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Thursday, February 14, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Apple TV Take 2 review (part 2): HD Movie comparisons


Competition from Cable and Satellite HD

The third major competitor supplying HD content is cable and satellite vendors. They can rival the bandwidth available to download services, but rather than providing content on demand and billed a la carte, they sell subscriptions to as many channel feeds as they can carry. In order to deliver as many channels as possible, they heavily compress their signals, defeating their bandwidth advantage.

While cable providers are moving toward on demand services, they typically only have around 300 movie titles available for viewing. Like the download services, they commonly use the 720p HD format, although some also use 1080 interlaced, which delivers a similar effective resolution as 720p.

Gaining access to the channel-oriented delivery of cable and satellite providers commonly requires a DVR to sift through the channels and grab desired content for later viewing. This makes cable a sort of middling offering between the NetFlix-like subscription rental model for physical discs and the Apple TV model for downloading content on demand. Cable and DVR have some of the weaknesses of both: delayed satisfaction and bandwidth limitations that require compromising on quality.

Cost Comparisons

For users who watch occasional movies up to a couple films a week, Apple TV is among the cheapest options even considering the upfront cost of buying the hardware. For users who plan to watch a movie every day, the cost of $4 or $5 rentals from download services adds up quickly, highlighting the value of an all you can eat service like Netflix. At the same time, there are barely 300 HD movies currently available in any format, from either downloads or discs. To watch one every day, you'd have to literally watch everything.

This chart (below) shows a comparison of first year costs, which include any hardware purchases required , and second year costs, which only involve rental and ongoing subscription fees. Highlighted numbers indicate the cheapest options for users watching two movies per month, two per week, or a one every night of the year. Many users will likely mix and match services rather than picking one exclusively. This tends to favor Apple TV, which not only offers a cheap and convenient way to download occasional HD movies, but does a lot of other things that competing systems don't do.

Apple TV 2.0


Picture Quality Comparisons

Apple TV stacks up pretty well just considering the convenience and cost advantages it provides. Given the bandwidth limitations inherent with movie downloads, it would seem hard to believe that Apple TV's HD downloads could compete with Blu-Ray in terms of quality. Gizmodo invented a quality timeline that put VHS at 1 and Blu-Ray at 10, and arbitrarily placed HD cable at 7 and Apple TV at 5. However, Charles Starrett of iLounge took screen shot photos that indicate that scale actually needs to tip in favor of Apple TV.

The article Apple TV 2.0 vs. Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable: The Comparison presents a variety of still and action shots comparing an upconverted DVD, HD cable, Apple TV, and Blu-Ray disc played by a PS3. In static images, Apple TV's HD downloads were sharper and more defined than upconverted DVD and less pixelated than the noisy, highly compressed HD Cable, although still softer than Blu-Ray.

These examples from Live Free or Die Hard zoom in to exaggerate detail; a viewer on the couch wouldn't see as much of an overall difference; Starrett noted that "because of its cleaner motion and audio, we felt that the Apple experience was better in both overall audio and video quality than the HD cable experience, and for most users, superior to renting a standard DVD as well"

Apple TV 2.0

HD picture quality comparison photos via iLounges Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable comparison


In motion sequences, Starrett wrote that the Apple TV download "exhibited little in the way of motion blur or compression artifacts—it looked as good as could be expected from 720p, which is to say comfortably better than DVD quality, but shy of the best a Blu-Ray Disc can offer on a top TV. The Apple TV video also contained a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio track, which the HD cable version did not, and its sound didn’t suffer from obvious compression issues like the cable version did."

The example photos he took indicated that Apple TV's HD clips could closely rival Blu-Ray, and where much better than the noisy upconverted DVD and far superior to the pixelated, heavily compressed HD cable version. In addition to having better audio than cable, Apple TV also presented the movie in its normal theatrical screen format; the cable version was presented as an open matte, which fills up the screen but is not accurate to how the director intended to present the film.

Apple TV 2.0

HD picture quality comparison photos via iLounges Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable comparison


As we presented in the previous installment, the encoding quality performed by the studios that submit their content to download services like iTunes can vary greatly. Individual DVDs and Blu-Ray discs can also vary in quality between movies depending how much effort was put into the mastering process. HD cable providers also get varying levels of quality in the content they deliver, but their distribution systems rely so heavily on compression to serve up quantity rather than quality that heavy artifacting and muddy sound are pretty much a given.

It seems pretty clear that Apple TV's HD quality is decent enough to compete against the technically superior HD disc formats and also improves over upconverted DVD. It also offers convenience and price advantages for casual renters that make it a compelling alternative to disc players. Add in the fact that Apple TV does a whole lot more than just rent movies, and it's clear why Apple invested so much into revising the unit.

Where to buy Apple TV

Apple TV 40GB (MacMall) $217.28 (reflected at checkout)
Apple TV 160GB (MacMall) $314.28 (reflected at checkout)
Apple TV 40GB (Amazon.com) $229
Apple TV 160GB (Amazon.com) $329
Apple TV 40GB (OnSale.com) $224.00
Apple TV 160GB (OnSale.com) $324
Apple TV 40GB (B&H Photo) $229.00
Apple TV 160GB (B&H Photo) $325.00
Apple TV 40GB (Buy.com) $227.63