Apple Expands Its Video Offerings

Apple's new iTunes Movies and upcoming media-streaming device further expand the company's entertainment offerings that target the living room. The pricing and limited selection of the nascent movie service suggest a burdensome compromise between Apple and the movie industry, but Apple's seamless integration of content, software, and hardware may enable the company to succeed in the increasingly crowded video field.

Mac and PC users can purchase new movies for $12.99 each and older titles for $9.99 each from the Apple iTunes Store ("Music" is gone from the official name), which is built into iTunes 7. The pricing is comparable to that of Amazon's recently launched Unbox service. (Read PC World's review of the Amazon service.)

"It's a start, like the [Apple iTunes] TV shows were a start," says Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner Industry Advisory Services. "From the pricing scheme, there was some compromise between what Apple wanted and what Disney wanted."

Limited Choices for Now

Content is currently limited to about 75 Disney-owned titles from Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Films. The movies will play back at a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels--a step up from the 320-by-240-pixel maximum of previous iTunes videos, but still below DVD quality.

The decision to offer videos at this level of quality was driven by the studios, not by Apple, according to Baker. "The studio are nervous about distribution of their content electronically," he says.

Movies will be available at iTunes on the same day that DVDs go on sale in other retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. However, companies like Starz Entertainment, which have long-standing subscription agreements, will still be able to offer some movies for viewing before customers can buy them from Apple.

Slow Downloads in Hands-On Tests

Digital World's West Coast correspondent Cathy Lu tried out the new service for PC World by downloading National Treasure, a 131-minute movie starring Nicholas Cage. The $9.99 video had a file size of 1.49GB and took a whopping 2 hours, 45 minutes to download. We're hoping that the sheer number of downloads taxing the iTunes movie service on its first day is responsible for the slow speed, and that this won't be a typical experience in the future. Lu used a dual 2-GHz Power Mac G5 with 512MB of RAM and a broadband connection.

At Tuesday's special event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that download time using a fast 5-megabit-per-second broadband connection would likely be 30 minutes; you should be able to start watching the movie within a minute of starting the download.

Click to see this image.
Apple iTunes 7's new iPod interface page.
After installing the latest version of QuickTime (version 7.1.3), Lu was able to view the movie while it downloaded without a hitch. Once she'd finished the download, Lu transferred the movie via USB 2.0 to her fifth-generation 30GB iPod using iTunes 7's new iPod interface page; that transfer took more than 4 minutes. Video playback generally looked great and was smooth, Lu said, but dark scenes were hard to make out. Another gripe: Images were tiny because of the movie's wide-screen aspect ratio, which left black bands at the top and the bottom and reduced the dimensions of the already itty-bitty iPod screen even more. Upon further investigation we noticed that it's possible to turn wide screen off under the iPod's video settings, allowing downloaded movies to fill the entire screen--and every millimeter counts on a small iPod screen. (Apple announced today that it has refreshed its iPod lines.)

Apple's new iTV

Apple's iTV media-streaming device.
The most interesting part of Apple's Tuesday announcement involved its media-streaming device code-named iTV, which will allow consumers to stream movies, videos, photos, podcasts, and other iTunes content directly to their big-screen TV. The movie download service alone is not significantly different--or cheaper--than those offered by rivals, but everyone has been looking for a convenient way to transfer video content from the PC where it was downloaded to a living-room screen for viewing. Apple's ease of use may give it an edge here.

USB ports are included on the back of the iTV.
Apple says that the iTV will connect to set-top boxes, and that it will be able to connect to a TV via HDMI or component video ports. The iTV will also offer digital audio via an optical cable, and it will come with a remote control and USB ports. It will handle ethernet and Wi-Fi, too, though Apple did not disclose whether it will work with 802.11g or the upcoming 802.11n standard. Priced at $299, the iTV will be available in the first quarter of next year.

The company's preview marked a departure from Apple's usual consumer product strategy, which is to wait until a product is ready for sale before making any announcement.

Have an opinion on any of the iPod announcements made today? Comment in our Apple announcement forum.

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