Movies: Stream, Rent, or Buy
It's good to start your digital movie-watching experience using monthly subscription services or occasionally renting titles. Netflix has a large selection of movies, and Hulu Plus has most TV shows (except those from CBS) available the day after they are broadcast. You'll spend $7.99 per month for each subscription. If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that renting a single movie from an online service will almost always cost more than $3.99; TV shows start at $1.99 for standard definition. After two or three rentals, the monthly subscription services pay for themselves.
Once you find a movie title you want to view over and over again, especially if you have small kids, you may want to buy the digital movie. There are two choices here: Download it to your computer or device or access it from the cloud service.
At first, you may want to keep all your downloaded movies in a single library (e.g., an iTunes library or Windows Media Center), but high-quality movie files can use as much as 3 to 6 gigabytes of memory. Your movie library can grow quickly, and you'll need to move the files to an external hard drive, since loading up your computer's main hard drive will ultimately slow down its ability to run all programs.
At some point, other members of your family may want to add their own movies to a central movie folder. This is when you may want to consider a network attached storage (NAS) drive that everyone in the house can access. The insidious part of this approach is that the file titles and organization that worked when there were only a few movies might no longer makes sense when multiple libraries are merged. Some movie files may be moved to folders and forgotten, while others may be unnecessarily duplicated.
Rather than hoarding digital files that load up your hard drives, consider a cloud locker where the movies you buy are held for you in a virtual online library. Movies in the cloud are easy to browse, can be searched and retrieved by genre or category, and are easy to find in one place. Some cloud lockers that store purchased videos include Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
As you might expect, Amazon videos are stored in your Amazon video library. They can be streamed to devices with Amazon Instant Video access, and you can download them to two computers and two "unbox" portable devices. Still, if you have access to the Internet and a media streamer or web browser that can access Amazon Instant Video, you might not need to download the video at all.
The Apple TV has no memory to download movies. Until recently, you had to download movies you bought in iTunes, save them on your computer, and stream them from there to the Apple TV. This has changed with the newest update to Apple TV as well as the 1080p version of the device. Many purchased movies can now be streamed directly to an Apple TV, though Apple is still working on licensing deals with many studios that are restricting access to streaming. For those movies, you still have to download to your computer and stream to the Apple TV over your home network.
Vudu is known for its high-quality movie rentals, but you can also buy movies that will be stored in your Vudu cloud library. Vudu titles can be accessed by movie categories "Comedy," "Drama," "TV Shows" and so forth.
Cloud movie lockers will grow in popularity as UltraViolet takes hold. You will be able to add the DVD and Blu-ray titles you already own to an UltraViolet cloud locker for less than buying a digital copy. While it costs $9.99 or more to buy a digital copy, it will cost only $2 for adding the title to your Ultraviolet library. The Walmart Disc to Digital service (which I wrote about here) will make your DVD and Blu-ray titles available from your Vudu locker as well.
Still, as you purchase movies, you may find them stored in a number of cloud services as well as on your home network. And while you may be able to watch all of them on your iPad or other device that can access all the services, I look forward to the day when we can access all our content from a single app or device, whether it is streamed from online or stored on our home network.
If all goes well, there should soon be apps or features on TVs and media players that can bring together downloaded movie libraries with online cloud libraries. Already, Flixster has released a computer application that can access your UltraViolet library, your Hulu and Netflix queues, and movies on your computer; in the screen shot above, an iTunes library has been imported into Flixster. It's still in the early stages of development, and there are some details to smooth out, but it appears that Flixster may be an integral part of the future of watching movies and TV shows on our home theaters and mobile devices.