Review: Redbox Instant streaming video service

Redbox Instant Video recently opened to the public in beta mode, so we’d thought we try out the streaming service and see how it compares with Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. You probably already know about Redbox, the company (owned by Coinstar) that has successfully placed about 40,000 disc rental kiosks throughout the US. In Feb. 2012, Coinstar and Verizon announced a joint venture that would provide streaming and downloadable titles to subscribers. Officially called Redbox Instant by Verizon, the venture started testing the service by invitation-only last summer.

Redbox Instant’s basic subscription gives you unlimited streaming of about 4,600 titles plus 4 DVD rental credits per month for $8. You can also add Blu-ray titles for an additional dollar (making the subscription $9 per month), or remove the DVD option and pay $6 per month for streaming only. The service currently offers a free one-month trial, but you’ll have to enter credit card information to activate an account.

First, let’s check out Redbox Instant on a PC. Like most services the Redbox Instant website login requires you accept 3rd party cookies. So, you’ll need to enable this in your browser preferences. We’re using Safari on a MacBook Pro to test the site.

The library interface is not as slick as Netflix, but friendly enough to use. Rather than fixed width rows which scroll horizontally, Redbox Instant packs smaller thumbnails onto the page and lets you scroll vertically like most websites. While attempting to play several titles we kept getting the error “We can’t play this title” which informs you to update or reinstall the Redbox Instant App, or that the title may have expired. This error occurred with half a dozen titles so we just decided just to pick a mainstream title to test. This will hopefully be something that is fixed while the service is still in beta mode.

We should note that when browsing titles be careful because you could end up purchasing or renting them (especially if you let kids use the service). Make sure when you are on the homepage you click on Browse More > Subscription, rather than Kiosk or Rent/Buy. This is a bit different than Netflix in that subscription, rentals and purchases are all mixed together until you manually filter them. (Netflix doesn’t sell titles.)

The first movie tested was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. At first the stream was awfully jumpy but it started to smooth out after a few minutes. Unlike Netflix you can watch the film in a smaller window with the website menu above, or watch in full-screen. The Redbox Instant interface sports a white background, so watching in full-screen mode gives you a more cinematic experience.

The video quality of ‘Ghost Protocol’ seemed to be HD throughout the stream, although Redbox doesn’t let you choose the quality (like a lot of video services, the highest bitrate is automatically chosen depending on download speed). At times the video froze (restarting in a second or two), although the audio track kept pace and video would catch up. Towards the end of ‘Ghost Protocol’ the film also started running in high speed (like an old Benny Hill wheelchair race), although the sound for the most part stayed consistent. We also experienced a minute or two of load time which may or may not have been attributed to the wireless internet connection.

In terms of the video player itself, they give you a playhead, pause, fast forward, and audio controller. There’s also an info button overlay you can click on which displays title, rating, video quality options, social icons to share outside of Redbox, and a brief description of the film. You might also notice the Verizon logo (rather than Redbox) as movies first load into the player. After watching a video on Redbox you can Rate It or Add Review.

We also tested the iOS app on iPhone and iPad (available for Android devices as well). Downloading the app on the iPhone wasn’t a problem, but signing-in took a restart after initial try. Occasionally this is the case with new apps and has since worked fine. The app for iPad worked on the first try. The iOS app has 5 tabs: Home, Browse, My Redbox, Locations, Account. Under the My Redbox tab you can see your Watch History, Dashboard, Bookmarks and Purchases. This makes it easy to find titles you have watched or bookmarked. There is also a Search field at the top of the interface at all times, allowing you to search by title or keyword.

We tested continuity across multiple devices, pausing and resuming from MacBook, iPad and iPhone. ‘Ghost Protocol’ resumed perfectly jumping from one device to another, even within seconds.

In general, Redbox Instant seems to work just as well as any other video subscription service. The only major ding we can give it is that the library is still very limited. You can be sure Redbox will be adding more popular titles in the near future, but for now you might be content with the 4 free disc rentals.

Redbox Instant has also launched an app for the Xbox 360. To date, the service is not available for PlayStation 3 or Wii products.

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About the Author:
Jeff Chabot writes about technology, broadcasting, and digital entertainment. You can also find him on Gameverse, Gadget Review, and Google+.

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