The best way to enjoy an iTunes movie rental

Although I usually find Apple’s hardware and services to be quite satisfying, I must say that I have been quite frustrated by the restrictions around the iTunes Movie Rental Service. It’s bad enough that you only have 24 hours to watch a movie once you start it. However, it’s even worse that you can’t start it unless you’re connected to the internet at the time. I’ve been burned just about every time I’ve tried iTunes rentals on my MacBook Pro. I either want to start watching a flick when I’m not able to get online to start it or I end up running into the 24 hour limit because I’m not able to finish it within the 24 hour limit.

 

So I’ve finally figured out that the best way to enjoy an iTunes Movie Rental is on an Apple device other than your computer

That’s right! Forget about your Apple computer for a minute. If you have a compatible iPod or an iPhone or an Apple TV, you’ll have a slight advantage. Here’s why: When you rent a movie on your computer and "move" it to your iPhone or iPod you only need to be connected to the internet at the start of the transfer. Once it’s on your iPhone or iPod you still have 30 days to start watching it. However, you don’t have to be connected to the internet anymore to START watching it. This is perfect for me! Sometimes I don’t know the exact moment when I’ll have the time and feel like watching a movie until that moment arrives. Unfortunately, that moment may arrive at 30,000 feet during a flight. If the movie is on my MacBook Pro and I didn’t start it before I left the ground (because once you start it, you HAVE TO watch it within 24 hours or it deletes itself), I’m hosed. However, if it is on my iPhone (or iPod) I can start it at any time. No internet connection required. So now I can rent and download a couple of movies ahead of time (days or even weeks), load them on my iPhone and then start them whenever the mood strikes me.

 

Apple TV?

With Apple TV the rules are a little different. You can use the same method above of renting/downloading on your computer and moving the movie to your iPod, iPhone OR Apple TV. However, if you rent/download the movie directly from your Apple TV then you have no choice but to watch it on the Apple TV because you can’t move it anywhere else. Also if you want to enjoy the HD version of the movie, you HAVE TO rent it from your Apple TV. Apple doesn’t allow HD movie rental downloads from a computer. These limits are OK because I just don’t download a rental on my Apple TV until I’m ready to sit down and watch it right then and there. Even HD rentals are ready to watch (streamed enough) within about 5 minutes after hitting the Rent button.

 

Apple this is cool, but Netflix is still king! When you loosen up your restrictions and offer a subscription model (I know it doesn’t make sense for music, but it absolutely makes sense for movie rentals), I’ll think about letting Netflix go, but not before then.

 

Apple, here’s a suggestion to make the computer rental watching experience better

Instead of simply deleting the movie from my drive once the rental period has expired, why not offer a "do you want to extend your rental period?" option that let’s me pay again for another 24 hours? The way it stands now if I did want to finish watching something I rented once the 24 hours is up, I not only have to pay again, but I also have to download the whole freakin’ thing again! That bites, especially when you’re traveling and have limited or slow internet access. Steve, think about it!

Building my home media center

I now have all the pieces in place to build the Home Media Center that I’ve been dreaming of. Sure I’ve got HDTV’s, TiVo, surround sound, Blu-ray, Apple TV’s, and a pretty extensive DVD collection of over 350 movies. However, the one piece of the puzzle that was missing was having those movies that I love, the top 25 to 50 or so movies that I could watch over and over again on a hard drive that could be streamed to any one of my HDTV’s. There is nothing new about ripping DVDs to .MP4/.M4V format and serving them up. As a matter of fact I had already tried it months ago. What stopped me dead in my tracks back then was the fact that I was missing the 5.1 surround sound. The original Apple TV software 1.x did not support 5.1 surround sound playback without some cleaver hacking/encoding. It was just a bit more than I was willing to go through. However, with the latest software update to Apple TV (take 2), Apple has turned on the 5.1 surround sound playback if your movies are encoded properly.

