Hands on: Vudu streaming 1080P movies to the Playstation 3

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As promised last week, Vudu, the high-definition movie streaming service owned by WalMart, hit the Playstation 3 in the US yesterday. Never one to shirk my blogging duties, I wasted no time testing it out. Y'know, by watching a movie.

In order to get started you have to download a small app from the Playstation Store. It'll install in the Video column of the cross-media bar, right there with Netflix, Hulu Plus and NHL GameCenter. When you run the app you'll get your first bit of good news: Vudu is giving you enough free credit to let you watch what they call an HDX movie (that's 1080P with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound). All you have to do is enter your email address. No credit card, no other personal data needs to be entered. I have to assume the PS3 is sending your Playstation ID back to Vudu as well; otherwise you could just make up a fake email address any time you wanted to get a free flick.

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Once you've done that, you just pick a movie, sit back and relax. We choose the HDX version of Kick Ass for this test (though there were newer titles available such as The Karate Kid, Get Him to the Greek and Eat Pray Love) and Vudu popped up a network test since this was our first time trying to play 1080P content. It looked like a 4.5Mbps connection is the minimum required for this format and the 'gauge' topped out at 10 Mbps. Our connection checked out fine and we were off to the movies.

Kick Ass took just a few seconds to start and it wasn't very long until we'd totally forgotten that we were 'testing' the service. The picture quality was great (and at the promised 1080P with a 2.35 aspect ration) and the sound quality was good. The PS3 was outputting Linear PCM audio and I have a new receiver that I am, frankly, still learning the ins and outs of. It may have been possible to improve the surround sound effects by tweaking a setting on my receiver. The 2.35 aspect ratio means thin black bars top and bottom and at one point I noticed a bit of digital static in the lower bar. And about an hour and 40 minutes into the film we got a "buffering" glitch for a few seconds. It wasn't horrible but it was definitely disruptive and snapped us out of the world of Kick-Ass, if you know what I mean.

After the movie ended we were giving the option to rate it, and to share the fact that we'd watched it on Facebook and Twitter. Overall it was a very positive experience. When I got back to a PC I found an email from Vudu welcoming me to the service and requesting that I finish setting up my account, including adding a credit card for future purchases. I could easily have ignored the email but I'd enjoyed the experience enough that I completed the sign-up. So will I use it again?

Maybe. The problem is the cost of the movies. The HDX versions of relatively new movies are $5.99 to rent. HD and SD versions are $4.99 and $3.99 respectively. Once you start watching, you have access to that movie for 24 hours. Now compared to the $1.50 Blu-ray rental cost (also for roughly 24 hours) at a Red Box kiosk, $5.99 is pretty expensive. But FiOS, at least, charges $5.99 to rent a recent HD movie via Video On Demand and as far as I know those aren't in 1080P, which makes Vudu seem like an OK deal.

Alternatively you can buy movies and the prices here seem to vary more. Prince of Persia is $24.99 for HDX or HD and $19.99 for SD, all of which seem too high to me. Scott Pilgrim vs The World is $19.99 in SD and not for sale in HDX or HD formats (though you can rent it in those formats). The Karate Kid is $9.99 to own in SD and again, not available for purchase in HDX or HD formats, but at least $10 to own a standard def movie seems like a reasonable price. I'm pretty sure I won't be buying any titles from Vudu, but I can see myself renting now and then.

For movie buffs, the Vudu app is worth downloading just to surf around in even if you don't plan to spend any money. You can watch trailers, read reviews, see cast members and more. Vudu has partnered with Rotten Tomatoes for ratings and reviews and you can drill down into Wikipedia entries to learn more about films or personalities. It's a treasure trove of info for movie enthusiasts.

There's still work to be done to improve the experience. A few times when I tried to watch a 2-minute preview of film I got a preview for an entirely different movie instead. Also oddly enough I had some buffering problems on a couple of previews. Vudu says an update to the app is coming in December; it'll change the interface and let's hope it polishes up a few of these rough spots, too.

Still, if you have a PS3 and a decent network connection (and are in the US), there's really no reason not to download the Vudu app and watch a free movie on it. Might be a good activity for after the Thanksgiving feast, once you've had your fill of turkey and football.

If you want to learn more, you can read the Playstation Blog entry about it, or watch the quick video embedded below.

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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