Theaters, videos still without online rival

Service: Two companies have a long way to go before providing service that's all that and a bucket of popcorn.

April 18, 2002|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Watching movies delivered legally through the Internet to your personal computer is an idea who's time may never come, but Hollywood is finally getting serious about it.

CinemaNow and Intertainer, two online movie services, are just now providing access to major studio releases, moving beyond their extensive libraries of Grade Z direct-to-video flops.

I tried both and found huge technical improvements over my first experience back in January 2001.

If you have a fast and reliable Internet connection, such as a cable modem or DSL line, CinemaNow and Intertainer mostly provide video quality that's almost comparable to broadcast television - a huge achievement considering how much compression is required.

If you have a wireless home network and a laptop computer, as I do, you can watch Internet movies anywhere in the house.

Of course, most people don't have broadband Internet access at home or a wireless network. Even if they do, almost everyone has a television screen that's bigger than the largest computer monitor in the house. And renting a video or DVD isn't hugely inconvenient.

The real demand for online movies, if it ever materializes, won't come until we get the much-touted and long-delayed "smart" cable and satellite TV receivers that connect to the Internet. Such boxes are at least a year away, however.

So what can you expect in the here and now? Here's what I found:

CinemaNow (www.cinema now.com) is devoted entirely to movies, with a selection of about 1,400 titles, although the vast majority is in the previously mentioned Grade Z category. Someone has a sense of humor about this, as shown in the description of a forgettable 1987 Italian boxing movie called The Opponent: "Like Rocky and Raging Bull without those pesky Oscar awards."

But CinemaNow also offers some major releases, including a recent 30-day run for The Man in the Iron Mask.

I tested it with the modestly successful 1999 film Songcatcher, starring Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn, about Appalachian folk music in the early 20th century.

To start, I registered with the site, giving a credit-card number to cover the $2.99 fee, which entitled me to watch Songcatcher as many times as I wanted in the next 48 hours.

The only requirement, other than fast Internet connection, is the latest version of the Windows Media Player software from Microsoft.

The only decision I had to make was the transmission speed. The choices were 56 kilobits per second (k), 100k, 300k and 700k. I selected 700k and hoped my cable modem would be up to the task.

The movie started in a small onscreen window on my Compaq Presario - a laptop with a 500 megahertz Pentium III processor and 192 megabytes of memory. Clicking the "full screen" button gave me the biggest possible image - although I had to hit the Esc key to access the on-screen controls.

The video quality, most of the time, was comparable to a standard television broadcast, with none of the jumpiness and blockiness - technically known as "pixelation" - I'd seen in previous attempts to stream full-screen movies.

I ran into problems, however, when I went to the office and tried watching on a relatively antiquated PC with a 300 MHz processor, 64 megabytes of RAM and an overburdened corporate network. The picture would often freeze while the soundtrack kept playing, then jump forward to another still frame.

Back home, I ran into a brief stretch of ragged playback when my cable modem slowed. I switched to 300k and the playback smoothed out, but the picture quality degraded till the modem recovered and I switched back to 700k.

Intertainer, in contrast, goes beyond movies to offer a selection of music videos and obscure television shows. I was impressed that Intertainer had a handful of movies I've heard of, most noticeably last year's animated hit Shrek.

I decided to watch the 2001 release Rock Star, featuring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, at $3.99 for a 24-hour viewing period. To my surprise, there was a big hidden cost: I had to sign up for a FirstPass subscription at $7.99 a month. FirstPass entitled me to free viewing of the television shows and rock videos, but I still had to pay for my movie. CinemaNow also has a monthly plan called Premium Pass at $9.99, which also provides unlimited viewing of older movies.

Intertainer made me nervous by insisting I run a small piece of software to check my system and by asking for permission to "optimize" my Internet connection. An Intertainer spokeswoman assured me that this was harmless, but the site needs to do a better job of explaining what's happening.

Rock Star almost matched the video quality of Songcatcher but displayed a small amount of pixelation in scenes with fast action or lots of colors. Once, the action froze for about 15 seconds - apparently due to network congestion.

Both CinemaNow and Intertainer suffer from one annoying flaw: there's no easy way to "bookmark" your place in a movie when you have to shut down the computer. Intertainer offers only a slider control, forcing you to guess where you left off. CinemaNow provides a "CinemaLater" feature that claims to bookmark the movie, but didn't work.

Overall, the limited selection of movies and the sometimes rocky playback make CinemaNow and Intertainer little more than curiosities for now. I won't be tempted to go back until the kinks are worked out - Intertainer needs to drop the monthly fee, and CinemaNow needs a more impressive roster of films.

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