BT Vision has launched a video download service in conjunction with Universal Pictures and NBC Universal International Television that provides retail downloads as soon as titles are released on DVD, in advance of its broadband video service which will offer video-on-demand rentals.

The BT Vision online store anticipates the launch of a full broadband video service by the leading telecommunications company in the UK.

Videos are available for purchase and download for viewing on a personal computer. Consumers will be able to download two digital files, one for use on a personal computer or laptop and another specifically compressed for use on portable media players.

The files are typically 1.5GB and 500MB, taking around 90 minutes and 30 minutes respectively to download over a 2Mbps broadband connection. As part of the package, customers will also initially receive a DVD mailed by post within five working days.

The service provides a legitimate means for consumers to download new releases to certain personal computers and portable media players. It requires Windows XP with Windows Media Players 10 or later and is compatible with PlaysForSure portable devices from companies including Archos and Creative Labs, but not the Sony PSP or Apple iPods.

The price for new releases is from £16.99 or £7.99 for library titles, comparable to that for retail DVDs. Titles include recent releases and library classics. The line-up at launch is modest, with less than 70 videos available, although this will build to 150 titles available on the same date as the UK DVD release.

Although the announcement mentioned the new release of King Kong, this was not available at launch, although bizarrely a search returned a reference to Pyscho.

Unfortunately, our test trial of the download service was also unsuccessful. We were unable to install the ActiveX control required due to a problem with the download page which did not appear to support the latest IE7 beta release and the only customer support available was by email, with no option of telephone support from the national telephone company.

This suggests there are still a few rough edges with the service and support levels which are unlikely to endear new users, despite the press release rhetoric which describes it as “a ground-breaking development for the entertainment industry”.

“Universal Pictures UK are delighted to have partnered with BT in this unprecedented digital deal,” said Peter Smith, President of Universal Pictures International in a media statement.

“As the on-demand entertainment experience continues to evolve globally, this agreement underscores the importance of choice and convenience for the consumer,” said Beth Minehart, of NBC Universal International Television Distribution.

Dan Marks, the chief executive of BT Vision, said: “This is a very exciting deal that breaks new ground in the entertainment industry. Customers increasingly expect to enjoy entertainment when, where and how they want it and this agreement will help to make that possible.”

The BT service launches as other companies, such as Amazon, are preparing online services that will offer videos on a download-to-own basis, aiming to emulate the success of Apple with its iTunes store.

The use of digital rights management limits playback to particular devices, although delivering a DVD in the post offers also consumers the re-assurance of owning a physical product. However, the relatively high price points offer little incentive to consumers over existing retail models, particularly since library titles can often be bought online at steep discounts.