I clearly remember the moment I knew I would never buy another physical CD and would buy all my music online. Since then, I’ve been waiting for the moment when I would know that I could buy all my movies online. In November, Apple announced that […]


I clearly remember the moment I knew I would never buy another physical CD and would buy all my music online. Since then, I’ve been waiting for the moment when I would know that I could buy all my movies online. In November, Apple announced that it was adding Disney movies in high definition to the iTunes Store. I’ve spent the last few months debating with myself if this heralded the end of buying physical media for movies.

In a word: No

In two words: Not Yet

Why I Buy Music from iTunes (and Amazon MP3)

For music, once iTunes Plus was the standard on the iTunes Store, I knew that I didn’t need to buy physical CD’s any more. All I was doing was ripping my music to 256kbps AAC or MP3 anyways, so why not just buy them that way? And album prices on iTunes were the same or lower than brick-and-mortar prices on CD’s. Take Amazon MP3 into account, and it was an easy decision to switch to digital purchases.

Why I Have Not Been Buying Movies from iTunes

Basically, it comes down to the stereo sound. I can’t stand the idea of not using my surround sound setup and massive subwoofer (it literally shakes my whole house…I love it). With lower picture quality and lame stereo sound, I was not tempted at all to get movies from iTunes. I did try a few 99 cent rentals and found that to be just fine, but my $9 Netflix membership gives me access to tons of streaming movies at the same quality.

Now that HD movies sport surround sound, I was anxious to compare some familiar titles where I could spot the difference in picture quality and audio.

Disney/Pixar Makes Great HD Material

I have kids at home and we are therefore obligated to pay our annual Disney tax to stock our home with family-friendly, candy-coated entertainment from our media overlords in Burbank, CA.  Some of the Pixar movies make great reference material to show off your home theater and I focused on these titles to compare the difference between iTunes SD & HD, DVD, Handbrake encodes, and Blu-ray.

Picture Quality

Let me say up front that the difference in picture quality between the various formats is clearly visible on a big screen. Blu-ray has the best picture quality and was correctly identified by all the members of my family in a simple visual test. The surprise for me is how close iTunes HD is to Blu-ray. I watched several scenes in Wall-E over and over again looking at the differences between the iTunes HD file and the Blu-ray Disc (BRD), particularly the first 10 minutes and the interior shots of the ship. The iTunes HD file was quite a bit better than what I expected and makes a serious case for choosing to buy content on iTunes.

For SD content, I watched Monsters, Inc. and compared the iTunes file (what Disney calls a Digital Copy) with a Handbrake 0.9.3 rip I made using the Apple TV preset (0.9.4, the current version, should produce similar quality output). The quality is almost identical although the Handbrake rip was slightly brighter. The quality is slightly below DVD, but so close that most people probably won’t notice.

For my money, the image quality is close enough on the iTunes HD files that I could be tempted to just buy them on iTunes. If you’re watching on a 42″ screen or smaller, the quality is probably indistinguishable.

Audio Quality

My Blu-ray player is configured to decode all the lossless audio formats and send 7.1 analog sound to my receiver. It works great. I was really concerned about the audio here because I would not buy anything with only a stereo track.

The audio on the iTunes HD movies is good enough to consider buying them. The difference between Dolby Digital and the lossless audio tracks is noticeable, but 5.1 surround sound is enough to get me over the bulk of my previous objections.


Convenience is a big deal for me. I actually prefer having movies on my Apple TV because I don’t have to endure any forced advertising or trailers. I can just start the movie. I also like that my kids don’t have to handle the discs, avoiding the possibility of scratching them. Combined with the amazing Apple Remote iPhone app, the Apple TV is a great movie jukebox — even better than the 301 slot DVD changer I used to have.

Now that Extras are available with iTunes HD files, I think iTunes movies actually win on convenience, with one big caveat — you really need an Apple TV or a Mac mini media center connected to your big screen TV to appreciate them. A 27″ iMac would get pretty close on its own though.

