To this day, I'm still not sure why. But I've come to terms with the fact that UltraViolet is probably best as a streaming service - though it has been possible for me to download movies to tablets, which is great for mobile viewing when you don't have an Internet connection. More on that below.
Anyway, for the first year after Holy Grail, I only collected UltraViolet movies from movies we bought on Blu-Ray that contained codes, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Magic Mike, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises. Just a handful, really, so I didn't really see the value. We also picked up a few bonus titles here and there from promos designed to get us to opt into to communications from various studios and services. Signing up for Vudu right now gets you 10 standard definition (SD) movies, while Flixster lets you collect 5 SD movies when you join their Disc to Digital beta (you do need to have eligible DVDs). And, yes, you can do both and link them to the same UltraViolet account.
Suddenly, I hit critical mass. This is when I started to see the value of UltraViolet. It's like your own private Netflix filled with mostly movies you love! (Though some freebies you could live without. And lots of movies, at least for us at this early stage, that aren't available anywhere to stream. Pass the Ammo, anyone? Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy? C'mon, there's no Pink Floyd: The Wall?!)
We've been collecting movies for decades, starting with laserdiscs in the early '90s, which then led to us amass around a thousand DVDs and now hundreds of Blu-Rays. (Laserdiscs typically ran $40+, so it's hard to pass up a good movie on disc when it's less than half the price.) So now we have an extensive DVD library, which can be difficult to tap on demand. First, we have to find the disc. Then pop it into whatever player is handy and get past all of the promotional crap they nearly always bundle before the film (and which may or may not be skippable). Digitizing our disc collection is an option, but that takes a lot of time and storage, so we reserve this for obscure favorites that are not found anywhere in the cloud.
Digital copies can be loaded in a matter of seconds and (generally) save your place when you quit. Perfect for busy folks like ourselves.
It's also worth noting that if you're a digital only type (no discs), there are several advantages to UltraViolent: a certain degree of portability, the option (with most clients) to download copies for offline viewing, and discounts/sales on movies and TV shows. My experience is mostly with Disc to Digital, but if you're into the cloud already then you should give UV a look.
Cheap and peppy
To use the UltraViolet Disc to Digital program, offered in slightly different forms by both Flixster and Vudu, you pop a disc into your PC. If the disc is eligible and recognized, you get the option to add an SD copy to your UV library for $2 to $3 (Flixster tends to be more expensive at $2.50 to $3 per SD conversion, so the point goes to Vudu), or an HD upgrade for $5. Vudu has Blu-Ray support, so if you have a Blu-Ray drive in your computer, you may be able to get HD for just $2 per title (another point to Vudu - and see the July 15 update below for an even better deal!).
None of these services are without their... quirks. That's a nice way of saying that there are all sorts of bugs and gotchas:
- Discs are frequently not recognized. If this happens with Vudu, you can take then into a Walmart store where they'll validate the discs and add them to your account. They'll also stamp the center ring of the discs to ensure they aren't ever redeemed again. Cabin in the Woods was just added to Vudu's Disc to Digital program recently (full title list and updates), but when I tried to redeem it, it wasn't recognized. So I've decided to continue looking for my missing code, though I would totally buy it again for $2.
- Titles that are supposed to be in the Disc to Digital program may come back as ineligible, or come up incorrectly. Flixster (full title list) misidentified our DVD copy of Vanilla Sky as The Firm (which I do NOT want), while Vudu told me that most of my Star Trek Blu-Rays were Star Trek IV, so no Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for us. Also, Vudu won't recognize my Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Blu-Ray, but the DVD from the same package would work (for a $3 upcharge). Again, if this happens on Vudu, you can take them to Walmart. Charlie's Angels, Eye of the Beholder, and Battle for Terra were all supposed to be included in the program, but repeatedly came back as ineligible. So I took them in to a store and they were added as soon as I could get the attention of a trained Entertainment department salesperson and she was able to look up the steps required (they apparently don't get a lot of UV business). I'd rather this worked at home, so I'm not planning to repeat the experience.
- Some titles are not available on all services. Our Vudu titles Fandango and The Ninth Configuration can't be played or downloaded on Flixster.
- Flixster misidentifies some movies (John Sayles' Lone Star has a poster for an older movie of the same name starring Clark Gable) and offers placeholder text and images for others. In some cases, these movies will still play correctly, and in others they're not offered at all - despite being listed as available.
- Almost all of the UltraViolet players we've tried have some issues; more on that in a sec.
Now, the plus side is that you can often pick up inexpensive used copies of DVDs and get cheap digital versions, while holding on to the disc as a backup should the service ever expire or become undesirable to use. (If you're unscrupulous, I guess you could resell the discs. Or donate them to a library or something.)
The Pros and Cons of UV-ing
Once you have a decent collection of movies (and, I have to warn you, once you get to a certain point it can be difficult to stop adding!), you'll need a method or two to play it.
