Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ultraviolet: the movie industry's concept of streaming service

So, I recently bought a dvd that came with a code to get the same movie on an online service for streaming. I figured I'd give it a try, and I've been toying with the streaming services since then, and I thought it's time to share.

The movie industry is trying to come up with a way for you to buy your videos as streaming service rather than as physical discs. Most (not all, but most) of the major studios are participating in one system, called Ultraviolet. The way it works is, you get an Ultraviolet account, which stores your "owned" right to watch a video in streaming service, and then you also get accounts with providers of your choice which actually allow you to watch the movie either streaming or as a download. Example providers are Vudu (a subsidiary of Walmart), Flixster, and Sony.

You can end up "owning" a video on Ultraviolet in three ways: you can buy a disc (DVD or Bluray) that comes with a code that you enter into a provider's system to unlock ownership of the video, you can purchase it directly from the provider, or you can bring your discs to Walmart and pay them to unlock the videos for you on Ultraviolet.


There are reasons to use several different providers with one Ultraviolet account. They don't all have exactly the same movies available, different ones work with different devices (for example, only Flixster works with my Android devices, but only Vudu will stream to my Roku box), and if you get unlock codes with your DVD the unlock code may (or may not) require you to use a specific provider to get your video. This is all intensely stupid, since the whole point of Ultraviolet was to allow you to use your collection with whatever provider you want, but okay, whatever, get accounts with all of them, use them specifially as needed, but do most of your watching with the one you like best.

So, I first set up an Ultraviolet account, then tried to sign up with both Flixster and Vudu. That was easy... but Flixster went and created a new Ultraviolet account for me, while I already had one. Now I had two, and they had different movies on them, and that's not what I wanted. Ultraviolet handles this gracefully... you can merge accounts and it's easy to do. Great! Except, once I'd done that, Flixster had a meltdown and wouldn't let me correct my Ultraviolet account information. Repeated attempts to get help from Flixster customer service resulted in them repeatedly giving me inapplicable or outright wrong directions, and when I tried to make clear that no, they hadn't understood, and to clarify what was wrong, they just ignored me and gave me more bad advice that clearly indicated they hadn't actually looked at my account. In the end, I was forced to close my Flixster account and start a new one... but you can't start a new one with the same email, so I had to use a different email address to start a new one. It's a big pain and really soured me on Flixster.

Vudu handles everything much more smoothly, but I don't like their user interface. It seems to be Flash based, you can't sort your videos (you can sort the videos you don't own in their store but you can't sort the ones you paid for), and it uses non-standard scrollbars which don't work well. It's pretty but not as functional as it should be.

My advice: If you want to use these services, sign up with Flixster first, let them create an Ultraviolet account for you, get the UV account info from the account screen on Flixster, and then use that UV account to sign up for Vudu. (In both cases you can get a new account and indicate that you already have a UV account and use it, but Flixster makes it very easy to miss the interface elements to get it right and impossible to recover if you get it wrong, while Vudu doesn't.)

I later had to sign up with the Sony store to claim the UV code for a Sony movie I'd purchased. Sony required I update Silverlight software and restart my browser, which was a big pain in the ass, and then after doing so and signing up with their stupid Silverlight form (which really could have been done better with plain HTML) they just redirected me to Vudu to claim my video in the end anyway. Really stupid.


Both Flixster and Vudu give you some free movies for signing up. With Flixster, they gave me one movie for starting, then several more for performing certain actions, such as adding several movies to a wish-list or installing their software in my phone. Poke around their user interface and they have screens (one on the web site, one on the phone) that tell you outright how to get them to give you several more movies. Vudu just gives you 10 movies outright when you sign up, and then when I added them to my Roku box they gave me a $5 credit, good for rentals or purchases.

You don't get to pick your free movies, they choose them for you. They gave me a mix of garbage ("Wrong Turn 2 Dead End Unrated"), old stuff ("Lethal Weapon", "Big Trouble in Little China"), and good stuff ("The Producers", "Austin Powers"). Overall, a nice enough free perk, considering that I didn't really have to do much of anything to get it.


