After years of hype and false starts, video-on-demand took a giant leap forward this week with the soft launch in the US of online video rental service Movielink - backed by five of the US majors - Sony Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, Universal Studios and Warner Bros.

Screen International put the service to the test on a home computer and found Movielink to be efficient, clear and easy to handle - although the size of the picture was a disappointment. If anything, the test proved that the armchair cinephile's utopian vision of affordable, high-quality round-the-clock access to a comprehensive library of films is attainable, but still needs considerable tweaking before it takes off.

The fee-based service is initially offering 170 titles at prices ranging from $2.99-$4.99 for each film. It runs on most PCs (not Macs) minimally equipped with Windows 98 and requires a broadband connection of 128kbps or faster. At the user can browse the library comprising recent releases like We Were Soldiers and The Sweetest Thing and more classic fare like Breakfast At Tiffany's and Blazing Saddles.

After a simple five-minute billing registration process the user downloads a selected title through Microsoft's Windows Media Player or RealNetworks' Real Player, which can both be downloaded for free from their respective websites.

It took 40 minutes to save the recent Val Kilmer thriller, The Salton Sea, onto the hard drive. It arrived in the form of a smallish 518MB file. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, weighing in at 762MB, took 50 minutes. Both cost $4.95. Average movie files range from 600MB to 1,000MB and Movielink says downloads can take from 30 minutes to four hours.

Once it has been saved to the hard drive, the file remains there for 30 days. As soon as the 'play movie' button is clicked on the interface, which has the standard array of video control buttons, the user has 24 hours to watch the film as often as desired, before it expires. The interface worked without a hitch: there was no buffering when the film was rewound or wound forward and picture quality was excellent throughout, reproducing the colour saturation with impressive fidelity.

The only problem was the size of the picture. In its infancy Movielink appears to be better suited to a laptop and would make an ideal travel companion. As P J McNealy, research director at technology consultants GartnerG2, told Screen: "This kind of business has a crawl, walk, run development pattern and at the moment they're crawling. This service will have very limited appeal in the near term. Key for them will be when you can download movies, move it across the network and put it on the TV. People are not clamouring to gather round the PC monitor on a Friday night."

Indeed there has been a palpable air of caution swirling above the launch. Movielink is holding fire on intensive marketing for a 90-day period so it can encourage feedback from users and seek to refine the service.

Even Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment's president Yair Landau, a longtime supporter of video-on-demand, whose parent company is one of Movielink's five content providers, was reserved. "Our expectations are fairly modest," he told the New York Times. "This service does not transform the world, but it addresses a consumer demand that's out there."

Movielink's chief executive officer Jim Ramo also knows that with 25 million broadband residences in the US it will be some time before the service is a feature in most living rooms.

However, it appears to have been a good start for Movielink. As long as the system's secure digital rights management software and other protective measures are routinely updated, pirates may not be able to turn video-on-demand into the free-for-all that blighted the music industry's early forays into cyberspace. Ramo says more suppliers will join in the future. Disney and 20th Century Fox are the only two of the US majors that have not signed up yet.