S&V's Guide to Movie Downloads

Finally! The studios have wised up and realized that if they don't offer movies as electronic bits you can legally download and watch whenever you like, savvy computer users will get them anyway. So why not get ahead of the game for once and grab some Internet action by supporting legitimate online distribution, rather than digging in their heels and facing the same fate the music industry suffered during the Wild West days of Napster?

With a download, there's no need to drive to the store or walk to your mailbox. There's no case to open, no packaging to throw away. Just point your browser to any of several Web sites, pick a flick, and enter your credit card number (if you haven't already set up an account). Within minutes, you'll be able to start watching the movie, and you can keep it on your hard drive without having to pay to play it again tomorrow.

For several years, the studios have allowed movies to be downloaded at $3 to $5 a pop. But 24 hours after you began watching one, it couldn't be played again without paying for another license. It wasn't until this year that the leading mainstream download sites, Movielink and CinemaNow, let users buy certain movies as an alternative to renting them. Recently, Guba became the third site offering movies you could buy via download.

But what's a fair price for a download? Given that there's no duplication cost and minimal distribution cost, should you have to pay $20, which is about the same as you'd pay for a DVD? And how do the video and audio quality of a movie download compare to the DVD version? Are there any extras?

These are the questions I was considering as I connected a Windows XP Media Center 2005 Edition PC to my 50-inch plasma HDTV and my surround sound system during the hottest and muggiest days of summer. (Beyond pointing my wireless mouse, I wasn't budging.) And here's what I discovered when I checked out the top three services.