Thursday, March 8, 2012 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Apple TV 3 and iTunes 1080p

Iljitsch van Beijnum:

The reason that the 1080p versions of the iTunes Store videos can be a good deal better without doubling the file size—or worse—can be found in the tech specs of the new AppleTV and the new iPad. The AppleTV now supports H.264 compression for 1920x1080 resolution video at 30 frames per second using High or Main Profile up to level 4.0, the iPad and the iPhone 4S the same up to level 4.1. The profile indicates what kind of decompression algorithms the H.264 decoder has on board—the "High" profile obviously has some tricks up its sleeve that the "Main" or "Baseline" profiles known to previous devices don’t support. The level value indicates how many blocks or bits per second a device can handle.

In my experience, the old iTunes “HD” videos were heavily compressed and looked only slightly better than DVD-quality. The new 1080p videos are a welcome improvement, but it seems that they don’t compare favorably with cable/satellite, much less Blu-ray.

I’m still not really sold on Apple TV. On the one hand, the selection is getting better. Apple no longer requires you to store and back up your own purchases. With three versions of each video, at increasingly higher resolutions, that was not very practical. Now you can just re-download from iCloud as needed.

On the other hand, TV shows are no longer rentable. If I’m going to buy, why lock myself into lower quality and DRM. It would make sense if I wanted to watch on iOS devices, but I don’t. And iTunes is still not very nice for browsing or searching; it has the wonderful column browser but actively tries to prevent you from using it.

It would be interesting if it could be an alternative to cable, but forces outside Apple’s control block that. Basic cable is almost free for me, in the sense that Comcast would raise my Internet rate by a corresponding amount if I were to unsubscribe from video. I pretty much only get a higher cable package to see NBA games. Apple TV now offers NBA league pass, but during the trial period I found that it was unreliable, the video quality was awful, and blackouts meant that nearly all the games I wanted to see were unavailable.

In short, Apple TV keeps getting better, but I don’t think it’s broken out of hobby status.

Update (2012-03-14): A follow-up article:

I was surprised to see how close the iTunes 1080p download comes to Blu-ray, considering that it’s only a fraction of the file size. And let’s be honest: there are lots of Blu-ray titles that look much worse than this iTunes download. But despite an impressive effort by Apple, Blu-ray still reigns king when it comes to image quality. And unlike iTunes titles, BRDs can have uncompressed multi-channel audio, multiple audio language options, and special features. Am I being greedy in wanting both good-looking downloads for convenience, as well as buy-once-play-anywhere Blu-ray discs of my all-time favorite movies?

The test screen was only 23 inches, and of course the photos don’t capture what movement looks like.

Update (2012-03-20): John Siracusa reviews the Apple TV 3. He doesn’t like the remote, either.

15 Comments

We use ours mainly for Netflix.

"In my experience, the old iTunes “HD” videos were heavily compressed and looked only slightly better than DVD-quality. The new 1080p videos are a welcome improvement, but it seems that they don’t compare favorably with cable/satellite, much less Blu-ray."

For VOD, Amazon to TiVo still leads the picture quality race.

"In short, Apple TV keeps getting better, but I don’t think it’s broken out of hobby status."

Let's assume for a moment that an Apple HDTV is in the pipeline. What does that imply? If I try to think like a Cupertino bean-counter, here's my gameplan:

- The Apple HDTV will have an iPhone-style profit margin.

- The standalone hobby box cannot be competitive with the Apple HDTV, otherwise, why would anyone double the base price for a tricked-out flat-panel if they could replicate the experience with a $100 standalone box?

- So whatever plans Apple may have in the TV space for an App Store, Siri remote control, etc, will never make it to the standalone box.

- To sum, the break out of "hobby" status comes when the HDTV supplants the standalone box. (The standalone box can either be EOL'd, or just not have the features that the HDTV gains.)

"It would be interesting if it could be an alternative to cable, but forces outside Apple’s control block that."

