(NaturalNews) From time to time, I divert from the usual topics on this site and review technologies that appear to be revolutionary. One of the most exciting transitions in technology taking place right now is the availability of on-demand video downloads using set-top boxes. These devices allow users to tap into astonishingly large collections of documentaries, TV shows and feature films relying solely on an internet connection. A small, set-top device download the movies and pumps the signal to your 78-inch high-def plasma screen display that you just barely managed to buy on sale at Wal-Mart before escaping with your life.
The competition for the best set-top boxes that allow on-demand movie downloads has recently kicked into high gear with Blockbuster's announcement of its OnDemand set-top box. To compare the Blockbuster box with the Netflix Roku box, I purchased both and used them side by side to assess usability, video quality, speed and navigation. I've included both the pros and cons of each below.
I have no financial relationship with either company. These comments are 100% independent, and I have no affiliate relationship with either company.
The upshot of the comparison? Netflix Roku wins hands down for better quality, usability and price. Even the technology is better, as you'll see below. But Netflix Roku suffers from a poor selection of high-quality films. You can't watch popular new movies because they're not available through the Netflix service. So even though the service is quite affordable, you're not getting premium movie content.
Help wanted: Testing engineers for Blockbuster
The Blockbuster OnDemand set-top box was a technical disaster. Honestly, I can't believe they actually released this device without some better testing. I'm the founder and owner of a very successful software company, so I know all about usability and testing, and I can tell you this: Blockbuster doesn't seem to understand the importance of fixing problems before releasing products. Consider this:
• The video is out of the sync with the audio by about 0.2 seconds (my estimate). So when you're watching the actors talk, their mouths run faster than their voices like a bad martial arts movie dub. It's hysterically annoying and makes you want to throw your Wii controllers at the screen.
• During the videos, random video compression artifacts appear out of nowhere. Strange green lines and boxes just show up for no reason, and from time to time, an actor's face will morph into a horribly disfigured mass of pixels, like something out of a cheap horror film. The effect is startling at first, and then it's just annoying. Technically speaking, I don't see how this should be happening, since the movie is downloaded in advance. Are these encoding errors that were introduced as they ripped the movies to streaming files? If so, they've screwed up royally...
• The "resume playback" and fast forward functions simply don't work at all! It's hilarious. The interface actually gives you the option to "Resume playback," and when you select it, guess what? It starts over from the beginning anyway! Same story on the fast forward: The screen ACTS like it's fast forwarding, but the movie still sits there, playing back at normal speed. And yes, I know these functions don't work until the full download of the movie completes. What I'm saying is that these features don't work at all, even AFTER the movie is done downloading. Imagine, if you will, a DVD player without a fast-forward button. Sorta retarded, wouldn't you say? That's the Blockbuster OnDemand set-top box, at least in my experience. And no, it wasn't a problem with the fast-forward button on the remote. The user interface clearly indicated it was trying to fast forward, but was failing to do so. Again, this was long after the entire download of the movie was complete.
None of these problems exist with the Netflix Roku box, which is obviously based on far better video streaming technology. The difference between Roku vs. Blockbuster is sort of like the difference between a wrist watch made in Japan vs. China.
Blockbuster, of course, touts its "progressive download" as being far superior to the Roku download technology. As far as I can tell, that's just vapor. The download speed is painfully slow, and it can take 20 - 30 minutes before the fast-forward function will even claim to work, and then it ends up not working anyway. I think they should rename "progressive download" to be "DEpressive download" because it makes you feel depressed and in need of psychiatric medications.
Take a trip back into film history with Blockbuster
It's worth noting that in the 1920's, clever filmmakers invented a way to synchronize sound with moving pictures. These were called "talking pictures" or talkies. Nearly one hundred years later, Blockbuster hasn't yet figured out how to replicate that synchronization with their set-top box, so we end up watching movies made in 2008 that are presented with the laughable audio synchronization gaffes of 1908.
And no, these are not video or audio delays caused by my own television equipment. I tested Roku side by side, and Roku worked flawlessly, with no synchronization problems at all. The sync problems are part of the Blockbuster codec playback logic. And that logic is jacked. Some consumers, of course, probably won't notice a 0.2-second delay on the audio. But intelligent people will. Heck, even crappy YouTube videos have better audio synchronization than Blockbuster.
I really expected better from Blockbuster. Let's face it: This is a company that realizes its brick & mortar store rental business is about to become history. It must either transition to on-demand video delivery or die. And with its entire future business resting on one crucial piece of technology that could revolutionize the video rental business, they couldn't even get the audio and video to synchronize correctly?
Are you kidding me?
These Blockbuster folks need to pull their heads out of their cracks and whip up some engineering overtime, or they're going to find themselves begging for bailout money at the Federal Reserve like the big three automakers.
And I doubt that bailing out Blockbuster is going to be a national priority.
Netflix Roku price: About $100 for the box, then a relatively small monthly Netflix fee (under $10) gets you unlimited viewing of movies, documentaries and more.
Netflix Roku pros: Smooth user interface. Simple interface. Fast video start times. High-quality video compression with virtually no artifacting. Very affordable plans allow unlimited viewing. No time limits on videos. Easy video queuing using your internet browser. Advantages of recommended related videos via the extremely impressive Netflix movie recommendation system. (Which is so accurate at guessing what movies you'll like, it's downright spooky...)
Netflix Roku cons: No access to premium feature films. Library of available videos is mostly lower grade, with lots and lots of documentaries. One notable exception is that you can watch all three seasons of Heroes, and it does offer a lot of content from the History Channel. But you won't find the recent Iron Man movie there. (And neither should you expect to, if you're only paying nine bucks a month...)
Blockbuster box price: About $100 for the box, which gets you 25 movie credits. After that you'll pay $2 - $4 per movie rental. There is no "all you can eat" plan for a monthly fee.
Blockbuster box pros: Better quality movies are available than with Netflix Roku. Blockbuster lets you watch feature films very quickly after they're released into the rental stores. Box set up was relatively easy, and the network discovery logic works well. Has HDMI output and a digital audio jack. Supports HD video content, but few movies are available in HD yet anyway.
Blockbuster box cons: Audio slightly out of sync with video, nasty video artifacts appear regularly throughout movies, resume playback function doesn't work, fast forward doesn't work (yes, even after the download is complete), user interface is sometimes awkward, users have to pay a fee for each movie watched. Movie rentals expire after 24 hours, too.
Editor's Choice: I recommend Netflix Roku over the Blockbuster set-top box. I did not test Vudu for this review due to its prohibitive up-front price (roughly $300).
Blockbuster could make itself far more competitive by doing thinks like making its product actually work. But you'd think that maybe they should have done that BEFORE they released it. This isn't NASA, folks. You can't just burn taxpayer money on untested technology and expect customers to keep paying for it.
My Blockbuster box gets sent back tomorrow. Right now it's a $100 paperweight.
Other contenders for on-demand movies: Amazon Unboxed (complicated), Hulu.com (awesome) and Vudu.com (expensive).
In addition to his lab work, Adams is also the (non-paid) executive director of the non-profit Consumer Wellness Center (CWC), an organization that redirects 100% of its donations receipts to grant programs that teach children and women how to grow their own food or vastly improve their nutrition. Click here to see some of the CWC success stories.
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