Why Movies are Different than Music

I was a weekend musician for a large part of the 80’s and 90’s and I love music. I owned a SACD player because I loved hearing the subtle details in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fingers sliding across the strings in Texas Flood. But I only really enjoyed the difference when I was sitting in the “sweet spot” of my two-channel system with perfect stereo imaging. I couldn’t really appreciate the difference in the quality of the recordings between SACD and CD when I had music on in the background as I was working around the house. Music downloads are successful for the simple reason that convenience and quality are sufficient. The difference in quality does not bother people because you typically are not giving your full attention to the sound quality while jogging, working, eating, etc. and the convenience is king because no one is willing to get up and change a CD anymore.

Movies are different because you are planted in front of the screen for about two hours and typically devote your full attention to the film while watching it. This makes all the difference in comparing incremental differences in the quality of Blu-ray and iTunes HD. If I’m going to give my full attention to something for two hours, I want the best quality. I would be tempted by the convenience of iTunes downloads, but at the same price point, I just want the best quality.

What Would It Take for Me to Buy iTunes Movies?

Lower prices. The quality is fine for the movies that I watched. But at the same price point, I’ll take the Blu-ray and deal with putting the disc in the changer and the possibility that my kids might scratch them. If I really want the movie to be easy to get to for my kids, I’ll make my own encode and put it on my Apple TV anyways.

I would say 1080p or higher bitrate to bring the video quality closer to Blu-ray, but 10GB (or higher) downloads seem unrealistic at this point. Maybe someday that comment will seem shortsighted when we all have fiber to the home, but for now I think the best compromise is to get $5 and $10 movies from iTunes and $15-25 discs in the store.

What about you? Is iTunes HD enough for you in terms of quality/convenience? If not, what would it take?

Equipment Used: I compared the files using an Apple TV (3.0) and a Pioneer BDP-51FD connected to a calibrated 57″ Sony KP-57HW40 with a Denon surround receiver with 5.1 speakers (Infinity L+R powered full-range towers, 3-way center, bookshelf surrounds + SVS 20-39PC subwoofer).

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Who Wins When Movies Are Available Everywhere?

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  1. New CDs are cheaper than Digital Downloads. Used CDs are far cheaper.
    Yes, the quality of iTunes HD is okay, but it’s way over-priced, and can’t compete with the Blu-ray experience.

    P.S. The proper abbreviation for Blu-ray Disc is “BD”.

    1. I did a quick check on music prices and I see that albums are the same or cheaper on iTunes (digital) versus Amazon.com (physical). I buy some used CD’s, but convenience and the chance to buy single tracks usually pushes me to iTunes.

      You are right about the BD abbreviation. I should know better than to just accept things I read on Internet forums or blogs. ;)

    2. Don’t forget, you really can’t compare the superior sound quality you get from a CD. Ripping to MP3 no matter what bit rate you use will not beat the quality of uncompressed audio.

    3. Where do you buy CDs that are cheaper than the $7.99-9.99 that most albums on iTunes or Amazon MP3 cost? I just don’t buy that argument.

      Not to mention, physical CD’s take up space…quite a bit of space when you’ve got hundreds or thousands of them.

    4. @djmactech – of course CD’s are better, but I just don’t sit still to listen to them on my stereo or with good headphones. At 192+ kbps AAC or MP3, I can’t appreciate the difference under most conditions.

      Part of what I was trying to point out is that video is very different in this regard. I give my full attention to the movie (usually) and every little bit of picture and sound quality matters.

    5. @Josh Pigford I constantly buy used CD’s for cheaper than that at my local used record store. For new you are right you can’t get cheaper than that even at cost for a physical copy (I used to work in a record store and new releases were rarely below 6.99 cost, usually much higher)

      But used is the way to go if you want the physical copy, no need to spend unnecessarily!

    6. I could probably write a book on finding deals on CDs, but here’s the abbreviated version.
      New releases are often $9.99. Emerging artists may have debut albums that sell for $6.99 – 7.99.
      YourMusic.com has CDs for $6.99 with free shipping.
      Catalog CD titles sell for as little as $4.99.
      Used CDs in like new condition can be found for $2.00 – $8.00.

    7. I am sold now on iTunes HD movies. I will not be sucked into another physical format. To play Blu-ray discs I have to buy a whole new player, and with the next new disc format I will have to again. With upgraded in iTunes, no new hardware needed.

