Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blockbuster’s set-top box a loser


The Motley Fool recently rated Blockbuster the worst stock for 2009. Based on Blockbuster's first attempt at a set-top box for delivering movies from the Internet to the TV, I’d say they may be on to something.
Fool writer Rich Smith predicted Jan. 28 that Blockbuster “is going to zero” this year. He said Blockbuster is drowning in debt and is being beaten by rival Netflix at every turn.
Blockbuster certainly hasn’t kept up with Netflix in the market for digital delivery of movies to consumers.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to try out Blockbuster’s first set-top box, which is made by 2Wire. I already own the Netflix Player by Roku, so it was easy to do a side-by-side comparison.
Blockbuster trotted out the 2Wire MediaPoint digital media player in late November, six months after Netflix debuted its first set-top box, the Roku digital video player.
They both stream movies from the Internet to the TV, but have very different business models. Both devices cost $99. But content on the Blockbuster box is pay-per-view, while content from Netflix comes at no extra charge when subscribing to its DVDs-by-mail service.
Blockbuster charges $3.99 for most online movies, but some are available for $1.99. For a limited time, the Blockbuster 2Wire box is free when subscribers rent 25 movies in advance for $99.
Sounds like a good deal, if the service has a lot of new releases and the box works without a hitch. In my experience, the Blockbuster box failed on both counts.
Installation was as easy as the Netflix box. I linked both to my wireless router.
My issues with the Blockbuster OnDemand service began with the opening screen. Looking for the hot new releases, I clicked the remote over to “Featured” films. The first movies I saw were ones I’d never heard of: “Blindsight,” “Cyborg Soldier,” “Ghouls,” “I Do,” and “Miss Conception”
I searched through other categories, including “New Releases,” “Top Rentals” and “Just Added,” and found very few new releases. I was shocked. I thought this was going to be like an online video store, packed with new releases.
Eventually, I stumbled on new releases by looking in the “All Rentals” category. It listed 1,644 titles, of which 61 were labeled “new.”
They included “Get Smart,” “Ghost Town,” “Hancock,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Iron Man,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “Pineapple Express” and “Snow Angels.”
Navigating through the Blockbuster OnDemand service is a chore. The menus are ugly and feature tiny box-shot images of the movies.
The Netflix box only presents you with movies you’ve preselected from your computer. It makes for a much cleaner interface.
I clicked through a couple hundred movies on the Blockbuster box and eventually got the “blue screen of death.” The device locked up and gave me an on-screen message of “Your Blockbuster OnDemand service is starting.” After a time, the system rebooted on its own. But it was very frustrating.
Later I chose my first movie to watch – “The House Bunny” starring Anna Faris. Everything was going fine until 40-some minutes into the movie when the picture locked up and the soundtrack continued. I tried skipping ahead and backing up, but I either got a still frame with sound or video and no sound. Eventually I gave up for the night.
The next day, I tried to start fresh. I experienced the same problem at the same point in the movie.
After a first-time experience like that, most consumers would do what I did – pack up the box and return it.
By contrast, my experience with the Netflix Roku box has been flawless.
After the Blockbuster box failed to show “The House Bunny” on a second try, I gave up and switched to the Netflix box. There I selected the Oscar-nominated documentary “Man On Wire.” Great movie. No technical problems either.

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