Both Flixster and Vudu also allow you to rent videos for streaming. With the Vudu software on my Roku box, this means I can rent videos whenever I like in high definition without leaving home and watch them on my TV. Of course, lets me do that too, and Amazon lets me see a lot of videos for free since I have their Prime service. If you have Prime anyway, Amazon is the better deal for rentals. If you don't have Prime, it's a tossup.

Vudo has separate rental prices for different resolutions. So, you pay more if you want to rent in high definition. Be careful to pay attention to the actual resolution of your devices before renting: For example, while I have a 1080p television, my Roku box through which I watch Vudu movies is actually only 720p, which is SD resolution, the cheapest... so there's no sense in me paying extra to rent higher resolution.


Many new videos that you buy on DVD or Bluray come with an Ultraviolet unlock code. This is a code printed on a piece of paper enclosed in the box with the disc. You go to a specified URL, type in the code, and you get the video added to your Ultraviolet account. So far I've had: one video that required I unlock on Flixster, one that required I unlock on Vudu, one that allowed me to unlock on either, and one that required me to go to Sony to unlock but after signing up and jumping through hoops Sony just sent me back to Vudu which unlocked the video anyway.

My advice is, if you get one of these Ultraviolet codes with your video, apply it to your Ultraviolet account! You paid for it, you might as well have it! (And if you don't want it, email the code to me...)


As I mentioned, you can get a video by purchasing it outright from a provider. This is a little weird. Some movies on the providers can't be purchased, only rented. (This is a minority.) When you can purchase, there are three to six different prices, and you have to pay attention to what you're paying for: videos come in three different resolutions, which are SD, HD, and HDX. These resolutions aren't really explained. SD, I figured out, is supposed to be equivalent to a DVD. HDX is supposed to be equivalent to a bluray. So what's HD? I don't know. Reading the help section on Vudu didn't help me much, they tell me HD is 1080p at 24fps and HDX is 1080p at 24fps, so I don't understand what the difference is. Anyway, the higher the resolution, the higher the price. There may also be three prices (at different resolutions) for rentals. Be careful not to accidentally rent if you intend to purchase or vice versa.

Prices for purchasing the videos are not good, and often it's cheaper to go buy a DVD or bluray disc. This seems immensely stupid. The industry wants us to adopt this system as standard, but they make it more expensive than buying discs? I'll stick with buying discs. I "bought" one video only, because I had my $5 signup credit and with that and the movie being on sale it was the same price for me to "buy" it or rent it, so I bought it on the grounds that if I like it now I can watch it again. Barring my having credits, I don't intend to spend my money outright buying movies on the service.


You can bring your DVDs or Blurays to Walmart, pay a couple dollars, and they unlock those videos on your Vudu account. The experience:

Start by going to your Vudu account and selecting Disc To Digital -> Convert DVDs from the menu. Enter your video's title in the search box. They don't have every video (they have a lot of popular videos but not so much the obscure ones), and not every video they have can be converted (for example, no Disney video can be converted), so if your video isn't listed, give up and try another. If it is listed, you may see it listed twice, both regular and Bluray. Select the one you have, not the one you want to have. (If you have bluray, select the one that says bluray. If you have DVD, select the one that does not say bluray.) You're then presented with a screen to "choose a resolution". If you have a DVD, you can choose standard definition (SD) or high definition (HDX). It costs $2 to convert a DVD to SD, or $5 to convert it with the upgrade to HDX. If you have a bluray, the only choice is high definition, which is $2. (In other words, it's $2 to convert at the resolution of the source material, $5 to upgrade.) Anyway, once you select your resolution the video is added to the list. This is just a list, you're not actually buying anything at this point. You can change the list before you do anything you're committed to. Make sure you get the videos you really intend on the list. I accidentally added a video with the right title but it was the wrong movie, so now I have a childrens' cartoon instead of an artistic costume drama.

