Coming attractions: downloadable movies

Here's something my 3-year-old daughter Sara will have a hard time remembering when she's in high school: movies recorded on tape and disc for home viewing, bought or rented from stores or delivered by mail.

Sara will give me one of those adolescent "Oh, Dad, you dinosaur" looks when I try to tell her that high-definition movies weren't always available on demand through an ultrahigh-speed Internet connection for download in three minutes.


Then she'll pop her 1-ounce cell phone into her ear and demand the keys to the family hover-car.

Meanwhile, back in 2004, we're just getting started with movies online. The process is slow and somewhat convoluted, but the new and awkwardly named Starz Ticket on Real Movies service does a good job of showing where we're headed.


RealNetworks, best known for its Real media player, and Starz Encore Group, best known for the Starz and Encore cable service, have teamed up to offer unlimited downloads from a rotating library of 100 movies for $12.95 a month.

Starz on Real (, which launched June 14, has a limited appeal. It makes sense only for people who travel frequently and want to watch a lot of movies on a laptop computer. But the service and its competitors are blazing a trail that will become a crowded highway.

You need three things to get started with Starz on Real - a Windows computer running either Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows 2000 or Windows XP; the most current version of RealNetworks' free RealPlayer 10 software; and a high-speed Internet connection such as a cable modem or DSL line.

You sign up with a credit card and get access to 100 Hollywood movies, most of recent vintage, that have run on Starz's cable service. You also get a live feed of the Starz East channel.

About 25 movies are added to the roster every Monday, and 25 are removed. New at the moment are The Hot Chick, Kundun and the Tracy-Hepburn classic Desk Set, among others. Continuing movies in the lineup include Chicago, Gangs of New York, 8 Mile, Finding Nemo and Gigli.

You can download as many movies as your hard disk will hold, and watch them as many times as you want until they drop out of the lineup.

The movies are big digital files, averaging 300 megabytes per hour of running time. One subscription entitles you to download movies onto three computers, and you can shift downloaded movies among your three machines by burning them to CD, transferring them to an external hard drive or sending them through a home network connection.

I tested Starz on Real using my Compaq Presario 2500 laptop, which has a spacious 60-gigabyte hard drive, and my Comcast cable modem.


Download took about half of running time. A two-hour movie, in other words, would download in about an hour, a 90-minute movie in about 45 minutes. That works out to roughly 1.3 megabits per second, typical for a cable modem. DSL lines are often slower, while office networks can be much faster.

Real lets you stack up a list of movies to download, so you can pick five or six titles to collect overnight. You don't need to be online to watch movies you've downloaded.

Shown full-screen on my laptop, the movies looked surprisingly good - almost equal to a DVD. There were few of the "artifacts" that trouble highly compressed video, such as images that break up into tiny squares or jerky movement in fast action scenes. The audio also was clear.

I then connected the laptop to my home theater projector and watched on a big screen. The audio quality was still good, but I could see a few more video defects, such as slight jitter in action scenes. Still, the overall effect was adequate for suspension of disbelief; even on the big screen, I could forget that I wasn't watching a movie from videotape or a cable channel.

The live stream of Starz East looked almost as good as the downloads, although outbursts of sluggishness by my cable modem would occasionally freeze the picture.

Starz on Real has two main competitors: CinemaNow ( and MovieLink (, both of which offer downloadable pay-per-view movies. For a fee of $3 to $5, you get to watch the downloaded movie for 24 hours. You have to pay again, though often a lower fee, to continue watching after the first 24-hour window expires.


Disney also is testing a service called MovieBeam ( that doesn't use the Internet. Instead, movies are transmitted over the air to a set-top box with a hard drive that stores about 100 titles. Subscribers pay a small monthly fee to lease the box and a fee for each movie viewed.

The long download times and difficulty of connecting a computer to a TV make Starz on Real, CinemaNow and MovieLink less than practical for most people. But faster Internet connections and wireless home entertainment networks will demolish those roadblocks before Sara is old enough to notice.