Two thumbs down for Unbox
Amazon's new movie service is a horror show, says Fortune's Peter Lewis.
By Peter Lewis, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Have you ever seen a really bad Hollywood movie and wondered, Did anybody in Hollywood watch this movie before releasing it? Did no one have the courage to stand up to the director or the studio head and say, "This movie sucks"?

The reason I ask is because both Amazon.com (Charts) and Apple (Charts) parted the curtains recently on new, legal digital movie download services. The idea is that consumers can go to Amazon's Unbox or Apple's iTunes Internet media stores to buy or rent a digital copy of a movie, download it to a computer and view it on the PC monitor, an iPod or a big-screen TV.

The reviews -- my reviews, at least -- are in:

Amazon.com's Unbox is a horror show. The Unbox service appears not so much to have been introduced as to have escaped from the laboratory.

Of all the smart and talented people at Amazon, did no one dare say, "Wait, our new service bites! It's slower than a trip to Blockbuster, more expensive than a DVD, absurdly restrictive on how the consumer uses the movie, delivers lower resolution than a DVD, and requires running a cable from the PC to the TV if you want to watch the movie on something larger than a PC monitor"?

Apple's iTunes media store, meanwhile, is the feel-good movie download service of the summer, and builds on the same style and ease of use that has made iTunes the world's leading legal download service for music and television shows. But my local cineplex or cable TV service offers more movie choices than iTunes (which I'll review in detail on Thursday) does at this point, and the missing link - getting the movie from the PC to the TV - is still missing. I think I'll wait for the sequel.

We'll review Amazon's Unbox in today's column, and follow with a review of Apple's iTunes movie download service and iTunes 7.0 software on Thursday.

Not first, not better

Although Amazon's Unbox - who came up with that dopey name? - made its debut a few days before Apple started offering movies, it is hardly the first legal digital movie download service. Movielink and CinemaNow, two Windows-only video providers, began offering movie downloads earlier this year. Top-selling titles listed early this week on both services were for what are euphemistically called "mature" audiences (no, not seniors).

And then there is BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service - similar to the pre-lawsuit Napster - that is popular for distributing digital versions of Hollywood films, typically in violation of copyright laws.

The popularity of BitTorrent suggests that there are lots of people with the desire, patience, bandwidth and technical skills to download big video files. The question Amazon seeks to answer is whether those people, along with a larger consumer audience, will be willing to pay for legal downloads.

The technical hurdles are not trivial. Using Unbox or the iTunes movie store requires a fast broadband connection and a relatively modern computer. My home DSL connection clocks in consistently at around 4.9 megabits per second - fast by American residential standards - and it still took me five hours to download a movie from Unbox.

Unbox works only with Microsoft (Charts) Windows computers. Amazon says the recommended configuration is a Windows XP computer with 1GB of system memory, a 2.4-gigahertz or faster processor, a 5.1-channel sound card, a DirectX-compliant video card, and a broadband connection capable of sustaining download speeds of 1.5 kilobits per second. You'll have to set up an Amazon.com account if you don't have one already, then download and install the Amazon Unbox Video Player and other software to be able to use the movie download service.

Assuming you pass those Unbox requirements, the real unfun begins.

Got five hours?

In pimping its new Unbox service, Amazon says, "If you can unwrap a DVD, you can do DVD-quality downloads. It's that easy, and less sticky."

I don't mean to quibble with Amazon, but rarely does it take me five hours, multiple software downloads, and wrestling with Microsoft Windows to unwrap a DVD.

How many movies are available? Hard to say, since the Unbox catalog contains duplicates, rental versions and other misdirections. One thing is clear, though: Unbox has a much wider selection of movies available than does Apple's iTunes media store. Most of the major studios are represented on Unbox, including Warner Bros. (like CNNMoney.com, a division of Time Warner), Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Lionsgate and others. Notably absent is Disney (Charts) and its affiliates, which chose to make their download debut with Apple iTunes.

Unlike Apple, which tried to establish uniform prices for digital movie downloads, Amazon appears to allow the studios to set pricing. Here are some examples:

  • "Office Space" is $13.45.
  • "The Matrix" is $9.77.
  • "V for Vendetta" is $13.87.
  • "Brokeback Mountain" is $14.99.
  • "Rebel Without a Cause" is $23.99.

