iTunes Video Review
Quality of Video Stream9
Content on Offer9
Value for Money5
Whilst most PAYG online video streaming services concentrate on a single country or a couple of regions, Apple’s iTunes is the only true fully global service available. A great deal of you would have already tried their music store, but how good is their video on-demand library and is it really worth investing in new hardware?
First of all, being a PAYG service, iTunes differs dramatically from other types of on-demand services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, Amazon Prime Instant or Hulu. Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) operates exactly as it sounds. Unlike the previously mentioned services which include a monthly subscription fee to play any of their available content, PAYG services charge a fee for every film or television show played, whether that is a rental or to actually purchase the content for good.
As you can imagine, this could be considerably more expensive than most of the subscription models. That said, there are a few advantages that should be considered.
- Most subscription services fit into the 2nd on-demand pay TV window for movies (e.g Netflix, Lovefilm, Amazon Prime Instant, Redbox Instant etc). This means the films arrive on their service between 12-24 months after cinematic release, long after DVDs/Blu-Rays and even Premium Sat/Cable TV. PAYG services like iTunes generally release their movies around the same time as the DVD/Blu-Ray release, sometimes just with the purchase option available, but sometimes also allowing rentals.
- Because new release films and televisions shows are available as well as older material, PAYG services generally offer a far wider range of content. Unlike subscription services, they also don’t usually have to worry so much about missing out on content because another service has exclusive rights.
So, what are the differences between the two types of viewing options?
- Movie or television rentals: iTunes rentals operate pretty much like the good old fashioned video stores of yore, but without the need to physically drop off your watched shows and no late return fees. Essentially, the moment you select a video to rent, it becomes available to watch on all your compatible devices for the next 30 days. However, once you actually start watching it, you only have 24 hours in the US, or 48 hours everywhere else to finish it before it expires. Once it expires, it will disappear from your iTunes rental folder. If you do not watch the show at all within the allocated 30 days, it will also expire and you will have to rent it again. The time it takes to become available to start watching will depend on your broadband, but a good service should offer the rental for use almost immediately.
- Movie or television purchases: Unlike rentals, purchases are owned forever, however they can only be played back on up to five computers as well as syncing with all the iPods you own, and burn to DVD for data archiving purposes only (not for DVD playback). You can also sync to up to five Apple TVs which don’t count as one of your five computers. A single device can contain content from five different accounts, but iTunes will not accept content from a sixth account.
Sound confusing… You betcha. But in reality it means most people should be able to play owned content on any compatible device for private use.
This is all due to the ever present issue with any form of DRM content. With the exception of PCs, Apple’s Fairplay content can only be played back on Apple devices. Of course, the simple act of allowing any PC with modern enough hardware to play back content (via iTunes) includes an enormous amount of varying contraptions, but the problem often is that people don’t really want to watch television on a computer screen.
Apple devices that will play iTunes content, besides the obvious Mac computers include all iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, 3rd generation iPod Nano’s (with the exception of the 6th generation), the 5th generation or later of iPod classics, and the Apple TV.
Now that that is all out of the way, video quality is quite simply stunning, at least when viewing the best 1080p HD streams. Apple however charge different prices for SD or HD content, and they are not interchangeable – you either buy or rent one version, or the other. If you intent to watch only on a small television or mobile device, it is almost certainly only worth investing in the SD video, but people with larger screens should consider the HD quality streams. Make sure you have your devices set to 1080p if this is the quality level you want to enjoy.
As for actual video quality, technical specifications tend to show large amounts of compression with iTunes video and audio that makes it pale in comparison to Blu-Ray. That said, iTunes compression algorithms tend to be pretty well designed and the video itself looks stunning. It may not be quite as perfect as Blu-Ray, but I’d imagine only the most serious of pixel-peepers would notice the difference.
iTunes, as the name suggests, was first created for Apple’s music store and media player in 2001 and it wasn’t until 2006 that video support was added. Unfortunately, despite all of its many great features, iTunes developed a rather bad reputation on Windows computers due to many bugs and restrictions on personalization, but thankfully today the product is much more refined.
If you don’t already have iTunes installed on your computer, you can download it for free here.
Don’t get me wrong, it will probably still drive most people crazy, especially for the way it handles multiple accounts for music libraries. But as long as only one media library is required, the actual user interface is quite well designed. In fact, because of the ease desktop computers provide, the Mac or Windows iTunes app is probably the best place to browse and search for movies or television shows.
If you download a rented movie on your computer, you can transfer it to a device such as your Apple TV (1st generation), iPhone, iPad, or iPod if it’s a standard-definition film (movies in HD can only be watched on your computer, iPad, iPhone 4 or later, iPod touch (4th generation or later), or Apple TV). Once you move the movie from your computer to a device, the movie will disappear from your computer’s iTunes library. You can move the movie between devices as many times as you wish during the rental period, but the movie can only exist on one device at a time.
Of course, you may choose to play back directly on the computer, and this is as easy as it sounds. Full-screen playback is activated alongside the primary video control panel which presents itself if you move the mouse around.
AirPlay is one of the outstanding features Apple offers its customers, and it will even work from older computers when used directly from iTunes itself. This is quite a significant advantage, allowing even owners of (reasonably) old laptops to stream HD content to their big screen. Video quality is as you should expect with Apple products, excellent and in a way, this can make even an old Windows laptop an easy(ish) way to create as sofa-friendly environment as possible.
- Content rented via a computer’s iTunes account can also be played back on other devices.
- Can airplay content to the Apple TV
- Content rented here has the best cross-platform support.
- Confusing and difficult to set up multiple libraries for different members of a household.