    8. CD’s are no substitute for 96k/24 bit or higher rates. Analog is best but unfortunately most people have no frame of reference. ACC sounds better than MP3. It seems that 44.1/16bit is an acceptable as a delivery medium. The delivery pipes are still too small for high quality downloading. I’ll have to wait for terabit internet.

  2. I totally agree. The picture and sound from a Blu-ray set up is an order of magnitude better than the over priced compressed files from iTunes. I would totally love a Blu-ray equipped Mac Mini with HDMI out. At least GIVE ME THE OPTION! Apple could capture the HTPC market with such a device. The Apple TV is a crippled device designed to spur iTunes revenue. Steve’s “bag of hurt” issues with Blu-ray are that they would hurt iTunes sales. I am a fan of Apple, but this is one case where I disagree with the “Apple knows best” philosophy.

    1. I don’t know if it’s an order of magnitude better. Definitely better, but it’s close enough that it gave me pause and forced me to watch scenes from Wall-E over and over to point out the differences.

  3. Good article. I still struggle with whether to purchase an AppleTV. Having spent so much money on my home theater setup, it’s tough to justify the mediocrity this device represents.

    Someday, someday…less-compressed 1080p will push me over the edge. Till then, .


    1. I love my AppleTV if only for the music playback. I’m frustrated by different aspects of it (why is the interface prioritized to iTunes over the content I already have ready to play?), but using AppleTV with the iPhone remote app is the best (read: most convenient) music playback device I have ever owned.

      The fact that it does movies, and trailers, and iTunes U, and podcasts, is intriguing and quite useful in certain cases.

  4. The bandwidth and the price are keeping me away from iTunesHD. I only get 60GB a month and will not upgrade my internet plan when I can just buy the same movie on disc. Inconvenient but more economical.

    1. Thanks for bringing this up. I sometimes forget that unmetered broadband Internet access is not available to all our readers. I’ve been spoiled by cable modem service in the US.

  5. First Compare somethign like Ironman or Transoporter3 not an anamated movie. Animation always looks good.

    Also when you purchase a Blu-ray, that disc is playable on any Blu-ray player.
    In many PC computers, home theater in a box systems, stand alone players etc.
    iTunes is not that easy. I can take a disc to just about any of my friends home and play it. I cant say that about a digital file locked up on my computer.

    Blu-ray Bit rate: BD Video movies have a maximum data transfer rate of 54 Mbit/s, a maximum AV bitrate of 48 Mbit/s (for both audio and video data), and a maximum video bit rate of 40 Mbit/s. Most movies I watch average in the 30Mbps +- range. (Try that with digital downloads.)

    The bottom line for me is I refuse to allow myself to get locked into the Apple jail.

  6. Michael Aguiar Friday, February 19, 2010

    What do you use to encode movies so they work with the Apple TV? What about encoding a movie file that is the wrong format for the Apple TV?

    1. Michael,

      On a Mac…. download two tools, Handbrake http://handbrake.fr/ and MetaX. Handbrake in its “default” will export to a format the AppleTV. I suggest changing the default rip from “constant quality %” to “bits per second” (set to 1200 to 1800 bps) depending on the movie. The old Handbrake default worked beautifully on the AppleTV, the new default just plain stinks.

      Once Handbrake is done, open MetaX http://www.kerstetter.net/page53/page54/page54.html which adds the cover art, movie ratings, description etc to the movie and makes it look “cool” in iTunes (done correctly it looks as good as a file purchased off iTunes.)

    2. According to Handbrake the average bitrate is 1500, do you still recommend changing this?

  7. I’ve stopped using BLU-RAYs completely. There is an unfathomable loooong unskippable advertisement for blu-ray on every blu-ray I rent. What the is the point of this thing? It would like my timex watch telling me its a timex for a while every time I try telling the time on it. Then there are also unskippable trailers (you can fast forward, but it stops on each new trailer).

    After piracy of music became a huge issue on the net due to price and convenience, iTunes flipped the model to those wanting just convenience, it still works for the other media it sells. Blu-Ray actually goes out of its way to make the experience *worse* than anything that came before it.

    1. The unskippable ads and trailers are the main reason I started ripping movies. I can’t believe the Blu-ray folks have developed such an unfriendly format. Even worse, the Java VM on some discs won’t let you resume playback from the last spot. Stupid.

