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Test Driving Zediva: Middling Picture Quality But Great Convenience

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Online DVD-streaming service Zediva has been getting a lot of attention since it was sued for copyright infringement by the MPAA. But set the legal battles aside for the moment — how does the fledgling video service measure up from a technical point of view? I recently put Zediva to the test, and here’s what I found:

On a weekend night, I perused what was available and finally selected Due Date, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. In terms of selection, Zediva is focused on *new* movies–the ones just released on DVD that aren’t streaming on Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) yet. So the catalog isn’t deep, but that isn’t necessarily a drawback.

Selection. First, the good part: Zediva gets movies at the same time as your neighborhood DVD store–way before they can be streamed on Netflix or Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). That immediacy is Zediva’s key selling point (the company’s slogan is “New Movies Now.”)

But there are some drawbacks. Just like your neighborhood store, some DVDs are rented out. Zediva operates with physical DVDs, and maintains no digital copy; so it can only do what a physical store does, which is to rent one DVD, and one DVD player, to one customer at a time.

Then Zediva streams the show over the internet to you, and it’s that streaming that’s caused the legal dispute. The MPAA says this streaming is a “public performance,” requiring a license; Zediva says it’s a private show that doesn’t need a license. The two sides are scheduled to argue the issue in front of a Los Angeles federal judge on July 25. (Update: the hearing was postponed until August 8.)

In any case, unless you’re logging on at 3:00 in the morning, some films you’re interested in are very likely to be rented out. When I looked (around 5:00pm on a Thursday night) plenty were still available for rental. Another Zediva user I talked to while preparing this review said that he frequently found that “one third to one half” of Zediva movies weren’t available.

One cool Zediva feature that somewhat ameliorates this problem is its e-mail alert system, which promptly lets you know when a desired movie becomes available. (But you’d better act fast when you get that e-mail, because you don’t have a reservation; it’s first-come, first-serve.)

Legal problems aside, it isn’t clear if the Zediva model can scale at all. So far, the company is keeping the selection problem in check by limiting the number of users it takes on; new users must wait until they get to the end of a waiting list before they can join. My Zediva-watching friend waited a month before he could join. (Disclosure: Zediva allowed me to bypass the waiting list for review purposes, and also gave me a free review credit.)

Price. Zediva probably won’t quite measure up to the selection in your neighborhood store. But in terms of price and convenience, it has advantages that physical stores can’t meet. If you buy a 10-pack of movies, the price is just $1; for individual rentals, Zediva users pay $1.99.

Picture quality. The image quality actually was better than I expected — but only as long as I was watching on my 17-inch iMac. It didn’t hold up at all when I used an HDMI cable to transfer the show to my 47-inch television. (Netflix, by contrast, looks great using this method.) Things also get quirky when you make extensive use of the “slider” feature; more on that below. Also, Zediva doesn’t support Blu-ray.

Features. Zediva’s biggest technical accomplishment may be converting the DVD experience into a “slider” like YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) has. DVDs have fast forward and rewind, but they often don’t let users easily flick from the start of a movie to three-quarters of the way through it. Zediva does allow that, although it’s jumpy. (It’s worth noting that the jumpiness of this feature is proof positive that Zediva isn’t “gaming” the system by making digital copies that would be easier to use. Users really *are* in control of a physical DVD and physical DVD player, and that’s not always a good thing from a technical standpoint.)

Overall. Don’t run to cancel your Netflix subscription. Zediva isn’t even close to replacing what has become the near-ubiquitous movie service. But, for the heavy DVD consumer who’s just got to see movies as soon as they come out on DVD, Zediva could be a useful complement to a Netflix subscription. And if price and convenience are more important for you than big-screen picture quality, checking out Zediva is a no-brainer.

I didn’t love Zediva, but I liked it. I’m not enough of a movie fanatic to be a regular user. But I also don’t have a DVD rental store close to my home, and don’t own a car; on a rainy night, if there’s a really new movie I want to see, I can definitely see the appeal.

I’d rate the service slightly higher than Due Date, which, in case you’re curious, I would give three out of five stars.

2 Responses to “Test Driving Zediva: Middling Picture Quality But Great Convenience”

  1. Review is pretty ‘spot-on’.
    I finally was able to register about a month ago.  I have been purchasing the 10 pack offered.  Overall I have enjoyed. No major problems. Site is laid out ‘user friendly’.  I watch over a Vizio42HD. Quality very good.
    However, seems this past couple weeks, no really big titles that were released are being offered by Zediva.
    Maybe they have a ‘funding’ problem?  But to compete/survive their ‘new titles’ must improve.
    I emailed, (twice) and recieved back, (maybe a standard answer). Reads in part: we purchase the top 100 hits, as we only inventory ‘new releases’.  This was the reason I joined!
    These new, (top) title releases in last 3 weeks are not in their inventory:  Insidious; Sanctum; Cedar Rapids; Cyrus;  Barney’s Version;  Hobo With a Shotgun;  Bloodworth;  HappyThankYouMorePlease,  plus others. 
    Those titles are maybe not ‘all ‘ I would view, but positively they are top boxoffice. 
    I certainly enjoy Zediva and want to continue, but they will have to improve on current ‘new release’ titles.
    Could be they are awaiting the court ruling.