Blog Post

My Experience with Renting a Movie on iTunes

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

iTunes Movie Rental We received three inches of snow last Thursday, but I wasn’t worried. We had plenty of white supplies (bread, milk, toilet paper) stocked up, so we didn’t have to venture to the grocery store. NetFlix said two DVDs would be delivered that afternoon. So before dinner, I ventured down to the mailbox to retrieve my treasure, when I learned of the tragedy. I only received one DVD from NetFlix. Gasp! When was the last time the shipping estimate was wrong? I stagger through the swirling wind to my home, comforted in the knowledge that I would soon be laughing at the antics of the gang at Cheers (Season 6, Disc 2).

That is, until I opened the red envelope and removed the disc from the white envelope. The DVD was split in half. Sigh. Whatever would I do? How could I watch a movie without having to drive down to the local video store? I know, I’ll rent a movie using iTunes! Steve Jobs, you’ve saved the day! In the past I’ve purchased episodes of Survivor that the VCR missed, and watched them by hooking my PowerBook to my VCR through my S-video port. It’s awkward, but it works.

This article details the problems I encountered with renting movies from the iTunes store, and how I attempted to work around the ridiculous DRM restrictions on rented movies (DRM = Digitally Ruined Media).

The Attempt

I have two Macs at home, an iMac G5 and a PowerBook, a AirPort Express, and DSL. Both Macs are running 10.4.11. I pull up iTunes on the iMac, but don’t see any information about renting movies. Oh, I have to upgrade iTunes and QuickTime. Time spent: 15 minutes.

iTunes logoRestart, open iTunes, click Agree to the ridiculously long (4,048 words) Terms of Service (this is supposed to be entertainment, not a nuclear missile control panel), click on iTunes Store, and look around. I decide on Ratatouille. I rent it and the download instantly starts. The time to download estimate starts at 6 hours, but settles quickly down to 4 hours. And that’s how long it took. I paused the download a couple times (I checked email once, and uploaded a podcast episode), but otherwise the download was uninterrupted. I was able to still use the iMac during the download. But being able to watch the movie Thursday evening was no longer an option, as the download wouldn’t finish until after 10pm. My wife and I decided we’d watch it over lunch and dinner on Friday.

Friday morning, I open up iTunes on my PowerBook. That’s when I realized I had to upgrade the PowerBook as well. Time spent: 15 minutes. Then I try the easy approach, by looking for the movie in the iMac’s shared playlist. But Rented Movies don’t show up in the playlist on my PowerBook, only music, regular movies, and TV episodes do. So I try to move the downloaded file from the iMac so I can watch the movie on our TV set downstairs. And discover you can’t do that. A computer is not a device. What? You can only move rented videos from the machine used to download the movie to very recent iPods, an iPhone, or an Apple TV.

So, this policy means you can’t download movies at the office on a fat pipe, burn the file to a disc or copy to a flash drive, and carry the file to a computer at home. The movie is locked to the computer used to download the movie. Ridiculous.


So, I examine my options:

  1. We could watch the movie in our home office. (That wouldn’t be comfortable.)
  2. We could move the iMac to the living room. (That wouldn’t be convenient.)
  3. Play the video on the iMac and film the screen with our camcorder, import to iMovie, burn to a DVD with iDVD. (That wouldn’t be fun.)
  4. Use technology to watch the iMac downstairs. (That would be great! But is it possible?)

I decided to try option #4. And it ended up working. Mostly. Kinda. Not really.


I looked around to see what my options were. For the video, my first thought was remote control via VNC. For the audio though I was stumped. I tried using our household intercom, but the audio was filled with static. I thought about calling my home phone from my cell, but that would cost a lot, plus tie up both phone lines. Maybe I could use my Skype phone to call my Gizmo Project phone. Again, expensive and inconvenient. Hey, how about using iChat over Bonjour? That should work, and won’t cost anything. The catch on using an audio chat will be figuring out how to route the sound from iTunes to iChat.

On the PowerBook:

  1. I installed Chicken of the VNC.
  2. Open iChat, enable Bonjour chat.
  3. Connect the PowerBook’s S-Video to my VCR input jacks, set the TV to watch the VCR’s jack channel.
  4. Connect the PowerBook’s headphone jack to the VCR.
  5. In System Preference, open Displays. Press the Detect Displays button. On my system, the two screens were mirrored automatically.
  6. In System Preferences, set Energy Saver to not put the computer to sleep.
  7. In System Preferences, set the Screen Saver to “never” start.

