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The Kaleidescape Cinema One: A Fantastic Set-Top Box That You Can’t Afford

March 6, 2014

What if there were a sleek, beautiful cellphone with three-month battery life, a 20x zoom on the camera, and coverage over 100 percent of the United States? Would you buy it?

What if I offered you an actual working jetpack, no bigger than a pillow, quiet and environmentally friendly? Would you want it?

How about a recipe for fruit smoothies shown in clinical trials to reduce the occurrence of cold, flu and headache by 97 percent?

OK, one more question: What if each of those items cost $4 million?

Would that change your answer?

That’s the problem I’ve got reviewing the Kaleidescape Cinema One. It’s a miraculous machine — at a ludicrous price.

Both the concept and the execution are delicious. It’s a set-top box for your TV. (By the way, we need a new word for “set-top box,” now that our TVs are half an inch thick.)

You feed it all your movies and music on disc: CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. The Cinema One copies each disc to its 4-terabyte hard drive. 25 minutes for a DVD; two hours for a Blu-ray.

And I mean it copies everything. Every deleted scene, director’s commentary, alternate ending. Every DVD extra. And it doesn’t touch the video — there’s no compression or anything; it copies every pixel of quality that’s on the disc.

There’s also a Kaleidescape online store, where you can buy movies exactly the same way: digital versions of the entire DVD or Blu-ray disc, complete with all the quality and all the extras. (It’s a little odd that you access this store from your computer instead of the Kaleidescape box itself, but we’ll survive. Also, there are only 5,250 movies for sale there, and from only two movie studios. More to come, the company says.)

Thereafter, you can view your entire movie collection on your TV screen, either as an alphabetical list or as a mosaic of DVD covers. When you hit Play on the remote, the movie begins playing instantly.

Read that again. The movie begins playing. Not the FBI warning, not the MPAA screen, not the previews, not the DVD menu — the movie itself. You cannot imagine how delightful that is compared with what we’re used to now: Downloading or streaming movies is handy, but you don’t get anything like the quality of Blu-ray, and you generally don’t get any of the bonus features. And discs give you the quality and the extras but require you to sit there staring at stupid FBI and MPAA screens that you’re not allowed to skip. The Kaleidescape box offers the best of both worlds.

Every aspect of the Cinema One has received loving attention. The remote control lights up when you use it. The onscreen interface is clean, lovely and so simple a neighbor could use it. The features are exactly where you’d want them to be, when you want them to be there. Every movie remembers exactly where you stopped.

There’s a free remote-control app for the iPad. (The movies play only on your TV — you can’t roam the house watching on your iPad.)

And get this: There’s an optional children’s remote ($40). It’s chunky and simple and colorful — and when your kid presses any button on it, all the movies for grownups instantly disappear from the Cinema One screen. Your little movie buff can’t get into trouble.

Your full movie collection returns when you press any button on the regular remote.

My teenage son, upon hearing me describe the Cinema One, immediately said, “Oh. So it’s a piracy box.”

Wait, what?

He meant that a ne’er-do-well could borrow DVDs from the library, or by mail from Netflix and rip them to the Cinema One to have forever. (The hard drive holds 600 movies on DVD or 100 Blu-ray discs.)

Yes, I suppose that’s true. And that, no doubt, is why Kaleidescape was forced by a consortium of movie studios to implement a copy-protection scheme that comes dangerously close to sinking the entire product:

When you want to play a Blu-ray movie off the Cinema One, you have to hunt down the original disc you own, insert it into the Cinema One’s slot, and wait for it to load. You’re not playing the disc; you’re just confirming that you own it.

But you’re also losing 80 percent of the value of having a Cinema One! What happened to “any movie in your collection, instantly”?

There are three mitigating factors. First, there’s no such requirement for regular DVDs; only Blu-rays require you to go fetch the original disc.

Second, you can bypass the find-the-disc requirement if you own the digital download of that Blu-ray from the Kaleidescape store — and if you already own the physical disc, the digital version costs only $2.

That’d be a reasonably priced solution if it were available for any Blu-ray movie you own. But it’s not. In fact, it’s available for relatively few movies: only those from Lionsgate and Warner Bros. Kaleidescape says it’s working on reaching similar deals with other movie companies, but for now, it’s only a fractional solution.

Third, the company is happy to sell you a huge, bulky, 320-disc changer to connect to your Cinema One — for $4,000. It keeps all your Blu-ray discs at the ready so you don’t have to go hunt down each one you want to play.

But that copy-protection business is going to kill a lot of potential sales. It’s like having a TiVo that can’t record anything on a timer, or hiring a tax preparer who hands you the blank 1040 form and a pen. It just defeats the purpose.

Now you want to hear the really bad news? It’s the price of the Cinema One: $4,000.

Now, to Kaleidescape, that’s a terrific deal. Previous Kaleidescape models, intended for rich people’s home theaters, cost $10,000 or much more.

But I can’t figure out why this budget model should cost $4,000. It’s a hard drive, a circuit board and a Blu-ray player. (Not a particularly full-featured one at that. The Kaleidescape works fine as a Blu-ray player, but it doesn’t offer 3D playback, and it doesn’t have any Internet services like Netflix, Pandora or Hulu — standard features on Blu-ray players these days.)

It’s worth pointing out here that many people build their own movie-server machines. They use a Windows Media Center PC, or they rig up a Mac mini and rip all their discs to it for instant playback.

Those folks don’t enjoy anything like the beauty, simplicity and polish of the Kaleidescape. They don’t get to auto-skip the FBI warnings and stuff. They don’t get the gorgeous software design or the children’s remote. If they copy their Blu-ray discs, they do so in a legally questionable manner.

They also don’t get Kaleidescape’s “incredibly deep cache of cinematic information, manually created by the Movie Guide team, like aspect ratio, audio streams, language tracks, scenes, songs, special features, audio subtitles, closed captioning, etc.,” says a company rep. Kaleidescape’s editors also manually build a menu of scene bookmarks for each movie: “So if you’re in the mood for being chased by the boulder, or Jack Nicholson coming through the door with the axe, it’s just a tap on the iPad app away.”

OK, fine. Do-it-yourselfers miss out on all that. But they also pay one-fifth of the price.

So, yes, the Cinema One is a success as a product. But the price is nuts. Don’t forget that movies on discs won’t be with us for much longer — the future is streaming or downloading — so you’re making a huge investment in a machine whose purpose is winding down.

If someone gives you a Cinema One, celebrate. Your life is better with one than without one.

But four grand? Yeah, maybe after I take my jetpack out for a spin. 

You can email David Pogue here. And you can follow Yahoo Tech on Facebook right here