You then print the list from Vudu (select "print list" in the middle of the Disc To Digital screen) and take the list, with the discs, to Walmart to the Photo Center counter and tell them you want the Disc To Digital conversion. They then wander around looking vaguely confused and finally find someone willing to help you, who may or may not know quite what they're doing. You give them the printout you made from Vudu. They sign into the computer, select the service, and look up your account - make them look it up by your email, which is on the printout you gave them near the top left. (Looking it up by other factors didn't seem to work well.) Once they successfully look you up, their computer already has your list. (Remember, Walmart owns Vudu.) Then, for no apparent reason they have to fill out a paper form - or not, depending on who is helping you and whether or not they know about the form. They have to see your discs - one guy just looked at the boxes and said "okay", another insisted on removing each disc from the box and stamping the rim of the back of the disc to indicate that it had been converted and couldn't be converted again. I suspect they're supposed to do the stamping but I had one guy who didn't know about it, and I wasn't going to waste my time by explaining.

When they're done with everything, they print a sticker from their computer. They stick this to the printout you gave them, scan it on the cash register, you pay, and then your videos are added to your Ultraviolet account through VUDU. I walked away feeling like it all took too much time and the process could have been designed much more efficiently.

MANY videos for sale at Walmart on DVD or Bluray come with two coupons for $2 (each) off disc-to-digital. This means you can bring the video back to Walmart and hand them a coupon and get it converted without paying anything. It's one coupon per purchase, but I managed to get them to accept four coupons at once (to convert four discs of course) by just asking nicely.

Vudu is testing software which would allow you to do disc-to-digital at home. You would run the software, put your video in the computer, it would validate that you own the video and then charge you the $2 online to convert it. This will obviously make it much easier. You'd need a computer drive that can read the video disc - so, if it's a bluray disc, you'd need a bluray drive.


This is the big question: why add videos to your Ultraviolet account if you already own them on disc? They haven't thought this through well and aren't giving good answers. Vudu says the answers are "store your dvds in the cloud" and "enjoy your movies on millions of devices", but I can store my dvds perfectly well on a shelf and I can enjoy them on a lot more devices by ripping the DVD than I can with their software. (Vudu doesn't let me use their software on any of my three relatively high end Android devices.)

The best reason I've come up with is quite different: sharing. I don't mean bittorrent, I mean completely legal, authorized sharing. You see, an Ultraviolet account allows you to create and authorize multiple users (up to six I believe), all of whom can watch your videos or contribute videos to the account. For me, this means I can let my father use my Ultraviolet videos, and if I have a movie I think he'll like I can get it converted and he can watch it without me mailing him a copy - it's both cheaper and faster for me to pay $2 to get a movie added to the account than it is for me to pay $10 to $20 to have a copy shipped to him. And, if he happens to buy any videos with Ultraviolet and add them, I get them too. It also means parents can let their kids continue to have access to the family video collection when they leave for college. To do this, sign into your Ultraviolet account directly at . From there you can add users to your account and adjust the levels of control you allow them to have (such as whether they can create other users). They then sign up for their own Vudu and Flixster accounts and use the Ultraviolet account info you gave them. This is better than just giving them access to your Vudu account directly because if you did that, they'd be able to buy videos with your credit card.

The other reason I have is the walmart coupons. If I get a coupon to let me convert a video for free, I might as well pick a video I think my dad might want to see and use the coupon. I don't often buy videos at Walmart, but if the price is the same as Amazon (which it sometimes is) and they have the coupons on the box and I happen to be at Walmart (that's the rare one), I can consider it. In other words, if Walmart wants to give me this service for free, I might as well take advantage of it.


My big concern about any sort of streaming system that implies ownership is whether the system will always be around. If I go buy a DVD, I own that DVD, I can keep it as long as I want to. If I "buy" a video on Ultraviolet, I really only have it as long as Ultraviolet is working and there's a provider that offers that video. If the system ever goes under, well, I'm out of luck, all the videos I "owned" go poof. And before you try to tell me "oh a big movie studio with a reputation to protect wouldn't do that", I'd like to point out that Microsoft - a big corporation with a reputation to protect - has done precisely that several times, closing down music services and leaving customers unable to use the music they purchased. And yes, they let you download the videos, but only for use in the context of their software, the videos are encrypted. So if they ever go out of business, you will only be able to watch the videos you already downloaded on the devices on which you already installed the software, and even that's assuming it doesn't have to phone the mothership for authorization to let you see your videos that you paid for.