- Not terribly sofa-friendly, although the ability to airplay content helps a long way.
iTunes is one of the default apps permanently installed on all iOS devices, and accessible without the need of even visiting the app store.
This makes it an extremely popular way to navigate available content for rent and purchase direct from the iTunes store and playback quickly and easily on your device. All of this is naturally easier on the larger iPad screens, but even the iPhone offers a pleasant enough experience for this.
Video quality is as should be expected – stunning, and videos will download completely onto your device so you can easily access when not within good Wi-Fi or cellular coverage. But keep in mind HD content will only work on the iPad, iPhone 4 (or later) or the iPod touch (4th generation or later).
It is easy to transfer purchased content onto your iPhone when bought or rented from a PC or Mac, but when renting this process is not possible the other way around! In what seems like an almost ridiculous restriction, If you download a rented movie on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, It is not transferable to any other device or computer.
In this case, it would pay to be sure that the only place you want to watch this content is on that specific mobile device, or you own an Apple TV. For this reason alone, it may pay to always rent from iTunes on a computer, if anything, to just allow future flexibility.
- True portability.
- Excellent video quality.
- Full AirPlay support.
- Content rented directly from mobile device can not be transferred to other devices.
- Separation of iTunes and Videos app.
I am a big fan of watching TV on an actual television. This may sound odd to some, and sure when traveling a mobile device like an iPhone is fine, or a laptop when in a hotel room. But when I am at home, there is no place I would rather watch a feature film than in front of our large, wide, flat-screen TV.
Apple make this easy with their tiny video-delivering black puck, which offers a sofa-friendly user interface at a competitive price.
The user interface is the stock standard Apple like to employ for most of their dedicated apps, with a pile of highlighted films or TV shows at the top of the screen. To be honest, it does seem a little dated these days but it functions sufficiently enough.
iTunes movies and television are pretty much built directly into the apple TV’s User interface. Selecting a film or TV show will open a page with further information, purchasing price, and if is available for rent, that as well. Here you can also play a trailer, although unlike the Apple Trailers website, there is never more than one preview available.
To gain access to browsing features such as drilling by genre, Apple’s predictive suggestions (called Genius) or straight to search, hit the Movies of TV Shows button directly.
There is one very important thing to keep in mind though. If you download a rented movie on your Apple TV, it is not transferable to any other device or computer. If you are unsure where you want to watch a television show of film, rent from iTunes on a computer, as this will offer the greatest flexibility in the future.
- Great user interface.
- Fantastic video quality.
- Direct access to iTunes store.
- Content rented directly from an Apple TV can not be played back on any other device or computer!
Unlike so many other PAYG services like Vudu or Blinkbox, iTunes is very much global. Access is available in a vast range of countries, although the full service which is available does differ between nations. Check Apple’s official website for an up-to-date list of options.
There may be reasons however for you to want to access another countries iTunes store. This could be due to being an expat in a country with a different native tongue, or living in a country which does not yet support all (or any) iTunes features.
In any event, it is possible to create an iTunes account in another country using the method described here. Using this account, you will be able to rent and purchase material wherever you are, but keep in mind that unlike the iOS app store, there is very little for free. You will need some way to pay for merchandise, whether that is a local credit card (if your own country’s one is not accepted) or via gift vouchers like these.
World map image copyright Nicolas Raymond.
There are plenty of alternatives to iTunes, and although many dedicated Apple customers will have few reasons to explore too far from their walled garden, there may very well be good reasons for others to do so. One thing to keep in mind is to avoid comparisons with subscription services like Netflix. These are completely different in the way they handle television and movies and are not directly competing – in fact, they can often compliment PAYG services like iTunes or alternatives as shown here.
Vudu: For US users, Vudu offers one of the best competing services to Apple, with a different emphasis on platform support, and without the complications of Apple’s cross-platform limitations when not renting content from a computer, along with one of the widest ranges of HD content anywhere in the world.
Prices are not too different from each other, but Vudu does come with a few gotchas. Although it is possible to rent and purchase material outside the US with a good compatible Smart DNS or VPN service, Vudu is still more complicated to set up and they can be quite finicky about customers accessing from outside of their designated geographic regions. This is of course entirely within their rights, but it is something worth considering.
Apple’s iTunes is often regarded as the benchmark for online video PAYG rental or purchase services. Mainly because it is available in so many countries and thus is always seen as a viable service, but it deserves that benchmark status for its own merits as well.
iTunes Video offers extremely high quality 1080p HD movies and television shows that are available shortly after physical media release and usually long before subscription streaming services.
Apple’s great user interfaces, whichever platform is being used should also be considered another reason to opt for this service.
But people are well advised to also check the large variety of on-demand subscription packages that are also possible. Netflix, Lovefilm or Amazon Instant Video and countless others may offer exactly what you want at a far lower price. But although the price may be considerably higher for multiple rentals or purchases, the greater range could just very well be the selling point here.
Finally, Apple’s bizarre restrictions on moving rental content between devices is one serious hindrance that should be taken into account.
- Great range of content for both television and movies.
- Fantastic 1080p HD streams.
- Wide use of Apple platform support.
- Excellent iTunes store.
- Choice of rental or ownership.
- Content purchased are owned for life.
- Outside of Windows PC’s, limited to Apple hardware.
- Serious cross-platform restrictions when renting directly from iOS devices or Apple TV.
- Far too complicated for households that want more than one library or account.
- “Near Instant” streaming requirements are 8Mbps for 1080p, 6 Mbps for 720p and 2.5 Mbps for SD.
15.11.2013: Review published. Score 7: Great for Apple Users.
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