Vudu movie box: Veddy, veddy expensive

Pop quiz: Which is larger, the number of movie genres or the number of ways those movies are delivered to your living room? For all your dramas, comedies, horror flicks and so forth, there's TiVo, Blockbuster, Netflix, cable and satellite TV, pay-per-view, video on demand, Apple TV, PC downloads and more.

Thursday brings the launch of yet another vehicle for distributing movies to home cinema. It's called Vudu from a Santa Clara, Calif., start-up of the same name.

Vudu promises instant access to about 5,000 movies from all the major studios, plus 20 independent studios and distributors. Films arrive via a small, 4-pound, set-top box; it has a 250-gigabyte hard drive capable of storing about 100 hours of standard-definition movies. Eventually, you'll be able to increase storage by connecting a USB hard drive. Vudu's box must be connected by Ethernet cable to a fast (2 Mbps minimum) broadband Internet connection.

Now the rub: Before you can "rent" movies (99 cents to $3.99 a pop) or buy them ($4.99 to $19.99 each), you must fork over $399 for the hardware. That's a lot to pay for the convenience. Even with no subscription fees, I'm having a difficult time coming to grips with Vudu's pricing.

A similar pricing scheme was a chief reason I didn't recommend a somewhat similar on-demand service called MovieBeam, reviewed here a year-and-a-half ago. It then cost $200 for a box to rent flicks, albeit for a far slimmer selection of movies.

Vudu worked well, following a trying start. My test box was loaded with about 4,000 movies, but not all of the absolute latest batch of films. The company says it will have 17 of the top 20 DVD rentals as of Thursday's launch. Thus, the newest movie I watched was Night at the Museum. I also took in oldies such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and family flicks such as Charlotte's Web

Moreover, while Vudu's hardware is capable of supporting high-definition content, no licensed HD fare is available yet. Here's a closer look:

•Start-up blues. Setting up Vudu turned into a B-movie nightmare. I connected the box to my Sony HDTV using a single HDMI cable often used these days to connect high-def sets to other components. A Vudu logo appeared on the TV screen, but then the screen went dark. The logo reappeared, then went dark again — a scenario that continued. I couldn't complete the setup. After a round of troubleshooting, the company concluded the hard drive was corrupted.

Vudu sent a second box for testing, but I wasn't out of the woods. An error message appeared on the Sony TV asking me to connect a display that supports HDCP. Short for "high-bandwidth digital content protection," this is a form of copy protection you sometimes see when you use HDMI cables. Vudu told me they tested their service with lots of TVs but not my model. (The company says the issue will be resolved.)

In the meantime, though, I was able to proceed only after connecting lower-quality cables. The "composite" cables included in the box yielded a lousy picture and sound, plus I had to muck with settings to see the entire movie on my TV screen. The quality rose dramatically when I connected optional so-called component-type cables.

•Finding movies. When you first set up the device, you provide a credit card and choose an amount ($20 is the default) to purchase or rent movies. The account is replenished when it hits zero.

Pressing a Vudu button on the simple remote control displays Vudu's home screen on your TV. Twenty movies are showcased through movie posters. Clicking on a poster pulls up pricing and other details about renting or buying the film. You can also watch a preview. You can search films by actor, director, title or genre and fine-tune a search through other criteria, including MPAA ratings, critics' ratings, etc.

Renting a movie typically gives you 30 days to start watching, but once you hit "play," you'll have 24 hours to finish the film. You can watch as often as you like within that period. Paused movies will resume where you left off. You can fast-forward or rewind by turning a scroll wheel on the remote.

If you buy a movie instead, it remains on the box without expiring. For now, you cannot transfer the film to a portable device.

Vudu says it will get all the movies that are released to DVD and electronic distribution, adding about five to 20 a week to its lineup. But Vudu's movies lack the bonus extras found on DVDs.

•The technology. Vudu takes advantage of a so-called hybrid distributed network. To provide immediate access to the films you want to watch, a few seconds of every available movie already resides on the Vudu box. The system pulls the rest of the bits off a neighbor's box or the company's own servers.

I'm all for the convenience Vudu is promising, especially if it delivers more of the films I want to see. Still, it's hard to justify the price of admission when there are so many other ways to catch a flick at home.