Starz Vongo Video Download Service

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Here's one reason Blockbuster isn't distributing video via online downloads: it doesn't own the right to digitally share movies with subscribers. And by the look of it, subscription rights aren't up for grabs. Digital-distribution rights — to subscribers, not pay-per-view customers — are in the hands of the three pay-TV movie networks: HBO, Showtime and Starz. And Starz is out to demonstrate just what can be done with those rights, by introducing a beta version of its Vongo service.

The service Vongo provides seems so obvious it's a wonder it's taken this long for anyone to offer it. You pay $10 per month, and can download as many movies as you want. Each feature-length film takes 20 minutes to a half hour to download via a typical cable-modem connection. Surprisingly, the video quality is as good as a DVD, crisp enough even when stretched across the full 15-in. screen of a laptop.

The selection consists of everything that the company has the right to share with its Starz and Encore cable channel subscribers — approximately 800 Hollywood movies, plus concerts and other interesting stuff. I was happy to find the dark stylized Sin City already in the lineup, as well as Katsuhiro Otomo's 2005 anime epic Steamboy. Other gems I picked up while browsing: Peter Sellers' The Mouse That Roared, Prince's Sign O' The Times concert and Emma, starring the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow. The diversity of titles was impressive, and the catalog is constantly refreshed and updated — each title has an expiration date corresponding to Starz' contract with the movie studio. (There is, I should add, a healthy selection of very new pay-per-view releases — which cost $4 each on top of the $10 subscription — but Vongo isn't the first online service to offer those.)

The age of digital rights is also the age of digital-rights management, or DRM. As you can imagine, movie studios won't let you burn these files to DVD, or e-mail them to your friends. Vongo has a way to transfer the movies to a portable device, but the devices — Generation 2 of Microsoft's Portable Media Center platform — is only just hitting the market and, to be blunt, aren't exactly iPods. Sadly, Vongo movies are not compatible with older Portable Media Centers, including those from Creative and Samsung. The folks at Starz assure me that they are working on adding more compatible devices to their list, but they also admit it's beyond their control. Until Microsoft can widely distribute a DRM solution that corresponds to each and every requirement of the movie studio contract, Starz must wait.

That doesn't mean that Vongo isn't good for some people in the meantime. I can think of two groups who would probably love to pay $10 per month to watch loads of decent movies. First, the road warriors who are sick of toting a bag of DVDs on every flight (and paying for all of those discs). Second, people who have broadband at home, but don't spring for premium cable. Vongo might not have the selection that Netflix offers, but the near-instant gratification of a 25-minute download is alluring.