Another big name, Best Buy, joined the UltraViolet ecosystem this month with CinemaNow’s innovative, but buggy, new disc-to-digital conversion service. Tagged as a “limited participation beta,” Best Buy’s service attempts to one-up Walmart’s in-store disc-to-digital service where customers can take their DVD or Blu-ray discs to a local Walmart retail outlet to redeem UltraViolet digital copies in VUDU. With CinemaNow, a downloadable player reads and verifies ownership of your DVD movies using your computer’s optical drive, eliminating the need to tote a pile of your favorite movies to the store.
But that’s where CinemaNow’s advantage ends. The pricing is more or less the same as Walmart’s conversion service—$2 to convert a DVD to a standard definition digital copy or $5 to up-convert to HD. Unlike Walmart’s service, however, you cannot convert Blu-ray discs, so there’s no $2 Blu-ray to HD option.
Arguably, VUDU breathed some new life and utility into UltraViolet. VUDU brought customers’ UltraViolet movie collections to many devices, given the pervasiveness of VUDU apps on consumer electronics devices like TVs, Blu-ray players, streaming boxes, and mobile devices. One has to imagine the opposite is true with CinemaNow—that Best Buy is hoping UltraViolet may breathe new life into its less popular service.
Best Buy is going to need more than a largely reviled, industry-sponsored digital locker service to make CinemaNow a viable contender in the streaming video space. Our initial experience with CinemaNow’s new disc-to-digital/UltraViolet service has been problematic from the start.
Since CinemaNow is another, new “retailer” for UltraViolet, you have to create another account and link it to UltraViolet. This is a little easier if you already have a CinemaNow or bestbuy.com login. If not, expect to create your seventh or eighth account for UltraViolet—at this point we’ve lost count. In our test, we registered the account to a DC address, which uncovered a sophomoric bug—the District of Columbia isn’t listed as an available option in the registration form’s state code list [see: Web Form Development 101].
After linking the account to UltraViolet and completing the registration, we installed the downloadable player. The CinemaNow Player for Mac is an AIR application that, if you’re running Mountain Lion, requires you to allow installations from unknown developers. The application itself is clean and simple, but limited. It only plays standard definition video, and it down-converts HD videos accordingly.
Our experience with the PC player has been much worse. The schizophrenically-named CinemaNow Player/Rovi Player is terrible. It’s custom skinned, for no good reason; you can’t resize the height of the player smaller than your desktop (for no good reason); and it has an option to show a tray icon for no good reason because the app won’t run in the background and appears in the task bar whenever it’s running.
Unlike the Mac player, the PC player doesn’t show your library in the My Library tab—just those movies that you are downloading or have downloaded. And don’t try to close the app while it’s downloading…it will stop the download process (see won’t run in the background, above). Most disappointingly, you cannot control the player with your home theater remote—except for the Stop button. That works.
Oh, and this is the best part: every time you launch the PC player, it forcibly adds a shortcut to itself on your desktop. This application is amateurish crap that Best Buy should be ashamed to distribute.
Initially our other UltraViolet titles didn’t show up in CinemaNow’s library, so we decided to test the disc-to-digital service. CinemaNow claims they can currently convert over 3500 different titles with this service. The conversion process couldn’t have been easier. Insert a disc, click a few buttons, choose your preferred video quality, and voila…an HD copy of Moon appeared in our new CinemaNow library, charged to the card on file.
CinemaNow playback on the Mac and PC is disappointing. It’s jerky, as if the video is improperly telecined, and the downloaded video quality on Windows is very disappointing. Our standard definition download of Moon showed numerous digital encoding error artifacts and interlacing issues, and the audio is limited to stereo. It’s worth noting that movies look fine when played online or on consumer electronics devices that have a CinemaNow app on board.
One of the supposed advantages of UltraViolet is that (most of) the titles in your library should appear (if not play) in other UltraViolet retailer accounts you set up. But after a day or so, our other UltraViolet titles still didn’t appear in our CinemaNow library, and Moon wasn’t showing up on any other UltraViolet service, like VUDU.
In an attempt to remedy this, we unlinked CinemaNow from our UltraViolet account then re-linked the accounts. The first attempt failed because CinemaNow’s overzealous security policies had logged us out even though we could still navigate around on the site. Once we logged in again and reconnected to UltraViolet, our other library titles appeared, but Moon—the movie we just purchased—was gone. And it still didn’t show up in VUDU, Flixster, or any other UltraViolet library.
Also curious, the titles that now appear in our CinemaNow library differ depending on where we look. On cinemanow.com, our UltraViolet library has 13 titles. The CinemaNow app on a television used for testing shows 15 titles, and in the Mac application, the library contains 17—still none of them are Moon.
With library inconsistencies and a $5 purchase down the drain, we decided to test out CinemaNow’s support channels. Several days have passed with email support going unanswered besides automated acknowledgements. Phone support was thorough but equally unhelpful. We called to find out what happened to the purchased movie and to get it back. At one point, the support representative asked what browser was being used—as if that would explain why one of the movies in the account had gone missing. The call ended with the representative explaining they’d escalate the issue and an email indicating we should expect a resolution within 24-48 hours. That was seven days ago.
Conclusion: It’s Not Beta…It’s Just Not Ready
It’s interesting to see more providers getting into UltraViolet, and CinemaNow’s at home disc-to-digital conversion theoretically offers some intriguing benefits. But like most other vendors that have stepped into this pile of streaming bits, Best Buy’s initiative is burdened with problems.
Best Buy wisely identifies CinemaNow’s new disc-to-digital service as a limited beta, but it’s CinemaNow’s web site, desktop applications, back-end services, and support infrastructure that seem like the weak spots—the disc identification and conversion process worked flawlessly. That’s pretty sad considering how long CinemaNow has been around and the investment Best Buy’s made in the service over the past two years.
For now, if you’re interested in moving your older physical media to the digital cloud, you may just want to put on your boots and brave the winter weather to take your discs to Walmart. Or you could wait it out and see if UltraViolet even survives the next year or two.