By the way, while I could download the James Dean classic "Rebel Without a Cause" from Unbox for $23.99, Amazon also offers to sell it to me as a special 2-volume DVD set, which includes extra documentaries and features, for $19.99.

Amazon encourages the user to make a DVD backup of all purchased movies. However, the backup DVD will play back only through the Unbox client, and not on a DVD player or other device.

My first attempt to get the Unbox system to work on my computer (a Sony Vaio Windows XP Media Center Edition PC) was thwarted when I refused to allow Microsoft to load a program that reports unspecified information - presumably information about my computer - back to the mothership. On the second installation attempt I relented and, within minutes, was ready to buy my first movie.

I chose Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" for $14.99, and got a $1.99 credit for my first download, making the price $13 plus tax.

Just shy of five hours later, the time it would take me to drive 65 miles to the nearest big city, shop at the Blockbuster (Charts) there, have lunch, go to the mall to watch a movie, and drive back home, Unbox had my digital copy of "Eyes Wide Shut" waiting in my Amazon Media Library. Why it took five hours is a mystery; a bandwidth check immediately afterward suggested I was still getting close to five megabits per second, and I can only assume the slow download was a result of congestion on Amazon's servers.

Meanwhile, I loaded the DVD version of the same movie into my computer's DVD-ROM drive, and switched back and forth to compare video quality. I'd score it a draw: Both were uninspiring compared to the same DVD playing on my high-definition home theater system (even though the DVD was not in high-definition, the home theater gear tweaked it to make the picture better than average).

The nastiest surprise at this point was that none of the navigation controls on the Unbox Video Player worked, other than "pause" and "stop." I could not select scenes, fast-forward, reverse or do anything but play the movie start to finish.

The fine print

There is some entertainment value inherent in the Unbox system, especially if you read the fine print of the licensing agreement.

You can watch the movie at home or at the office, but the license agreement prohibits you from watching it in "hotel rooms, motel rooms, hospital patient rooms, restaurants, bars, prisons, barracks, drilling rigs" and certain other locations.

Amazon also reserves the right to automatically deliver promotional video content (including "movie trailers, celebrity interviews, reviews, etc.") to your computer. My fear is that "etc" could be commercials, like the ones we endure at the start of movie theater presentations.

And then there's "Plays for Sure."

The Unbox download service actually delivers two files to the computer, one that plays on a computer (although only in the Unbox Video Player), and a second, smaller file that will play on a small variety of Windows "Plays for Sure" portable media players, not including, of course, the most popular one. (It "Will Not Play for Sure" on the Apple iPod.)

Plays for Sure is Microsoft's tag for devices that support Microsoft's digital rights management scheme. But Amazon seems less sure. According to the Amazon notes, "If your device is Plays for Sure compliant it may work."

In any event, Amazon lists six players - two by Archos, two by Creative and one each by Toshiba (which is also making Microsoft's forthcoming Zune media player) and iRiver. I tried connecting another "Plays for Sure" Creative player and it crashed my computer.

But really, who wants to watch a movie on the small screen? I want to watch the downloaded movie on the big screen TV in the other room.

Amazon offers this helpful advice: "In most cases, connecting your computer to your TV is as simple as using an S-Video connection." Yeah, assuming I have a 50-foot S-Video cable. But, darn it, S-Video transfers only the video part of the movie, so I'll also need 50 feet of audio cable, unless I'm fond of silent movies.

Or, I can drag my Sony Vaio computer into the family room and put it on the floor next to the TV. In other words, next to the DVD player. Or, because I have a Windows Media Center Edition PC, I could buy a separate extender and route the movie wirelessly to my TV through my Xbox video game console.

Sometimes it takes a new technology like video downloading to make old technology, like renting a DVD from Netflix (Charts) or Blockbuster, look really good. In comparison to Unbox, a DVD rental is faster, cheaper, easier, more flexible, and delivers more choices and a better picture.

Two thumbs down for Unbox.

Stay tuned for Thursday's installment, a review of the iTunes movie service and iTunes 7.0 software. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.