Going Mobile: Introduction

Blu-ray Disc may be the format of choice for the more mature and discerning film fans out there but uptake is still relatively slow in comparison to DVD and some will argue that’s down to a general ambivalence towards the format by many in light of the digital download option that is also currently out there and should hopefully be expanding to cover high definition in the future. Like many studios NBC Universal are releasing the majority of their titles on Video on Demand through the iTunes Store, day-and-date as they say with the disc alternatives, and they suggested we take a look at some of their films which are available to PC/Mac and iPod/iPhone users. This new series of blogs will be doing just that, but I’ll also be taking an opportunity to discuss the format and its delivery method along the way. Hell, I might even put one of those Digital Copy discs I have laying around to some use and see how they factor into this brave new world of home and portable entertainment.

So, before I post the first review I wanted to explore the iTunes Store and the pros and cons of purchasing films either through your home computer or on your portable device. The pros are fairly self-evident and there are even some pleasant discoveries to be made along the way. The iTunes Store is easily accessible, clearly laid out and quick and simple to purchase from. Once you’ve made your selection a DVD quality download begins and on an 8Mbit connection will take roughly 36-minutes total for the average 1.6GB that a film uses. Once the download is complete you can watch the film on your home computer and transfer it to your compatible iPod or iPhone (or in a couple of months the iPad) to watch on the go. Providing you have the right hardware and software installed (which really isn’t difficult) and a decent internet connection then it’s a painless experience with plenty of convenience points thrown in. iTunes even does a good job of cataloguing your films, it remembers where you were last should you have to stop playback and return to the film later, there are chapter stops available and even extras on selected titles.

On the other hand, there are some notable cons to the experience and these surface in the form of DRM (Digital Rights Management) and by extension, Apple’s iTunes and Quicktime Player software. The files you download all feature DRM which basically means they can only be played on your devices, but this also extends to require you use either iTunes or Quicktime Player for playback on your home computer. I should note that I’ve always been an advocate of iTunes for music playback, yes it’s heavy on resources (I’m a PC user by the way) but most PCs will handle it no problem. On the other hand, I’ve always despised Quicktime Player as it forces its own internal codecs upon you and generally sucks in terms of performance. When it comes to video playback, iTunes and Quicktime Player are basically the same thing, and on my ageing dual-core desktop the DVD quality downloads from the iTunes Store struggle to maintain the desired frame rate. Even more bothersome is that I can find no way of passing the 5.1 audio to my Amp using iTunes or QT Player. You might argue my system is at fault, but using Media Player Classic and custom selected codecs for playback the same desktop can handle 1080P trailers downloaded from Apple, with no frame rate issues and full 5.1 pass-through.

Of course playback is problem free on your video compatible iPod or iPhone, but due to the DRM involved any thoughts of copying the downloaded file to your PSP or other portable device for playback goes right out the window.

The last point I’d like to touch upon is neither a pro nor a con in terms of how the iTunes Store and its video downloads work, but it is never-the-less an interesting area of discussion – pricing. With DVDs these days the RRP rarely means anything as £19.99 is routinely chopped down to £11.99 and all the big releases that carry daft £24.99 RRPs or higher are usually heavily discounted in the supermarkets (and subsequently online as Amazon price-match). With digital downloads the RRP is the price you pay, and in the case of the iTunes Store that price appears to be £10.99 for all new releases. Now, it may just be me, but £10.99 seems an awful lot of money to pay for a digital download that is DVD quality but nothing more. Were they to say, start including both a 720P version for your home computer/film library alongside a portable version in that £10.99 price point then I could see some real value to the proposition of going digital, but if you’re purely looking to go mobile or just obtain the film more conveniently then that price surely needs to plummet in order to really threaten the disc formats

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