Ultraviolet, as a system, is a good step for the movie industry, but they don't seem to have thought out the kinks of the system or the customer incentive very well. If they want it to catch on they need to make it all easier to understand and easier to use and they need to lower prices for purchases so it's actually cheaper to buy the video online than it is to buy a disc which you own and which has extra features the streaming version doesn't have. MP3s and ebooks both took off when they became cheaper than CDs and dead tree media. For something like Ultraviolet to take off, they need to make it cheaper than buying DVDs and Blurays. When it costs $8 to buy a bluray or $10 to buy the same movie on Vudu, my choice is clear. And, they need to resolve the ownership problem by putting in place actual guarantees such that I can feel confident that if I spend money on Ultraviolet, my "ownership" of videos won't someday go poof. Until then, it's a novelty that I'll toy with, but I won't spend any serious money on it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A holiday shopping tip

If you don't have Amazon Prime, will often give you free shipping on orders of $25 or more. But, if you use this service, you know that you often end up with a total like $23.87, and then they want to charge $6 or so for shipping.

Amazon Filler Item Finder lets you type in the exact difference between your order total and $25, and they'll find you some cheap item you can add to your order to make up the difference. So instead of paying $6 for shipping, you pay $1.26 for a cat toy you don't really care about. Or something like that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gorgeous christmas ornaments

I found a shop in Georgia that had some of the most exquisite christmas ornaments I've seen. Really gorgeous. I was going to buy one as a gift for a friend, but I was going to do a lot of walking around and didn't want to carry it and so I decided I'd go back for it, and then I did a lot of stuff that day and I managed to forget about it until it was too late.

After a bit of googling, I found their web site. There are several pages of ornaments in the "merchandise" menu. They're really more amazing in person, in my opinion. They look as if they're enameled in regions defined with gold wire... I have no idea what the actual materials are, but it's made to look like a technique Faberge used.

Anyway, I just thought I'd share this in case anyone is looking for a fabulous ornament or two.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Learn to bowl

My friend Bob has started a terrific new blog on Learning to Bowl. It's designed for completely inexperienced bowlers or to help experienced bowlers who would like to improve their score.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Phone services

Please allow me to point out two services which you may find useful if you have a cell phone:


Jott provides free transcription and messaging services. You sign up with them and provide to them your phone number(s) and (optionally) a copy of your address book (which is kept private). Then, when you dial their toll-free number from one of your phones, it asks, "who do you want to jott?". You say the name of the person you want to send a message to, or "myself". It then repeats the name of the person whose name it thinks you said, and beeps. You can leave up to a 30 second message. This message is transcribed into text and emailed to the appropriate person. This means if you have a cell phone, you can make notes at any time without having to have paper and pen handy.

Grand Central

Grand Central's service is useful if you have more than one number at which you can be reached. You sign up with their service, and provide to them your phone numbers, and (optionally) a copy of your address book (which is kept private). They give you a new phone number, which you give out to your friends, family, and coworkers as your phone number. The services it then offers are many:
  • When someone calls, it can ring all your phones at once, and you can take the call at whichever one is convenient to you.
  • If you're on one phone with a call you received through the service, you can press * and all your other phones ring, allowing you to pick up the call on a different phone and hang up the first. For example, if you get a call on your cell phone, then arrive home, you can transfer the call to your home phone so you aren't using your cell plan minutes.
  • The service can screen your calls for you. If the number of the caller isn't in your address book, it can ask them to record their name, and then when you answer it tells you who is calling and asks you if you'd like to take the call or send it to voice mail. (It does this anyway, but if they're in your address book they don't have to record their name.)
  • You can listen in on calls you send to voice mail like you used to be able to listen in on an answering machine, and pick up the call if you want to.
  • You can categorize your address book listings as friends, family, work, and other. Then, you can direct the system to handle such calls differently. For example, I have the system set to not send "other" calls to my cell phone, so I don't spend my cell minutes on talking to people I don't know.
  • You can give specific individuals custom ring tones or custom voice mail greetings.

