While chewing the fat around the office recently, we got to talking about how we all go about watching films on those rare – oh so rare – occasions where we suddenly find ourselves with a couple of hours to spare.
And the surprising diversity of film-watching habits to emerge from this conversation suddenly made us realise that while we regularly review Blu-ray players, we’ve never really done in-depth investigations from a movie perspective of film-offering alternatives like the Xbox 360 Video Marketplace, BT Vision service and Sky HD receiver.
This seems particularly remiss of us given how people like to bleat on right now about how Blu-ray’s window of opportunity is already getting closed by alternative downloading and broadcasting services.
So today we’re starting to put this sorry state of affairs right, with the first part of what will ultimately be an intermittent trilogy of linked reviews of ‘alternative’ film sources. Starting with Microsoft’s Xbox Live Video Marketplace.
The Xbox 360 is, of course, first and foremost a games console. Indeed, when the console first launched, its potential for offering a film service was nothing more than a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye, hinted at by the fact that you could download trailers for upcoming games and a few music videos.
Yet on November 22nd 2006, US Xbox 360 owners suddenly found they could download full TV programmes and films via their Xbox Live accounts. And the same service finally went fully live in the UK in time for Christmas 2007.
Since then the volume of downloadable film content has grown exponentially, as new deals have been struck with different content providers (the most recent being Universal in February this year). To date, the number of films available via Xbox in the UK stands at around 200.
With so many titles available, any experience of the Xbox 360 Movie service has to begin with a look at how well its interface holds up. With the old ‘blade’ interface sported by the first Xbox 360s, I personally found tracking down a specific film a bit of nightmare. But thankfully the new ‘tile/folder’ system introduced with the NXE update improves things considerably.
You can now immediately access short ‘highlight’ lists of the most recent and most popular titles, for instance, with all the titles shown like a row of dominos for you to scroll along. The scrolling is quick, and the presentation quality such that you can usually tell at a glance which films the list contains even without scrolling through them.
Alternatively, you can browse the entire film selection based on first letter or genre, in which case you just get a more standard alphabetical ‘list’ presentation of the titles available under the category or letter you select.
All in all, while the system is no competition for a good web browser listing – or Sky’s EPG – it works pretty effectively considering all you’ve got to navigate it is a joystick.
Also pretty commendable is the level of information provided for each film you’re thinking of ‘renting’. You’re told at a glance if a film is available in high as well as standard definition, as well as being shown the year the film was made, its running time, its certificate, the size of the download file, what audio system it uses (usually 5.1-channel Dolby Digital), what subtitle tracks are available (if any) and what resolution it’s presented in. For the most part, this means 480p for standard def downloads, and 720p for HD downloads.
Which immediately gives us cause for concern, actually. For while 720p is very much an HD format, more and more TVs in the UK are turning towards a Full HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. So for these screens to show a 720p film, some sort of video scaling processing is going to have to take place, with a potentially negative impact on the final picture quality.
As well as the ‘technical’ information, tiles are provided for each film giving a pretty in-depth synopsis and key credits – usually just the main actors and the director. One final friendly touch is the fact that you can download a short preview of each film before committing to a purchase.
Once you’ve committed to buying a film, you pay for it using Microsoft’s Point system, with films costing from 250 points for a standard def version of an old movie through to 540 points for an HD version of a new title. This works out to roughly £2.10 for the cheapest films, up to £4.50 for the most expensive HD ones.
For this, you get to ‘own’ a film on your console for 14 days before it is deleted, but once you’ve started to watch it you then have to complete your viewing within 24 hours. Or you can, if you wish, watch the film multiple times within that 24-hour period.
This cinema-like approach is obviously a very different scenario to what you get with Blu-ray, where you pay much more up front, but then get to keep your film for ever, to watch as often as you like. Which approach you prefer is, of course, entirely up to you.
Having just mentioned differences with Blu-ray, I guess it’s also worth me stressing that you don’t get any of the extra features – director’s commentaries, documentaries etc – with a film downloaded via Xbox Live that you tend to get included on a Blu-ray disc. But again, we know there are plenty of people who won’t be bothered by this at all.
There’s one more rather important difference between the Xbox 360 movie experience and buying a Blu-ray, too: time. For while a Blu-ray is available to play within seconds – depending on your player!! – of putting it into the disc tray, downloading a film inevitably takes time.
To give you some idea of how much time, using a perfectly normal BT broadband connection, I downloaded the 5.0GB file of ”Wanted” in HD in one hour and 55 minutes. Clearly, then, if you want to watch an Xbox Live film, you need to think ahead – maybe leaving a title or two downloading when you go to bed the night before you intend to watch something.
