Practical Technology

for practical people.

Renting Movies the Apple Way

Today, you still can’t rent movies directly from your Apple TV. Apple promise that this will change real soon now. I’m betting that we’ll see the needed software update before Valentine’s Day.

In the meantime, though, you can watch rented movies on your Apple TV if you use iTunes store to rent them. Here’s how it works.

First, you need to have the latest copy of iTunes on your PC or Mac. That’s iTunes 7.6 as of late January. You’ll want to do this upgrade anyway even if you never want to rent a movie since it also includes some security upgrades.

You then use iTunes to browse your way to the rental movie section. For now, there are some movies you can buy, but you can’t rent. Oddly, there are some you can rent, but you can’t buy. This doesn’t make any sense to me, and, from the notes I see on the iTunes discussion boards, it doesn’t make much sense to anyone else either.

The current selection is about 200 movies. They’re from most of the major studios, but Fox, the first studio that agreed to rent movies on iTunes, has more movies available than the others. While you won’t get the most current rental titles, Apple had to agree to release them 30-days after they appear on DVD, Apple has stated that by the end of February there will be more than a thousand titles available.

By year’s end, I predict Apple will be closing in on 10,000 rental titles. In other words, Apple’s selection will be far larger than those offered by old-style TV on demand or the combined offerings on any month of the premium movie channels like HBO and Showtime. It will also be passing the offerings of most video stores. In short, the future of video rental is going to be online, and Apple TV will be making it happen.

At present, you still need the computer between the iTunes Store and your Apple TV. Movie rental prices range from $2.99 for an older SD (standard definition) movie to $3.99 for an older HD (higher definition) or a new SD movie to $4.99 for a new HD flick. Some, but not all, movies also include 5-1 Dolby audio. The film listings make it clear as to whether you can expect high-end audio or not.

Apple TV’s HD currently top outs at 720p. Since moving up from this would require new hardware, and that’s not part of the plan at this time, it seems likely that 720p is as HD as we’ll be getting anytime soon. On the other hand, that may not be such a bad thing.

HD video takes up bandwidth. I mean a Lot of bandwidth. An SD movie in Apple’s MP4 format takes up about a 1.5GBs (Gigabyte). The same movie in HD runs around 4GB. Or, to put it another way, with a 1Mbps (Megabit per second) DSL line, you’re looking at about two hours to download a movie in SD and closing in on five-hours to get in HD. In other words, it will be possible for most broadband users to click and watch an SD movie but you’re not going to be able do it with an HDTV movies unless you’re using a really high-speed Internet connection like a top of the line Verizon FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) connection, which can go as fast as 50Mbps.

Once you rent the movie, you can either watch it as a stream, if it’s in SD, or you can save it on your computer for up to 30-days. You can move from your PC or Mac to an Apple TV, iPhone, iPod Touch, or other video-capable iPod. Note I said ‘move.’ You can’t copy it to a device. Once it’s on the Apple TV or what have you, it’s no longer available to be watched on your computer.

If you elect to download a movie directly to the Apple TV, you won’t be able to move it to another device at all. So, if you’re not sure where you’re going to watch a rental, drop it to the computer, and not a device. And, once you’ve made up your mind where you’re going to watch it, then, and only then, put it on the device. In theory, you can move movies from device to device. In practice, I haven’t been able to pull it off.

Once you start watching a movie, you get 24-hours to complete viewing it. You can, however, watch it more than once within that period of time.

And, what does it look like? Well, using my Apple TV with my Sony KD-34XBR960 34-inch HDTV monitor I grabbed a pair of movies: Once in SD, which by the way is a wonderful movie about music, love and real-life, and, for something completely different, Live Free or Die Hard, which I had intended to get on HD, but then I discovered that, as far as I can tell, there’s only a handful of shorts currently available on HD. Hopefully, Apple will start offering HD in the next few weeks.

Once I had them, I transferred them to my old, but recently updated, Apple TV and started watching them. The overall quality was about what I would expect from a high-quality DVD player. No one will mistake them for HD, but at the same time, only someone with an expert eye is going to be able to spot that they’re not DVDs.

By this, I don’t mean that their quality was worse. It’s not. But, because, the video is compressed with MP4, you can, if you know what to look for, spot the occasional artifact caused by lossy video compression. Really, though, if you’re sitting down to watch a movie, and not look for signs of the technology behind the movie, you’ll never notice them.

Certainly, I found the films, for example, much more watchable than many of DirecTV‘s better quality HDTV broadcasts. In my experience, DIRECTV Plus HD DVR up to 1080i video looks great… except when the signal stutters for a moment and you’re jarred into realizing that there’s many things that can go wrong between the HD stations, the DirecTV satellites, and your home.

For this, and for many other reasons, I remain quite certain that the Apple TV, and Internet narrowcast in general, is the real future of on-demand and rental video. That said, I do wish Apple would get on with delivering the HD and software upgrade goods.

The best benefits of Apple TV are so close that I can almost taste them, and I hope that Apple delivers the goods quickly. I’m ready.

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