No matter how well a product performs, a bad user interface (UI) can taint the whole experience. With only five buttons and a scroll wheel, I wasn't expecting a lot from Vudu's remote. Then I started using it, and now think that the design is brilliant! Operating very much like a Windows scroll-click mouse, it is simplicity itself. You primarily use only two of the five buttons, which proves that a ton of thought went into designing the UI. And since it's an RF remote, you don't need to point it at the Vudu box like you would with a typical IR handset. Vudu does provide IR codes for learning remotes and even IP control for advanced systems like Crestron and AMX.
When the XL2 is powered up - or when you press the Vudu button on the remote - the home screen shows a film strip of featured titles along with options for Most Watched, New on Vudu, Explore Catalog, My Vudu, Vudu Labs, and Info & Settings. The high-rez cover-art graphics looked incredibly sharp and clear on both my 60-inch plasma and my 92-inch front-projection screen. And I really appreciated that HD titles were clearly identified as such right on the cover.
If you're looking for a particular movie, Explore Catalog lets you search by genre, HD titles, TV shows, or by actor, director, or title. And you can filter your search results by release date, MPAA rating, critics' rating, and studio. There's also a list of collections that change on a regular basis, such as Past Oscar Winners, Current Oscar Nominees, and 99 titles for 99¢.
Once you select a title, Vudu displays the rental/purchase options, a synopsis, critics' rating, a Vudu community rating, the running time, and the MPAA rating. It also shows video-presentation (wide- or full-screen) and soundtrack (stereo or surround) information. Many titles also offer the option of watching a preview. The director and the principal actors are also listed; selecting one of these jumps to other titles they were involved in - a great touch! Vudu also suggests similar titles based on your selection or your previous transaction history.
Viewing Vudu's Instant HD titles requires a minimum of 4 Mbps, while Instant SD ones require 2 Mbps. With a 1-Mbps connection, you'll experience "delayed viewing," where most of the movie needs to be downloaded before you can start watching it. Of course, bandwidth can fluctuate depending on your home, or even your neighborhood's network traffic, so if the connection is jammed, you could experience buffering pauses while watching a movie.
Before discussing audio and video performance, I need to explain Vudu's HDX format, which provides a "near Blu-ray-like experience" (Vudu's words) by using less compression and by varying bit rates between 2 and 20 Mbps, compared with an average of 3.8 Mbps for HD titles. Also, while HD titles are available for instant viewing (provided you have a 4-Mbps connection), HDX ones must be downloaded in their entirety before viewing. In my experience, HDX movies took around 5 hours to download. But Vudu does let you log in to your account online, where you can rent titles and have them downloaded and ready for viewing by the time you get home. You can even do this on the go using Vudu's free iPhone/iPod Touch app.
To test the XL2's performance, I rented several movies in all of the available formats (SD, HD, and HDX) and compared them directly with the DVD and Blu-ray versions when possible. Without question, picture quality for all formats was way better than expected, whether on my plasma TV or on my much larger front-projection screen. Of the Instant HD titles I watched, only one had any buffering issues - likely due to a bandwidth drop on my end. The others began almost instantly and played through without a hiccup, pause, or stutter.
My overall impression was that picture quality for each format was just slightly below that of its physical media counterpart: SD not quite as good as DVD, and HDX not quite as good as Blu-ray. A direct A/B comparison of the Fifth Element DVD with the Vudu SD version showed the SD picture to be slightly less detailed. The difference was mostly noticeable in close-ups and in backgrounds - the scene where Leeloo is standing on the building ledge, for example. And there were instances where noise was visible in black portions of the picture.
HD titles looked much better, with deep, solid blacks and rich colors. And I never experienced any blocking or tiling effects during fast-moving scenes. But the image lacked the sharpness, depth, and clarity of good high-def programs on cable TV.
HDX picture quality was indeed close to Blu-ray, but it still lacked that final level of detail, especially when blown up on my projection screen in its 115-inch-diagonal 2.35:1-aspect-ratio configuration. For example, close-ups of Batman's black uniform in The Dark Knight showed more fine detail with Blu-ray, as did the opening daytime flyover scene right before the bank robbery.
The area where all three Vudu video formats were noticeably lacking was sound. Nearly every movie was far quieter than the disc version, and the sound was nowhere near as dynamic. With the ZF1 weapon scene from The Fifth Element and the blue room scene from Hero, the Vudu versions definitely lacked the excitement and power these soundtracks carry on DVD. While the HDX titles sounded better, they were still no match for Blu-ray's lossless audio. The Dark Knight has a moody soundtrack punctuated by cacophonous bursts. Watching the scene where Batman exits the Tumbler and takes to the Batpod, the shrill sounds of glass and crunching metal were far more detailed and powerful on Blu-ray than on the HDX version.
For browsing and selecting movies, Vudu's XL2 Internet movie player gets an A+. The outstanding interface does everything it should and more. For title availability, I'd give it a C. Vudu has a decent selection of big new releases and the company is constantly adding titles, but there's a very good chance that the movie you're looking for won't be available. (Vudu offers 13,500 titles, while Netflix has over 100,000.) As for A/V quality, video rates an A and audio a B. Without a doubt, Vudu has changed my mind about on-demand video - direct downloading is the future.
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