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Don't get excited about movie downloads

Given all the recent hullabaloo about digital movie downloads, you'd think Hollywood finally had embraced the Internet revolution.

Online services such as Amazon's Unbox, Apple's iTunes, CinemaNow and Movielink promise us US-based users instant access to movies without having to trek to Blockbuster or wait for Netflix. We can watch a movie shortly after it starts to download, carry movies on a portable player, and, with CinemaNow, burn them to disc to watch in our their living rooms.

So what's wrong with this picture? A lot. Some downloadable films are more expensive than their DVD counterparts and offer fewer features. Downloading the movies can be tiresome. And watching films on something other than your PC or portable device can be a pain.

Apple's iTunes does the slickest job of integrating an online movie store with a media player, but as I write this fewer than 100 movies were available, all from Disney-owned studios. I tried the 99-minute Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ($10, no special features), which took only 90 minutes to download. And I could start watching it right after the download began.

I launched Poseidon from Amazon Unbox just 3 minutes after starting the download to my PC at 600 kilobits per second, but when I tried an episode of Firefly at 300 kbps, I had to wait nearly 20 minutes. The $15 Poseidon came with only a making-of featurette. Unbox's sharper images and richer colours set it slightly apart from the other three.

As for other features, only CinemaNow lets you download and burn films to a disc with standard DVD menus, extra features, and even printable cover art for the disc case. But at press time only 113 titles were available for burning, most of them obscure (Space Truckers, anyone?).

I downloaded Tupac Live at the House of Blues from CinemaNow over an 802.11g wireless connection; burning it to DVD took exactly 4 hours. Though the disc played back fine on my DVD player and on two test PCs, a third computer couldn't read it until I installed a new codec.

The Tupac download looked so-so; however, a company representative said that the download's quality was identical to the DVD's. In general, the image quality of all four services was good.

CinemaNow's $20 Poseidon downloaded to my testing laptop in just 90 minutes and was available to watch within roughly a minute. But it cost $5 more than a comparable DVD at Target, with no special features. Movielink also charges $20 for a bare-bones download of Poseidon.

The real challenge? Watching digital flicks in your living room. I hooked the laptop to my home projector, but movies displayed at less than half the size of a DVD. Next year, devices such as Apple's iTV that let you feed digital content directly to the boob tube should make movie downloads more attractive. For now, downloadable movies are like popcorn without any butter or salt - tolerable but hardly tempting.

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