”’(centre)HD DVD was the original high definition movie option for the Xbox, but unfortunately that didn’t work out(/centre)”’
I should add here that the Xbox service does allow you to start watching a film once a part of it has been downloaded while the rest of the download continues in the background. But you’re still looking at a pretty hefty delay between deciding to download a film and actually being able to start watching it.
Mind you, I guess you could argue that unless you’ve already bought a Blu-ray you want to watch, the time taken to pop to Blockbuster to rent the Blu-ray could well be longer than it takes to download a film to the point where you can start watching it via Xbox Live…
With file sizes for full feature-length films on the Xbox service ranging between 4.5 and 7GB, anyone thinking of using their Xbox as their main source of films also seriously needs to consider having at least a 60GB HDD in their console (this is standard in the £170 Xbox 360 Pro) or preferably the 120GB offered by the Xbox 360 Elite.
For the purposes of this test, we downloaded six films in total, to check the stability and consistency of the system. But for the performance tests we focussed in particular on ”Wanted” and ”The Dark Knight”, given our familiarity with these films in their Blu-ray incarnations.
Starting with the picture quality delivered by the Xbox movie service, it’s best summed up as good without hitting the same heights provided by the best Blu-ray pressings.
The HD versions of ”The Dark Knight” and ”Wanted” we downloaded both clearly look HD, for instance, with a significant increase in detail and sharpness. It’s a relief, too, to discover that even with ”The Dark Knight”, a relatively long film, there doesn’t seem to be too much nasty video compression going on. In other words, HD pictures seldom become softened during action sequences, and don’t suffer with hefty amounts of MPEG blocking over backdrops.
The Xbox does a sterling job of reproducing the extra colour vibrancy and subtlety experienced with HD pictures too, and pictures are decently contrasty – even if dark parts of the picture arguably look just a fraction too dark from time to time. However, while our two main HD movie downloads look sufficiently sharp and detailed, there’s no doubt at all that the Blu-rays of both films look sharper still – significantly so when it comes to ”Wanted”.
For instance, you get a much clearer sense of the cinematic grain in the ”Wanted” transfer when watching the Blu-ray than you do when watching the Xbox download. Also edges look more defined, textures look more precise, crisp and tangible, and the picture generally looks slightly more three-dimensional. To try and give you a sense of the level of difference we’re talking about here, if we say that the Blu-ray of ”Wanted” scores a 10 for picture quality while its standard definition DVD version scores a five, the Xbox would notch up an eight.
It’s difficult to say whether the slight reduction in crispness and detailing is down to the fact that the Xbox delivers a 720p transfer rather than the 1080p transfer from the Blu-ray, or is caused by some file compression processing. But the reasons behind it aren’t really all that important; all that matters is that the difference exists, and videophiles should be aware of it.
Videophiles should also be aware that the Xbox 360’s HD pictures aren’t quite as polished and flawless as those you would expect from a top-notch Blu-ray player/disc. For while, as I said, the Xbox’s pictures generally look pleasingly free from MPEG compression noise, there are occasionally signs of it, such as over the shot of the PC screen where Wesley Gibson Googles his own name only to find no hits.
One more concern comes from the fact that you can manually choose the video output your Xbox sends to your TV. So if you’re not careful you could have the Xbox 360’s slightly average video upscaling circuitry converting the 720p source material to 1080p before passing it onto your screen – a process which made the picture look grittier but also more noisy during my tests.
When it comes to audio, the Xbox 360 holds its own against Blu-ray reasonably well – within its limitations. What I mean by this is that while the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack delivered via the Xbox service with both ”The Dark Knight” and ”Wanted” appears more or less identical in quality to the equivalent soundtracks from the Blu-rays, the ”Wanted” Blu-ray carries an additional superior (in terms of power and clarity) DTS-HD Master Audio mix, while ”The Dark Knight” carries a similarly more potent Dolby TrueHD mix.
While in an ideal world the Xbox movie service would deliver an AV experience to rival Blu-ray, in reality this was unlikely to happen. For as with all download services, the Xbox Live approach is more about value, convenience and disposability than the last word in AV glory.
Having said that, its AV efforts certainly aren’t bad by any means, and as such they join forces with a solid operating system and sensible, clear pricing structure to make the Xbox 360 an engaging if uninspiring alternative way of watching HD films.
And let’s not forget, of course, that when you’re not watching films on it, the Xbox 360 can also gobble up countless hours of your life with its outstanding catalogue of games.
Score in detail
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