Universal Hedges on UltraViolet, Gives Consumers Options

Jan 1, 2012 by

In early December, Universal joined the ranks of studios bundling UltraViolet digital copy with packaged disc titles, but its commitment to the technology seems questionable—and that may be a good thing for consumers. Cowboys & Aliens is Universal’s first UltraViolet offering, and it’s only included in the Blu-ray combo pack. It’s not included with the DVD version. Notably, Universal also released The Debt on the same day without UltraViolet.

Create a New Account…Again

Like Warner and Sony, Universal requires you to create an online account and link it to your UltraViolet account. That’s four accounts you need now for UltraViolet. Unlike the other UltraViolet sites, you can’t use an email address for your username, so if you were trying to coordinate your account information to make things easier on yourself, you’re out of luck. Also, your Universal account password must be 6-8 characters, which seems oddly insecure considering everything the studios are going through to lock down and protect this content.

Universal’s site is wisely badged with a “beta” flag, and it features a prominent “Let us know what you think!” button to provide feedback. The intent is good, but they appear to lack the support necessary to handle the feedback: we received an irrelevant, generic troubleshooting message in reply to general comments we left about the site.

Plenty of Options

Unlike Warner and Sony, Universal isn’t eliminating its other Digital Copy formats in favor of UltraViolet. Instead, UltraViolet is an available option in addition to a Digital Copy through either iTunes, VUDU, or Amazon Instant Video. That’s right: you have a choice. How customer-friendly! Warner and Sony should take notice; Paramount may already have, since they recently announced the January release of a new Dark of the Moon combo pack with UltraViolet and Digital Copy. This not only gives consumers options, it gives the studios metrics they can use to determine which format(s) their customers prefer. Now we just have to hope that the studios are watching.

Universal lets you redeem an UltraViolet copy and one of three other Digital Copy formats

Universal throws in a second UltraViolet title for free when you redeem your Cowboys & Aliens code. In our test, the selection was limited to picking between Dazed and Confused and Being John Malkovich.

Streaming and Downloading

Universal’s UltraViolet titles can be streamed on all UltraViolet streaming devices, including Macs and PCs through a browser with the Flash plug-in and supported mobile devices and Google TV through Flixster. Video quality in the browser is good (nearly a 2 Mbps bit rate), but we experienced jerks and tears, even on a powerful, Gb Ethernet-connected computer. Universal’s site shows titles from other providers, but they’re presented in a way that seems unnecessarily disjointed.

UltraViolet Titles from other providers appear disabled, with a buried link to Flixster

Universal’s UltraViolet titles can also be downloaded, but here’s where it gets confusing. From Universal’s site, you can download the purchased title, Cowboys & Aliens, to a PC, but you cannot download the free title. You cannot download titles to a Mac from Universal’s site, but you can download both titles to a Mac from Flixster.com to play offline in the Flixster Collections desktop software. You can also download either title to your mobile device through Flixster.

Downloading the UltraViolet copy of Cowboys & Aliens to a PC requires that you install yet another desktop application, and it’s an arduous process requiring the following steps:

  • On Universal’s site, click Download.
  • Download and run the installer file CowboysAndAliens_UV_3.exe.
  • Click Install once the installer runs.
  • Sign in to your Universal account.
  • When the installer completes, the Download Manager will run; wait for the download to complete.
The Download Manager software itself is a baffling user experience. The layout features an overly-complicated hierarchical navigation panel, a download queue that displays more information than necessary, and an odd sort of button bar with an enormous stop button that seems like it should actually be labeled “Emergency Stop.” Oh, by the way…the Stop Download button doesn’t stop the download—it pauses it.

What's with the big red button?

Once the download is complete, you’ll have two programs still up and running on the desktop (the installer and the Download Manager) and a big mess of stuff in the Start menu—none of which is necessary to play the movie. Close all the running stuff, and you should be ready to go.

The Cowboys & Aliens installer leaves a mess of stuff in the Start menu

By default, Universal’s UltraViolet titles download to the Public Videos folder on your Windows computer. Unlike the downloadable content from all of the other studios offering UltraViolet, these are in Windows Media (.WMV) format, and the video quality is surprisingly good. Cowboys & Aliens is a 720 x 320 widescreen video with a bit rate of over 6 Mbps. The digital rights on the file include the ability to sync to a device capable of playing subscription files, so presumably you could play this on your Windows Phone and legacy Zune devices. And unlike the titles from any of the other UltraViolet partners, it will appear and play in Windows Media Center.

Conclusions

Universal’s first UltraViolet offering seems like a cautious test, complete with a low-budget toolset and plenty of digital alternatives. And while the differentiated online and download experience might further confuse the market, this may well be a studio’s best UltraViolet adoption to date solely because Universal is not abandoning previously-offered Digital Copy options. If anything, they’re giving you more options than ever before. With just one combo pack purchase, we received unlimited UltraViolet streaming, a downloadable UltraViolet copy (that plays in Flixster’s clunky software), a downloadable Windows Media file, and a downloadable iTunes movie with iTunes Extras (similar to DVD bonus features). Plus Universal threw in an additional movie for free.

Clearly Universal just raised the bar. Now can someone please work on making it all usable? This is all still way too complicated for mere mortals.

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