Review: CinemaNow on Xbox 360

Gadgets Gaming

After the announcement by CinemaNow that users could now watch leased bought/rented videos on their Xbox 360s I figured I would give it a shot. I am a Netflix user, but I have watched a few movies via the Xbox Live Marketplace (XLM) recently as well. I really like both services, and thought that CinemaNow’s larger library might be a good substitute for the XLM. I didn’t intend to do a write-up on this, but after my experience I thought it could be something that others could benefit from. I will be approaching this in two parts: first, the quality of the CinemaNow service regardless of the playback device; and second, the process to bring it to the TV.

Part One: the CinemaNow Service

So I looked at my Netflix Queue and picked out “Man of the Year” (which was better than I was expecting BTW) for the low low discount price of $2 from CinemaNow’s “Last Chance” section. Soon as I found the movie on CinemaNow’s site I noticed that they only support using their site with Internet Explorer.

CinemaNow with Firefox
CinemaNow with Firefox

CinemaNow with Internet Explorer
CinemaNow with Internet Explorer

What makes this annoying is that their service requires installing the “CinemaNow Movie Manager.” It is the application that actually downloads the movies. I don’t know why they don’t make the software just register its own URI like cinemanow:// in Windows that would make it work in more than one browser. I’d rather not have to install any additional software though; the files use Windows Media DRM, and could be played in Windows Media Player. Basically, it seemed like the movie manager software was worthless and unnecessary.

After I went into Internet Explorer to purchase the rental, the movie manager software launched and the movie started downloading. In the hour it took to download the 1.2GB file I could have gone to Blockbuster to pick up a movie. You can’t start playing a video while it is still downloading either; which you can do on XLM. After completing the download, I tried to play the movie and was informed that I was not authorized to play this file on “this device.” I looked into the support on their site, and ended up having to e-mail them.

They did respond within about half an hour, but I was already done messing with this for the night, and was not at my computer. They gave me a coupon code to purchase the movie again, which would issue a new license to view the file. It worked without requiring downloading the file again.

“Man of the Year” file propertiesThe first thing I noticed as I played the file is that the resolution is terrible. After looking at the properties I saw that the resolution is only 512×222! That is only one-third the resolution of standard definition television or DVDs at 720×480, or even most P2P video files. Needless to say, it looked even worse scaled up to 57″ on my HDTV. In addition there was a lot of intermittent stuttering in the video (in Windows Vista and XP and on my Xbox 360, all from local storage or over a wired LAN).

The file properties show that they are encoding their “1500k” files at about 1600kbit/sec actually—much higher than you normally see on P2P files. Of that 1600kbit/sec, only 96kbits are dedicated to a stereo (no surround sound) audio stream. The stereo sound is okay at 96kbit/sec as they use Windows Media Audio and not MP3, but it is a far cry from the 5.1 surround sound I’m used to enjoying on DVDs and video from the XLM.

In short, the video quality was sub-par, and the audio was only passable. Both shortcomings would be much less noticeable on a standard definition television using the built-in speakers, however.

Part 2: Xbox 360 Playback

Now for the part that enticed me to try out this service in the first place, the Xbox 360 playback. As soon as I turned on my 360 the CinemaNow Movie Manager software alerted me to the fact that I had an Xbox 360 on the network. (Duh!) When I clicked on the notification it opened a web page with instructions on how to setup your computer to stream the file to the Xbox 360. Basically, if you follow the instructions exactly it will work, but it isn’t even close to being easy enough for my Dad to do. Frankly, I don’t know why the media manager software doesn’t just take care of the dozen or so steps to setup your computer for streaming; that is how it should be.

I later discovered that you do not have to stream the file to the Xbox 360 via Windows Media Player Sharing. Any UPnP software that can stream video to the Xbox 360 should work; I used Orb and it worked great, and I bet TVersity would work fine too. Just make sure the UPnP software is sharing the folder that CinemaNow saves your movies in and that you can play the file on the computer you downloaded it to.

*Side note for Windows Vista users: as TVersity doesn’t seem to work on Windows Vista yet (at least not for me and I’ve tried) check out Orb. It can transcode any format of video or audio to what your UPnP device can handle (Ogg Vorbis into WAV for my 360), works perfect in Windows Vista, and can do a lot of other cool things, such as online radio DVR, Slingbox, etc.

The Bottom Line

CinemaNow’s service is not as good as the Xbox Live Marketplace. Video quality is below standard definition, the audio isn’t in surround sound, you can’t play the file on the 360 while it finishes downloading on your computer, it takes a lot more effort, and it doesn’t work in Firefox. Honestly, I don’t think I will ever use CinemaNow again. The one area where I would maybe recommend doing so is to grab a few movies to watch on a laptop on a plane for those who don’t know about DVD rippers. It is unacceptable for watching on the TV though.

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