Once Apple updated the Apple TV, I knew it would be just a matter of time before my favorite media conversion apps would be updated to take advantage of this. Sure enough, the first one, "Visual Hub" was updated almost immediately with an Apple TV 5.1 preset. Then the other shoe dropped. The other utility and probably the more important of the two, HandBrake 0.9.2 (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) was just updated a couple of days ago to support 5.1 surround on Apple TV as well. So now with a computer running iTunes and a large hard drive, an Apple TV or two around the house, I can rip my DVD’s to an Apple TV 5.1 surround format and access them at any time using the Apple TV remote.

A true 5.1 Dolby Digital signal coming through to my Bose receiver from The Matrix running on my Apple TV

 

What’s my setup?

I have an iMac G5 dedicated as an iTunes server. It currently has a 250GB internal hard drive in it and I plan to update it to a terabyte drive now that this is all working. This iMac is on my network via gigabit ethernet. This iMac already has my entire music collection on it. I have some Apple TV’s in various rooms connected to HDTV’s. Using HandBrake (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) with a simple settings change, I can encode my DVDs while preserving the 5.1 surround track.

The main setting change I made in HandBrake was to change the Codec to AAC + AC3 Audio

 

Once the movies are encoded then what?

Once I rip a DVD to the hard drive using HandBrake, I then import it into iTunes. I have to option of actually syncing the movie(s) to the hard drives of the Apple TV, but this really isn’t necessary with the latest version of Apple TV, nor is it feasible because the Apple TV hard drives just aren’t large enough. With the latest software update of Apple TV the movies and other media in your iTunes library and the movies and media on your Apple TV hard drive show up together in the Apple TV menus. So Apple TV will play the movie you select regardless of which drive it actually resides on. The streaming experience has been flawless so far.

Scene from The Matrix streaming through Apple TV from my iMac G5 to my home theater

 

What’s next?

Now I have to decide if I really want 350+ movies at my finger tips. If so then I will definitely need to upgrade the iMac to a larger hard drive. A 2 hour movie weighs in at 2.54GB once converted to .M4V (.MP4). So 350 movies could easily take up just under 1 terabyte of drive space. The truth is that I realized some time ago that there aren’t very many movies that I could watch over and over again. So chances are I won’t be converting all of my movies. I will definitely rip my favorites. There’s also the HD issue. The vast majority of my current DVDs are in standard definition DVD. While the Apple TV does support HD content, these standard def DVDs still look pretty good or at least as good as the original DVDs did (to my eyes) using this setup. If I do buy any new movies, I will likely buy them in Blu-ray format. Hopefully iTunes will start to offer HD movies for sale. I don’t plan to buy many new flicks, but given the choice of buying a digital download vs. a disc, I may lean towards a digital download now.

 

Apple TV (take 2) vs. TiVo HD for Movie Rentals

It would be nice to have ONE device that does it all. However, in reality it just doesn’t exist (yet). I have 3 set-top boxes in my home theater. Those 3 boxes are TiVo HD, Sony Playstation 3 and Apple TV. Each device has some overlap in functionality to the other two, but not enough to be eliminated. My focus here is on one aspect of entertainment and that’s movie rentals via electronic download. Since your budget may not allow the purchase of two devices that do a lot of same things, I thought I would compare the two that are the most alike.

 

Apple TV (take 2)

Apple provided a FREE software update to the existing Apple TV. So no new hardware is required. While I’m an early adopter of Apple TV, I was never behind the whole "buy movies from iTunes thing." It just never made sense to me. I said it from day one, "If I really like a movie enough to buy it, I’d rather own it on DVD (now Blu-ray)." There wasn’t really a cost advantage in buying a movie from iTunes and they tie up space on your drive. So my reason for buying an Apple TV was mainly to showcase my photography to friends and family, watch video podcasts, watch purchased TV shows, music videos and home movies. Well the Apple TV just got a lot more useful in several ways and of course the main new feature is support for Apple’s iTune Store movie rentals. I rent movies all the time. My main rental source is Netflix (and after you read this entire post, you’ll see why it will remain my main source for a while longer).

