Apple’s Movie Buying Experience Reviewed

by Chris Seibold Sep 14, 2006

In what came as a surprise to no one, Apple started selling movies via iTunes. As a contracted Apple Matters writer, I am legally obliged to try out the service so Apple Matters readers don’t have to take the plunge uniformed. It isn’t just because I’m a sucker for every new thing Apple offers (did someone say “overpriced leather iPod case? Sign me up!”) it is more that because I am associated with a really nice Apple site I can order stuff and download movies under the guise of web journalism or something.

Motivations out of the way it is time to get to the good stuff, movies via the ever increasingly misnamed iTunes. The deal is pretty simple on the surface: you lay out $10 to $13 in currency (transferred electronically) and you get to download a movie. In that respect, the new service is precisely like iTunes music files. Unlike iTunes music files you can’t burn the movie to a DVD and play said flick anywhere you like. Apple promises to address this issue with iTV in January and a hack is coming in…3…2…1, well one is probably already available (the following tricks don’t work: importing into iMovie or Final Cut).

More important than the ground rules is the experience. The first thing you’ll notice is that the selection of movies is acceptable only if you consider the diet of Gilligan expansive (coconut cream pies ALL THE TIME). Likely, that will be addressed shortly. No one wants people to watch their movies more than indy filmmakers and the studios reject principled stands faster than a seven year old sends yet another mole to an early grave at Chuck E. Cheeses when money is involved. A little initial success and Apple will have studios rupturing Achilles tendons in the rush to get on the bandwagon.

So how is the service? With the limited selection, I opted to buy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Using a MacBook Pro the purchase part went flawlessly, the download part, well not so good. The MacBook is networked to a cable modem via a ubiquitous 802.11g router. The file weighs in at 1.33 GB and took right at two hours to transfer. That puts the kibosh on buying movie RIGHT NOW to shut junior up for a few minutes, you’d be better off driving to BlockBuster and buying a box of Mike and Ikes to keep the kid quiet while renting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (not available on iTunes yet, but has the benefit of scaring the hell out of kids).

Apple, certainly, is not at fault for the time it takes a movie to download, the reality is that Charter sucks. Calculating a best-case scenario (that is to say if Charter ISP actually performed as advertised) users are still looking at a download of about an hour. That isn’t enough time to justify running up to BlockBuster but it is on the bubble.

Once the movie is downloaded, well, you’re screwed. The quality isn’t that great on your computer, the place most people are most likely to watch the downloaded movie for now . Take a look:

Well, that seems sharp because the image is scaled down (AM has image size limits) look here and you’ll see the image is fuzzier than a cat that took a dryer ride. Generally it isn’t a big deal, you can watch the movie no problem with the fuzziness, after a few minutes you get used to it. Still, when a character holds up a note and you can’t make out the text the format is troublesome. Or, at least the default method of playback in itunes is troublesome. Here it is tempting to begin a long argument about various formats, comparing the resolution of say, PAL to that of DVD but in the end the arguments are a bit on the subjective side. The way standard TV resolution works means that there has to be more than a few digits of change for there to be a really noticeable difference. Suffice it to say, what looks bad on the computer monitor won’t, neccessarily, look bad on the TV. People watcing an iTunes movie on a TV will be much happier than those watching on a computer monitor. People willing to watch a movie on the iPod should be elated…and blind soon.

So couple the crappy picture with long download times and multiply all that by anemic selection and you’ve got.. a major hit on your hands. For everything Apple got wrong they got ten things right. Apple doesn’t force you to sit through ten trailers for something you have no interest in seeing, there isn’t even a pirate warning that I noticed. The process is easy, you don’t need to use anything you’re not using already. The process isn’t fast but it beats the hell out of Neflix. Finally, the price is just right. People are going to whine like a leaf blower that you can get two movies for 11 bucks at the local Wal-Mart but iTunes won’t make you sift through the bin looking for the last copy of True Stories



  • I live in an undesclosed European country, downloaded a 1.3 GB film last night in 35 minutes flat and watched it on my TV this evening with the family. The picture quality was literally “nearly” DVD. We’ve been watching the Daily Show for months on the lower quality and everyone in the family agreed the higher resolution made for great viewing. Now if only I had a wide-screen LCD TV instead of my standard formatted TV, then the image would have filled the screen. Remember, these are wide-screen format films.

    Tip on downloads: connect an Ethernet cable to your computer. Wireless just can’t handle large downloads quickly. I do have 100 Mbps fiber optic into the house so that certainly helped but no reason to strangle your broadband with your airport connection. Just say no to wireless until Apple comes out with the new, speedier standard.


    DROd had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I got a similar download time in the US. And aren’t you from Sweden?

    Frozonecold had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 32
  • Chris ... don’t you realize you don’t have to wait for the download to complete before you can start watching the movie?  This was mentioned in the keynote and I have tried this myself yesterday.

    dmcleod had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Regarding the comment about being able to view the movie before the download is complete ... here is a reference:

    “Can’t wait to start the show? You can even watch your movie as it downloads.”

    Amazon doesn’t offer that as far as I know.

    dmcleod had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Thanks for the comment D.O. but Apple is counting on Airport to be plenty big to handle streaming the movies to your TV. Interestingly, assuming a best case scenario, we see that a 1.33 GB file should take only 201 seconds to transfer via airport extreme. Trying it out myself betwixt the G5, Belkin router and MacBook Pro transferring the file took seven and a half minutes.

    So Airort is more than capable of streaming movies to your TV, the holdup is pretty clearly with my service provider. That said the movie I downloaded clocked in at 119 minutes. I usually get 1.5 Mbps from Charter but that is still very close to being fast enough to watch the movie while downloading.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Oh, I realize, of course that you have to wait for the movie to download before you watch it. It just isn’t something I expect to last. On demnad is here for cable and sooner or later on demand will be here for Apple.

    Of course, I don’t think I said anything about being able to watch a movie while it downloads right now, just that my cable connection was close…

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 14, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Chris ... either I don’t understand your last comment or you don’t understand mine.

    You CAN watch the movie almost immediately ... so the download time is less important.

    dmcleod had this to say on Sep 15, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Ah, now I see, thanks dmcleod. I’m guessing this didn’t work cause of my ISP. You’re right.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 15, 2006 Posts: 354
  • iTunes allows you to start watching the download before it is finished downloading.  Therefore, I would agree that the download time is on any broadband connection, not going to be all that important.. especially since there is a download management system now in place, you can prioritize the download for the one you want to watch first to get more bandwidth or all the bandwidth and pause the other ones, no?  Just test out the software a little more before you pan it..

    Xapplimatic had this to say on Sep 15, 2006 Posts: 15
  • DROd, you’re forgetting that you have the privilege of civilization on your side in terms of connection speed. Most people in the US do not. I hear many people even still have limited bandwidth contracts. Apparently, it is only a few notches better than the ridiculous thing they pull with cellphones over there.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Sep 15, 2006 Posts: 371
  • All I know is I’m not paying any money for something with that picture quality!

    I have a multi-region DVD player so I can get the best quality edition of each film I love. I realise that DVDs in the US are overpriced, especially with my wife being American, and that the Criterion of Life Aquatic would be $40 on disc, so maybe it looks better from over there. But here, I can get that film for £8 in one of HMVs never ending sales, and get higher res.

    Look at the bleed from the red in that hat! It’s barely better than VHS.

    evilcat had this to say on Sep 16, 2006 Posts: 66
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