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  • An iTunes and Movie Download Reality Check

    September 13th, 2006

    All right, the dust has settled. Many of you agree with me that Amazon Unboxed is poised to be an abject failure, although you never know about such things. But now that Apple has refreshed the iPod line, added higher-resolution movie downloads, and Steve Jobs has proved to us that he is still healthy enough to deliver a full-blown press briefing, where do we go from here?

    Well, first of all, it’s quite clear that Apple hasn’t changed things very much in adding movies to its iTunes lineup. Yes, the resolution is “near DVD” in quality and all that, the pricing seems reasonable enough, but they fundamentals remain the same.

    That could be good or bad, depending on your point of view. As far as I’m concerned, I’m underwhelmed, to put it gently. But stay with me, as I explain why.

    I ragged on Amazon for its highly restrictive digital rights management, where you can make a backup of your movie on a DVD, which can only be played on the computer to which it is licensed. Not a good idea, because it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to prevent playing movies that cost nearly as much as the physical versions on a regular DVD player.

    It’s not that Apple is doing much different, because its movies are, aside from the 480×640 resolution enhancement, presented in much the same way as existing TV shows and all the other videos. You can play them on your Mac or PC, and certainly on your iPod. You can certainly connect your Mac or iPod directly to your TV, I suppose. But that’s not terribly different from a Windows Media Center PC.

    But still, no traditional DVD copy.

    Apple is developing another scheme to interface your Mac or PC to a flat-screen TV and that’s something bearing the code-name “iTV,” a $299 device that’s promised for the first quarter of 2007. While the rumor mills were predicting something of this nature, they were far off the mark, at least as far as timing is concerned. iTV, or whatever it’ll be called when it’s released, will provide various forms of network access to allow you to play your videos on your TV, and will also contain HDMI, the mainstay of today’s high definition format.

    It’ll even offer Wi-Fi, though I suspect it’ll be the emerging standard, 802.11n, because existing technologies may not have sufficient bandwidth for even standard definition video.

    In any case, until iTV gets here, I have to use what’s available now, and I did want to put Apple’s claim about the quality of their updated movie format to a brief test. So I purchased and downloaded a copy of “Gross Pointe Blank,” a 1997 comedy/adventure film featuring John Cusak, Minnie Driver and Dan Aykroyd. It’s about a hit man who returns home to attend his high school reunion after an absence of many years. That may sound a little weird, but it’s really quite an entertaining flick.

    The movie, an hour and 47 minutes long, took about 25 minutes to download on my nine megabits cable modem connection.

    Quality? The widescreen film was viewed on a 24-inch Dell 2407WFP, a worth display that is a solid match to Apple’s 23-inch version. Video quality was indeed noticeably better than Apple’s previous video downloads, and I will grant it is four times better as Steve Jobs claims. But saying it’s -DVD quality is a bit of a stretch. A real DVD still appears crisper, and I expect the difference will magnify noticeably on a large screen TV. On the other hand, it does appear that the present video quality strictly represents a compromise to allow fairly swift downloads of the movies. That does leave the door open for better quality as faster broadband connections become routinely available.

    I have no complaints about sound quality, however.

    So where does all this fit into Apple’s grand scheme to expand its digital hub presence? Well, the $9.99 I paid for that movie may be a decent value, but the real DVD version only sells for slightly more.

    Worse, the movies you get from Apple, and from Amazon, don’t contain all those extras you and I cherish on a genuine DVD video, such as alternate endings, director’s cuts, interviews, and all the rest. Obviously, this extra content would increase download length considerably, and it’s quite possible the movie studios would object to providing fair treatment of this sort.

    My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the downloadable version of a movie should be identical, minus the expected DRM considerations, to the physical version. As with the songs you download from iTunes, you should be able to copy it to a DVD and have a fully-functioning copy, with all the special menus and features intact.

    Yes, I do believe that Apple will be able to sell a million of these a week as they predict, but that’s a pittance compared to sales of DVDs, and I don’t see that expanding unless prices are cut drastically, or the studios learn to stop being greedy and make the full product available online for download.



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    8 Responses to “An iTunes and Movie Download Reality Check”

    1. Karl says:

      I think that Apple’s solution if fine. Not great, but think that it could catch on better then Amazon’s.

      My taste differ from Gene’s, who assumes I like the DVD extras. 🙂 I personally don’t or maybe just have a hard enough time finding time to watch the movie, let alone all the previews and DVD extras. But understand people do like them.

      I am intrigued with the new “iTV” and will basically buy into Apple’s solution more, as I see how it works. Not being able to burn at least one DVD to watch on a player (and to serve as a back up) is the probably the biggest draw back. But I did go ahead and purchase a movie last night anyway. Gross Pointe Blank will be the next one, as it’s a good movie… that is where Gene and I agree.

