We all love going out and buying new DVDs, but that takes so much time and effort. What if there was an easier way? Downloading movies from the Internet has been in the works for some time now, and the services have become sophisticated enough that they're worth looking at. In this article I'll cover four of the leading movie download services: MovieLink, CinemaNow, iTunes, and Amazon Unbox. I'll tell you how usable each is and about the quality of downloads from each. Keep in mind right off the bat, if you really love watching movies, you'll need plenty of free hard drive space to store your films.
Pirating of downloaded movies isn't all that easy. All the services except iTunes provide .WMV files with usage rights intact. The first time you try to watch the movie you need to be connected to the Internet so a license can be authenticated. From there on out it's smooth sailing. iTunes, however, provides films in an .M4V format that is only playable on iTunes, and all movies must be purchased and watched from within the iTunes program. The other three require a proprietary, but free, video download manager and player. They are needed to download the videos from the service but you can choose to watch the videos in Windows Media Player if you wish.
Any film you download will be smaller in size than a DVD-based version of the film, but don't assume that image quality will suffer. You might be pleasantly surprised at how good the movies look. Files for most films from major studios run well over a gigabyte in size, and sometimes two gigabytes or more. Some independent films are encoded at lesser quality levels with downloaded files taking up less space. One caveat, be sure that both Windows and Windows Media Player are fully up to date before you start downloading. With that said, let's take a look.
Selection: Approximately 1630 titles for purchase; 1350 titles for rent
The MovieLink site is well organized so that it's easy to determine whether a particular film is or isn't available. The different browsing options appear on the left side of the page, and various movie banners appear on the top and right portions of the page. You can browse by genre, production studio or for films available for rental or purchase. The center of the page highlights all the new releases and popular movies that are available. When you click on the icon for a movie you're shown a synopsis of each movie as well as size and format details. The information provided is paltry in comparison with the other three sites, so you'll have to take a quick trip to IMDB.com or a similar site if you need to find out more about a movie before you download it.
A well designed and uncluttered homepage makes for an easy browsing experience. Click on the image for a larger version.
So what's the difference between buying and renting? Buying allows you unlimited watching periods, while renting will only allow you 30 days of storage time, and 24 hours to watch the movie from the moment that you play the film for the first time. After the 24 hour period has expired, the film will automatically delete itself from your hard drive. You are allowed to backup any purchased movies to DVD in their original .WMV format, however they won't be playable in a standard DVD player and rented movies cannot be burned at all.
After you've decided on your first purchase, you'll be asked to create a MovieLink account. After you've entered your billing information, you're asked to install MovieLink's download manager. You download movies in the manager and you can watch them there too or you can use Windows Media Player.
MovieLink has a large selection, but to get all the movies that you could possibly think of, you'll most likely have to visit several of the services reviewed here. Different production studios have contracts with different services, so the selection of movies at each will vary. MovieLink is a great service, but download speeds were the slowest of all the services I reviewed. See Download Speeds below. As I noted, they also provide very little information about a movie. If these two things could be improved, I'd go there for movies all the time.