    2. Agreed. I dumped my bluray player after the same adv bombardment of bluray screen flashes and endless trailers. Netflix streaming (720p) and Apple HD (who knows) are good enough on my 73′ Mitsubishi 1080p for the time being until someone can crack players to skip the trailers and bluray display splash. Almost makes me want to explore 1080p torrents.

    3. You can overcome this (at a price) using a Blu-Ray drive in a HTPC. Using PowerDVD HD Ultra and AnyDVD HD (from Slysoft) you can do just about anything you like with a Blu-Ray disc. Strip the copy protection (which allows simultaneous connection to multiple displays), take off region coding, skip the ads, rip it to hard drive, anything. A Blu-Ray drive costs about $100 and those two bits of software cost about $100 each so it does mean $300 in total, but if you put that inside a strong HTPC you’ve got a great BD player you can do anything you want with. I also added an ATI 5750 graphics card which allows HD audio (e.g. DTS Master) to pass to my AVR too.

  8. I’ve got more than 200 children’s DVDs and frankly I’m tickled pink that I’ve gotten them (and me) out of jockeying discs all around the house by converting them all with Handbrake (and MetaX to fill the cover art, etc.) When done “right” (not the default settings… something higher than the AppleTV default ,say a double pass at 1500 bps) the quality with Handbrake is pretty decent. The AppleTVs in the house have replaced my DVD players almost entirely and I don’t have discs getting scratched. My 4 year old can queue up what he wants when he’s allowed his TV time and I’m not rushing through the house for the five DVD binders that hold our collection.

    You are right, the iTunes HD for Pixar is great. Check out “Up” it includes iTunes Extra content which fills in some of the gaps (especially the great Pixar bonus features, etc.)

    1. Most of my kids movies and DVDs have been ripped and stored on the network. My 4 year old can drive XBMC just fine, so this is on all of the PCs and laptops in the house no matter what OS, and I have 2 chipped old XBoxes under the TV’s.
      Brilliant for Standard Definition as even rips that work on my iPhone look better than analog broadcast TV.
      The problem will be when we move to HD, I’m sure it will all start looking a little Low-Rent 8). I’m prepared to buy some big disks and RIP BluRay so I can use it the same way. Maybe convert down some copies to pay on the old TVs too 8) Main reason for ripping is taking BR movies on the road, and my Macbook wont play them.

  9. For me it depends on the content. A lot of children’s stuff I’ll happily put on from the NetFlix live streaming and live with stereo (or even mono) sound and occasional pixelization. The kids don’t care and I’m often only half-watching anyway.

    However, for movies like We Were Soldiers or other intense audio-visual experiences, I don’t think the bitrate in the iTunes HD can come close in either video or audio. A slow pan is one thing, but running through a jungle is another, and I never want to be pulled out of the action to notice deficiencies in the medium.

  10. Christopher Tawes Friday, February 19, 2010

    Thanks for a well reasoned article. Very few people have brought up bandwidth when discussing why iTunes HD films are not “True HD” at 720p. Blu Ray has a capacity of something like 25gb/disc, theoretically, that can be used for video encoding and multiple compressed/uncompressed audio tracks. Can you imagine how many people would flame the iTunes reviews when it took them two weeks to download a film in the 25gb range? It is an angle that is rarely discussed.

    The comment about why Jobs considers blu ray to be a “big bag of hurt” is humorous yet still partly correct. Apple makes the AppleTV to sell iTunes content (the reverse business model of the ipod: they sell iTunes content to sell iPods). Apple, like all publicly traded electronics and media companies, is in business to make money for itself and its shareholders. Of course they want you to buy their product and procure your content from them. They do, however, have a design and user interface philosophy that stresses simplicity and convenience. Optical media does not fit into that design and ui philosophy (“It has no floppy drive!). Look at the iPod: ten years ago I could take my portable cd player and a handful of CDs on a drive or a flight (or a walk for that matter) and I was limited to the number tracks I was physically capable of carrying. Despite the uncompressed nature of the music on the cd itself, I was still listening to my music through headphones. Now with the advent of the ipod I can carry thousands of songs with me, hundreds of albums, and have the same listening experience. The AppleTV, the iPod Touch (and all video ipods for that matter), and the soon to be released iPad are a similar extension of that philosophy.

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