    2. Bree says:

      Impossible to make real DVD so don’t even think about it. Encrypted DVD requires hardware that can write a key on an unwritable part of the disc. No consumer DVD burner can do that. Theres no technical reason why they can’t burn an unencrypted DVD except that Hollywood just won’t allow it. It’s too easy copy movies for a friend.

      Have you ever burned a full DVD? A one hour DVD takes time. A fully length movie takes even more. It just takes too long. Why go through this hassle when you can just buy the physical DVD?

    3. Jony says:

      Imagine what would happen if Apple took away the ability to burn CDs? The only way to play your iTunes music is on the computer or on an iPod. This move would push people to buy an iPod. With movies, if you allow consumers to burn DVD, then it reduces the chance that they would buy a video iPod. See the picture? They want you to get hooked on video, then entice you to buy an iPod (if you don’t already have one).

    4. Karry says:

      Many titles are simply not available in a traditional brick and mortar store. Stores focus on recent, most popular movies. They don’t have the space for every title ever made. So, download may be the way to go in this case. Buy DVD for those current blockbuster hits.

      People are moving towards HDTV and big flat panel TVs. So this seams a little odd to provide movie downloads at a time when HD content is starting to make it’s way to consumers.

      Downloading movies is for a specific market of people: people who want it now and on the run. I doubt that movie downloads was intended for the HDTV audience.

    5. Ilgaz says:

      I am close to movie industry and I know couple of directors (not american) who won’t allow their artistic work to be distributed in such a funny (640×480,stereo) specifications.

      I don’t know a single person who would pay $15 for such joke. Sorry to call it a joke but even if you say “OK” to NTSC like resolution, here is the real deal: Aspect Ratio!

      640×480 is 4:3 , besides some old made-for-TV movies, nobody shoots movie in 4:3 format. It is a huge artistic issue which some directors spared their time to describe in their own movies “DVD extras” and why movies should not be panned/scanned.

      People buy widescreen just to get rid of black bars while watching a movie since pan/scan breaks the integrity of a scene.

      Sorry to say, if you want to watch a movie on handheld,either buy a portable DVD player (they connect to TV too) OR buy a Sony PSP since that device is widescreen too.

      Whatever geeks say, there is a real market for HD-DVD and BluRay since even a risk taking company like Apple wasn’t clever to offer that capability which would make the device a standard before it ships.

      Those Apple executives are having good salaries and they must have HD capable displays, would they watch these 640×480 “things” or they already bought overpriced (?) Blu Ray? I can bet for Blu Ray.

    6. I am close to movie industry and I know couple of directors (not american) who won’t allow their artistic work to be distributed in such a funny (640×480,stereo) specifications.

      I don’t know a single person who would pay $15 for such joke. Sorry to call it a joke but even if you say “OK” to NTSC like resolution, here is the real deal: Aspect Ratio!

      640×480 is 4:3 , besides some old made-for-TV movies, nobody shoots movie in 4:3 format. It is a huge artistic issue which some directors spared their time to describe in their own movies “DVD extras” and why movies should not be panned/scanned.

      People buy widescreen just to get rid of black bars while watching a movie since pan/scan breaks the integrity of a scene.

      Just so there is no confusion: A widescreen movie will still be widescreen. That applies to the one I downloaded. Of course, you have to readjust that resolution figure somewhat for the changed aspect radio.

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Parr Jackson says:

      The iTunes movie store works perfectly for me because interesting films are outside the second standard deviation. That is, they rarely, if ever, are found in my locale. They require a physical visit to the blockbuster store and often hours of standing in the aisles with my movie review books, reading them and the additional info on the boxes. My experience with DVDs has not been encouraging, e.g. the copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was visually OK, but the audio was painful. As for the extras, “I cherished” the first three or four that I watched. After having seen a dozen or so, I pass them by.

      Being shed of the boxes is a feature, not a bug.

      For one who has such eclectic and outre’ preferences, including NOT wanting to burn fossil fuels, the Apple download store is heaven-sent. I have not a particle of doubt that the number of offerings will increase geometrically, if not exponentially and just bought a Seagate 300GB external hard drive for music and movies, and backups. All digital storage is ephemeral; I have a friend at the U.S. National Archive who tells me that the optimal medium for music and movies is very special analog tape.

      Thanks, Gene, for “Grosse Point Blank”, I’m more than ready for a Minnie Driver comedy.

    8. Sarah Graham says:

      Dan is a classic comedian. I love his role on the Blues Brothers..,’

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