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My Impressions of the Movie Store

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By JLMoran
September 13, 2006

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OK, here are my impressions of the new movie download service, generally comparing Apple's service to Amazon's Unbox. Long post, so consider yourself forewarned.

Video Quality:

Someone earlier had said that Unbox videos were HD. Not true -- they are marketed as "DVD resolution", which is 720 x 480. Apple's videos will be 640 x 480, and they are calling this "near-DVD quality", which I suppose is fair enough. IIRC, computers (and even TVs) have to convert the 720 x 480 video of a DVD to 640 x 480 anyway due to the odd shape of a pixel in a DVD image. So they may actually be equivalent in terms of resolution and only differ in terms of level of compression, with Apple's video slightly more compressed / artifact-laden due to limits of H.264 compared to MPEG-4.

I found a note on the website ( http://www.apple.com/itunes/store/movies.html ) that states that actual resolution depends on the aspect ratio of the movie. This is good, as it means widescreen is kept widescreen, rather than being letterboxed, and all the resolution is preserved.

For the basic video quality comparison, I call this a tie between Apple and Amazon, or at worst a slight win for Amazon. But with that said, Apple just won in a big way by allowing an iPod to play the same video file as the computer. No nonsense of downloading two separate files for computer and media player, and you can easily bring the video on your player to a friend's house (along with a dock) for playback on his/her TV with no loss of resolution or audio quality.

Audio Quality

Going off of their recommended system specs, Amazon has stated that their downloads have 5.1 Dolby audio, although it seems to be a mixed bag -- some movies, like The Matrix, are explicitly listed as having 5.1 audio; others, like Master & Commander, only have 2-channel audio.

Steve Jobs said the audio from iTunes Store movies is "Dolby Surround", and I can't find anything on their web site that says whether it's Dolby Digital 5.1 or ProLogic. Historically, "Dolby Surround" has meant Dolby ProLogic, which is not true 5.1 audio; "Dolby Digital" is the original term for 5.1 audio. Since I can't directly figure it out, I'll infer it based on the file sizes Steve hinted at.

According to Amazon's site, a 2 hour movie on is about 2.4 GB. This seems about right, since The Matrxi is a 2.2 GB with a run time of 2 hours, 17 minutes. Master and Commander, with its lower-quality audio, is a 3.2 GB download and a run time of 2 hours, 19 minutes. I'm assuming this movie has better video quality to account for the larger file size.

Steve Jobs said that it would take about a 1/2-hour on a 5 Mbps (yes, Megabit, not Megabyte) connection to download a full-length movie, which I'll interpret here as 2 hours. Doing the math, that works out to 9,000 Megabits over that 1/2-hour period, or 1.09 GB. That's half the size of the Amazon file, so I'm guessing that iTunes is only providing a stereo track encoded with Dolby ProLogic. True 5.1 audio requires a huge amount of file storage compared to ProLogic audio on a stereo track, and this would account for most of the difference in file size. The rest is probably due to higher compression and/or tighter video compression from the H.264 codec.

Right now, I'm giving Amazon the win on audio quality, but I'll hold final judgment until we get some clarifications / confirmation.

Pricing:

For new releases, pricing is the same as Unbox at $14.99 once the movie is in wide circulation. And I say it's just as lousy as Unbox.

Others have pointed out that new release DVDs are more in the $20 - $30 range, and that's true -- at full retail. But who buy's at full retail any more? I can find plenty of examples on Amazon where the DVD matches the Unbox and iTunes standard price: United 93, which just came out on September 5th, is $15; Curious George, which doesn't come out until the 26th, is $16.

Those are less popular titles, so let's look at some more popular fare, like the much-touted Pirates of the Caribbean, only available on iTunes. The 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD on Amazon goes for... $13.87. The 3-disc Special Edition goes for $18. I'm going to buy this on iTunes for $15 instead of buying the cheaper DVD with better quality video and audio, more material, etc. because... why?

Is this movie considered "Legacy", and thus gets the $9.99 treatment at iTunes? If so, then maybe it's not as bad a deal as I'm thinking. So let's look at Cars, which is coming out in November on DVD and is available at $12.99 for pre-order on iTunes. The DVD price is $16. So for another 3 bucks I get once again get better quality audio and video. I'll leave out the bonus materials, since most people here seem to feel they're a waste (I'm one of those folks who likes to watch them on every DVD I rent or buy, and stuff on Pixar DVDs is usually quite good and worth the watch).

Neither service scores a win on this one. But they're really not to blame -- it's the MPAA / studio execs who are at fault there for being greedy.

I know that I'm not the common DVD watcher, as I'm something of a Home Theater buff, but even Joe Six-Pack will look at the pricing, compare it to the DVD, and say, "WTF??" There may be some folks willing to trade the shelf space for the convenience of hard drive storage, but I don't know if there will be many.

What needs to be remembered is that videos aren't like music -- with a CD, I'm fine with paying a buck a track when I can hear from the previews that I only want two or three tracks from a given CD. When the average cost savings works out to many dollars per CD and the value of the music I do buy is higher, that works great for everyone. But with a movie, I can't buy a piece of it -- it's all or nothing. And if I have to pay the same price for the download and the DVD (or just a couple bucks more for the DVD), that DVD is always going to win if I really want to own that movie and not just rent it.

iTV

I know this isn't part of the movie service, but this is what's going to give Apple the edge and it needs to be mentioned. Here we have something really good! I can finally get my videos (I do have some TV shows I've bought) off the computer and onto my big screen TV (well, my 27" TV, anyway). $300 is a pretty hefty price tag for this piece of equipment, though. I understand it's got its own operating system of sorts and a bevy of interface options, all miniaturized, but that's the price of an iPod there! If it were priced closer to an AirPort Express, I'd snap one up in a heartbeat. But at $300, especially when I currently don't have any intention of buying a movie from iTunes at the current pricing... it's a definite "lemme think about this here" moment.

It may not be such a tough decision for folks who've already bought a ton of TV shows and music videos from the iTS. I'll admit that with the improved video resolution of TV shows, I may start buying more of them myself (especially Lost, since my TiVo box only keeps 5 episodes at one time and I follow that show closely). Having an iTV makes more sense at that point, and it's more easily justified.

But even here (from a personal standpoint), if it's a TV show I really like then I'll probably just buy the DVD box set when it comes out (like I've done with both seasons of Lost). I'll only get the TV show online if I just can't wait for that DVD release. I know there are plenty of folks out there who don't want to wait, and will even buy both the online version for immediate gratification and then the DVD for the better video and audio, so I'm not discounting the power of that lure. I'm just saying that for me personally, it's still going to be a tough sell at the current price.

But, this gives iTunes a huge win over Unbox. You can't watch an Unbox video on your TV unless you have a MediaCenter PC with an S-Video cable attachment. iTV gives you much better quality audio and video, and it does it wirelessly so you don't need a PC in your living room. If anything will help Apple to win this battle of the download services, iTV is going to be it. Brilliant move on Apple's part to let this cat out of the bag now, rather than follow their usual policy of secrecy. The press will gush about this part, and people will remember it and know that whatever they buy now can be watched on the big screen in just a few short months. Meantime, those who really want to buy these movies from iTS instead of on DVD will do so with gusto.

So, there you have my impressions on how this stacks up. Let me know your thoughts.

- Joe -


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