Netflix, Vudu, Unbox and Apple TV may be around, but if there's one name in rentals that can take streaming mainstream, it's Blockbuster. Unfortunately, their first attempt at a streaming media box falls short.
You buy the $99 box, built by broadband gear maker 2Wire, and you can stream Blockbuster rentals to your television. After your first 25 free rentals, you pay whatever titles are marked. (Star Wars: The Clone Wars was $3.99 plus tax. Whatever unlimited package you may have with Blockbuster DVD rentals does not apply.) All movies are downloaded to the system. The downloads do expire within the 24 hours you begin watching, but movies can also be purchased. Blockbuster has about 2200 titles available at the moment and the new release section leaves something to be desired with big, not-too-recent films like Iron Man still missing. Of the 2,200 or so movies and tv shows, I found 10 HD titles on the system.
My initial impressions of the 2Wire hardware are largely positive. The box is small, light, runs cool and packs a smart (though disabled) SD expansion slot on top of the 8GB of internal storage. The bundled remote is definitely a tad too small, and it's covered with those multicolored "we haven't totally thought this through so we left some room to fudge" buttons. More on that in a moment.
Setting up is very easy. After plugging it in, you wait a few minutes and go through a quick 5-step process that requires you to sync a Blockbuster account with a randomly generated box serial number. I was browsing movies in something like 2 minutes after plugging it into my TV and router. Like the Roku Netflix box, you have choice of wi-fi or ethernet.
The interface is where things go wrong. You know, I don't even mind the horribly spartan blue screens—I get the Blockbuster branding attempts here, even if it evokes bad BSoD memories. But there's nothing all that pleasurable or intuitive about the system.
The search menu is a good example of the often strange navigation strategies. Much like a TiVo, you type in your title that you'd like to find, and a list propagates on the right. Then, you can either highlight a title and press "OK" on the remote, OR you can highlight the item and press right on the D-pad. But nothing else in the system is left to right menu based.
I realize this sounds petty, but take a few minutes navigating the system and you realize that the UI's rule set lacks basic coherence.
There are great ideas going on. You can really browse a lot of movies at once. They appear in rows of five, stacked two on a page. In other words, you can see about ten movie selections at a time. Not bad. But then you realize, this cover art looks horrible—nowhere near the sharpness of, say, Netflix cover art. And a literal two-frame animation moves you from one row of movies to another. It's a flaw I'd have expected to see five years ago. Now, it just looks unpolished.
Oh, and then there are little but very annoying issues I should quickly mention. Hitting the "back" button will take you back, but there's no way to retrace your steps to whatever you were browsing. You start over. And at least two of the icon buttons on the bundled remote do nothing, ever.
Once you get to whatever you'd like to watch, the experience is still a bit bumpy. Previewing seems promising, but it takes place in a minuscule box that's close to worthless. And when you choose to download the movie (yes, it's physically downloaded/saved to the unit), you don't just go to viewing the movie. You have to find the movie again in "My Movies." Then you select it. Then you watch it.
Here's the catch, though. You can watch the movie nearly immediately (SD in seconds, HD in minutes). But you can't rewind or fast forward until the entire film downloads to your system. Also, if you stop watching a movie before it downloads, there's no option to resume. You start over. Frustrating. Once the download is complete, FF and RW works very fluidly, as does resuming. Vudu, which costs a lot more, gives you fluid navigation even when downloading.
Most video is promised to be DVD quality. It falls quite a bit short to my eye, though the framerates are generally smooth. Overall, the SD viewing quality reminds me a lot of Amazon Unbox. I feel like I've seen better non-HD quality on Netflix—though I've had somewhat mixed results on each platform, honestly. Vudu may still reign in the SD-quality department.
As for HD, it's a superb disappointment. The 40-minute IMAX movie Dolphins took about 20 minutes to cache (that may be my connection's fault). But when it did play, the quality was not only very poor (upconverted DVD, I'd say) but the playback was often choppy, constantly jittering to a stop. Why did these slowdowns occur? The media was already on my system! Both Netflix and Vudu HD blow the Blockbuster unit away in HD quality and performance.
Maybe the real mistake of this box is that it's trying to cater to the less tech friendly, and in doing so, becomes very muddled in its presentation. Netflix has been very smart to force its users to choose downloads online. And though the service is limited to older catalog films available "free" with subscription rather than a la carte new releases, the Roku and Xbox 360 are an absolute pleasure to watch movies on.
The comparison that often came to mind is this Blockbuster 2Wire is the equivalent of a stock cable DVR, rather than the TiVo that most set-top boxes aspire to mimic.
It's simply not a seamless or fulfilling enough experience to represent the nation's largest brick-and-mortar movie rental chain, and it's certainly not good enough to impress us when Netflix, Apple TV and Vudu are all doing it better. With a few aggressive firmware updates and the right rental plan from Blockbuster, I might be willing to revisit the option. But until then, it's a Blockbuster product in name only.