Cable will continue to be the best value proposition for quite a while. But I can imagine an Apple HDTV having enough bells and whistles to sell a bunch of high-priced widgets at a high profit margin to suckers by leveraging the iOS ecosystem, UI innovations, and a-la-carte programming. It won't make dollars and sense to the consumer compared to cable and a good DVR, but that doesn't mean it won't bring in big dollars to Apple.

@Chucky I’d like to see a comparison between Apple TV 1080p and Amazon TiVo. My own visual impression is that Amazon’s 1080p is very good, though not quite as good as Blu-ray. However, I compared some of the file sizes before writing this post and found that Amazon’s were often smaller than the new Apple TV ones. So it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out. I’m not that keen in investing in Amazon video content, either, because I’m not sure about TiVo’s future and their other player options are poor.

That sort of plan would not surprise me. Apple is now firmly in strategy tax land.

Actually, the “good DVR” is one of the other things I find missing from Apple TV. With a DVR, you tell it what you want, and it pushes the new stuff into your “queue.” Apple TV is more of a pull model, which is less convenient.

"I’d like to see a comparison between Apple TV 1080p and Amazon TiVo. My own visual impression is that Amazon’s 1080p is very good, though not quite as good as Blu-ray. However, I compared some of the file sizes before writing this post and found that Amazon’s were often smaller than the new Apple TV ones. So it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out."

You're comparing the Amazon TiVo file sizes to the Apple file sizes? If so, that is interesting. Of course, with Apple's content, you are reliant on very good WAN and LAN internet connections, since the Apple TV can't seriously buffer the way TiVo can. That's not an issue for me, but it may be an issue for some.

"I’m not that keen in investing in Amazon video content, either, because I’m not sure about TiVo’s future and their other player options are poor."

TiVo's future is actually looking bizarrely bright these days. I don't see CableCARD going away in the next 5 years, and TiVo seems to have the products in the pipeline to hold and ever slightly expand their niche. Richard Branson has financed a lot of their development costs with his UK TiVo DVR, the FCC is slowly but surely doing their job, and TiVo's patent portfolio is starting to open up various cableco's VOD options to retail TiVo boxes.

Of course, investing in cloud video content purchases is never particularly wise, compared to the alternatives. My wireline provider kindly sets the CCI byte generously to allow me to locally archive content I want to keep long-term. And Blu-Ray ripping allows me to locally archive a-la-carte content I want to buy, with a handy long-term backup. Plex on a Mini ties the whole room together.

Cloud video seems better suited to rentals than purchases to me in general, but I think purchasing Amazon video for TiVo delivery still gives you multiple years of safe viewing.

"Actually, the “good DVR” is one of the other things I find missing from Apple TV. With a DVR, you tell it what you want, and it pushes the new stuff into your “queue.” Apple TV is more of a pull model, which is less convenient."

But you need a triple digit IQ to use a DVR efficiently. That leaves a big market to be served...

@Chucky Yes, the Amazon TiVo file sizes. It’s probably safe for five years. It just seems like investing at cross purposes. If it ever gets to the point where dropping cable makes sense, you wouldn’t want to keep paying for cable and TiVo to play Amazon VOD. Maybe Amazon will eventually make their own hardware.

The buffering issue seems like just a short matter of time. You’d think Apple could put enough flash in there to buffer a whole movie. I’d certainly love to stop hearing the TiVo hard drive spinning.

Right now, Apple’s HD TV shows are more expensive than Blu-ray. Rental seems like a better model for Internet video. It would be interesting to know why they dropped it.

"If it ever gets to the point where dropping cable makes sense, you wouldn’t want to keep paying for cable and TiVo to play Amazon VOD. Maybe Amazon will eventually make their own hardware."

Exactly. Unless one assumes Amazon disappears or dramatically changes focus, one would assume they'll make their own hardware, or make apps on other hardware. But I don't think cutting cable is going to make sense for a long time. But again, cloud video purchases are inevitably a crapshoot compared to the alternative.

