Kaleidescape Alto Review

The new $2500 Alto from Kaleidescape looks exactly like the company’s Cinema One movie player. When I reviewed the Cinema One earlier this year, I fell in love with the system’s ease of use. However, I grew frustrated with the limited selection at the online store. Fortunately, the company took concrete steps to remedy the content deficit, including settling a long-standing lawsuit that prevented it from signing deals with a number of major studios.

Now, Kaleidescape is poised for growth. The company’s online store is brimming with new movie and TV titles. That’s a good thing because the Alto movie player is the first Kaleidescape device that does not offer disc-ripping capability. Instead, the new device gets its locally stored content from the cloud, though it also plays spinning discs. In fact, thanks to Kaleidescape’s clever and intuitive software, it is one of the best Blu-ray players I’ve used.


Kaleidescape’s software makes picking and playing movies a pleasure.

Features

The Alto concentrates on playing content that matches the quality of DVD and Blu-ray discs. You won’t find streaming apps or a web browser on the Alto; the only software supported by the device is Kaleidescape’s proprietary user interface. Currently, it does not support 3D.

What makes the Alto unusually appealing when compared to other Blu-ray players is its ability to access the same data found on a physical disc from the cloud. Another key differentiator is how Kaleidescape uses its online database to offer cataloging and enhanced playback options to DVD and Blu-ray collectors.

The Alto itself is a minimalist machine that almost looks like an Apple product, and it fits perfectly in a 2U rack space. The glossy white faceplate has a slot for loading physical discs, an animated Kaleidescape logo, and three buttons: power, play, and eject.

On the back of the unit you’ll find one HDMI port, one S/PDIF (coaxial) jack, a pair of stereo analog RCA jacks, a USB port for the WiFi adapter, an infrared sensor port, and an Ethernet port. Oddly, the Alto’s exterior is made of plastic—aluminum would have been a better choice considering the price.


A view of the back of the Alto.

You can control the Alto either with a handheld remote or with an iPad app. It also comes with a child-friendly remote that lets kids safely access their own content collection. When I reviewed the Cinema One, I used an iPad to control it, but with the Alto, I used the included remote because I don’t own an iPad any more; I’m on Android now. I don’t miss using a tablet as a remote; it’s too big and clunky.

The Kaleidescape store works with any Internet browser. For this reason, I can still use my Android tablet to purchase titles for cloud-based delivery. I just can’t use it to control the Alto directly.

The 4 TB internal drive holds approximately 100 Blu-ray-quality downloads or about 600 DVD-quality downloads. Because the Alto downloads everything you get with a physical disc, including special features, some movies take up considerably more space than others beyond differences in running time.

According to Kaleidescape, the Alto will support the company’s Disc Vault, which holds 320 discs in a carousel mechanism. With a vault, an Alto can use its catalog function to treat physical media as if it were ripped to a server. The difference is the vault will play the actual disc instead of holding it and playing a ripped copy. From an end user’s perspective, an Alto with a disc vault will work the same way as it does with cloud-based content.

While I did not get a chance to test it, an interesting feature of the Alto is its ability to work in conjunction with up to three additional players to create a larger library of downloads. Each player can access content from the local storage of the other players, which brings the total capacity of a four-Alto system up to 400 Blu-ray quality downloads or 2400 DVD quality downloads.

Setup

I started by plugging the WiFi adapter into the Alto’s USB port, plugging in the power, and connecting the HDMI output to a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR. The device prompted me through the initial setup process, including connection to WiFi and connecting it to a Kaleidescape account.

Next, I used a PC to log into the Kaleidescape store and connected that account with my Ultraviolet account. Once I completed that process, over 40 movies in my Vudu library showed up as free Blu-ray quality downloads.

I looked at the Alto’s default audio and video settings to make sure they were optimum for my system. I only had to make one significant change—I switched the HDMI audio setting to bitstream output instead of allowing the Alto to convert to 5.1 PCM. I left all the video settings at their defaults after using the Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark disc (2nd edition) to confirm they did not negatively impact image quality.


Here are the Alto’s default video settings.

Performance

The best thing about the Alto is how quick, convenient, and reliable it is. You are always mere seconds away from watching whatever TV show or movie you choose, whether it’s on a disc or a download. Compared to every Blu-ray player that I’ve owned or reviewed, the Alto is faster and easier to use.

While Kaleidescape touts the Alto’s ability to obtain Blu-ray-quality content from the cloud, I was equally impressed with its prowess as a Blu-ray and DVD player. It typically takes less than 20 seconds to go from inserting a disc that it has never played before to the first frame of the movie. Thanks to the bookmarks programmed into the Kaleidescape database, you get to skip all the FBI warnings and previews that most Blu-ray players make you watch.

The Alto catalogs physical discs and provides the same overall functionality you get with downloaded files. It remembers where you paused partially watched movies or TV shows, and it provides bookmarks to popular scenes in many movies. It can even control the aspect ratio of a projector equipped with an anamorphic lens.

However, it’s headline feature is the unique ability to download and play films and TV shows that offer the same quality as their disc-based counterparts. Ever since I received an Alto review unit, the majority of movies I’ve watched have been downloads from the Kaleidescape store.

Each Blu-ray-quality movie took about three hours to download via WiFi. I reduced that download time to about an hour by connecting the Alto directly to my router via Ethernet, but for most of the review period I used a wireless connection.

The Alto is at its best when it’s accessing content downloaded from the Kaleidescape store. Playing a movie or TV show from a hard drive eliminates any risk of interruption from a disc that has a scratch or fingerprint. Plus, downloaded movies avoid the pitfalls of streaming, where buffering can occur due to Internet bottlenecks—having a fast connection isn’t enough when streaming servers overload.

I can’t find anything negative to say about the performance of the Alto. Its combination of speed, simplicity, functionality, and flexibility make it the nicest HD movie player I’ve used. About the only objection I have is the cost of buying one.

Conclusion

If it were not for the $2500 price of the device, I’d own a Kaleidescape Alto already—that’s how much I like it. More than anything, I find the Kaleidescape software to be very attractive. It’s content cataloging and browsing features—the Kaleidescape movie guide—is outstanding compared to the functionality of other Blu-ray players. Kaleidescape’s movie database (which contains hundreds of thousands of titles) is a tremendous asset that helps to elevate the Alto’s user experience above the competition.

Kaleidescape is currently the only company offering true Blu-ray-quality downloads, and the Alto is the lowest-priced device that provides entry to that ecosystem. That alone is enough to make it appealing to budget-conscious videophiles when compared to the company’s other offerings.

Other than price, the main complaint I have about the Alto is that too many new releases are missing from the store. On Tuesdays, I like to browse the latest titles while enjoying my morning cup of coffee. If it’s going to succeed, Kaleidescape needs to match the selection of new releases offered by Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.

I’m a fan of cloud-based content delivery, and I truly appreciate what the Alto offers well-heeled videophiles. Even so, I occasionally found myself wishing for a device that offered Kaleidescape’s core functionality in a considerably more affordable package. I know the company is inexorably heading toward a cloud-based, disc-free future. But in many ways, the cloud-based future of content delivery is already here. The Alto has to compete with services that offer a larger selection of movies along with a much lower cost of entry, albeit with lower quality.

If you can afford it, the Alto is one of the sweetest movie players out there. It removes the aggravation that’s often an unavoidable part of watching a Blu-ray movie, paving the way to the future of high-quality content delivery. Unfortunately, it remains a bit pricey compared to most Blu-ray players, and the cloud-based movie selection is still a bit limited. Nevertheless, whether it’s playing physical discs or content from the cloud, the Alto is an absolute pleasure to use.