Click to viewIf you've been wondering how to compare the video-download options of Apple TV, Vudu and the Xbox 360, I think today is your lucky day.

A few weeks back, I wrote up a piece on Vudu's high-definition video falling short of my expectations. Today I bring you a more thorough report of the three most compelling set-top boxes and their video-download capabilities. Apple TV, Vudu and Xbox 360 all have a lot going for them, but by looking at them side-by-side, you can see how their makers are all taking different paths to get to the ultimate desired end. Dive into the chart, then have a look at the screengrabs from three movies, to really get a feel for the progress, or lack of progress, in the world of HD downloads.

Just so you know, in addition to skipping everything that requires an actual PC (including HP's MediaSmart receivers), I omitted TiVo from the running for now, for two reasons: 1) the Amazon Unbox on TiVo doesn't yet offer HD movie downloads; and 2) TiVo itself is a subscription service, whereas these systems don't charge a monthly fee for the privilege of renting movies.

You can see how frustrating it is to pick a winner when you look at the three systems on paper. Fortunately, things clear up a bit when you compare stills I shot at the same time, on the same Panasonic 1080p plasma TV.

Screens from Ratatouille—note that the Vudu shot is standard-definition only:

Screens from 3:10 to Yuma—note that the Apple TV shot is standard-definition only:

Screens from Transformers—here the three devices are all running high-def versions, and I've mixed in a screen from the HD DVD of it as well, for surprising comparison.

Keep in mind that the key here is to compare the shots with each other, as they were all shot the same way. (Note that the same perceived down-rezzing issue I noted before on Vudu's high-def is still obvious.)


Now that you've seen all the evidence I could gather. It's a toss-up to me, though I think for content I have to lean towards Vudu and for pure video quality (and most HD content) the Xbox 360 is hard to beat. Meanwhile, Apple TV is cheapest and lives up to its name with the best access to actual TV programming—though NBC is still painfully absent. How about helping me make the call here?

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[Apple TV; Vudu; Xbox 360]