Kaleidescape Alto Review
By Chris Heinonen on
Kaleidescape Cinema One delivered the Kaleidescape system to people at a new price point, but caused confusion. You were able to import and playback your DVDs on the Cinema One, but Blu-ray discs were a bit different. You could import them, but to play them back required the disc to be in the player or a $4,000 disc vault option. You can updates some movies to digital copies for $2 to remove this restriction, but then you had to download the whole disc again. While these restrictions were due to the Blu-ray licensing group, consumers don’t care about that. They just were a bit confused.
The Kaleidescape Alto looks like the Cinema One but has important differences. The major change is that you can no longer import your own discs to it. It functions as a Blu-ray or DVD player, but can’t store them. The Kaleidescape Store has grown to add more studios and so you can buy full Blu-ray quality downloads to store on the Alto. You can also upgrade many of your DVD titles or Blu-ray titles to digital copies for as little as $2. The support for storing music is also gone, since you no longer import titles and the Kaleidescape Store does not offer music. Importantly the price has dropped from $4,000 for the Cinema One to $2,500 for the Alto.
Selling an Experience
The Kaleidescape Alto is all about the user experience. It makes watching your movies a great experience and managing a large collection easy. You don’t need the disc for many of your titles so you can sit down and enjoy the show. Since the experience is something you almost need to see to completely grasp, Kaleidescape only sells their products through dealers. While easy to setup and use, it is easy to see where someone could order a $2,500 Blu-ray player and come away unhappy if they don’t understand what they are getting.
When setup right, the experience of the Kaleidescape Alto is something else. I imagine the majority of people buying one from a dealer are going to use it as part of a control system, so I set mine up with a Control4 system. This creates what might be the easiest home theater system to use and enjoy that I know of. I hit Play and all my components kick on, the lights dim, and my entire movie collection comes up on the screen ready to play. What’s more, they play without loading times, trailers, FBI warnings, or anything else to take away from the experience. Even Blu-ray discs skip the warnings, not just downloaded digital copies.
The Kaleidescape Store has improved since I last used it. More films have been added, and more studios have come on board. The downloads are in DVD or Blu-ray quality. The Blu-ray downloads include the extras, lossless soundtracks, and image quality of the Blu-ray version. You sacrifice nothing with a download compared to a physical copy, making it unique from all the other download services out there.
It also offers the early release window for digital copies that those other services do. Those of us that want the best picture quality have watched as titles, from Godzilla to The Lego Movie, come out on digital download services weeks before the Blu-ray disc. Kaleidescape offers the best of both worlds here: the early release window of the digital download with the full Blu-ray picture and audio quality.
Prices on the store are also almost identical to those on Amazon. Blu-ray movies are around $20 for a new title while older titles can be $10-15. You don’t have the portability of a physical copy, but you don’t have to worry about scratching a disc or losing it. I’m more comfortable letting my kids select a movie on the Kaleidescape Alto than I am with them changing Blu-ray discs since I know they can’t damage it. The major downside to the Kaleidescape Alto is that all the studios are not on board yet. They have agreements with Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, NBC Universal and Lionsgate but haven’t finished getting rights to the three other main studios. Recent titles like Guardians of the Galaxy are not available on the store but are available on Blu-ray disc. The catalog of titles from the studios is also not as large as their catalog on Blu-ray. It keeps improving, and more studios may be joining soon, but it is the main downside to the store now.
Using the Kaleidescape Alto
In use, the Kaleidescape Alto is just great. The standard remote is backlit, though I expect almost everyone to use a universal remote system with it. You can choose your movies in many ways. A list view makes it easy to find your movie by name, and is ideal if you know what you want to watch. If you want to browse or aren’t sure what you want to watch, the Cover View is the way to go.
It presents the cover art of all your titles on the screen. If you stop the cursor on a film, the covers rearrange themselves to present options similar to the one you have highlighted. If I highlight Despicable Me for my kids, downloaded from the Kaleidescape Store, other kids films including Despicable Me 2 and The Lego Movie appear around it. Since you can’t import all your titles to the Alto, it supports something called cataloging. You can add your discs to the catalog so they appear in cover flow and influence your recommendations. These are distinguished from the digital downloads by a Blu-ray banner on top of the cover art. You need to pull out the disc to watch it, but you have the full list of all your movies available for guests to choose from.
When you select a title it plays instantly. The Alto lets you select any chapter you want, and has a selection of scenes from movies to pick from. You just want to watch a classic film scene from a movie you own? The Kaleidescape Alto will have that scene in a list and will skip to it when you select it. It also tracks where you were in every movie you are watching so you can resume from that point. If you happen to have more than one Kaleidescape system you can pick up at that point in another room.
The main drawback with anything from Kaleidescape is the price. Their systems are expensive, and there is no way around that. I’m sure at least one commenter or two will point out they could do this themselves for less, but I don’t consider that. First, there’s no legal way right now to archive your Blu-ray library for playback aside from a system from Kaleidescape. While you can do it, you can’t legally do it. Second, it’s a complex setup that 98% of people can’t do. I often give products the family tech support test: Can I give it to someone in my family without providing constant tech support? With a Kaleidescape system the answer is yes. With a DIY HTPC and an imported Blu-ray library, that is a no.
There also isn’t a full library of content from studios available yet. Once that is there, the Alto will play everything you want without ever needing a disc. Right now, I needed a disc for half the movies I watched while reviewing it. It is better than the system was last year when I looked at the Cinema One, so perhaps in a year this won’t be an issue, but right now it is. The only way around this is to buy one of the Kaleidescape systems with a disc vault and a player, and that will cost 3-4x as much as the Alto does to get going.
The Alto loses the ability to play back music that other Kaleidescape systems have. Since there are many other systems available that can do this, I don’t feel it is a big deal, but some people might want everything in a single location.
The big elephant in the room is 4K Blu-ray announced at CES this year. While players and titles are likely 6-12 months away, will those render the Alto obsolete? For someone with a vast movie library they aren’t going to go buy everything all over again, nor will it be available in 4K at launch. For the price of the Alto, you can buy a 4K Blu-ray player and a lot of movies but you won’t get the Kaleidescape experience.
The Kaleidescape Alto targets movie lovers who want the best movie experience, and are willing to pay for it. For many people, paying $2,400 more than a standard Blu-ray player to not have to insert the disc for your favorite movies isn’t worth it. I can’t tell you that you’re wrong either, as it is a luxury product.
For those that want the ease of use and the Kaleidescape experience, the Alto delivers that at a price point they didn’t offer before. It integrates into your system, including your control system, and makes watching movies enjoyable. It would be nice if everything delivered the user experience that Kaleidescape does, but that is what sets it apart from the competition. If you can afford it, the Alto is a wonderful product that you’ll love using day-after-day, but it isn’t an impulse buy.
Unparalleled user experience, large selection of titles for download, no credits or trailers before movies, perfect Blu-ray playback quality and control system integration
Expensive, only half of titles currently available, uncertain future with 4K arrival
If you're a movie buff and want the best playback experience, you can't beat the Kaleidescape one. Alto offers a new price point for that experience, but a still limited store and no more title importing mean it is a niche solution.