Per the company’s description, “Moviebeam is a brilliant new way to rent and watch movies at home. Get movies delivered directly to your TV — no cable, satellite, or computer is required.” To me, Moviebeam is either the lazy man’s answer to Blockbuster, or, more likely, an early glimpse into the future of our soon-to-arrive “entertainment, anywhere, anytime, on-demand” lifestyle.
Today, Moviebeam’s offering is, in a nutshell, a $
250 $199 set-top box that delivers up to 10 movies per week (it comes with 100 or so available to start!), available in an instantaneous on-demand offering at prices ranging from $1.99 to $3.99 per movie. All movies are available at either DVD or HDTV quality, and the box does not interfere with any other TV or Internet offerings in your household.
After some hands-on use, I have to say, the product is quite fun to use, and a welcome addition to my home. Especially if you ask my wife!
This is the first of two separate reviews I plan to do for the Moviebeam product. This one covers using the device in standard-definition mode only. The box includes HD movies and features, but I will reserve them for a second review.
What’s in the box
- The Moviebeam set-top box and remote control
- A 25′ phone line (and splitter)
- RCA (composite) and component video cables
- Manual and Quick-Start Guide
Basically, it’s everything you need to get the Moviebeam up and running. The quick-start guide (QSG) is very well done, with three steps to get your unit powered up, connected, and viewing movies (granted, its really more like 8 steps since each step has some sub-steps, but they are all oh-so-easy). One impressive note aboute the guide is it’s specifically designed to get you and up running in the most basic configuration. I think this is a clever approach, since most of the folks who are going to hook up component video or optical audio cables are unlikely to consult the manuals anyway.
Possibly the most complex part of the hardware setup is to get the receiving antenna positioned correctly. The manual recommends a high location, preferably near a window. This is probably a good time for me to geek out and explain a bit of the ‘magic’ that powers the whole Moviebeam experience. The unit has an internal 160GB hard drive, and is connected to their custom antenna. The antenna is always receiving a signal from Moviebeam HQ, which is effectively ‘beaming’ movies 24/7 (they accomplish this using technology called Datacasting, which sends a digital signal over existing airwaves using a licensed spectrum unused by standard TV broadcasting). These movies are stored on the internal hard drive, and to make room, some movies automatically ‘expire’ over a period of time. Thus, you always have 100 movies, and are always getting new ones.
Out of box experience/Hardware setup
The out-of-box-experience (OOBE for short) is quite well done. When you open the box, the QSG is set on top of everything else, and is bright and basically impossible to ignore. Even being the kind of person that typically tosses these guides to the wayside, I took a glance at it and was impressed with the layout and the promised easy setup experience. The smartest thing about the QSG is the fact that it gives you no options, just the most straightforward setup possible. If you as a user want to hook up component video or HDMI cables, you can turn to the manual for those steps – I think this approach is commendable, as it effectively guarantees novice users will follow the right steps, while advanced users (who are generally less likely to read the guide anyway) will also know what to do.
Hooking up the cables was easy enough, and you can see below how clearly the company labeled all the inputs/outputs for the Moviebeam unit. The connectors were also well-displayed in the QSG, so the only way to do something wrong is to basically pay absolutely no attention to what you are doing. Which is, of course, exactly what I did (details forthcoming). Here are some pictures of the back of the unit:
After connecting the outputs to my LCD and receiver, I hooked up the Moviebeam antenna, and positioned it above my Definitive tower speaker. It’s about the highest point in the room and has a view of the window, so I was really hoping this location would work out well enough to receive a good signal. The next few pictures are the front of the unit, as well as a picture of my living room
I powered up the unit, and proceeded through the setup steps. Again, simple and friendly, although the ‘Moviebeam is powering up’ screen did have an eerie HAL-like feeling to it. I kept waiting for it to say “What are you trying to do, Jeremy?” and then sing… but, the unit instead went into its interactive setup. At first, it seemed like the setup steps would simply be very TiVo-like, polite messaging, step-by-step screens. I was more than pleasantly surprised when the middle of the screen started playing a welcome video as soon as the phone setup process was underway. Since this took about 7 or 8 minutes (maybe more, who knows, I was enthralled), it was a welcome distraction from the ‘typical’ install with a rotating hourglass.
