If you were bummed when Netflix split its hybrid streaming/disc-by-mail service into two separate (and higher-priced) offerings, here's something you may like: Redbox Instant, which combines unlimited streaming with one-day disc rentals via kiosks. I gave Redbox Instant a spin when it was in a private beta and required an access code to register; yesterday the service had a soft launch, so you can now get your own one-month free trial.
Based on my two-week experience with the service, there's a lot to like, especially for someone who still prefers the higher video and audio quality Blu-ray discs provide when watching movies. To be truly compelling, though, the company will have to address some shortcomings in both its depth of content and hardware support. In fairness, the service is still barely out of beta, so many of these issues may be addressed by the time Redbox Instant officially launches in a few weeks.
One of the strengths of the service, a joint venture between Redbox and Verizon, is the wide number of options it provides. For example, as in the old Netflix, subscribers get a mix of unlimited streaming and disc rentals (four DVDs) for an $8-a-month subscription. You can pay an extra $1 a month if you prefer Blu-ray discs to DVDs. The kiosks also offer video games, but the monthly fee doesn't include game rentals.
Find out all about streaming services and set-top boxes in our streaming video and movie rental buying guide.
Redbox Instant also offers an a-la-carte video-on-demand service with newer titles, much like Amazon and Vudu. You can either rent or buy VOD movies, typically for $5 or $6 for a 24-hour viewing window, and you don't have to have be a subscriber to use the VOD service.
When you sign up for the free trial, you'll have to create a Redbox Instant account, and that includes providing a credit-card number that will be automatically charged once the free trial period expires. During my test, Redbox Instant was supported only by Samsung smart TVs and Blu-ray players, plus Xbox game consoles, Apple and Android smart phones and tablets, and Macs and PCs.
Although I typically stream videos using either the TV's built-in apps or a Roku streaming-media player, I had to do most of my testing on an Apple iPad, since none of my TVs nor the Roku currently offers the Redbox Instant service. I also downloaded the Android app from Google Play for my HTC 4G phone, but the experience was much better (faster, with less buffering) on an iPad.
The company says that Redbox Instant will also be available on smart TVs from LG, as well as some Vizio sets, plus other Google TV devices including Vizio's Co-Star streaming-media player. Although it supports Apple AirPlay or iOS users with Apple TV, it's not available on Roku, one of the most popular streaming-media players. Again, the company says that additional hardware and content partner announcements will be rolled out over the next few months.
In addition to streaming and discs, Redbox Instant lets you rent or buy newer titles.
I found the Redbox Instant service easy to use, both on a Mac and an iPad, with a clean, graphically rich user interface. At the top of the main home page you'll see a rotating list of featured titles available either via subscription or at the kiosk, as well rows of other featured titles under various headings, such as Most Popular and Just In.
You can also sort by selecting only those available by subscription, those available in kiosks, and those you can rent or buy. By clicking one of those categories, you can further refine your browsing by choosing a category (Featured, Popular, by genre, and so on) or by format (HD or SD) using drop-down menus. You can also sort alphabetically, or by release date or fan ratings. Under My Redbox, you can call up a dashboard with a history of watched movies, bookmarks (movies you want to watch later), and purchases.
The streaming catalog appears to be significantly smaller than Netflix's offering—not surprising, given it's a start-up. (I've seen reports that about 4,600 titles are available, although this hasn't been confirmed.) It's also movie-centric, so at this time there are no TV shows. The company does have a deal with Epix, so you can stream some newer releases, including Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Thor, and The Hunger Games. (Epix has access to movies from Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, and MGM 90 days after they debut in other "premium windows," such as pay-per-view and VOD.) But like Amazon does with its Prime video, Redbox Instant also provides access to newer releases via its rent/buy option.
The iPad interface worked well, with an intuitive, graphically rich interface.
Many streaming titles are available in HD and SD, though the quality you'll receive is dependent on your bandwidth. When renting or purchasing a movie, you can opt for either, with HD-quality titles typically price $1 more than the SD version.
Bottom line. Redbox Instant has a lot of promise, especially for someone who likes the convenience of streaming but still appreciates the higher quality offered by Blu-ray discs. Certainly the $8-per-month subscription, the same price as Netflix and Hulu Plus, provides a lot of value, and gives me what I liked about Netflix's old combined plan.
But to be really competitive, Redbox Instant's streaming service will have to support more devices, especially Roku and more TV brands, and it will have to up its game in the content department when it comes to streaming. We'll be following new developments that help bring the service closer to realizing its promise.
—James K. Willcox