On the iMac:

  1. Install SoundFlower.
  2. In System Preferences, open Sharing. Start Apple Remote Desktop sharing. Click on Access Privileges. Set a password so that “VNC users may control the screen.”
  3. In System Preferences, open Sound. Set the Input and Output devices to be SoundFlower (2ch).
  4. In System Preferences, open Displays. Set the Resolution to 800×600 and thousands of colors. This is to reduce the amount of data being sent over AirPort to the PowerBook.
  5. In System Preferences, set Energy Saver to not put the computer to sleep.
  6. In System Preferences, set the Screen Saver to “never” start.
  7. Open iChat, enable Bonjour chat. In iChat Preferences, click on the Video tab. Set the microphone to be SoundFlower (2ch).
  8. Open iTunes.
  9. Quit other applications, especially those that make sounds.

cotvnc.jpgNow from the PowerBook, using Chicken of the VNC, connect to the iMac. You will see the iMac’s desktop and can control the iMac from the PowerBook.

Start an audio chat from the PowerBook to the iMac. You can accept the chat remotely, since you are controlling the iMac in the Chicken of the VNC window. Any audio that the iMac creates will be piped into iChat, and will be heard on the PowerBook. You can test this by playing some music on the remote computer.

Start playing the rented movie, click to agree that the 24 hour countdown should start. Change Chicken of the VNC to full screen mode. Sit back and watch.

The problem I then experienced was my AirPort Express at 802.11g wasn’t up to the challenge of piping video. I was only getting around 2 frames per second. Most of the frames were full frame, but there were many times partial frames were transmitted. The audio sounded nice, no garbles, although there were a few brief times when some static would appear. This might work better with an AirPort Extreme, but I doubt it would be good enough to watch a movie.

Final Opinions

  • Netflix is good enough for me. Shipping shiny CDs around the United States works well. I’ve had a very small number of bad disks in the past year. Netflix is a good deal at $16.99/month for around 12 discs.
  • DSL is not fast enough to be able to watch a movie on spur of the moment.
  • A computer is a device. I should be able to play a rented movie on any Mac that has been authorized to play the music I buy from the iTunes Store. If I can play music on up to 5 Macs, I should be able to play rented movies on up to 5 Macs.
  • I will not be wasting my time on renting any more movies from the iTunes store.

31 Responses to “My Experience with Renting a Movie on iTunes”

  1. Aahhh…the predictable Mac fan’s response to a person’s problem with Apple…it’s ALL YOUR FAULT! You should have planned…you should have just bought an Apple TV…blah blah.

    First of all, this clearly was something spontaneous since he was stuck in the house without much to watch since Netflix didn’t come through for him. He mistakenly thought the movie rentals worked the same as the other video formats. I hardly think he was TRYING to create a problem. He was just documenting what happened when he tried his first rental. Stuff like this happens to people all the time when they first try out something new.

    Some of you are way too sensitive, angry, and defensive.

  2. After reading this I am deleting your RSS link. You are officially too inept. I read tech blogs for value and usefulness. You just have too much time on your hands and too few real problems. Wake me up when you learn to tie your shoes.

  3. Yes, it’s entirely possible my DSL is screwed up, it’s with Verizon. My test through a couple different bandwidth testers shows my speed is around 100 kilobytes per second, although one test once came back at 135 kbps. I’ll experiment with my home network to see if the problem is on my end or with Verizon.

    @Chris @geochick @devin My main point is my past user experience with buying video via iTunes has trained me to download the video onto the RAID drives on my iMac, and then I’d copy the file to my PowerBook to watch on the TV.

    @Edwin Sure, a problem exists, I couldn’t move a movie from one iTunes system to another. See my note to Chris.

    @Bertiebus Could one point I was trying to make be something along the lines of the DRM being used is hurting more than it’s helping? Thus far, I’ve never downloaded a movie from a P2P network, nor have I ripped any of the DVDs I get from Netflix.

    @RickO Netflix’s downloadable movie rental system is even worse, as it only runs on Windows, although their available catalog is much larger. See Greg’s comment.

    @Greg I honestly didn’t try to create the headache. I did what I always do.

    @Sam F Thanks for understanding my point.

    @Seth I don’t have a most recent generation iPod, although you’re right, I could spend $149 for an iPod nano and cable, or $229 for an AppleTV, neither of which would have helped me that evening, but would help in the future.

  4. You kind of blew it. Just because the download says it will take 4 hours, doesn’t mean you can’t start watching for 4 hours.
    If you gave it a couple of hours headstart, it would have enough downloaded to start watching, while the rest of the file arrives. So if you decide on a 2 hour movie a 6PM, it says it won’t be done downloading until 10PM, you are safe to start watching at around 8PM.

