As I wrote about last week, Moviebeam is a consumer electronics device that gives you a whole movie rental store in your living room. For details on how the system and service work, please take a moment to re-read my original review. Late last week I received the Moviebeam HD Cable Kit, which has opened up a whole new experience with the product.
One important note: while many of you may use component video cables to connect your DVD player or digital cable/satellite box to your HDTV set, it’s important to know that you are only getting part of the HD picture! Component video, while better than composite and s-video, is still analog, and does not carry a perfect digital signal all the way to your set. Furthermore, component video does not include any digital copy protection technologies, so if a manufacturer or content provider wants to offer protected-only content, they must use a secure technology, which IS provided through digital cable connections such as HDMI and DVI. Most important for you: if you HAVE the option to switch from component to either HDMI or DVI cabling, go to the store and get the right cables immediately! To quote a true genius, “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!”
What’s in the kit?
While not packaged quite as fancy as the original Moviebeam unit, the HD kit contains everything you are going to need (for most configurations). The kit has another Quick-Start Guide (QSG) the following three cables:
- Digital coaxial – this is the orange cable pictured here, and while it looks like a standard RCA cable, it actually carries a digital audio signal. Also commonly called S/PDIF (and pronounced spid-diff), if you are actually using digital surround sound, you either already use digital coax or you use optical audio cables
- Optical – this thin cable uses fiber-optics to transmit digital audio signals, and is also referred to as TOSLINK.
- HDMI – HDMI is a digital video (AND audio) cable that provides (in my opinion) the best quality signal, and is the easiest to use of all cabling options.
Hooking it up
If you have anywhere close to as much gear as I do, figuring out your jumble of cabling is a tad more difficult than an advanced Sudoku puzzle. Yet another reason to go digital. If you have HDMI inputs, you can use a single cable to carry the highest quality audio and video signal from your Moviebeam (or cable box or DVD player) to your HDTV set. There’s a bit of a catch here, as I presume many HD owners also have digital surround systems, which means you’ll probably need to run an audio cable from the unit to your receiver (or other sound processor).
Moving to HD cables will definitely clear up the clutter. I now have an HDMI cable from the Moviebeam to my Syntax Olevia LCD, and an optical audio cable running into my Sony AV receiver. I did run into a bit of a snag, however, when I realized my LCD used DVI cables, and the Moviebeam used HDMI (yes, they are both valid options for digital video connections). I headed out to Radio Shack to pick up an HDMI-DVI adapter ($29.99 there, $49.99 for the same thing at Best Buy), and came back, hooked it up, rebooted the Moviebeam (per its instructions), and sat back waiting for HD glory to beam (heh) my way.
Alas, there was no HD option. A support call later and I learned the system was incompatible with HDMI-DVI adapters (despite the fact that my DVI input did in fact support HDCP, the digital copy protection standard necessary to secure HD content). Big sigh.
The next morning I was checking email, and discovered a pleasant surprise in my inbox. An email from the Moviebeam support crew informing me there was a software upgrade coming within the week that enables full HD features with HDMI-DVI adapters! And what perfect timing, as I headed out of town for the week on business (coincidentally I was off to visit Stream, the company that provides support for Sling Media and Moviebeam, where I met up with the folks who actually sent me the email).
I returned home, and there, in full 720p resolution was Moviebeam HD! Very nice to see the system had downloaded a software update and installed itself without me having to do anything (although I probably would like the opportunity to manually ‘approve’ updates in the future).
Browsing HD Content
With the HDMI connection active (again, to an HDCP-enabled HDTV set), new features automatically unlock (as if by magic) in the Moviebeam GUI. When I clicked on ‘Find Movies’, a new option for an HD Showcase was present. Selecting it showed me the list of currently available titles (Kill Bill, Analyze This, and The American President are the current ‘cream of the crop’ but I imagine we’ll get some newer titles soon).
In all the other views for browsing movies, if a title is available in HD an HD logo appears in the description area. Also, selecting the film gives you the option to rent in SD or HD. From my first browse it seems that HD titles are a dollar more expensive than the SD version. Not a bad deal so far.
Watching in HD
I had read a review of Moviebeam on HD Beat and must admit when I clicked Play I was ready for a degree of disappointment (I guess professional reviewers are supposed to ignore such things, but being human and unbiased by advertising dollars, I like to take in all the information I can find). I wish I can say I was pleasantly surprised by the picture quality, but I was not. Wait, there is a but!