The new Apple TV interface is as you would have guessed, very slick! It’s so inviting and easy to navigate. Apple has blurred the line between what’s stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive and what’s stored on your Mac or PC’s iTunes library. So if you go to "My Movies" for example, it shows the movies from both places (the built-in hard drive and your iTunes library) all together. Pick a movie to watch and it plays it no matter where it’s located. This applies to music too. Apple has also gone a few steps further with photo slideshows by implementing direct support for .Mac gallery and Flickr online photo albums. This makes it so easy for you see photos from friends and family right on your TV. Another big improvement is the ability watch podcasts directly from Apple TV regardless of whether you’re subscribed to them or not. It will stream them right from the source. You can even bookmark your favorites such as my Creative Suite Podcast.

This is all GREAT, but what about movie rentals? The good news (make that GREAT news) is that no computer is required. You can use the Apple Remote right from your sofa/theater chair and browse movies, do searches, watch previews and RENT them on the spot. If you choose to rent a movie your iTunes account will be charged and the movie will start to download immediately. Once enough of it has downloaded, you can begin watching the movie (in my case after about 4 minutes with an HD movie). Movie rentals are priced from $2.99 to $4.99 depending upon the age of the movie and quality. Older movies are $2.99 in standard def and $3.99 in HD and newer titles are $1 more in their respective formats. Sounds great so far right? It is! However, doing my best to always do a balanced review, there are some downsides: The biggest downside for me and the reason I won’t give up Netflix is that Apple won’t get new releases until 30 days (yes one month) AFTER they come out on DVD. I’m sure this was done intentionally by the evil movie Hollywood houses, but it is what it is. Another downside is that (to the best of my knowledge) you only get 5.1 surround sound on the HD rentals. Also unlike renting from iTunes on your computer, if you rent a movie directly on your Apple TV it CAN’T be moved to any other device. This last one isn’t a big deal, but I thought you should know so that you can plan accordingly. Just like renting from iTunes on your computer, you’ll have 30 days to start the movie and then 24 hours to finish it/watch it as many times as you like. Like many of you, I feel that 24 hours is just not enough time. They should do it like they do at the rental stores. If it’s a new release you have 24 hours. If not, you have a few days. Or they should do it like Netflix, offer a monthly subscription to have a set number of movies out (downloaded) at one time to take as long as you want to watch them or watch as many times as you want. Another one of my pet peeves hasn’t been resolved in this update and that is the ability to play a playlist of music videos. Just like the original Apple TV, the first video plays and then stops returning you the list of videos. There is no technical reason that I can think of as to why it just can play one right after the other!

The Apple TV works exactly as described and is way more versatile than the original model. Apple also dropped the price down by $70 to $229 for the 40GB model. Speaking of which, a lot of people were really complaining early on about the original Apple TV ONLY having a 40GB drive. With the new software, and they way it seamlessly blends content from your computer and its built-in hard drive, the size of the internal drive is really irrelevant for most people. The only time it would be a concern is if you didn’t want to keep your computer on for live streaming of content that didn’t exist on the Apple TV’s hard drive. There’s even a new option in iTunes to have iTunes automatically figure out what content should be sync’d giving priority to newer items. However, the streaming works so well that this really isn’t an issue especially if you have an 802.11n network.

 

Moving back and forth

Just like before the update you can sync content from your computer to an Apple TV. You can also MOVE rentals from your computer to your Apple TV, but not the other way around. If you PURCHASE music or movies on your Apple TV they CAN be transferred to your computer so that you can sync them with iPods and such. So if you RENT a movie on Apple TV, you are only going to be able to watch it on Apple TV. Everything else goes both ways. Also if you have multiple Apple TVs there is no way to move (or watch) content between them directly.

 

AirTunes Bonus!

