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News Analysis
First Look: Redbox Instant
By Swanni

Washington, D.C. (January 5, 2013) -- Redbox Instant, the new streaming/disc rental service from Verizon and Redbox, launched in Beta this month, allowing only people who received a special invitation code by email to actually use it. Well, on Friday, I got my invitation code and below are my initial observations of the offering.

Before I begin, though, a little background. Redbox Instant, which will charge $8 a month for  unlimited streaming and four DVD rentals from Redbox kiosks (add a $1 if you want Blu-ray discs), is the latest entrant in the home video business. But make no mistake that Verizon and Redbox are after one business in particular -- Netflix.

Netflix, which now claims to have roughly 30 million subscribers, once charged less than $10 a month for both unlimited streaming and one disc rental at a time. But in the fall of 2011, the company split the streaming and disc businesses, forcing customers to pay $7.99 a month for one or $15.98 if you want both. The move angered subscribers with roughly 750,000 leaving by year's end.

Netflix has managed to regain those subscribers -- in numbers, at least, if not the actual people -- because it still is the only service that offers both discs and streaming nationally. (Blockbuster, now owned by Dish, has dramatically reduced its number of retail outlets and has become a less reliable service.)

So Verizon and Redbox clearly have their sights on toppling Netflix and surveys indicate that customer unrest at the latter remains strong.

So does Redbox Instant pose a serious threat?

First, I have to restate that the service is in Beta and is not expected to go nationally until the spring. What you see in the spring might be quite different than what you see now from the Beta version of Redbox Instant. Companies often work out the kinks during the Beta phase.

And there are some kinks, to be sure.

For starters, when I received my invitation code via email, I tried to enter the Redbox Instant site on my iPad and was rejected. Then I tried my iPhone and was rejected again. I then called Redbox's customer support service and was told it couldn't help me with anything related to Redbox Instant.

Getting more than a little frustrated, I whined about my predicament on Twitter and then got a tweet reply from a Redbox Instant support person who told me to send my concerns to a specific Redbox Instant support e-mail address. I did and finally got a response that said I could not sign onto Redbox Instant using an Apple product. I had to use a computer or "another device," which was not specified.

Seemed strange to me. The Redbox email said I could use the iPad app for Redbox Instant once I signed in, but I couldn't use it to sign in.

So I jumped on my computer and signed on, as instructed, and voila, I was finally on the Redbox Instant site.

Redbox Instant includes four free DVD rentals the first month, but Blu-ray will cost you.

The invitation code, which can be obtained by typing your e-mail address into a static Home Page at RedboxInstant.com (they are sending them out slowly, though), entitles you to one free month of the service. This means you can get unlimited streaming and four kiosk disc rentals for free for a month. After that, if you continue the service, you would pay $8 a month.

I quickly searched for a way to include Blu-ray discs in my plan, but could not find one. So back to customer support I went and was told that if I added Blu-ray, I would be immediately charged $9 and the free month would be over.

Again, seemed strange to me, as it probably does to you, too. I wouldn't rent or watch a standard-def DVD at any price so all I wanted to do was add Blu-ray to my plan. I would have been happy to pay the extra $1, but $9?

Needless to say, I decided to skip the four DVD portion of the free offer and concentrate on the unlimited streaming plan.

Redbox Instant's 'Featured' streaming page.

The streaming library, as Verizon and Redbox said it would be initially, is all movies. Unlike Netflix, you won't find back episodes of your favorite FX or AMC drama, or that salty British sitcom from the 1970s. It's films, folks. And, to be honest, not particularly exciting ones at that.

Redbox Instant's streaming catalog doesn't have much you wouldn't find at Netflix or Amazon Prime. By example, Redbox's 'Featured' instant titles lead with The Conspirator, Thor, Taylor Swift: Just For You, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell and Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family.

Not quite the stuff to make you jump for your credit card, is it?

But again, this is Beta and I have no doubt that Redbox and Verizon will bring out the big guns when they go nationally. Why shell out the dollars for A-list titles when so few people will see them in a Beta trial, right?

Most of the newer titles are available in HD and you can easily group the high-def movies with a pull-down menu option.

I watched parts of several HD movies on my iPad 4 and they looked very good. Crisp, nice colors, good detail.

Of course, I would have watched them on my Panasonic or Sony TV, but Redbox Instant now is only available on select Samsung Smart TVs, computers and certain mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone and Android mobiles. No doubt that will change when the Beta phase ends, if not sooner.

Like Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services, Redbox Instant breaks out its offering in several categories, such as Action/Adventure, Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Sports, Family & Kids, Horror, etc. It's pretty easy to navigate the site and the total volume of the library is okay, although nowhere close to Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Bottom line:
Redbox Instant has a lot of work to do, but I have no doubt that it's quite aware of that. The library is thin and lacks star power -- and it really needs to add some TV shows. Studies have shown that streamers love TV shows. While Netflix may be short on the movie side, it will keep most of their subscribers if they continue to dominate the TV category.

At $8 or $9 a month for unlimited streaming and four disc rentals, Redbox Instant will intrigue Netflix subscribers who are still smarting over last year's pricing debacle -- and would like to see Netflix add more movies.

But it's all about the content. If Redbox Instant doesn't add some A-list titles by spring -- and some TV shows -- I can't see it competing with Netflix or Amazon Prime.


What do you think? Offer your comments below!

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