It was during this video playback that I first thought I had done something wrong with my setup. I should have known better when I saw the on-screen graphics were bright yellow (considering all other Moviebeam materials were blue), but I can be a little thick in the head sometime. However, the video was an instructional introduction to the Moviebeam product, including both the setup and the usage of the device and service. One part of the video featured a person installing their Moviebeam antenna (smiling, of course, as all people in promotional stills and video are always super-happy to do whatever it is they are doing, even if it’s rooting something out of a drainpipe). Something seemed a little odd when her arms were bright blue! As dense as I am, I actually thought it might’ve been some kind of gimmick! I didn’t actually discover my error until I completed setup and reached the Moviebeam “home” screen (described below).
After the phone setup the next important step was the antenna setup. While emitting a bit of an unpleasant steady beeping noise, a graphic display of the antenna signal strength was displayed. It varied from the low 20s up into the 90s, where it hovered for a while. I clicked to continue, but my timing must have been slightly off, as it kept dipping into the 50s (just like a balmy summer day in San Francisco). After a few more tries I did get it at a good enough signal strength to continue, although we observed that when my wife walked between the antenna and the window, it interruped the Moviebeam signal temporarily. I later mentioned this to customer support, and they definitely recommend putting it in a location where it has a constant line of sight to the outside.
With the antenna properly located, I was next prompted to call in to customer service to activate my account (on a personal side note, it turns out the same company which provides support center services for the Slingbox work for Moviebeam as well – hi David!). A brief call with a very pleasant service representative ensued, after which I was prompted to enter my secure passcode. I’m not exactly sure what this step is for, but it was quick and painless, and I was up and running just a few minutes later.
Now, it’s time for me to get rid of the bizarre yellow you see in the above pictures. It turns out I had incorrectly connected my component video cables, inverting two of the color signals. Very embarrassing, I must say, but I’d rather just fess up than go repeat the setup process and take all those pictures again.
Using Moviebeam – Browsing movies
Once I was done with the setup, I saw the Moviebeam “home” screen in the graphical user interface (GUI), which consists of three simple options: Featured Picks, Find Movies, and Setup/Options. The GUI is even simpler than a TiVo, and there is almost no way to go wrong with the 13-button remote. In fact, while browsing the interface, you almost exclusively use the 5-button cursor keypad, and while watching, you use the 4-button playback control keys. Very easy. I think easy is good for most, but personally I’d rather see just a few extra buttons (and by few I mean 5-10 more buttons, not an additional 55 to match my horrific Motorola/Comcast remote) to allow for future/advanced features. With a low button count, there is almost no way for Moviebeam to introduce ‘power user’ features, so the learning curve is low, but don’t expect ‘shortcuts’ in the future either.
One minor gripe on the user interface: while the Moviebeam GUI generously borrows from TiVo or Windows Media Center, I found some of the cues lacking. For example, from a list of titles, I could push the LEFT arrow to return to the previous screen, or the MENU button to return to the home screen, but there wasn’t a single on-screen indicator that this was the case. To a TiVo owner this probably seems completely obvious, but to anyone else in the world, there is no visual notion of a left/right hierarchy. A few little graphics here and there would probably help out a bit.
The top portion of the Moviebeam home screen is dedicated to the Featured Picks section, which has a horizontally scrollable view of selected movies. In the lower left corner of the screen is a preview window, which displays a preview of the selected Featured Pick (if none are selected, it displays other seemingly random previews). Nothing extremely special or different here, but it is a nice way to see the latest and greatest selections offered.