"Right now, Apple’s HD TV shows are more expensive than Blu-ray."

It's been the same at Amazon too. It is strange. Convenience charge.

"It would be interesting to know why they dropped (TV rentals)."

That one I actually know. Because the networks simply won't allow Apple's rental model for TV shows. They don't like it for pretty rational economic reasons from their end.

Remember, last time around, Apple TV rentals only had ABC and FOX, and that was only because Steve-o was the biggest owner of Disney, and had a strange alliance going on with Rupert Murdoch, who was pretty clear that he was only letting FOX TV content be rented on a temporary basis as a favor to Steve-o.

The video content companies have studied how Apple drank the audio content companies' milkshake, and are determined to do everything in their power to keep it from happening to them.

(For parallel reasons, UltraViolet is going to end up mainstream.)

I think the content companies see the MSO model as their trump card. Never forget that most of the content companies are also wireline provider companies, and so are well positioned to maintain the bundled multicast model. The only reason I've got generous CCI byte settings from my wireline provider is that they aren't owners of content companies.

"I’d certainly love to stop hearing the TiVo hard drive spinning."

Huh. I'm sensitive to platter drive noise, and I never hear the TiVo drive. The silent A/V drive advertising copy proved accurate in my case...

Apple doesn't need to stop selling the Apple TV box when they start selling their actual TV (although a name change would be nice). They can keep on selling both. People who need a new TV will buy the new TV. People who don't need new TVs will buy the box and eventually, when they are in the need for one, they will reflect on who they think provide a better user experience, "these guys" (imagining an arm showing Samsung, LG et al) or Apple. It's an imaginary product so I'm not saying that's how it's going down; just that you can make the case either way.

What I'm more flummoxed by is Apple not selling a $20-$50 HDMI dongle just for receiving AirPlay. New versions of HDMI can provide enough power and configuration could happen onscreen or through an app (connecting via Bluetooth so as to not wreck WiFi setup). *If* AirPlay is the only reason most people outside the US, or indeed inside, are buying the Apple TV, that'll prove that something fierce, but Apple usually aren't prone to avoiding those situations.

"Apple doesn't need to stop selling the Apple TV box when they start selling their actual TV"

I don't think it has to be EOL'd. But if you look at the economics, I don't think the standalone box can be anywhere near feature-parity with the HDTV.

(I don't think Apple is going to get into the business of selling HDTV's unless they can sell 'em for twice what a Samsung flat panel costs. And if my math is correct to that point, a feature-parity $99 standalone box means doom. You've got to force consumers into paying the big premium.)

"What I'm more flummoxed by is Apple not selling a $20-$50 HDMI dongle just for receiving AirPlay."

What's the upside in doing that? Even if we forget about the HDTV, why give away the AirPlay goodies without at least making folks look at the Store? iOS beaming is Apple's biggest leverage in doing whatever else they want to do in the TV space. The only way a pure AirPlay dongle makes sense is if Apple utterly gives up on their TV ambitions, and just wants to use TV to enhance the mobile iOS experience. But I think they retain their TV ambitions...

Because it improves the iOS (and soon Mountain Lion) proposition. There's no other built-in way to share visuals (they do support A2DP for sound). They use AirPlay to the exclusion of DLNA and other technologies; making it a more accessible technology is in their interest. If that sells them 0.5% more devices, that's 300 000 more devices sold in a quarter and those devices that don't exactly go for chump change, as per your earlier analysis.

Beyond that, it even makes sense for people who have an Apple TV but aren't interested in carting it around; now you can cart this around as a snazzier VGA cable and get audio for free too. It's a mistake to think that Apple will balk at something just because it'll leave a few Apple TV scalps behind.

"I pretty much only get a higher cable package to see NBA games. Apple TV now offers NBA league pass, but during the trial period I found that it was unreliable, the video quality was awful..."

So you didn't do a full season, I guess.