  5. Well, even though this was a real extreme way of doing what he wanted to do, the experience does leave you wanting a tad more. The download time for me was estimated at 4hrs (it came faster), and yes you can start watching it but it plays faster than in downloads so…

    I was a little disappointed with this, but not for the reasons that the author has. 24 hours to finish watching after such a long time to get it is harsh. The connection is my fault so I can’t fault apple for this one. I think apple could have done a better job with this and I believe that as more people use it, it will be improved. It isn’t a home run, but I’ll probably rent it again once the catalogue improves

  6. Also, one other note on the long download time. Steve has made it clear time and time again that Apple designs their downloads to work sequentially (unlike the random chunks in a bit torrents). This means that once you’ve built up enough of a buffer you can begin watching your movie. So even if it takes 4 hours to download the movie, you can probably start watching the movie after an hour or so. With most connections, it will take about an hour to download allowing the viewer to start watching the movie only minutes after the download began — Instantaneous downloads … check.

  7. @Greg: Yeah, I do get it. I use both Macs (2 of them) and Win, and like them both for what they do. Actually I agree that the Mac is a “funner” experience, but it’s Windows world, ya know?

    I find it interesting that you complain about the Netflix requirements, but don’t complain about the Apple requirements for the same functionality, albeit a different service (iTunes). At least Netflix doesn’t require a major OS change. Well, maybe they do, if you’re still running Win 98. Apple has always had a weak spot in this regard; often even point changes are required to get a new functionality. But at least they’re free.

    I also think the original poster made some basic errors in planning, but it’s possible that he has revealed deficiencies in the Apple sales model. 4 hours for a download? Something amiss there, but it could be on Apple’s side, too. Don’t know… Don’t blame the customer right off the bat.

    My main comment is simply that I’m happy to see people complaining about not getting the services they are led to believe they are purchasing – regardless of platform. In the retail world, if you bought a pair of shoes and didn’t realize that they would hurt after wearing them for an hour or two, you’d maybe take them back. In the online video – and in this case, the iTunes – world, that can’t happen.

    I believe we are often beta testers for this junk, and I don’t like it.

    Mac users are often quick to accept this, but I am not.

    That’s all.

  8. If you own an iPod, you had everything you need since iPod + $19 cable = portable movie server. You could have put the movie onto the ipod then piped audio and video to any TV with Apple’s av cable.

    Also, it was my understanding that the movie would play while downloading… was this not an option for you and your wife?

  9. The iTunes movie rental FAQ is a bit shorter than the agreement terms :) it says:

    “Can I play my rental on more than one device?
    If you download a rented movie on your computer, you can transfer it to your Apple TV, iPod, or iPhone. 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 be viewed on one device at a time. If you rent the movie on your Apple TV, it is not transferable to any other device and you must watch it on your Apple TV.”

    I do admire the effort (really VNC, iChat?…a cell phone???) but last i checked the $ was not that high, maybe i’d just rent it again on the powerbook instead of making up a scheme worthy of Doctor Evil.

    I don’t know either way, maybe it is an unfair way of doing it from Apples side or maybe that’s just the terms on which they could get permission to distribute, never the less, the FAQ is quite clear. The workaround from the author was overkill.

  10. I don’t get why anybody in this discussion cannot seem to sympathize with the author. If you have bought movies and music from the iTMS you know and expect to be able to play them on 4 other Computers(Win or Mac that is). So why the hell should you have “to try to think a TINY bit ahead” to download it to the machine you want to watch it on?

    Apple screwed this up. That the end of it. It pushed a new paradigm on customers that were used to something different—and better.

    Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate Apple. I’m in a Mac only household. I won’t take point on the download speed. I’m sure it varies heavily with broadband speeds available to various homes.

    Really? Just buy an Apple TV, really?
    Buying an Apple TV can simply not be the only answer to such a problem.

    Apple should simply enable Movies to be played on all your iTunesAccount enabled Computers just like all the other content you can buy on the iTMS.

  11. @Harry: you just don’t get it. Better products? On the Windoze platform? You have *got* to be kidding. This is not about blaming the messenger. I have ben a Win user and Mac user. The latter is simply a better experience. As for NPI, I don’t ordinarily want to watch movies on my MacBook, but when I do, I should not have to put with this in order to watch Netflix Instantly: “You must have a computer running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or higher, or Windows Vista; Internet Explorer version 6 or higher; Windows Media Player version 11 or higher; an active broadband connection to the Internet; 1.0 GHz processor; 512 MB RAM; 3 GB free hard disk drive space.” [This from the NetFlix FAQ]. You *do* remember what company is the most pro-DRM company on the planet, don’t you? The one that is still attempting to foist the Janus/Palladium construct on the world?

    And please, don’t get me started on who is at fault for not having services available on Macs. This isn’t about Fairplay licensing. What a bunch of Windows Fanboy BS. This is plain and simple an unwillingness to serve a market that is a tad more discerning and simply wasn’t willing to bow down to the Redmond juggernaut..