More valuable is the Find Movies option, which shows a menu with 6 different ways to browse for movies, as well as three special sections (more details below). The browse options are:
- Title – alphabetically list of all movies
- In arrival order – displays in the order the movies ‘arrived’ on the Moviebeam unit
- Leaving soon – shows the movies which will disappear soonest
The arriving/leaving lists were the ones I found myself drawn to the most, despite only having the box for a short whlie. I could imagine over time these views become an important way to pick movies as they arrive, or just before they depart. This is key to the whole Moviebeam experience: it’s always getting new movies over the datacasting system, and movies are therefore always leaving in order to make room for the new arrivals. Presently the system is promising to deliver up to 10 movies per week, although the current pace seems to be closer to between 5 and 8 (this week’s titles: The Wild Thornberrys, A Sound of Thunder, Kill Bill vol 2, Shopgirl, and Casanova).
Once you’ve found a movie you want to watch (some other currently available titles include: The Chronic-les of Narnia, Walk the Line, Jarhead, Harry Potter and the Cup of Soup, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and some other good and equally dreadful selections), clicking on it shows a more detailed screen, the ‘guaranteed until’ date, and the price to rent the movie. Most movies in the list were $3.99, but some (typically order titles) were $1.99, in either case the rental period is 24 hours – this means you can watch it multiple times, or leave it paused and then resume later, but must complete your viewing within this time period. In comparison with the current 5-day rental policies from Blockbuster, it does seem a little skimpy, but then again, there are no late fees, and since the whole premise is on-demand, you are less likely to ‘pick up’ a title you don’t intend to watch.
Watching a movie
Once you confirm your rental, a quick Moviebeam clip starts just before the movie playback begins. After that, you’re watching your movie. Movies play full-screen, although the system does allow you to select either 4:3 (standard television) or 16:9 (widescreen, the typical aspect ratio for movies) playback modes. Either mode resulted in the picture playing full-screen at 480p resolution (the standard for DVDs, also called progressive-scan or EDTV) which is better than the 480i standard-definition TV signal. I was a bit surprised by this combination, basically the movies displayed with the same picture quality of a DVD, but in full-screen (not widescreen) mode. The video was notably better looking than any (standard-definition) Comcast on-demand movie, and was the equivalent of a DVD. That said, I hope for widescreen versions to replace the full-screen ones in the future.
Once the movie is playing you have complete control over the playback experience, including slomo, frame-by-frame, and multiple speed fast-forward and rewind modes. Also, a convenient ‘chapter skip’ button skips ahead a fixed time interval. This combination of controls gave me the best of both a DVD and a TiVo, although I’d really like an instant-replay button, a feature I’m now thoroughly expecting thanks to my 7 years of using DVRs. Another little interface tweak I’d like to see is the use of the left/right cursor buttons during video playback. In the current software, pushing RIGHT does nothing, and pushing LEFT exits playback (although Moviebeam does keep track of where you left off for the next time you return to the same movie). I’d rather use these buttons for a quick skip/instant replay feature set, as I found myself ‘exiting’ a few movies by accidentally pushing LEFT a few times.
Cutting to the chase for just a moment (don’t you worry, I’ll resume my long-winded ways in just a moment!), I have to say the process of finding, selecting, and watching movies is completely satisfying. There may be some issues with pricing, business model, selection, etc., but when it comes down to the core functionality of the Moviebeam system, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it does it well. I’ll address the pricing and business model issues at the end of this review.
One other note: the Moviebeam unit must dial-in every $10 worth of movie rentals. I like the ‘benefit of doubt’ approach the company is taking here, it doesn’t inconvenience you very often, and it absolutely improves the overall experience. That said, the fact that the Ethernet port on the unit is presently inactive and won’t be live until the late Summer is quite odd in my opinion. Specifically, it seems bizarre that with all the technology they’ve weaved into the box, it was easier to get a dialup modem working than Ethernet? I know I’m in the minority of households when I say this, but it’s significantly easier for me to get a device onto my home network than hook it up to the single active phone line I have in my hallway (which means I literally run out my 25′ phone cable when it needs to dial-in). I’m hoping that August turns into May and a new software update (the company is able to use the datacasting service to beam in software updates in addition to movies) includes Internet access soon!
