Launched on November 22, Microsoft's Live Video Marketplace is the first major video on demand system to be implemented on a mainstream games platform. It's ambitious in every way - from the amount of material on offer and the range of deals Microsoft has secured, to the quality of the video playback itself. It's the sort of thing we expected to Sony to launch with PS3, or else for Apple to champion more adeptly via its iTunes delivery system. Somewhat against the run of play so far, Microsoft has got there first with a video on demand system that cuts into HD-DVD and Blu-ray's HD territory, offers legal TV show downloads, and even undercuts Blockbuster on the price of a movie rental.
Currently unavailable to UK 360 owners due to overseas rights issues, the Live Video Marketplace is purportedly a USA-only service - although anyone with a modicum of brainpower and an eBay account can gain access. Movies and TV shows can be downloaded via a convoluted and somewhat un-user-friendly extension to the traditional Live Marketplace interface (screenshots available elsewhere on the site). Adding to the general sense of basic annoyance inherent with Live downloads, the system rarely makes an effort to max out the bandwidth you have available, and offers no ETAs on when your chosen material will be available to watch.
The only small comfort is that as with normal Live downloads, files can be queued for download and you can continue gaming while the 360 slowly engorges its hard disk in the background. You can also start to watch movies at the tail end of their downloading cycle, slightly shortening the maddening wait. All fine and dandy, but when a 6GB HD movie can take up to 20 hours to download on a 5MB connection (which has no problem downloading Windows updates from Microsoft.com at 600KB/s), something is clearly amiss with the base infrastructure as performance tends to change with the tide.
Microsoft Video Comes of Age
So how does the new video service actually perform? Over the last few years, Microsoft has invested a lot of time and money into their video compression technologies, from the lacklustre beginnings of Windows Media into today's powerhouse VC-1 codec used on HD-DVD and widely tipped to play a leading role in IP-TV video on demand. The Live Video Marketplace is the first mass market roll-out their cutting edge technology has received, so definitely worth putting to the test.
The 360's game trailer performance cannot really be used as a yardstick here. With 'real life' film and video content on the Live Video Marketplace, the encoding job is much easier - movies only run at 24fps, the footage is softer, and typically there's less action, making it easier to compress. Most importantly of all though, Microsoft has developed an optimised workflow that is capable of producing stunning results.
Masters are handed over for encoding in1080i tape format, then transferred into the digital domain using a Wafian HR-1 using the highly respected CineForm high definition codec, after which the footage is re-assembled in its original progressive 1080p format. It's then scaled down to 720p, and then most crucially, fed into an adapted version of Microsoft's VC-1 compressor. It's very similar to the tool used for producing HD-DVDs and it's a million miles away from the antique encoder used for the HD game trailers (Windows Media Encoder 9 is still used there for most video, believe it or not).
V For Vendetta (HD)
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Alongside Poseidon, Natalie Portman-starrer V for Vendetta is one of the best (and indeed only) HD movies available for download on the fledgling service. It's also a great example of how much effort Microsoft is putting into its HD presentations. This movie is dark and bleak, with a lot of talking heads and only a modicum of action, plus it has a 2.85:1 aspect ratio (i.e. black borders top and bottom) - thus making it a relatively easy job for the encoder to compress. It's still a whopping 6GB download though, but the results are pin-sharp and crystal clear - to the extent where on the typical non-1080p plasma or LCD display, it's going to be a close match indeed to the HD-DVD version in terms of picture quality. Sound is delivered in 5.1, with much the same quality as the Dolby Digital track on the DVD. Overall then, a solid start, and the system's high definition credentials are instantly established.
Star Trek: The Original Series (HD)
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It's quite ironic that 40-year-old footage is the best advert for a high definition video service, but it has to be said that these remastered versions of Classic Trek look spectacular - better than a lot of the modern stuff. Originally shot on film, these HD versions exhibit detail you'd never have noticed before on TV or DVD, and of course the episodes have been spruced up with new CG effects, mostly to replace the repetitious and low quality model shots used throughout the show's three-year run.
Running in component 720p and watching on a 1080p screen, macroblocking was only really evident on the deep space scenes, and picture quality improved noticeably via VGA (where our screens were captured from) and it was hard to spot any flaws at all watching on a native 720p screen.
As Xbox Live is the only place most people will be able to view, or indeed own these episodes until their inevitable HD-DVD/Blu-ray release, Microsoft has done a great job on encoding them. File sizes, again, are massive, ranging from 1.8GB to 2.3GB per episode, but the presentation feels special, and worth owning. The only criticism is that just a handful of the episodes are available as HD downloads, the rest are SD-only and with the price of the Star Trek DVD boxsets falling all the time, they aren't really compelling purchases, especially considering the quality of the SD downloads in general.