It's hard to imagine an area of retail or consumer electronics that eludes the notice, or the reach, of Walmart. The Arkansas-based company is, after all, the world's largest retailer with roughly 4,000 stores in the United States. And it has seen net sales rise every year since at least 2007 — to a staggering $419 billion in 2011, according to the company's annual report. That's more than the GNP of Greece and Thailand combined.
But if you think that money is only rolling in from the brick-and-mortar end of things, guess again. In its unending quest to dominate in All Things Retail, Walmart has unveiled VUDU, a digital media delivery service that allows you to stream movies and other content on your computer, tablet, or VUDU-enabled device. It even lets you convert "old" DVDs into HD digital content.
With CD/DVD drives disappearing from new computer models, and music streaming services like Spotify betting on an all-streaming model, VUDU seems poised to take advantage of all that content moving from people's bookshelves and hard drives into online clouds and digital streams. Plus, we recently listed a deal that scores you a free movie with a new VUDU UltraViolet account that seemed to capture quite a lot of interest. If you've already availed of that deal, you probably know what VUDU is all about. But for those who have refrained because you still have some questions, we've broken down the Walmart video service features.
How Does VUDU Work and What Does It Cost?
The VUDU service allows subscribers to rent, buy, and watch more than 17,000 HD movies and TV shows on demand. Currently, VUDU works on VUDU-enabled Blu-ray players or HDTVs, as well as the iPad, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live), and PC and Apple computers.
As far as streaming goes, a minimum connection speed of 4.5Mbps is required to watch movies in "HDX," which is Walmart's name for its 1080p resolution content that streams at 24 frames per second. That's Blu-ray quality and the standard frame rate for film-based content. However, not all 1080p HDTVs can display 1080p/24; only those with a 120Hz or higher frame rate are capable. A TV with 1080p 60 fps will not display HDX. Moreover, PC, Mac, and iPad users can only access VUDU at the standard definition rate of 480p.
Because it works through the Internet, VUDU's pricing structure is meant to compete with other video-on-demand services; it's not going to be as cheap as renting from Redbox. But VUDU doesn't require a subscription fee, either, so you only pay for what you rent or buy. Sign-up is free and generally, one-time movie rentals range from 99 cents to $5.99; purchased movies range from $4.99 to $24.99. Individual TV episodes generally cost between $1.99 and $2.99 to purchase, with full seasons typically priced between $16.99 to $43.99.
Can I Digitize My DVD and Blu-Ray Collection?
VUDU does allow DVD and Blu-ray conversions of discs owned by its members. And conversion is easy, too. Head to your local Walmart with your disc library and "exchange" each title for an HD streaming video copy for a small fee: $2 for a Blu-ray disc, $2 for an SD DVD, and $5 for an HD DVD. To safeguard content, any DVD or Blu-ray you digitize gets a stamp that prevents it from being converted again. Bulk conversions unfortunately aren't available since this isn't a physical process like copying a videotape; VUDU members are just being granted access to a digital stream of the movies they already own in disc form. Before you head there with a trunk load of DVDs, though, check out their list of movies available for disc-to-digital conversion.
Got an old, battered DVD that you want to upgrade to a digital copy? Well, cross your fingers the clerk accepts your disc; as of now, there's no clear policy as to whether or not scratched discs will be honored.
Can I Convert a DVD to Standard Definition?
This isn't as odd a scenario as it may sound; if you'll be watching VUDU content exclusively on an iPad, you won't be able to take advantage of HD streaming (not yet, anyway). You can still convert your DVDs to standard definition for $2 a piece, though it's not clear whether you'll have to pay another $5 if you decide later to convert that same DVD to HD streaming.
What Is an "UltraViolet" Account?
UltraViolet is a cloud-based licensing system that allows digital entertainment consumers to stream and download purchased content to multiple platforms and devices. You create an UltraViolet account for free, and once you do so, it opens the door to disc-to-digital conversion on VUDU, and related services from other digital content vendors as well. That means in an overwhelming majority of cases, you can stream and download any UltraViolet movies using VUDU, at no added charge, regardless of where they were purchased.
What Are the Downsides of VUDU?
Aside from the fact that not all devices handle HD and HDX streams from VUDU just yet, not all films have been legally cleared for digital distribution from studios participating in the UltraViolet program. Some VUDU users have complained in forums about spotty HDX streaming, and having to revert to an HD or even SD setting. With HDX movies, the enormous file sizes mean that instant viewing is not possible; you have to wait for the movie to download before you can watch it. And as a new player in the streaming world, VUDU has no established track record in terms of customer service.
What Are the Upsides of VUDU?
You have to get past the Walmart hype, of course, but VUDU claims that it has videos ready for streaming the same day as commercial DVD releases. Compared to ordering a Warner Bros. movie on Netflix, for example, that's a much shorter wait; an agreement between Netflix and that studio delays new releases on the Netflix DVD-by-mail service for 28 days after they go on sale as DVD/Blu-ray titles. Paying as you go for content you watch is also a nice option, too, as it means you can sit out rentals for months without racking up pesky subscription fees.
To VUDU or Not to VUDU?
While one can argue that certain products available at Walmart (electric guitars come to mind) are cheaply made or of dubious quality, streaming video is fairly straightforward. Walmart seems to have hit upon a novel idea of making it both affordable and accessible, too. VUDU's use of HDX technology is also exciting, though it's clearly not perfect. What's more, Walmart's bulk-pricing discount habit is strangely absent on VUDU: You pay the same per-DVD rate whether you convert 10 discs or 110. We'd like to see that change, too.
Still, VUDU is clever, cutting edge, and refreshingly non-intimidating for a service out of the digital age; there's something very approachable about getting into streaming at a Walmart store. Plus, you could easily take all those DVDs you convert via VUDU, and make your money back by selling them used via eBay or Craigslist. If nothing else, VUDU should expand Walmart's retail dominance just a bit further. Having conquered the shopping centers of America, it's found a powerful way to break ground in cyberspace.