BUT! I was thinking about a report I had read wherein it seems that about 25% of HDTV owners are using standard definition sources and do not realize they are not using HD sources. In other words, when 1 in 4 people with beautiful expensive plasma displays turn on the TV and see the cool “presented in HDTV” logo while watching CSI, they are actually watching standard definition. Worse yet, they are probably watching it all stretched out (standard definition TV is displayed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is squarish, while HDTV is displayed in a ‘widescreen’ 16:9 ratio, which is very rectangular). In other words, $10,000 worth of fancy-shmancy equipment (that’s an industry term, by the way) might as well be mounted in the crapper for all the good it’s really doing these people.
Back to the BUT! For most people out there, the HD moviebeam movies will look better than what they are used to watching. It does look better than the SD picture (more below), and unless you have a really good upconverting DVD player (not the $100 Samsung or LG cheapos, I mean Denon for $300 or more), it’s probably going to look better than a DVD. In fact, one might even hope that watching the HD movies from Moviebeam will help wake up a few of the aforementioned bozos.
Now, for the HD connoisseurs or even people like myself (or now Robert Scoble) who can sit there and watch details on the lives of rodents while we stare on endlessly marveling at the colors and picture, Moviebeam will likely disappoint. This might be harsh, but I found myself judging the Moviebeam HD signficantly more negatively because I’m used to the picture quality of my Comcast HD DVR, which just blows away the Moviebeam quality.
Therefore, a quick middle-bottom line: if you are interested in Moviebeam purely for HD, you should consider waiting right now. Their movie lineup is due for a refresh, and the quality is sure to improve as they work out kinks in the compression systems they are using. I’d rather see you hang on for now and have your first experience really impress you than buy it now and be disappointed.
Here are a few pictures I took to look at the picture quality (stills not courtesy of any movie studio). It’s not really easy to tell what’s going on here, but take a look at the pictures of the trees (one is a zoom of the original picture) and the bricks, and you can see some notable blurriness and artifacts across the picture. On the bright side (literally), if you look at the picture with the blonde woman (yes, that’s Lisa Kudrow, I’m sorry) and the pool, the colors are definitely vivid and warm. This is important, because it means the video quality is poor more due to the extremely high compression rate (as opposed to a flaw in the box design).
Back to SD for a moment
One other benefit of connecting the HDMI cable is that standard definition movies are all upconverted into HD. Similar to most new DVD players, the Moviebeam unit is capable of taking the original DVD picture (encoded at 480p resolution) and outputting it in a scaled HD picture (again, 720p). Without any question the regular, SD movies, all looked notably better than they did prior to connecting with HDMI.
Personally, I found the quality of the SD movies (rendered in HD) was better than my upconverting Samsung DVD player, although I didn’t really get to compare apples to apples since I didn’t happen to own any of the same titles on DVD. So maybe I’m wrong, and the guys at Cnet thought their DVD player looked better (but then again, they can afford really expensive equipment. I did state I was using a Samsung DVD player, didn’t I?) than the Moviebeam output, but I liked it.
Not only that, the entire GUI is rendered in HD as well. This means all the menus and menu effects look substantially richer and crisper than they did before (with the single exception of the intro Moviebeam video, which looked quite grainy). I think this is a nice touch in the product, and was glad to see they took the extra effort on this.
A nice enhancement
With the recent software upgrade I noticed there were some enhancements to the Moviebeam system. The first one, which I really liked, added a number next to the ‘in arrival order’ list, representing the quantity of recent additions (although I don’t know what actually determines the number, but my hunch is that it is the number of movies that were downloaded since I had last viewed that screen). Also, the ‘in theaters’ section seems to reflect movies that one could go see in the theater at present. Nice touch.
As I stated in my original review, I feel there are some business issues regarding the pricing model which must be addressed prior to wide adoption of the product (Dave Zatz throws out a great suggestion of giving 24 rental credits along with the purchase of the $199 unit). In my opinion, the HD services as they stand today do not sufficiently complement the product to overcome these issues. In other words, if you were interested enough for the standard definition content, then by all means, pick one up soon. If you are an HDTV enthusiast, this isn’t quite ready just yet, but I would keep my eyes on it for sure.
For now, I’m back on Discovery Channel HD learning about coral formations.