Apple also threw in an AirTunes bonus. Since you will likely have your Apple TV hooked up to your booming sound system, you can now direct your Mac or PC to stream music from iTunes directly to your Apple TV and out through your stereo. No need to buy an AirPort Express just for iTunes streaming. It would have been nice if the Apple TV was also an AirPort base station, but I’m guessing that was too much to ask for for a FREE update.

If you want more info and to see an actual demo of Apple TV, check out this guided tour. Check out the complete specs here.

 

 

What about TiVo HD?

How does TiVo HD compare? Apple has an advantage in that they make both the hardware and the software. So it will always be hard for hardware manufactures to out do Apple when it comes to user interface and user experience. However, TiVo’s user interface is legendary and should be the model for all DVRs! When it comes to movies though, TiVo has hooked up with Amazon.com (Amazon Unbox). Amazon Unbox provides movies for purchase and movie rentals with direct download to TiVo HD boxes, Windows PCs and portable devices like the Archos and Creative Zen, but NOT iPods. Although you can choose to rent movies from the website OR directly from your TiVo, trust me you’ll want to do it from the website. The TiVo interface to Amazon Unbox is nowhere near as slick or fast as Apple TV. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried it I remember saying that "I’ll never do it this way again." It works, it’s just SLOW!

Amazon Unbox links up with your TiVo Central account. Since your TiVo connects to the internet every 30 minutes or so, it will see the request/purchase from Amazon Unbox within 30 minutes and start downloading your rental. Of course if you want it sooner you can either rent directly from the TiVo HD or force an immediate connection. Like Apple TV, once enough of the movie has downloaded you can begin watching it.


Although the TiVo HD outputs an HD quality signal (up to 1080i) to your HDTV, the movie rentals themselves are NOT in HD format. They are in widescreen format and seem to be in the original movie aspect ratio. So you will get even more letterboxing than you do with a DVD. The quality is decent, but the Apple TV/iTunes quality is BETTER!

Amazon Unbox rentals can cost less too. They often run 99¢ rental specials. The first movie I rented (Shooter) cost me only 99¢ and that was certainly cheaper than going anywhere else to get it. Amazon Unbox seems to also be restricted by the movie houses in that their movies come out well after the DVD versions. Movie rentals from Amazon Unbox cost from 99¢-$3.99. They also sell TV shows for the same $1.99 as iTunes.

Although TiVo HD doesn’t hold up as strong for movie rentals, the one thing that it has that Apple TV doesn’t is DVR functionality. Not only can I play back my purchases and computer generated content, but I can RECORD TV shows and move those TV shows to my computer for viewing or downloading to my iPhone/iPod/Apple TV.

 

Feature Breakdown

  Apple TV TiVo HD
Movie Rental Costs $2.99-$4.99 .99¢-$3.99
Movies Available in HD Yes No
AirTunes Streaming Yes No
iTunes Purchased Music support Yes No
Watch Rented Movie on another networked box No Yes
5.1 Surround Sound Only on HD rentals Yes
Component Video Yes Yes
HDMI Video/Audio Yes Yes
Optical Audio Yes Yes
Max Resolution 720p for HD content 1080i
DVR No Yes
Ethernet Yes – 10/100Base-T Yes 10/100Base-T
Wi-Fi Built-in Requires $59 adapter
Max Wi-Fi Speed 802.11n 802.11g
Expandable storage via an external drive No Yes (eSata)
Monthly Fee No Yes
Requires Cable service No Yes
Base Price $229 $299

 

Apple TV 40GB Model $225 at Amazon ($229 list price), 160GB Model $329

TiVo HD 160GB $254.49 at Amazon ($299 list price)

 

The Bottom Line

When Apple TV first came out, it was exactly the same price as TiVo HD $299. That coupled with the limited functionality it was pretty much a no brainer to go with TiVo HD if you were going to pick one device. Now Apple TV costs less and has a lot more functionality than the original model so you would have to decide which features are more important to you. For me, I need BOTH devices. If Apple TV were a DVR, I’d potentially be saying good-bye to TiVo. If TiVo HD improved in the areas of movie rental interface, streaming from Macs, etc. I could live without AppleTV. However, neither device is strong enough to run solo in my theater. Since I still need disc playback capabilities the Playstation 3 isn’t going anywhere either. It makes a great Blu-ray player.

