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An iTunes and Movie Download Reality Check

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.