Right now, I’m bathing in a sea of irony. It’s so thick, it feels like I jumped in a pool filled with slime. You see, Microsoft’s Zune brand has had a bit of a rocky start in Australia. Actually, that’s not right. It never had a start at all. But now it’s here, in the form of the Zune Video Marketplace on Xbox Live, and not only is it good, but it could well be the driving force in Video on Demand for the television in this country.
When the US reviewed the beta yesterday, they were a bit harsh on the Zune marketplace. They said: “Not a whole lot to write home about yet besides 1080p streams”. But they come from a country where VOD is commonplace and easy to get — Netflix, Hulu, Roku, Amazon, TiVo... all let you watch your entertainment whenever you want. Here in Australia, we have iTunes, we have TiVo and we have Foxtel, but the truth is that the Zune Video Marketplace is a much easier and superior experience to both of those.
The beta service that I’ve been playing around with isn’t quite the finished product most of you will get to experience next month. For a start, at the moment there are only 102 movies available, a number that MS reckon will grow exponentially when it launches. Secondly, everything I can watch is being streamed or downloaded from the US, so there’s the inherent delays involved with transmitting data over distance. Thirdly, there are a few quirky bugs with the menus and launching the service that will almost definitely be ironed out before launch.
But forgetting all of that for a moment, you quickly realise just how fantastic a service this is. You launch the Zune marketplace from the Video Downloads option on the NXE, and after about five seconds or so, you’re given a screen with the most popular movies available. You can browse through the movie collection in any number of ways, including genre, alphabetical and popularity, plus new releases.
Movie rentals range between the equivalent of $4 for an SD film and $7 for an HD one. You’ve got 14 days to start watching, and 24 hours once you start to finish, which is all pretty standard online movie rental terms.
Where Zune really excels in its versatility. When you select a movie, you’re given the option of downloading the film or streaming it in real time. If you select to stream the film, it will start within moments — it starts off quite pixelated and blocky, and your first thought is to question the quality. But as the movie buffers, the quality ramps up to 1080p HD with 5.1 surround sound.
If however, your connection is like mine and pretty damn dodgy (at least from the router up the back of the house to the TV at the front) the Zune streaming solution will adjust quality on the fly so you don’t end up with the film stopping every time it catches up to the buffer. That means that you’re able to watch the movie from start to finish, with the Xbox automatically adjusting the quality. In my admittedly limited testing of the service overnight, after it got past the initial blockiness, the video quality didn’t drop to unwatchable at any point.
Streaming also means you can start watching a film straight away, without having to wait for it to download. Microsoft have told us that in order to get an HD picture, you need a 3mbps connection, and 4mbps for Full HD.
The one BIG catch with this is the bandwidth though. A two-hour HD movie could be up to 6GB in size. That’s a pretty big chunk of anyone’s download limit, right there. That’s where the download rental option comes in though, so you can download during your off-peak period and watch it when you’re ready within the next 14 days.
But more appealing is switching ISPs. iiNet are still offering unmetered Xbox downloads though, which should incorporate the new movie service. Turns out that movies aren't part of the iiNet Freezone (Thanks Michael). So you might just have to bump up your download limit...
Even though it’s still in beta, the Zune marketplace has already, one day in, become my preferred video rental option.