Nathan Edwards Jun 24, 2008

iTunes Store

At A Glance

Fake Steve Jobs

H.264 looks a lot better than WMV; interface passes the "mom" test.

Steve Jobs

Who wants to buy an Apple TV? And let's not even get started on Apple's DRM. Plus: where's the HD content?

The Apple TV sure looks sexy, but it doesn’t even include the basic cables you need to hook it up to a TV. Where’s the 10-cent component-video cable, Apple?

Apple’s tight connection with Disney (owner of the ABC television network and Pixar animation studio), its support for high-definition H.264 video, and a slick set-top box for playing your favorite TV shows and movies in your living room, render the iTunes Store an attractive proposition for home-theater enthusiasts. Too bad its video is limited to 720p.

But let’s start with what we like. The video quality of content on the iTunes Store is superior to all the WMV services (although Vongo’s quality is pretty good), which we mainly attribute to Apple’s use of H.264. High-definition files look very good and, unlike many of the other services we tested, were noticeably superior to standard-definition DVD quality, although the lower-bit-rate downloads still fall noticeably short of the quality offered by Blu-ray discs.

Naturally, all this comes at a price: Standard-def movies rent for the going rate of $4, but HD rentals cost $5. The big problem with iTunes’s current HD playback is that it works only with the Apple TV; you can’t view high-def content via your PC. TV shows cost $2 per episode to own, but you’ll get a better deal if you purchase an entire season of episodes. For people who watch only a few TV series each season, buying the downloads could be a better deal than paying for cable TV—if you don’t mind the low resolution.

Watching downloaded video on your PC is all well and good, if you live in a dorm or have a 40-inch monitor. How does iTunes work when you want to watch your purchased or rented video on a TV or on the go? Reasonably well, as long as you purchase Apple gear. Rented movies work with any current-gen iPhone or iPod (5th-gen and older iPod users are out of luck) and follow the same basic rules as all the other services we’ve tested: You have 30 days to start watching and 24 hours to finish.

If your PC isn’t in your living room, you’ll need to buy an Apple TV, which will enable you to stream music and photos as well as content you rent or purchase from iTunes. You can either set it up to make a straight copy of your iTunes library or stream the file in iTunes across your network. Copying media to the Apple TV means it will always be available whether or not your PC is powered up, but this will rapidly fill the device’s small drive (40GB or 160GB). As you’d expect from an Apple product, the interface is slick and the purchasing experience is simple—it easily passes the “mom” test. Movie playback starts as soon as the buffer is sufficiently filled, and you can fast-forward, rewind, and skip to chapters using the included remote. Because the Apple TV uses purely passive cooling, it’s important to make sure you leave plenty of room around it. And don’t place anything on top of it—it doesn’t like that. (See In the Lab on page 72 for more info on the Apple TV.)

The biggest problem with iTunes right now is its catalog. While there are tons of TV shows (nothing from NBC or Universal, but ABC, CBS, Fox, CW, and many cable channels are well represented), the movie selection is paltry and even new releases were showing up a week or more later than they were on the other services we tested (that might change as time goes on). And if the standard-definition content is sparse, the HD content is nearly nonexistent. Only seven titles on our list of 25 new releases were available for rent in HD. That’s better than the two HD titles Vudu had to offer; on the other hand, Vudu had 18 of our 25 new releases available for rent, compared to iTunes’s 10. Apple didn’t have any HD titles available for purchase (Vudu had two)—not that we’d recommend that, given the current state of iTunes DRM.

Our verdict may change with time, but for now, there simply aren’t enough titles to consider the iTunes Store a serious rental competitor.

Hardware: $230 and up
Movie rentals: $2 to $5
Movie purchases: $10 to $15
TV episodes: $2

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