Dell, Qflix Deliver Legal Movie Burning

Movie downloads are great…if you want to watch them on your PC, that is. Media extenders and other devices will let you stream content from your PC so you can view it on your TV, but they’re often difficult to install and don’t always work as advertised. Transferring that content to a DVD should offer a simpler solution, but copy protection schemes have made it a legal headache — especially for retailers who want to allow their customers to browse content digitally and burn their own DVD right in the store.

While the idea of direct-to-DVD downloads has been tossed around for years — and a few other products are in the works — your only (legal) option, for now, is the Dell Qflix DVD Burner. This $120 drive allows you to burn copies of DRM-protected downloads so that you can watch them away from your PC. It works as advertised, but right now its appeal is pretty limited.

The drive is based on Sonic Solution’s Qflix technology, which is designed to make it possible for content owners to digitally distribute their work on DVD. The system comprises Qflix-enabled software, DVDs and a DVD recorder. It allows DRM-protected content to be burned onto a disc with CSS copy protection, so it can be played in most DVD players. The system gives you ownership over the content you burn; unlike streaming video that you watch at sites like Hulu or Amazon, you have access to your Qflix movies as long as you have access to a DVD player or a computer.

Sonic says Qflix drives could also be used by retailers, who could offer in-store DVD-burning kiosks. That business model would allow stores to carry and manage less physical inventory, while expanding the amount of content they offer to their customers. Blockbuster is currently working to offer digital rental kiosks, but so far customers must download movies onto portable devices rather than DVDs. Qflix isn’t alone in the download-to-DVD space; Sonic competitor Nero has teamed up with Polar Frog Digital to create on-demand DVD kiosks that are supposed to be available later this year. Unlike Qflix, Nero’s system will not require special discs or drives. The companies say it will be available to retailers first, and then to consumers.

The only Qflix-enabled drive available today is the Dell model, but Sonic says more partnerships are in the works. Dell’s drive is available as an external DVD burner that connects to your PC (sorry Mac users, it won’t work for you) via USB, or bundled with some new laptops and desktops. It also works as a standard DVD burner in addition to its Qflix-enabled features. Setup is easy: You attach the drive, insert the setup disc and let it go to work.

The drive works in conjunction with Venue, a software application from Sonic’s consumer division, Roxio. Venue allows you to connect to CinemaNow, the service’s only content partner, and view all Qflix-enabled titles. This is where the most serious limitation kicks in: When I tested the device, CinemaNow had fewer than 75 Qflix-enabled titles. Among the “new” releases: “Crash,” a movie that was released three years ago. Sonic says it hopes to have close to 1,000 titles available by the end of the year but notes that it takes some time to prepare the content for the “download and burn” process.

Once you select a movie, you can choose to download it (most titles are $9.95) and burn it with your Qflix drive right away, or you can download it and burn it later. Either way, the service tracks whether or not a title has been burned and only lets you burn it once. With the latter option, you can begin watching the movie on your PC shortly after the download begins: I started downloading a copy of “Iron Man” and was able to begin playing it back after about three minutes, even though the two-hour movie took nearly an hour to download.

Burning a Qflix-enabled DVD is easy, but it can be a time consuming process. Venue runs a quick check to make sure your drive is connected and contains Qflix-enabled media. Then it must prepare the content for burning, which can take a while. For “Stop-Loss,” I selected the “download and burn” option and Venue took more than an hour to prepare the 1-hour-and-51-minute movie for burning; this process ran in the background while the movie was downloading. Once it was prepared, it burned to the DVD in just a few minutes. I had no problems playing the disc in two different DVD players, but the picture quality was noticeably worse than it had been when I viewed the original download on my PC.

Sonic is on the right track with its Qflix system: It’s easy to use and simpler to set up than any media extender I’ve tried. Plus, I like the idea of being able to download and burn legal copies of movies. It makes viewing your PC-based content on your TV a whole lot easier. But right now, the Dell Qflix DVD Burner is hampered by a poor selection of titles and a relatively high price. The $120 bundle only includes two Qflix-enabled discs; you’ll have to pay $10.99 for each five-pack of DVDs beyond that — and that’s on top of the $9.95 you pay for each movie you download. Until the movie selection improves dramatically, that price is just too high.