Both of these services are free.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Fresh summery fruit cocktail

What could be more welcome at the height of a New England winter than a fresh fruit cocktail of summery fruits?

My fruit cocktail recipe couldn't be easier: it's made of equal parts pineapple, strawberry, and seedless watermelon. Cut the fruit into small slices or chunks so that you and your family or guests can get a little bit of each fruit in each bite. I mix the fruit cocktail up and place it into the hollowed out pineapple (see my remarks on the pineapple slicer). If I'm taking it to a party, I put the excess fruit cocktail in a sealed bag in my fridge, put the top back on the pineapple, spear it with toothpicks to hold the top on, wrap it in plastic wrap, and I'm off to the party with it. If I'm serving it at home, I place the hollowed pineapple bottom (filled with fruit) at one end of a china platter shaped like a banana leaf, lay the (rinsed) top of the pineapple next to it, and pour the excess fruit around that. I then stick a number of toothpicks in the fruit for my guests to useas utensils to nab pieces of fruit.

It's a dramatic dish, delicious, and always a hit.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Spin dryer

I just bought a spin dryer (the larger one on the bottom) from "The Laundry Alternative". I'm very happy with it.

What's a spin dryer? Well, you take your clean, wet clothes from the washing machine and put them in the spin dryer, and it spins them up to 3200 RPM (less for the smaller model). This causes the water in your clothes to escape to the outsides of the spinning drum, where it pours through and exits the machine. In other words, it centrifuges your clothes dry. Spin dryers are more popular in other countries, but in the US they're mainly only used at gyms, to quickly dry swimsuits.

How do you use it? It couldn't be easier. You place your clean wet clothes from the washer into the spin dryer, making sure to distribute them evenly so it won't be unbalanced. You then close the lid and turn it on. (The one I bought is turned on by sliding a large latch over the lid so it can't be opened while on.) Water starts to come out of a spout on the device 20 or 30 seconds later, and you let it run until the steady stream of water levels off to occasional droplets, about 3 or 4 minutes total.

How well does it work? Well, it's not intended to be your only drying device, so it should be evaluated as what it is: a supplement. 100% cotton garments come out about half dried, and need to either be machine dried or air dried further. My 50% cotton, 50% polyester T-shirts come out about 90% dry, and simply placing them on a clothes hanger and hanging them up to air out resulted in them being dry to the touch in about 5 to 10 minutes. (I'd let them air longer before putting them away to ensure that excess moisture won't cause problems in the closet, but if I needed something to wear in a hurry, that'd do the job.) A similarly 50/50 button-down shirt got similar results. A 100% nylon shirt I placed in the machine came out dry to the touch - I would have been willing to put it on at once.

So why should you bother, when you have a perfectly good dryer already? Firstly, it saves energy. Because your clothes come out of it much dryer than they came out of the washer, they spend much less time in your gas or electric dryer, so you use less energy running it. Secondly, it saves time: When things dry faster, you get them out of the dryer sooner. And third, if you have some fully synthetic clothes, you might not need to do any further drying after running them through the spin dryer. And finally, if you have a pool, it really is ideal for quickly drying swimsuits after swimming - particularly if you have guests, so they can have their suits dry in minutes instead of having to carry them home wet in a plastic bag.

Spin dryers are a great idea for saving energy and time, and the one I bought is, so far, just wonderful. It has a nice big drum (it can take about half a load from my washer), it's fairly quiet (It's by no means silent but I could easily talk over it without shouting and it's hard to hear from the next room), and it's very easy to use.

I am not compensated in any way to endorse this product, I am a satisfied customer.

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