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Video on Demand, the Web Way

You come home tired and eager to watch a film or a TV show. Trudging over to the video store or waiting for Netflix is out, and Arrested Development was cancelled. So you turn to the mother lode of all media, the Web. You should be able to find what you want there, right?

You have a lot of options these days, from TV shows and short films on sites like iTunes or Google Video to movies on CinemaNow or Movielink (see the chart on the next page). Such sites make it easy to watch films on a laptop or PC, or perhaps a mobile player (without illegally ripping a DVD). And of course, you never have to leave home to get the film, or worry about returning it.

The challenge remains finding material that is worth watching and that approaches the kind of image quality you're used to--and that is better or cheaper than what's on your home recorder, or what you can get from Netflix or Amazon.

Web of Film

Sites such as CinemaNow and Movielink offer downloads of new and old films and videos. A standard film runs around 1GB and costs $1 to $4 to view for 24 hours from the first viewing. The Starz-sponsored Vongo, which also provides movies, lets you have unlimited downloads and viewing for $10 per month; the other sites, however, get new movies months earlier than Vongo does, and Vongo's list of available titles changes frequently, just like cable, so a movie there one week may be gone the next.

With broadband service, you can start watching a movie soon after it begins downloading, though the file transfer may take an hour or three to complete. To be safe, wait 10 to 15 minutes to begin viewing; I had occasional problems when playback caught up with the download. Images are worse-than-DVD quality, and you may have to watch the film with the service's own player, and be restricted to viewing it on the PC you download to.

The selection of titles can charitably be described as mixed, though some recent releases are concurrent with their DVD debut. Compared with the 60,000 titles on Netflix, each online site offers a small array of titles. Even a typical independent video store has more titles--for now.

Selection and quality should improve. Many industry experts believe online services will inevitably become the primary form of video delivery--even Netflix has discussed plans for a download service.

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