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How Movie Download Services Work

How to Choose a Movie Download Service
The MovieLink site organizes available titles into ones you can buy and ones you can rent.
The MovieLink site organizes available titles into ones you can buy and ones you can rent.

The big selling point behind movie downloading is convenience. You don't have to get in a car, stand in line or spend several days waiting as your DVDs travel back and forth between your home and a shipping center. But choosing a service that doesn't meet your needs can make the process pale in comparison to other purchase and rental methods.

The first thing to keep in mind is the platform that the site requires. Most movie sites require Windows XP. A few will also work with Windows Vista or Windows 2000. Only the iTunes Music Store supports the Macintosh operating system, and none of the major sites currently support Linux. Most sites also require Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. Although you can view most sites in Firefox, the MovieLink site will only work with Internet Explorer with ActiveX control enabled. Amazon Unbox requires the Microsoft.Net framework, and Vongo requires a proprietary application.

For many users, the next big deal-breaker is the site's selection. Download sites get their movies from movie studios, which own the digital rights to the films. A site can't offer the movie without first negotiating an agreement with the studio. Some sites, like MovieLink, have agreements with lots of major studios, so they have a wide selection of mainstream movies. Others, like Guba, have a selection of free, independent movies as well as studio releases that you can rent for a fee. Vongo is owned by Starz Entertainment, and its selection reflects only what Starz has the right to broadcast.

When you find a site with a selection of movies you like, the next thing to look at is the quality of movies. There are a couple of measurements to keep in mind. One is resolution, which is measured in pixels. The higher the resolution, the better the image quality. For example, the movies in Wal-Mart's video download store have a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, which is the same as the lowest standard television resolution. Wal-Mart also offers a scaled-down version for portable media players with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. You can also measure quality in bitrate, often measured in bits per second (bps). The higher the bitrate, the better the quality -- DVD bitrate is about 5 kilobits per second (kbps), or 5000 bps. The codec, or the program that encodes and decodes the digital video, can also significantly affect the quality of the video. However, sites don't always specify which codec they use.

Finally, before purchasing or renting movies online, you should thoroughly read the site's terms of use and familiarize yourself with its DRM. Some sites are relatively flexible. You can play movies on multiple machines, download them to portable media players and even burn them to DVD. Others sites offer far fewer options -- for example, Amazon Unbox received criticism shortly after its launch for the perceived inflexibility of its terms of use. Several sites allow you to make a backup disc that will only play on the computer originally used to download the file. For sites using streaming media, you never really own a copy of the movie, you simply watch it as it streams.

Once you've found a site that meets your criteria for platform, selection, quality and terms of use, a few simple questions can help you make your final choice:

  • How much do the movies cost? Are they almost as expensive as DVDs? If so, would you prefer to find a cheaper alternative or to stick with higher-quality DVDs?
  • Do the rental and purchase options match what you're looking for?
  • If the site offers a subscription program, does it have enough movies you're interested in to make it worthwhile?
  • Are the movies compatible with any portable devices you'd like to use to watch them? Several sites guarantee that their files will play on any Microsoft PlaysForSure-compatible device, but others have more limited compatibility.
  • Does the site use a file format that you've had good or bad experiences with in the past?
  • Do you need a proprietary download manager or player? If so, do you mind downloading and learning to use them, or would you prefer to use programs you're already familiar with? Does the player have all the features you want - can you pause, back up and fast forward?

To see a comparison of some sites' offerings, check out these articles from TechCrunch and ExtremeTech.

Next, we'll take a look at the movie download services that are available now.