How Movie Download Services Work

Amazon Unbox is a service that allows people to buy and download movies. See more popular Web site pictures.

Today, if you want to buy or rent a movie, you have a lot of options. You can drive or walk to a store, pick up a movie and return it when you're done. If you'd rather not make the trip, you can sign up for a service like Netflix or Blockbuster Total Access and have your movies delivered to you. If you don't want to wait for the mail either, you can order and download movies online. In most cases, you can begin watching within minutes of starting your download.

Until recently, most people who downloaded movies online were using peer-to-peer file sharing programs, like BitTorrent and Kazaa, to share pirated videos. This usually violated copyright laws, but now there are lots of legal businesses that offer movies for sale or rent online. Terms of use, system requirements and selection of titles can vary widely from one to another. Similarly, different sites can use different protocols and applications to deliver movies. However, most movie download businesses have the same basic structure and operate using similar principles.

The most visible component is the Web site where you shop for movies. Most movie download sites organize their titles much the way retail sites do. You can search for specific titles, browse different genres or use ratings and reviews to help you decide which movies you want. Once you make a decision, some sites require you to use a download manager to get your movies. This is a program that can add your movies to a queue, resume paused downloads and keep track of which movies you've selected and paid for. Other sites require you to download and install a specific video player. For example, Vongo requires you to use its software rather than your Web browser to find and download movies.

Vongo software acts like a browser and a download manager, and it lets users set preferences for file management and connection. Vongo software acts like a browser and a download manager, and it lets users set preferences for file management and connection.
Vongo software acts like a browser and a download manager, and it lets users set preferences for file management and connection.

Before buying movies, you typically have to set up an account at the Web site you've chosen. Some sites, particularly those that offer adult content, allow you to set parental control preferences. A few allow you to subscribe to a monthly download service rather than -- or in addition to -- paying for movies one at a time. Often, you can add favorite movies or genres to your account preferences, and the site software uses this information to make recommendations for you.

Here are the basic steps involved in buying and downloading a movie:

  1. Log into your account.
  2. Choose the movie you want to rent or buy. Depending on the site's setup, you might place it in a shopping cart or go straight to the purchasing options.
  3. If applicable, the Web site's software checks your parental control information to make sure the movie complies with your settings. If necessary, the site can check your subscription information to make sure you have not used all of your allotted downloads.
  4. The Web site stores your choice in a database. The site's software uses this information to make recommendations to you and to determine royalty fees owed to the company that owns the rights to the movie.
  5. Billing software determines how much money you owe and presents you with a final total.
  6. The site encrypts the details of your financial transaction so other people can't see it.
  7. The site's content delivery system starts your download and notifies you when you can begin watching. Depending on the site's setup, you can download a file or view your movie as streaming video. When using a streaming format, the site sends the movie to your computer as a stream of information, and your player decodes it as you watch.

Exactly what you can do with your movie once it finishes downloading depends on where you purchased it. Some sites let you download movies on a rental basis, giving you 24 hours from the time you start watching to finish your movie. Your player, download manager or other software then removes the movie from your hard drive or makes it unplayable. Most sites also allow you to purchase movies, which are then yours forever.

How you can use those purchased files also depends on the site's digital rights management (DRM). This is one of the things you should pay attention to when choosing a download service. We'll look at DRM and other things to keep in mind in the next section.

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.

Movie Services

Guba offers free and premium movies.
Guba offers free and premium movies.

If you're interested in downloading movies, you have lots of services to choose from. Here's a quick look at the download sites that are available now:

  • CinemaNow offers movies that you can download and own permanently. You can watch these movies on your PC or burn one copy to DVD. CinemaNow also offers free, ad-supported movies and premium subscriptions.
  • The iTunes Music Store has a selection of movies and TV shows. These will play on computers running Windows or Macintosh operating systems and on compatible iPods.
  • Netflix began rolling out its WatchNow service in January 2007. Once the rollout is complete, members will be able to watch streaming movies rather than waiting for discs to arrive. These movies play in a browser applet.
  • Vongo is a subscription service with a pay-per-view option. Users can play movies from Vongo on up to three electronic devices.
  • Amazon Unbox movies play in a proprietary Unbox video player. People with TiVo Series 2 or 3 with broadband connections can download videos straight to their TiVo units.
  • BitTorrent Entertainment Network offers free movies as well as movies for purchase or rental. Although it uses the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing client, its videos are legally licensed.
  • Guba primarily features older and independent movies for sale or rent.
  • MovieFlix offers free movies and access to premium movies for a monthly subscription fee.
  • The Wal-Mart Video Downloads Store, currently in beta, allows users to buy movies and to burn one backup copy to DVD.

Critics claim that the movie download craze won't last. Some claim that people won't pay close-to-retail prices for poor quality files that they don't actually own. In addition, many people have invested in impressive home theater systems, some of which magnify the lower quality of downloaded files. Getting the video from a computer to a TV can also be a challenge. However, supporters point out that downloading a film -- and being able to start watching almost instantly -- is the ultimate in convenience. At this point, it's hard to guess exactly what will happen.

To learn more about movies, movie downloads and related services, check out the links on the next page.

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