Blockbuster's set-top box: Laughably late, but a good deal

First, Blockbuster said it was in no rush to get its content into the living room via a set-top box connected to the Internet. Then, just a few months later, it indicated that it was rushing to get one done in time for the holidays. Now, just a couple weeks after that, it’s here.

And get this: Despite being perhaps the mother of all flip-flops for the digital media age, Blockbuster’s box actually sounds compelling. Set to be unveiled tomorrow, according to Home Media Magazine, the box, called the MediaPoint (lame name) will apparently cost $99 and won’t require a subscription to Blockbuster Online (Blockbuster’s Netflix-like Internet movie rental service). Instead, movies will cost $1.99 to rent (which is cheaper than both Xbox 360 and Apple TV rentals). [Update: The price for movies will actually range from $1.99 to $3.99 a rep for 2Wire tells me.]

That actually seems like a pretty smart idea. Rather than compete directly with Netflix and its all-you-can-eat “Watch Instantly” catalog of 12,000+ films and TV shows, Blockbuster opted for a-la-carte — letting users pick what they want to watch and pay for. The real key is that it seems Blockbuster will have new releases, while Netflix’s Watch Instantly service does not (you still have to rent those and have them delivered via snail mail).

But the two major question are: Which will users prefer, and how new will these new release rentals be? I find the combination of Netflix Watch Instantly on my Xbox 360 alongside new movie rentals on the 360 and my Apple TV to be a near perfect combination of content. One small thing I’d love to see change is for the Apple TV to have all content available to rent from day one, rather than having to wait a few weeks while only the option to buy exists. That’s the movie studios’ doing, but if Blockbuster somehow got them to waive that requirement for their new service, that would be a killer feature.

Of course, it would also destroy all of Blockbuster’s stores. After all, why spend time driving to a Blockbuster when you can go once, pick up this box (it will be available in Blockbuster stores) and get all the rentals you want from your couch for much cheaper than they are in stores? I’m guess, the service won’t have all new releases — that you’ll still have to go to Blockbuster to get most of those — but we’ll see.

One thing that also doesn’t make a lot of sense right now about the MediaPoint device is that Blockbuster is apparently saying it’s “free” when you buy 25 rentals in advance. But it says these $25 rentals will cost $99 — yet, the other rentals only cost $1.99. Why are these first 25 double that price? Of course, that is also just a limited time promotion, so perhaps it — like most things Blockbuster does — is a convoluted way of saying that for a limited time you can get the box for $99.

Update: As I noted above, Home Media Magazine reported the pricing wrong — it’ll actually be a range of $1.99 to $3.99 per movie, which makes the $99 price make more sense.

The box is made by 2Wire and features both Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections for accessing the web. It also supports high definition (no word on if that content will be more money to rent) and connects to the TV via HDMI (and presumably other means for less-than-HD signals).

The MediaPoint box will also be available at Blockbuster.com. No word on when it will be ready to ship, but presumably soon given that it’s almost holiday time.

Blockbuster may yet live to die another day.


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