UltraViolet players are all over the map, and they don't always do a great job of keeping your place when you quit. But when they work, they range from acceptable to awesome.
On iOS, your choices are:
Vudu: This is an embarrassingly low frills client but tends to play best overall, at least in my experience. You have to sign in once a day, which is a nuisance. (I can't recall the last time I was prompted to sign in to my HBO Go or Netflix apps.) Once you do sign in, I find it almost always comes up blank. I then have to quit and relaunch the app to see my movies. There's no quick 15- or 30-second rewind button, for those times when you're distracted and want to go back just a little bit, so you're stuck scanning. The popup interface drops off at inopportune times, so you'll spend a lot of time tapping the screen trying to pause or find your place. And there's no way to remove the clock/status bar from the top of the screen. And if you get a notification, the movie will quit and you'll need to restart it. But: Vudu reliably plays where Flixster does not.
Flixster: This app has proven to be really choppy, and the recent update seems to have done little to address this. But Flixster is the only app on iOS so far that lets you download movies for offline playback, so you'll want to have it for travel at least. It also lists the movies you've started but not finished first, making it easy to keep track of what you're watching. Until recently, it played the correct Lone Star movie despite the incorrect listing - but the recent update seems to have nuked that. And my copy of Chances Are sticks in a specific place every time I play it on Flixster, though it is smooth on Vudu.
PlayStation 3 only has Vudu, and it is the best UltraViolet player we've used to date. Seriously, this is your app of choice for the TV if you own a PS3. If only the other Vudu players were this full featured, we'd never load Flixster again.
On Xbox 360, you can choose between:
Vudu: This isn't quite as good as the PS3 app, but the differences are negligible. We do sometimes notice dropped frames on the highest setting (HDX), making playback seem jerky, even though we have a pretty fast Internet connection that should be up to the task. You can either drop the quality down to standard HD or SD, or use the Flixster app.
Flixster: This app is actually pretty good. Right after it launched, we noticed some buggy descriptions and missing images, but these seem to have been addressed. Playback is generally smooth, though many movies that should be in HD are only offered in SD and, again, some movies (like my misclassified copy of Lone Star) won't play back at all.
Android has Flixster available in the Amazon App Store (I tested it with a 1st generation Kindle Fire). Since it's the only game in town, at least on my flavor of Android, you may be stuck with it. It's pretty good, but suffers from some of the same flaws as it's brethren on other platforms: some movies (like my misclassified copy of Lone Star) won't play at all, and it's not glitch proof (that SD version of Chances Are still sticks and skips in the same place).
Despite many flaws, there's something compelling about creating your own cloud-based movie service where you can collect many (but probably not all) of your all-time favorite flicks. We just hit 120 titles and we're planning to add more in coming weeks, both with retail codes (Warm Bodies) and Disc to Digital conversion (Galaxy Quest was just added to Vudu!). And we're hopeful that someday not too far off, the major bugs will be worked out, nearly all of the movies we want will be added, and we'll be able to access our film collection almost anywhere and anytime we want.
We're hopeful that as UV continues to grow, we'll see many improvements:
- Services such as Flixster and Vudu should continue to improve and correct the copious errors in their Disc to Digital programs, and improve the quality of their library (the SD transfer of The Ninth Configuration on Vudu is embarrassingly bad, while many other SD movies are near HD quality). We'd also love the option to upgrade our SD purchases to HD for a few dollars instead of the full $5, particularly if they're added later. Or if you purchase an SD version of a movie from a Blu-Ray when there's no HD available, offer an automatic HD upgrade if it's ever added.
- Players should become more reliable, full featured, and allow better management of libraries. Notably absent are personalization features like advanced sorting and categorization. Right now, movies default to the order added and don't offer to let you to create your own lists such as Family Movies, All Time Faves, and Classics.
- Studios should begin including digital copies for larger collections such as the Hitchcock and James Bond boxsets we picked up last year. "Instant" collections like these would drive UV adoption faster and improve the value proposition for retail purchase. The closest thing we've seen is the Warner Bros 50 Film Collection, but this will run you $400-600.
- Similar programs should be added for TV shows, including retail codes and Disc to Digital cloud conversion.
UPDATE (May 22, 2013): CinemaNow
Shortly after I hit publish, community member and avid commenter UltimoRey tipped me off to CinemaNow. They hide their UltraViolet integration deep within their own storefront, so I missed it during my initial review of UV apps. If you link a new or existing UV account now, you'll get 10 movies from a constrained list (the highlight for us was Big Trouble in Little China but we already had Austin Powers and The Perfect Storm). Add that to the 10 freebies you get from Vudu and the 5-6 from Flixster, and it's Instant Movie Collection!
The biggest issue we've encountered across all of the CinemaNow players is that they do not seem to sync your place in a movie across platforms (say from iPad to PS3 and back). Since I watch movies on one device during the day and another in the evening, this is a big problem.
They also have their own Disc to Digital program (list), which I'm checking out now. It does not support Blu-Ray, and conversion ranges from $2-3 for SD and $5-6 for HD.
Here's the rundown on the CinemaNow players we've tried:
PS3: This is near Vudu quality, but doesn't support all of the movies that Vudu does. However, it performs better than its Xbox 360 equivalent, at least for now. My biggest complaints are that it can be tricky to navigate a long list of movies, and it doesn't always reliably remember your place.
Xbox 360: This has potential but many movies that work with CinemaNow on other platforms failed (notably, Out of Sight, What Dreams May Come, and Lone Star). Really, there's an opportunity for someone to excel at UltraViolet playback on Xbox 360.
iPad: This was the most reliable UltraViolet player on iOS to date, but it's inabilty to sync my progress across devices was my biggest complaint. The app itself was more stable than Vudu, and it supported fast forwarding and playback more reliably than Flixster. There's even a handy 30-second rewind button. This will be my new go to app when I plan to watch a movie entirely on iPad (say, on a trip), but if I want the flexibility to sync to watch on TV I'll stick with Vudu - bugs and all.
Overall, a mixed bag but CinemaNow may work well for you.
UPDATE (July 15, 2013): Flixster and Vudu iPad Updates
So when I reviewed the iPad apps that can play your UltraViolet library, there wasn't a clear winner. CinemaNow came along and seemed to be the winner by default: It streamed reliably, and included 30-second rewind and download capabilities. But shortly after that, both Flixster and Vudu received updates.
Let's take a look:
Flixster for iPad: Not to be dismissive, but playing movies on this app still seems overly prone to stuttering and stalls. The number one requirement for a cloud video app, for me, is that it plays reliably. In addition, we've added quite a few movies (now at 258 including the addition of the Warners Bros 50 Film Collection, which I picked up from an Amazon fire sale), and the number of movies that are unavailable has jumped from 2 to 8 including 3 Days of the Condor, Office Space, Cube, The Name of the Rose, Hiding Out, and Living Out Loud. Also, this app now has popup ads and seems a bit more prone to crash. On the other hand, if you want to find what's playing in movie theaters and newly released on DVD, it does a fine job and even integrates with Netflix to let you add movies to your queue.
Vudu for iPad: Vudu no longer drops you out of the video when you receive a notification or reminder, so that's a huge improvement. Also, the status bar on the top disappears when you watch a movie or show. Best of all, you can now download videos for offline viewing!
Add that to the best console apps, which means you can easily pick up your place on your TV, and Vudu is the clear winner. Well, almost. Although it's the only service that can play all 258 of our movies (and that one episode of Hannibal we picked up because our local TV affiliate preempted for a bridge collapse story), some of the transfers are substandard. For instance:
- The Ninth Configuration. Billed as SD only, this is the only film in our collection that looks like it was dubbed from an ancient VHS tape. The widescreen doesn't hit the edges of the screen (the mark of a nonanamorphic transfer), artifacts galore, and distracting green banding at the bottom of the screen. Still, we're just happy it was included - it's a rare gem from William Peter Blatty that was a shock to find.
- Miss Congeniality and Hiding Out. Both of these movies cut out in HDX mode on both Xbox and PS3 about two thirds of the way through. Switching to HD or SD allowed us to continue. I reported the issue to Vudu, and eventually they stopped blaming my router and confirmed the buggy transfers and promised to get them fixed eventually. If these two movies that we watched almost back to back have this issue, it does make us wonder how many more are similarly afflicted.
- The Bodyguard. This movie has very distracting banding that appears along the top of the screen throughout - not every shot but more shots than not, particularly during the big finish at the awards show.
My other big gripe is a small cosmetic issue. When you tap the screen to bring up the pause and close buttons, the picture jumps a little as it resizes to make room for the UI. And it jumps again a few seconds later when the UI disappears. Also, there's still no quick rewind button for those times when you're distracted and go, "What just happened?" Instead you have to tap the screen, watch it jump, and then grab the progress bar and hope you don't scan back too far while looking for the spot where you zoned out.
That's the bad news about Vudu. Here's the good news. As a bonus, Vudu's Disc to Digital program now offers half off when you convert 10 or more titles from Blu-ray and/or DVD. The challenge can be finding 10 discs that are eligible, recognized correctly, or recognized at all. (We're still waiting for Cabin in the Woods to work!) But getting an HD digital copy for $1 from a Blu-ray or $2.50 from a DVD? That's a steal. No idea if this offer will last, but it's been around for more than a month now. And if you're just not a disc persion, Vudu has frequent sales on their digital only collection, and a different $1 rental every day.
Perhaps it's still a little early to embrace content on the cloud, but when it works well it's great.