Movie Studios’ new digital movie experience leaves something to be desired

Ultraviolet is the movie industry’s answer to fight piracy and illegal copying of movies. All the studios except for Disney have combined to allow the movie buying public to digitally access the movies they buy physically in stores. The goal is to end the need for ripping DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and to not have to require users to buy two copies of the movie (one physical disc and one digital copy via iTunes) if they want to legally watch the movie on both their TV and their iOS devices.

The process starts with buying a supported DVD or Blu-ray disc from a retailer or online. I purchased Horrible Bosses for $22.99 at Best Buy for my test. Inside the case is a 12-digit code to redeem the copy of the movie digitally. Because Ultraviolet’s streaming partner (I’ll get to this later) is responsible for your code, you need to sign up with them in addition to signing up with Ultraviolet, if you don’t already have an account. In my case, the parter is Flixster, though its probably up to each studio to manage their own partners.

Once you’ve signed up and entered the redemption code, you can watch the movie digitally without having to rip or pirate a copy of it.

The most convenient and flexible way to watch your movie is to stream it from a phone or tablet device. Flixster is managing the streaming for Warner Bros. Studios for Ultraviolet. This means you’ll need to use your Flixster account created when you redeemed your movie and then your Ultraviolet login, from there you can stream the movie. Flixster offers apps on iOS and Android platforms to watch your movie streamed from their servers.

As you might expect with the movie industry there are some significant strings attached.

Streaming and downloading is only included for one year, after that it’ll cost you. The Ultraviolet’s FAQ page indicates that for streaming and downloading…

UltraViolet rights include streaming from the selling UltraViolet retailer, at no extra charge above the original purchase price, for at least one year after purchase…

You get at least one year of streaming and downloading for free. After that who knows! The plus side (for Flixster in this case) is that streaming and downloading are cheap – you can store data on Amazon and stream it down for 10c/GB. If you watch a movie (about 2GB) six times in a year, thats only about $1.20 in bandwidth you’re costing Flixster. Presumably this amount is priced into the cost of the disc when you bought it.

You cant download a copy that will sync to the iPad/iPhone. While you can stream over WiFi (no 3G streaming), you cant download or cache the movie on your device for watching while disconnected from the internet (e.g. on an airline flight; no, in flight internet isn’t fast enough, and they will throttle you). You cannot download the movie unencrypted, and you cant download it in an fair-play (Apple’s copy protection system) encrypted container, though this is Apple’s doing because they don’t license fair-play out to third parties (probably due to worries it might be cracked like DVD CSS was when XingMPEG’s player was cracked back in the late 90s.

Update November 2011: You can download the movie from within the Flixster app to the device to watch on-the-go. The movie Horrible Bosses was about 600MB (SD version, not HD or even 540p). There is a huge usability issue however – you have to wait inside the Flixster app while the movie is downloading. You cant download it in the background, you cant sleep your iPad (the download will stop after 10 minutes of when you quit or sleep the iPad).

Downloading a copy to your computer requires Adobe Air and a special application to watch it. You can download the movie to your desktop or laptop computer to watch it later, but this will require an additional piece of software. For Horrible Bosses at least, the download is only SD quality, even if you buy the Blu-ray disc. And as of the writing of this review, the download itself wont even be available until December 20. The downloaded versions are copy protected and wont work iOS portable devices.

Other than Android and iOS, no other connected devices like TVs are currently supported. While it is early in Ultraviolet’s launch, and their website does seem to promise other connected devices to be added soon, you cant hook up your TV or other connected set top box to Ultraviolet to watch the movies you have stored.

While the goal is worthwhile and laudable, the inability to store a movie on a device is problematic – for many people, the only time they watch movies on an iPhone or iPad is on a plane flight or long drive (neither of which are suitable for streaming). But the ability to watch the movie over and over could be great for kids – who will probably have a new favorite movie in 3 months anyways. Finally, calling it a “rights locker” is a pretty wonky term. What was wrong with “Movie Vault”?


  • Digital streaming of the movies to iOS and Android devices
  • Ability to have up to six people on one “Household” account
  • Parental controls to make sure kids don’t see R-rated movies
  • Download copies to laptops and desktops
  • No way to cache movies on iOS devices when not connected to WiFi (plane flight, drive, etc)
  • No other devices supported yet
Things I don’t know yet that I would like to know:
  • What the experience will be like when the movie’s downloading and streaming rights expire in a year? Do I get a reminder to download the movie one last time?
  • If the Flixster iOS app will support AppleTV – can I Airplay or Airplay mirror the movie on my iPad to the TV. If so, how does it look when blown up to 50+ inches?