Apple’s iPods and their associated iTunes store are the undisputed product leader in portable digital music sales, but is iTunes video ready to displace streaming services from Netflixand Amazon, or even good, old-fashioned DVD and Blu-Ray disks? We took iTunes 9 video for spin, including its rental service and brand-spanking-new Home Sharing feature, to see if Steve Jobs is poised to add the market leader in notebook movie-watching title to his Apple empire.
The main difference between iTunes and most other online video services is that iTunes gives you an actual movie file, as opposed to a streaming video feed. That means you can watch your downloaded movies offline, as well as shift them to other devices (iPods, mostly) or share them with up to four other computers on your home network via the new Home Sharing feature.
The selection of titles on iTunes is comparable to Amazon and Netflix, which is to say it’s not nearly as robust as a conventional video store can offer. Only a fraction of titles that are available on DVD and/or Blu-ray are also listed on iTunes, and those that are ported to iTunes get there about a month later it arrives at your Blockbuster or Best Buy.
To purchase an iTunes video, just click the iTunes Store option in the left column of the iTunes software, then select either the Movies or TV Shows tab at the top of the store pane.
From there, click on any title and then select the Rent or Buy buttons to download the appropriate video file. You can start watching even before the full download is complete, though you might get some hiccups if your connection speeds slows down or drops unexpectedly.
The playback requirements for iTunes video are actually Quicktime 7 playback requirements, which vary by operating system and video format. Apple lays out all the variables here. The minimum system requirements for iTunes-purchased videos on Windows XP/Vista/7 PCs are as follows:
- 2.0 GHz Intel or AMD processor
- 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or faster processor for HD-quality videos
- 512MB of RAM; 1GB is required to play HD-quality videos
- A DirectX 9.0-compatible video card with 32MB of video RAM, 64MB recommended
To view full, HD-quality (1280 x 720 resolution at 720p) playback from iTunes under Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7, you’ll need the following:
- 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 or faster processor
- At least 512MB of RAM
- 64MB or greater video card
Note that you don’t need Internet connectivity for playback as you’re downloading complete, not streaming, video files. That said, these files are not small — 90 minutes of standard definition iTunes video will run you around 1.2 gigabytes — so the initial download times won’t exactly be instantaneous, especially on slower or shared connections. Once the files are downloaded, however, you’re free to roam, wi-fi or no wi-fi.
Generally speaking, iTunes playback quality is top-notch. As you are downloading complete video files to your hard drive, rather than streaming them via the Internet, you’ll find none of the obvious compression artifacts that appear in many Netflix and Amazon video downloads. This held true even in Standard Definition movie scenes that were poorly lit and depicted several reflective surfaces — exactly the kind of image that would normally pixelate or fuzz-out during compression.
Moreover, Apple takes a rather significant amount of pride in its HD video quality (which is why the HD system requirements aren’t immodest), such that even downscaled SD versions of HD video look pretty good.
Below is a side-by-side screen capture comparison of an iTunes video scene in HD (left) and downscaled to SD (right). The difference is noticeable but not terribly significant.
Also worthy of note: iTunes movie files include chapter selections, just like DVDs, so you can skip around to favorite scenes without manually advancing the progress bar.
To be frank, iTunes pricing is all over the map. In general, Standard Definition movie rentals are $3.99 for new releases, while High Definition versions of the same titles will run you $4.99. Back-catalog titles are generally a dollar cheaper than new releases.
Any iTunes rented title is held in reserve on your hard drive for 30 days after download — so long as you don’t watch the video. Once you begin viewing an iTunes rental, you only have 24 hours to finish it. The file will auto-expire a day after you hit Play, even if you never watch the entire movie.
Purchasing iTunes movies is a whole other ballgame. Most new-release HD movies will run you $19.99, and their SD counterparts are generally priced at $14.99. Back-catalog prices vary significantly, from $9.99 all the way down to 99 cents for some SD titles.
Television show rentals follow their own price scheme, especially since you flat-out cannotrent TV programs from iTunes. It’s buy or don’t buy; no middle ground. Individual episodes generally run about $2.99 for new network releases and $1.99 for back-catalog items. Standard Definition versus High Definition plays little role in the pricing, and much of iTunes TV content is available in either HD or SD, but not both. Prices for complete seasons of TV shows can vary in the extreme, from $29.99 to $59.99. And, just to keep you on your toes, television networks sometimes make whole episodes or seasons free to boost viewer interest.
Finally, you can pre-order iTunes some titles before they hit the iTunes store, often at discounted prices.
The new iTunes Home Sharing feature is nice, but it has some quirks. First, both computers must be on, must have iTunes open, must have the same signed-in iTunes Store account, and must be authorized to share content with each other. In some cases, we had to reauthorize individual content even after authorizing both copies of the iTunes app. There is no spontaneous surfing of shared libraries on shut-down or idling computers available here.
Second, you can’t share any rented videos across your network, only purchased titles. Presumably the auto-expire function of the rental files is tied to a single system clock, so sharing isn’t viable right now.
Third, the shared iTunes files are streamed over your home network, so latency is a factor. We had some serious audio syncing issues when viewing video over wi-fi that wasn’t native to the machine we were watching the show on. This was especially true when our wife was surfing on another laptop. The video files are also processed locally, so far as we could tell, so we were at the mercy of our viewer-notebook’s video card, rather than our (much more robust) host-desktop PC’s, so factor that into your viewing accordingly.
Finally, shared libraries are dumped into a single master list on the visiting copy of iTunes, so music, movies, TV shows and podcasts are all lumped together with little obvious organization. It can make finding your movies a little tedious when they’re intermixed with the hundreds or thousands of song files on your PC.
Despite all that, we enjoyed Home Sharing and love the idea of watching films on our laptop that live on our desktop. With a few more tweaks, this could be a killer feature of iTunes. Just not yet.
Bottom line: iTunes is the Cadillac of online movie services, and the price reflects that. While its rental and purchase options are comparable to Amazon’s purchase and rental options, iTunes hardware requirements are notably more demanding. What you get for that extra hardware cost is very clean video in the form of some very hefty video files. Don’t expect your netbook to play iTunes HD video with any enjoyable results.
For those of you that have higher-powered notebooks — and who are often trapped without wi-fi — you’ll find iTunes the video provider of choice. It still can’t hold a candle to actual Blu-Ray playback in quality or features, but the portability and convenience make it a compelling choice.
- Can view videos offline
- No compression artifacts
- Close to true HD quality
- Higher system requirements
- Half-baked sharing features
- Hefty file sizes
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