Moving to films/video, you have three key sources to choose from: Microsoft’s own (heavily pushed!) Zune service, LoveFilm, and BlinkBox. These all offer slightly different models of payment, from monthly subscriptions to individual rents and even purchases (where your ‘bought’ films are stored permanently in a cloud for viewing whenever you want).
Delving into each of these three services, the first thing you realise is how useful the Bing search tool is. For each of the platforms differs in the films and film studios supported.
Of the three platforms current on offer, the least content rich and most faffy to use is BlinkBox - especially as you can’t actually buy or rent films directly through your Xbox. Instead you have to ‘Save for Later’ the film you want, then go onto the BlinkBox website via your PC and pay for the film there. Very silly.
BlinkBox is also the weakest of the three services when it comes to picture quality, with its standard def pictures looking softer, ‘jerkier’ and much more prone to large chunks of macroblocking than those of the other two platforms.
Marginally the best standard def performance comes from LoveFilm, which consistently produces pictures more or less equivalent to DVD with surprisingly few compression artefacts.
Zune’s standard def pictures are probably the sharpest of the three services, but there’s a little more noise than you get with the LoveFilm streams. Plus there’s a colossal disadvantage of using Zune for standard def viewing, since bizarrely its standard definition feeds only come with stereo audio tracks, whereas the other platforms offer Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes if they’re available. This is a pretty colossal mistake on Zune’s part, in our opinion.
Given our love of all things AV, the thing we were most interested in with the Xbox’s video services was HD. So it was disappointing to find that only the Zune platform offers HD versions of films. And even this HD support is frustratingly incomplete, with by no means all films available in HD form.
As for the quality of Zune’s HD feeds, they’re just about acceptable rather than earth-shatteringly brilliant. There is more sharpness on show than you get with the standard definition pictures, and certainly fewer MPEG artefacts. However, if you’re expecting the same sense of resolution and clarity that you get from a typical Blu-ray, you’ll be disappointed.
Thankfully Zune’s HD feeds do, at least, come with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Plus during the couple of days of our testing, they streamed down our 6Mbps pipe remarkably stably, with no buffering pauses or sudden drops in resolution. In fact, bizarrely, we had much more trouble trying to download films to our HDD for viewing later ‘offline’ than we did with the ‘live’ HD video streams.
One final point to raise here is that the general picture quality output from our Xbox console looks a little less impressive following the latest update than it did before. Colours look a touch washed out, and brightness levels seem a little reduced too. Hopefully this apparent if minor flaw can be sorted out by a little firmware update at some point.
All in all the new Xbox 360 dashboard and feature update is a mixed bag. On the upside, the new interface certainly looks much more attractive than its predecessor, and it manages to highlight lots more content options without looking cluttered.
However, the addition of adverts leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and there’s a real sense that the new update will just make the most popular video and game content more popular while making it even harder for niche fare to find an audience. We can readily imagine hardcore gamers reacting quite badly, too, to the way the new update arguably makes the console’s gaming features secondary to its multimedia tools.
As for the amount and quality of the video services on offer, while the Xbox is now a much more fully fledged and effective movie/TV machine than it used to be, especially now that 4OD and Demand 5 are onboard, there's certainly room for improvement with the quality of AV experience those services - and the console itself - deliver.