What if you had an entire video store right in your home, where every video has Blu-ray quality and plays instantly? That's the promise of XStreamHD, an entertainment system that just gained a boatload of credibility by signing its first Hollywood studio, Lionsgate. In this exclusive preview, we examine how close XStreamHD is to reality.
For this preview, I traveled to the XStreamHD headquarters just outside Washington, D.C., at the company's expense. They showed me the system as it stands today, and it's still in beta form. That means I won't write a full review because it's not ready for market yet, but I'll give you my impressions of how it's working so far. When will the finished system be working? XStreamHD says end of summer.
At press time, the company revealed another key piece of info: It's signed a distribution deal with Hollywood studio Lionsgate. The first of numerous studios XStreamHD hopes to have on board for its late September launch, Lionsgate promises to offer up its latest HD releases and 12,000-movie back catalog on the XStreamHD service.
The XStreamHD is a satellite-based system, and it works on the principle of "pre-fetched entertainment." That means instead of downloading or streaming huge HD files that would take many hours, your home server (with at least 1TB of disk space) simply receives the latest movies at a certain time, presumably in the middle of the night.
The system keeps at least 40 films on board all the time, and whenever you want to watch one of those, you simply unlock it and you can play it immediately, with no downloading and no waiting. You're only billed for the movies you watch, plus a $10 monthly fee for the service. XStreamHD says it'll charge the same as Amazon or iTunes for each movie, but will give 48 hours to watch a rental instead of just 24. Nice bonus.
You'll also be required to buy the hardware to receive these signals, of course. That includes an 18-inch satellite dish that the company estimates will cost around $125 including installation, the $299 server (with 1TB of disk space — enough for about 40 Blu-ray quality movies), and either a regular XStreamHD Media Receiver for $199 or the higher-end Pro Media Receiver for $399.
Packages will be available with the server and the lower-cost receiver for $399, and another with the server and the Pro Receiver for $499. Other configurations cost up to $699 for the Pro Receiver with 4TB of storage. When you have one server, you can connect additional receivers to it next to TVs throughout your house, using gigabit Ethernet networking, assuming you have it.
What movies will be available?
A tricky part is, will those movies that XStream puts on your server include any you'd actually like to watch? Depends. If you're into recent releases, you could be in luck, since the flicks will be only from the past two years. The company plans to send the latest releases to all users, and then you'll be able to request other movies that you don't see on the main feed.
But XStreamHD so far has just one deal in place with one studio, Lionsgate. Company officials say they're in the advanced stages of wrapping up movie deals with all the various Hollywood studios, but that hasn't happened yet. However, if all goes well, the plan is to make movies available on XStreamHD at the same time they're released on Blu-ray.
Hands on with the equipment
While in D.C., we tried out the hardware and took a close look at its video quality. First of all, its sharpness, lack of compression artifacts and color saturation was every bit as good as what you'd see on a Blu-ray disc. According to XStreamHD, it's exactly the same quality as the studio master, and in our experience, that's probably true. The 1080p/24 picture is the best-looking video I've ever seen, and its audio is equally pristine. Not to mention the sound: 7.1 channels of lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, another feature that ૼ until now, at least — only Blu-ray would give you. XStreamHD delivers the quality it promises.
A good question, though, is: Will most viewers notice the difference in quality? XStreamHD reps says about 20% will, according to their research. We'll see.
The server has slots for two hard drives, and thus far the company is offering a single 1TB drive as standard equipment. You can specify another 1TB drive or two 2TB drives so you can hold more movies on the server from which to choose.
The server is remarkable, and the company says you can play four of these high-quality movies through different playback boxes throughout your house at the same time. We saw it playing two high-resolution movies, each at a bit rate of around 80Mb per second, and there was not a single dropped frame. Impressive. This is the real deal for multiple TV locations in the home. And by the way, this server was running so quietly, it was barely audible.
Besides that satellite movie-playing trick, the server is said to be able to function as a digital video recorder (DVR) for over-the-air broadcasts, but it wasn't working yet when I visited the company's headquarters. Other planned features that weren't working yet: music playback and compatibility with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The system is controlled by a well-designed remote that has a minimum of buttons. It's the first time I've seen a remote with a shift key, giving you two functions for some of the buttons. The remote uses Zigbee Pro radio-frequency (RF) control, so you don't need to point the remote directly at the receiver for it to work. Although the remote is ergonomically designed, it feels cheap and rather flimsy for such an expensive system.
Why wouldn't it be just as good to send these movies over the Internet? Officials at XStreamHD say that the bandwidth required for such high-quality video isn't available on today's Internet, nor is it dependable enough. Beyond that, they say viewers won't be willing to wait to download movies and would rather have the instant gratification of immediate playback of all the latest releases. However, if you're looking for a deep catalog with quirky movies, anything more than two years old, or foreign offerings, this is probably not the place to get those, at least not at the beginning.
There's even talk of someday having what's called day/date release of movies, meaning that you'd be able to watch a movie on XStreamHD at the same time it's released in movie theaters. This could end up being the wonderful killer app for XStreamHD. I'm quite enthusiastic about that prospect, wondering why film buffs can't just watch a movie where and when they'd like, as long as they've paid for it. Expect to pay at least $25 per title for the privilege, though.
Is it for real?
The future looks bright for XStreamHD — IF the company can ever get its product off the ground. I'll reserve final judgment until I see the shipping product, which has been pitched to us here at DVICE since way back at CES in January of 2008. But this system, along with its multitude of pending agreements with Hollywood studios, feels like it has a long way to go before it's ready for sale. If XStreamHD can do what its makers say it can, it will offer something unprecedented: Blu-ray video quality in an on-demand model.