 

Netflix still wins the bulk of my business

Why? Netflix offers me something that Apple TV/iTunes and TiVo HD/Amazon Unbox don’t and that is I can watch my rentals whenever I feel like it, anywhere I like with an all-you-can eat price. The movies are available immediately when they are released on DVD. I can take my time and no have to watch a 24 hour clock. There are no late fees and as their commercial suggests, "there’s always something to watch!" I usually have two DVD’s that I haven’t watch at home almost all the time. So I’ll probably only do iTunes/Apple TV rentals when it’s a spur of the moment kinda situation OR if I’m already on the road and want to watch something for the flight home. Netflix has also promised Mac support in 2008 for their online movie stream service. So things should really start to heat up when that happens.

2008. There’s something in the air.

teaser banner posted at the entrance to the exhibit hall

 

Well today is the big day! I’m here live getting ready for the Apple/Steve Jobs Keynote at Macworld Expo. I’m going to attempt live updates from the keynote using my iPhone. If all goes well you’ll get a blow-by-blow on what’s being announced.

So refresh this page often from 9AM-11AM PST…

8:26am I’m standing in line to get in.

9:05am Steve took the stage, thanked the software vendors for being native intel. MS Office 2008 for Mac is the last major app to be ported to intel Macs. He’s introducing 4 things today!

9:20 am Steve introduced Time Capsule – 500MB $299, 1TB $499 – This is an AirPort Extreme base station with a hard drive built-in. Its a companion to Time Machine backup appliance for Leopard.

9:21 am Steve announced 4 million iPhones sold today – 200th day today since the launch.

9:23 am Great new features being rolled out Today for the iPhone. The iPhone can now find your location. Webclips, Up to 9 total home screens, SMS multiple people, if your song has lyrics, they’ll display.

9:26am Steve is demoing the new maps feature with the “find my location” feature.

9:27am Now he’s demoing the new Web Clip feature for the iPhone. This allows you to ad websites directly to your home screen on the iPhone.

9:30am Now he’s demoing customizing the home screen on the iPhone.

9:30am Working with Google and Skyhook wireless to make the “find me” feature on the iPhone. This is using both cell tower technology and wi-fi hot spot beacon locators to triangulate your position on the map on the iPhone.

9:33am Just demoed bookmarking spots in movies on the iPhone. All of these iPhones updates are available today as free updates. “What can we do for the iPod touch today?” We’re adding 5 apps!

Adding Mail, Stocks, Notes & Weather, Maps with Wi-Fi location. Starting today it’s built-in to new ones. Available as a $20 update for existing users. That was the 2nd thing he wanted to talk about today!

#3 “it’s about iTunes!” Sold the 4 billionth song last week!

Sold 20 million songs on one day on Christmas day. A new record. Sold more TV shows and more Movies than anyone else!

iTunes movie rentals with 12 major movie studios -every major studio.

9:38am Flipping through all the great new titles.

9:39am Launching with over 1,000 films by the end of Feb. Films 30 days AFTER their DVD release (what?). You have 30 days to start to watch it. You have 24 hours to watch it after you start watching it as many times as you want within 24 hours. $2.99 for an older movie, $3.99 for a new release.

iTunes Movie Rentals Launches TODAY! Free update to iTunes – US Today, International later this year.

What about your TV? All of us have tried (MS, Apple, TiVo, Netflix, Blockbuster). We’ve all missed! We tried with Apple TV. It’s not what people wanted.

We’re back with Apple TV 2. No computer is required! It’s about Movies, Movies, Movies. You can rent movies directly on the TV. DVD quality AND HD Quality (Yeah!) with 5.1 surround sound.

Supports photos from your computer AND directly over the internet – Flickr and .Mac. Podcasts directly from Apple TV. as well as Buy TV shows and Music. All of the original features as well.