  12. i assumed watching would be restricted to the computer you “purchased” it from and only able to transfer to a “device” such as ipod, iphone, appleTV, etc…. and honestly i agree with the others who said you really should have planned a little TINY bit and downloaded it directly to the computer you planned to use.

    also, i could have sworn steve jobs said that the movie rentals stream and can be viewed instantly. why on earth did you have to wait for the whole thing to download first? oh yeah, i suppose that has to do with problem number 1, eh?

  13. WhiteyMcBrown

    I agree that it would be nice to be able to watch the movie on any computer on your network, but I’m not really with you for the rest of your argument… You can’t complain that new functionality required you to install updates. That’s ridiculous.

  14. Why bother with all this movie download and rental schemes? Seems to me that Apple and MTV, even microcrap are using the consumer as a marketing test bed to save the RIAA & the MPAA from their old and outdated business models and bad and greedy decision making. Best thing to do is pick up a book and read it…enough of this DRM crap. DRM should really mean “Don’t Rent Movies”…hah hah)

  15. My experience? I have Leopard running on my Mac Mini hooked to the LCD in the bedroom. I click “Rent Movie,” and we eat dinner while it downloads over Comcast pretty quickly, and then we watch it while catching up on the day and work before going to bed. Sweet. Granted, things are easier when everything is up to date and the pipe is quick, and you understand the terms of service but it does sound like you tried to create as difficult a scenario as possible.

  16. I’m just wondering whether the restrictions you encountered might were fully explained in the 4,048-word terms of services document that you agreed to. Truth be told, I don’t usually read the full text before I click on “Agree.” However, it may be worth checking out the agreement before you write a critique in which you express such surprise about the fact that video rentals are bound to an individual machine. I’d also check out the online rental options from other companies (such as Netflix) to see whether their products are controlled by the same DRM scheme as the iTunes rentals. You might find that your beef is with online rentals in general and not just Apple and iTunes.

  17. geochick

    As others here have said… you should have thought ahead and downloaded the movie to your PB first so that you could take it with you and hook it up to your TV. You can also get an Apple TV if your are serious about replacing Netflix. Dude your DSL takes 4 hours to download a movie? I used to have a shared DSL and it still took less than an hour to download a full length movie from iTunes. Something must be wrong with your connection… Sorry to hear about all your troubles the whole thing made me think about the things we do sometimes to get new technology to work for us. It also made me laugh a bit thanks for sharing.

  18. Bertiebus

    Talk about doing it the hard way. I downloaded and watched Ratatouille with no problems moving the movie from machine to machine. I watched the movie in the room I wanted on the TV I wanted regardless of which actual machine did the downloading.

    Of course, I just did what the entire rest of the world does, and downloaded a rip of the DVD via Bittorrent.

  19. to Harry: Oh yes!! of course… DRM makes Apple TV completely useless… sure… just like how much of a flop DVD was because of DRM ?????? NOT!

    Movies have always had DRM. Music hasn’t. There a difference. Anyway… we’ll see in sales figures what happens. Even before the upgraded movie rental/apple TV update and not needing a computer Apple TV was on top of the sales for downloaded movies.

  20. The MacFanBoys are screaming! AppleTV is a loser because of the DRM, just a simple fact. Windows Media Center is better than this, even with its DRM. Netflix Play Instantly (available on Mac) is *way* better than this. The problems always come when DRM is involved. But the FanBoys will always blame the messenger if it’s an Apple product that’s gored. Screw that, get a clue. We don’t get better products that way.

    AppleTV is a boat anchor because of DRM. Jobs should know this because he’s been the one arguing against it.

  21. C’mon… what an extreme example of trying to create a problem where one doesn’t exist!

    Did you not see the Macworld expo? The answer is Apple TV – you’ve just proven Steve’s point.

    Or as the comments above… you have a particularly slow internet and should have downloaded to your laptop directly.

    It looks like a carefully planned way to find the one way to make it difficult to watch a movie.

  22. Sounds like where you went wrong was not thinking ahead. If you would have thought out where you wanted to watch the movie ahead of time and downloaded it on your power book, you could have avoided the hassle.

    I have an AppleTV and it works flawlessly with my LCD TV. I also dumped netflix as soon as this was announced. I am so tired of broken and scratched discs. And don’t get me started on the waiting.

  23. I think everything started when you said “Both Macs are running 10.4.11 (…)”. With Leopard you have screen (and voice) sharing build right in to system (yes, works great via bonjour).

    Also, what kind of internet connection you have? 4h to download a movie stands for half MBit. I don’t believe you have such poor DSL connection.

    But I am surprised too, that you’re not able watch rented movie in annother iTunes.