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Vudu Steps Up HD Quality

Internet-based movie service Vudu is launching a new high-quality HD format called HDX Thursday that will dramatically improve the picture quality it currently delivers through its proprietary set-top box, which connects to a home router on one end and the living-room TV on the other to facilitate on-demand viewing of both standard-definition and HD movies.

There is one catch, however: The new HDX format won't allow instant viewing from the Vudu set-top box like current HD titles, but will instead require a download of three to four hours per movie.

So Santa Clara, Calif.-based Vudu is positioning HDX -- which will initially be available for more than 50 titles, including new releases like Speed Racer and classics like Chinatown and will be priced the same as normal HD titles -- as a high-end solution aimed at HD aficionados with 1080-line progressive (1080p) sets of 40 inches or larger.

“It’s about giving the customer choice,” Vudu chief technology officer Prasana Ganesan said. “If you don’t have time to plan, go ahead and watch instant HD. But if you do, then order HDX ahead. You can do it on the box, or also on the [Vudu] Web site. So you can order it on the Web at the office, then get home at 8 [p.m.] and start watching the movie.”

Vudu was already offering 1080p/24-frames-per-second resolution for its “instant HD” movies, which, like SD titles, are delivered as a progressive download that doesn’t require buffering because Vudu preloads the first few seconds of each movie on the hard-disk storage in the Vudu box.

But while the instant HD movies are compressed at an average bit rate of 4-4.5 megabits per second using advanced H.264 encoding, HDX titles are encoded at variable bit rates of 9-9.5 mbps, with peaks of up to 20 mbps depending on the amount of information in each scene. That makes them unsuitable for progressive downloads at current broadband speeds.

The Vudu HDX movies are encoded frame-by-frame, in the same manner as DVD and Blu-ray movies are prepared, to achieve the highest possible image quality at the lowest possible bit rate.

They also utilize Vudu’s proprietary TruFilm video-processing technology, including a “film-grain preservation” algorithm that attempts to replicate the “optical texture” of the original film.

The surround-sound audio in HDX is also delivered at a bit rate 40% higher than for instant HD titles.

While Ganesan didn’t claim that HDX rivals the 1080p/24 quality offered by physical Blu-ray optical discs, he does believe the format is a significant improvement over the picture quality currently being offered for HD movies, whether that is through broadband, on-demand or broadcast services.

“We’ve been working on the underlying technology for a year now,” he said. “The challenge was to achieve a high level of quality with no artifacts and to manage to do it in a way that it doesn’t have a huge download. We’ve been able to cobble together all of these different encoding technologies to achieve that threshold.”

The HDX movies will be priced like instant HD titles, with new releases costing $6 and most library titles at $4, with some lower.

Vudu currently offers almost 300 HD movies and almost 10,000 titles overall, including SD movies and TV shows such as Fox’s 24, NBC’s Chuck and TNT’s The Closer. SD titles range from 99 cents to $4.

The basic Vudu set-top box -- which delivers 1080p video through an HDMI port and also includes SD component analog outputs -- costs $299. Until now, it has been marketed mainly online and through specialty retailers like Tweeter. But after trialing with Best Buy for several months in a handful of markets, it has now achieved national distribution with the consumer-electronics chain, which is also offering a $200 movie credit to all new Vudu customers.