HD movies are $1 more ($3.99 & $4.99). You can choose either format. Now he’s showing the new interface.

The interface is pretty slick! It’s all about the movies. Now showing Blades of Glory description. You can preview the movie first.

Now he’s renting it. The movies is already ready to play. It’s playing now. So it downloads a little of it first and then you start watching it while it downloads the rest in the background. It looks very impressive! That was DVD quality. Now he’s showing Live Free or Die Hard in HD. Continuing to show the interface of the new Apple TV, including search.

9:50am Still talking about Apple TV and iTunes.

9:54am Now showing HD podcasts streaming on the Apple TV in HD.

9:55am Yep, he’s still talking about Apple TV. Now showing streaming photos and home movies over the web off .Mac & Flickr.

9:57am Oops, there’s a glitch. The Apple TV looks like it locked up only playing sound from a Flickr site, but no photos. Now he’s recapping the stuff you just read above!

9:59am Made a joke about Flickr – “when they’re serving up photos” – chuckle

FREE Software Update for existing Apple TV users! Way to go Steve – you rock!

Lowered the price to $229 from $299 of Apple TV. Software update available for free in two weeks.

Movie rentals can be watched on your computer, Apple TV, iPods and iPhones. “I think we’ve got it all together!” The first studio to sign up was 20th Century Fox. Jim Gianopulos (Chairman & CEO) is now taking the stage.

10:03am Jim is talking about the business model and what everyone wants.

10:06am People will still want DVDs (“Blu-ray looks like the winner”). Showing the Family Guy Blue Harvest DVD. This DVD contains a digital copy that can be moved to your iPod, etc.

Now for the 4th Thing! Here it comes.

“Apple makes the best notebooks on the planet” The MacBook Air

The world’s thinest notebook!

10:09am Going over the competition now. 3lbs is a good target!

MacBook air .76″ down to .16″ The thickest part of the MacBook Air is thinner than the thickest part of the Sony viao. He has it in a interoffice mail envelope! It just took it out. It’s insanely thin!

Full size keyboard – full size display.

13.3″ widescreen LED backlit display – instant on the minute you open. Built-in iSight. Magnetic, no physical latch. Has the ambient light sensor on the keyboard. Multi-touch gesture support on the trackpad.

You can set your preferences for the trackpad. You can rotate a photo by turning it on the trackpad, double tap to then move a window. 3 fingers to switch photos – pinch to zoom in and out all from the trackpad.

1.8″ hard drive. Ships with an 80GB HDD standard with an optional 64GB solid state drive (“it’s pricey”)

1.6GHz core 2 duo standard, with an option to go to 1.8GHz. 60% smaller package for the chip thanks to intel!

10:18am Paul Otellini intel CEO taking the stage and talking about the product.

USB 2 port and Micro DVI and Headphone jack, 802.11n, Bluetooh 2.1 + EDR, No Optical Drive. You can buy a USB powered optical drive fro $99.

Steve is going over the reasons why you don’t need an optical drive anymore. We’re going to install software wirelessly too. A new feature called Remote Disc. So you’ll be able to put the disc in another Mac and use it on your MacBook Air wirelessly! Even on a PC!

Battery life – 5 hours with everything on.

2GB of RAM standard!

Priced at $1,799!

Shipping in 2 weeks, taking orders today.

Now showing the new TV ad for the MacBook Air

Now going over the new Environmental efforts. Mercury-free display with arsenic-free glass, case is recyclable. Retail packing is 50% less volume.

MacBook Air – The thinest notebook in the world! “That is the 4th thing that I wanted to talk about today!”

Now reviewing the 1st 2 weeks of 2008 and their innovation. Recapping the new Mac Pros and everything announced today.

We’re done! Now bringing up – Randy Newman to perform a few songs.

10:31 Randy has just started playing.

So I’m wrapping this post up now and I’ll post more later on my opinions and take on all of the above! Have a great day!