I used LoveFilm streaming to the PS3 for several months but recently, I’ve been looking for an alternative. Ever since I decided that fuzzy streams of movies that had been on DVD for six months weren’t really worth paying £10 a month for. Having cancelled LoveFilm, after a blunt exchange with an offensively pushy phone operative, I started looking around for another way to get streaming movies.
The US has Netflix, of course, and apparently that’s a great streaming service which offers movies and TV series episodes. Here in the UK, we’re limited to the services provided by the platform holders, an expensive (if you’re not already hooked in with them) contract with Sky TV or LoveFilm.
I don’t have Sky TV in my house and although I’d love the sports channels, it’s not really an “on-demand” movie service and it ends up being prohibitively expensive, for me at least. So I discounted Sky via the Xbox 360 in my reckoning.
At this point in my search, I was approached by the Xbox Community Network with an opportunity to sample a few movies via the 360’s Zune streaming/download service. It was perfect timing and a great opportunity to explore what that service could offer.[drop]The first movie I was asked to look at was Thor, Ken Branagh’s decent superhero flick that I’d seen earlier this year in the cinema. I had been looking forward to seeing it again in HD on it’s home movie release and had planned on buying the Blu-ray so this was a very welcome invitation.
Unfortunately, the Zune service puts limitations on movies in terms of format and licence. So, I could only get Thor in standard definition and it wasn’t available to rent, only to purchase. Other movies can be rented and streamed in HD but it seems to be decided on a case-by-case basis. This meant that for the SD version of Thor, it costs 1770 MSP. That’s very roughly equivalent to £15. That’s ridiculously expensive. For comparison HMV, a retailer not normally known for its low prices, lists the Thor triple play Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy for £14.97.
I was impressed with how quickly the stream started (it was almost instant on my 20MB O2 connection) and the quality was certainly far greater than I had previously received with LoveFilm through the PS3 but it was still a little too fuzzy around the edges. Almost as if the whole picture had been softened to hide any blemishes. I was watching through a 37 inch LCD TV that performs brilliantly with hard copy media. I also noticed that the sound was seemingly inconsistent. It was generally incredibly quiet, so much so that the volume needed to be turned up to around 300 percent where it’s usually set. At times, usually during the action, it got incredibly loud and needed to be hastily turned down.
The movie itself is still one of my favourite Marvel superhero movies. Kenneth Branagh’s direction is as accomplished as ever, Patrick Doyle’s original score is a subtle but brilliant compliment and there are solid performances from Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Idris Elba (Heimdall) and Anthony Hopkins (Odin). Even Natalie Portman manages to put in a decent show as the Earth-bound love interest.
It’s a tale of redemption in which the Norse God Thor is given a kind of sci-fi origin story. Shamed by his arrogance, he’s stripped of his powers and banished to earth by his wise father, Odin. There he begins a journey which will see his fate intertwined with that of the Earth as he battles forces of evil to save his realm and ours.[drop2]Of course, these Marvel movies are all working as a kind of elaborate set up for the Avengers movie that’s due next year but they are decent popcorn movies in themselves. I’m a comic book fan (although I favour DC to Marvel) and I enjoyed Thor immensely. I can also report that my wife, who knows nothing of the comics and relatively little of the Norse mythology, loved the movie too. Perhaps the inclusion of the Portman love interest plot thread serves its purpose in that respect.
All in all, Thor is solid movie and the Zune Video Marketplace via Xbox 360 is a solid service. There is very little excuse for the price of an SD stream (which is also available to download for later) being so high and picture quality needs to see some improvement before I would recommend the service without hesitation but if those two points are addressed, Zune might be my streaming service of choice for the future.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Senna and giving the Zune service another look.
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