My Experience with Renting a Movie on iTunes

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┬álogoRestart, 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.

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