MovieBeam, a venture formerly funded by just The Walt Disney Company, but now with backing as well from Intel, Cisco and several venture capital firms, is a new set top box ready to join the array of boxes already cluttering home entertainment systems across America. This latest unit though provides some of the most interesting promise: wirelessly downloaded movies from virtually every major Hollywood studio, including 20th Century Fox, NBC/Universal Studios, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers Studios.

The MovieBeam set top box is priced at $199.99 after an introductory rebate. It comes preloaded with 100 mainstream movies across multiple genres and downloads 10 new movies a week – some new, some older popular favorites – via over-the-airwaves data casting technology which is carried on top of an existing PBS broadcasting infrastructure managed by National Datacast. As new movies are automatically downloaded, older movies are automatically deleted to keep the number at a constant 100.

Besides the initial hardware cost, a one time activation fee of $29.99 must be paid. Movies downloaded to the box also cost money when they are viewed on demand: $3.99 for new releases ? some of which are same day release as their DVD siblings – and $1.99 for older ?library titles?. MovieBeam users who have high definition systems will find that a limited number of movies ? approximately 10 percent of loaded titles at any one time – are available in native HD format and can be viewed for an additional $1 on top of the existing rental fees. All rentals are good for a 24-hour period, during which time they can be viewed for as often as one likes. They cannot at this time however be copied off of the MovieBeam player to a computer or portable entertainment device.

Hardware features of the MovieBeam system include the set top box, an indoor antenna which receives the data cast signal carrying new movies and a remote control. The set top box itself, which is co-branded with Cisco?s Linksys home networking division, contains a 160GB hard drive and a 200Mhz CPU. It sports a variety of video connection ports including HDMI, component, S-video and composite. Audio connection options include digital coaxial, SP/DIF, HDMI and left/right stereo audio.

Image Courtesy of MovieBeam

Also part of the hardware of the MovieBeam player is Ethernet and USB 2.0 ports. These will enable broadband connectivity later this year, which should expand the features and content of the service. This is joined by additional features such as up-conversion of standard definition movies via the HDMI connection when connected to a HDTV, DVR-like functions for controls such as pause and rewind, free full-length trailers for every available rental and an on-screen user interface which sorts downloaded movies by characteristics such as title and genre.

Another expansion option coming down the pipeline is a USB peripheral, being developed in collaboration with Intel, which will bring the MovieBeam service to other devices, most likely PCs.

The MovieBeam service is initially available in 29 major metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland (Oregon), Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa and Washington, D.C.

More details about MovieBeam, including information on where to find the set top box, can be found at their website.