I'm curious about the full experience of NBA League Pass on Apple TV, considering I spend a quarter of my TV viewing watching the association.

The cableco experience of League Pass is problematic in that only about 1.2 games a night are on in HD. Most of the games are 480i. (Though the cableco experience is nice in that manual comskip on a TiVo of an NBA game is insanely great. You can get an IV drip of all the action between the lines of a game in under an hour and a half with minimal effort.)

I initially was scared off the Apple TV NBA League Pass experience merely by the received idea that spoilers appeared of the scores of games as you navigated your way to a game. But it's too bad to hear that the video quality is lousy. If they eliminated the spoiler issue, and just provided a reasonably low bit-rate, low end 720 feed of all games, it'd be a better service than the cableco League Pass experience, even with a 10% glitch ratio.

Frankly, considering that I've got fibre running into my home, it absolutely appalls me that I can't pay anyone for the simple HD home team feed of every (non-blackout) NBA game. It's on the damn satellite. I've got open dedicated bandwidth to the head office. What up, Verizon and NBA?

Best solution is Netflix rentals on disk which you time-shift using Handbrake. (i.e. don't keep the rip, just watch it at a convenient time)

@Chucky It looked kind of like widescreen VHS with stuttering, compression artifacts, and multi-minute freezes. My connection is about 1 MB/s, and the regular Apple TV streaming is reliable. By comparison, the games on CSNNE (home commentators), EPSN, and TNT are 1080i and look fabulous. The spoiler thing is bad, too, since I often watch late.

"It looked kind of like widescreen VHS with stuttering, compression artifacts, and multi-minute freezes."

That's a shame. The cableco product isn't bad, as long as you can handle a lot of 480i, which still sounds like it's much better feed than what the OTT product delivers.

I've put up with a couple of years of 480i to watch teams I really wanted to watch. Iverson in Denver. The completely predictable '09-'10 breakout season of the Thunder back when they weren't on national TV on a regular basis. (It was like watching an elite college all-star team battle through the league.)

But I don't subscribe every season, and I would subscribe every season via my cableco, at even a noticeably higher price point, if I could only get all the HD feeds. It's nice to really be able to follow a team through the schedule without the inadequacies of 480i.

"The spoiler thing is bad, too"

It's absolutely inexcusable. And a real deal-breaker for me. Don't they understand what they're selling? I just can't fathom the decision-making process that led to that.

"By comparison, the games on CSNNE..."

For some reason, I assumed you were a left coaster. Danny Ainge will go to hell for the Perkins trade. I know they couldn't re-sign him. I know they got Jefffie and a 1st rounder as found money. But everyone knew the window was still open, was about to slam shut, and that they didn't have the bodies without Perkins. Sure they had to replace some minor minutes from Marquis, but not at that price. Trading away a last valid shot at the ring for Jeffie and a 1st rounder to anchor a mediocre future team is a deadly sin.

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Gifts:

- Here's a LaunchBar Basketball Reference Search Template, in case you don't have one set up already, (advanced stats are fun): http://www.basketball-reference.com/player_search.cgi?search=*

- You should be getting access to Comcast VOD via your retail TiVo in the next couple of months, assuming you're Premiere or higher. They've already rolled it out in SF, and are expanding nationwide. Access to higher quality PPV movies than OTT, and available earlier than the OTT window, (though at higher prices). Plus access to free VOD, which is the really nice bonus, especially if you subscribe to any premium channels. I wish my cableco would do such a deal with TiVo...

@Chucky Nope, I’m in New Hampshire. Perkins should have been a Celtic lifer. It’s not clear to me that he couldn’t have been re-signed, and according to Shaq, Ainge knew all along that he wouldn’t be healthy enough to play. So I really don’t know what he was thinking throwing away that season.

Thanks for the search template.

Assuming your NH Comcast is "Boston market", you're up next for getting access to Comcast VOD via TiVo. Rolling out in the next few weeks.

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