There are two special content sections within the Moviebeam system: In Theaters and Moviebeam Extras. Both are located in the Find Movies screen, and both feature enhanced content. The In Theaters section (which was about 8 weeks or more out of date when I played with it) is self-explanatory, and features movie previews. Once the Internet access is added into the product, I’m hoping to see this feature expand to include the ability to purchase tickets, seeing as how Moviebeam has my zip code and credit card on file.
Moviebeam extras includes content you’d typically find in the ‘extras’ of a DVD, ranging from Making Of… featurettes to movie previews to short interviews. At present the offering seems limited, but it hints at a future promise of being able to truly duplicate all the content included on the special/ultimate/extended/platinum/semifredo versions of DVDs that get rereleased every other month.
There are a few other features to explore in the Moviebeam GUI, but most revolve around setting up and configuring the device. You can access a list of Coming Soon titles, which show the next few weeks worth of movies which are queued up. You can also easily view your list of Current Rentals, the display includes the rental time remaining for each title in your library.
There’s no question the box is easy to setup and easy to use. Playback is simple and satisfying, and the picture quality is extremely good (again, this review only addresses the standard definition mode for the box, a future review will look at the high-definition features). That said, here are a few features I’d like to see (in addition to anything I’ve said above):
- Bookmark movies – I’d really like to flag the titles I’m interested in watching, and have a quick place to review this list. Also, this feature would hopefully show me a little alert if any of these titles are queued to leave soon.
- Extended rentals – in the Movielink service you are allowed to buy an extra 24 hour period to watch or rewatch your movie at a discounted rate; it’s a natural add-on here.
- Friends list – this feature actually carries a fairly robust potential: let me integrate to a social network online where I can have my Moviebeam friends. Then we can recommend movies to each other. Furthermore, what about a ‘movie night’ where all my friends and I watch the same movie at the same time, maybe even for a ‘group discount’. This area would not only add some fun to the product, I think it could be dramatic for word-of-mouth growth of the system.
- Wish list – incorporate some of the Netflix concepts for selecting future movies. Then, as a movie gets enough requests from the Moviebeam community, it gets added into the queue. This would allow users to add a bit of control to the destiny of what movies are available to watch in the future.
Hopefully some of these ideas take a bit of root, I think they’d add a lot of value to an already good product. My biggest concern about Moviebeam today is the business and pricing model. Over my first weekend of use I had two separate groups of friends over, and showed off the system to them (all are in their early 30s, most have DVRs, some Slingboxes, some plasma displays, all have Internet, etc). Unanimously the groups wanted it, until they dug into the pricing. None thought the $250 up-front fee (correct at the time of writing) for the box was very reasonable, considering the movies weren’t discounted steeply enough. Most wanted to pay a monthly fee for all-you-can-eat movie access. We agreed on needing multiple concurrently available business models, with the following recommendations:
- First, the box. You should be able to buy the box for
$250$199, or rent it for $49 plus a monthly fee between $9.99 and $19.99.
- Second, the movies. A monthly subscription fee should grant you unlimited viewing access (maybe $29.99 or so), or a lower fee for limited viewing access (say $19.99 for 8 movies), or you can buy them individually at the current rates.
Now I don’t know if those numbers work for Moviebeam, or if they even have the proper rights with the studios to make such offerings possible. But I do hope they see the value in offering a few different types of packages to meet different types of needs.
Update: since writing this, the unit price dropped from $250 to $199, there are no activation fees (apparently was $29.99, but I didn’t know that at the time), and you get free Fedex shipping as well!
All in all, the current incarnation of the technology has a few issues, both related to the product and the business model, but it is absolutely a compelling offering with a lot of room for growth, and is a great addition to my living room. The current pricing model might not suit your needs, but keep an eye on Moviebeam, and here is my review of the system in beautiful HD!