Amazon Unbox goes live

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Amazon’s movie download site, called Unbox, appears to have gone live today. There’s no link yet on the front page of Amazon, but the direct link at unbox.com works. We covered early previews of the site last month. Shows may be purchased or rented. For purchases, TV episodes are $1.99, most movies are between $8 and $15, some are $20. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is $36. (Update – that’s been changed to $16.) Rentals are $1.99 or $2.99.

Each video purchase includes both a DVD-quality video file suitable for playback on a large screen (PC or TV), plus a video file Windows Media video portable devices. Videos start playing shortly after download begins, with an estimated delay ranging from two and a half minutes on a cable connection to sixty minutes on a DSL line. Note: Some users are reporting trouble playing the files they’ve downloaded early after the service came online.

Video downloads are getting competitive and it’s notable that Amazon beat iTunes to the punch. Apple is expected to announce video downloads next week and may undercut Amazon on price with a maximum price of $15 for new releases.

Amazon is smart to launch this before Apple gets in the movie download game. However, there are significant limitations to what Amazon is offering. Desktop software is required to view the videos and it’s Windows only. Videos may not be burned to DVD other than as backup – they will not play in a DVD player. Also, for rentals, you must view a video within 30 days of downloading it, and within 24 hours of beginning to watch it. Update: Early reports are coming in that available DRM stripping software is working on Unbox content. Not an endorsement here, just a note. Goodness knows you can’t be taking a movie over to your friend’s house just because you paid for it. For more on what’s news with this issue, check out this Wired story.

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