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DVD SNEAKS | TECH FILES

Watch a film in a theater? Um, why?

Downloads And Psp Are Here, And Hd Discs Loom. Traditionalists May Gasp, But Options Multiply For Those Who Like To Go It Alone.

November 13, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

STILL watching movies at a theater?

Good for you. Watching a film with strangers is one of the dwindling number of communal experiences we still enjoy.

But ticket prices are soaring, most teens would rather be kickin' it with friends than watching over your little angels, and driving and parking experiences these days rate somewhere close to getting a root canal. So it's understandable that high-tech ways of watching movies at home or on the road are becoming more enticing.

Here's a look at the digital ways that feature films can be viewed, currently and coming soon:

DVD: This format is so prevalent that it's hard to believe the first DVD players didn't go on sale in this country until 1997, when most of them cost upward of $1,000. Now you can easily find a DVD player for less than $50 (although a name-brand unit will cost a bit more).

If your DVD player is several years old, it might be time to spring for a new unit. Picture quality and sound have improved noticeably, especially if you have high-end video and audio components.

Portable DVD players with self-contained screens -- which cost about $150 and up -- have lost much of their luster with frequent business fliers now that many laptop computers come standard with the ability to play the discs.

But these compact players seem to have found a new niche: You can spot them entertaining children in cars and at restaurant tables, allowing parents to drive or dine in relative peace.

Download: There are two services that can be used to download Hollywood studio movies from the Internet: CinemaNow (www.cinemanow.com) and Movielink (www.movielink.com). Each has hundreds of feature titles available for rent, including recent hits and vintage flicks. The rental charge for a feature, generally around $4, allows you to view the movie on your computer repeatedly within a set period, usually 48 hours.

Downloading eliminates trips to the video store or waiting for ordered titles to arrive in the mail. But there are restrictions.

First of all, if you are a Macintosh user, forget it -- CinemaNow and Movielink are PC-only, at least for now.

Don't expect the download to be an instantaneous process; it takes an hour or so to download a feature-length film, even if you're using a broadband connection.

Finally, the quality, though quite acceptable for viewing on a small screen, is not as good as when using a DVD because the Internet-delivered films have to go through extra digital compression to get through the download process in a reasonable amount of time.

But these services have improved in the last year, making the process easier. For one thing, you can start viewing the movie just a few minutes after the download begins. (You can't use features such as pause, however, until the whole thing is downloaded.)

And some of the selections on CinemaNow can be downloaded in a format transferable to hand-held portable media players. This opens possibilities for the future, though for now these selections tend to be documentaries and concerts, with a few exceptions (one of them is the 1986 robot comedy "Short Circuit," in case you were hankering to see it on a small screen).

PSP: When Sony Corp. first showed off its long-awaited PlayStation Portable in 2004, company executives were careful to say that it was above all a hand-held game machine and, by the way, it could also play movies.

But to the company's professed surprise, watching movies has proven to be quite popular on the handsome portable, which sports a 4.3-inch screen (measured diagonally). Since the PSP hit stores in March, nearly 200 movies and TV show packages have been released on the UMD format that fits the machine.

There's a good reason for this: The PSP is the first hand-held able to show movies in a decent manner. I don't quite buy the oft-stated notion that watching its screen at close range is akin to viewing a 30-inch TV from across the room (one problem with all small-screen formats is that long shots don't look so hot), but it sure is a handy way to see a flick while traveling.

It could get competition from the just-released video-enabled iPod, which has a brighter but smaller (2.5-inch) screen. No movies have been formally made available for the iPod yet, although those skilled at using certain software tools have succeeded in getting films onto the device -- in some cases, just for bragging rights.

HD discs: As more and more home viewers get high-definition reception from their TV channels, it's only natural that they will eventually expect the same resolution from their rental and purchased movies. DVDs, as we now know them, can't deliver that.

So it's time for a format change, and in the video world, that usually means a battle in the tradition of Betamax vs. VHS in the 1980s (there are still bitter feelings over that one).

This time, the contenders are Blu-ray and HD-DVD, disc formats that are not compatible, either technologically or in this high-stakes fight.

Blu-ray discs can potentially hold much more digital content. They were designed to handle a number of consumer-device applications, including those for computers and game machines, as well as for watching movies. HD-DVD's big advantage, at least for manufacturers, is that the discs are easier to make.

Who will win? Forrester Research, which tracks these matters, gives the edge to Blu-ray at this point, partly because that format has more Hollywood studios lined up in its corner.

Right now the battle is a spectator sport for most of us, as neither format will be sold in the U.S. until at least next year.

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