Paying for a digital copy of something you already own might seem silly, but what if that copy were better than the real thing and worked on a different set of devices?
Apple has sold music fans on that idea with its iTunes Match service, which for $24.99 a year delivers high-fidelity copies of your existing songs, even if you grabbed them from some sketchy file-sharing service. Now Walmart's Vudu Disc to Digital invites you to pay $5 for a high-definition digital upgrade of a DVD movie — or $2 for a same-quality copy of a DVD or Blu-ray Disc.
Walmart's service is the first implementation of a movie-industry joint venture called UltraViolet meant to provide a play-anywhere-on-anything solution to movies. It's not bad, but you can tell it's a rookie effort from all the wrinkles that the Bentonville, Ark., retailer still needs to iron out.
Start with the selection: The same licensing and participation holdups that cut into the inventory of every other online movie service limit the "thousands" of titles offered here. (A Walmart publicist wouldn't offer a more specific total.) For example, I could order digital copies of "The Matrix," the 2009 version of "Star Trek" and "The Godfather," but not the "Star Wars" trilogy, "Ratatouille" or "This Is Spinal Tap." One complicating factor: The Walt Disney Co. hasn't signed on to UltraViolet.
But when I stopped by a Fairfax County, Va., location on Wednesday, the clerk said she wasn't scheduled to be trained in this system for another week. A manager knew the drill and quickly handled the transaction; even though nobody could find the stamp they're supposed to use on the disc to prevent further digital-copy purchases, they let me go anyway.
(D.C.-area tech blogger Dave Zatz had worse luck when he stopped by a Walmart on Monday: He had to return later that afternoon to close the deal.)
When I got home, a 40-minute drive, thanks to Beltway traffic backing up onto local roads, digital copies of "The Matrix" and "Star Trek" were waiting in my account.
On a 40-inch HDTV plugged into a Blu-ray player running a Vudu app, "The Matrix" looked substantially sharper than that Sony player's upconversion of the DVD, although I could still see jagged edges and other signs of video compression when I stood closer to the screen.
On a Mac desktop and a Windows laptop, however, the Vudu site only delivered standard-definition streams and downloads of each movie. Vudu's iPad app (no Android version is available) stopped at standard-def streaming too. None of these DVDs' extra features, like outtakes or directors' commentaries, were available.
When you can get an SD backup of a DVD, extras and all, using a variety of free software, Walmart's $5 HD option looks like less of a deal — even if it's half of Amazon's price. Also unpleasant: having to download an extra app to get a download of either movie on a PC or Mac, then seeing the laptop's slow processor fail to play the 1.8-gigabyte "Star Trek" download without stuttering.
Walmart's got company in this disc-to-digital dream. Apple launched its iTunes Digital Copy option, which provides iTunes-compatible downloads of some discs, back in 2008. Movie studios have since been working on their own versions of the idea; my Blu-ray edition of "Apollo 13" came with a choice of a digital copy from iTunes, Vudu or Amazon.
That's the upside — studios have realized that we don't carry DVD players everywhere. But can they pick a standard and stay with it?
Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery