Recently, I downloaded a high-def TV show through iTunes to watch on my Mac Mini Home Theater. Was this the seamless 'on-demand' experience I had hoped for... not exactly.
So, I'm a little late to the game and I decided to check out AMC's Mad Men television show. Thanks to Netflix, I worked through the three disks of Season 1 just in time to set up my DirecTV DVR to record the Season 2 marathon. The next day, I sat down to start Season 2 and it began with a recap of Season 1... only during the recap I realized that I somehow must have missed an entire episode, specifically the season finale. I had already returned the disk to Netflix, so my solution for an instant fix was to buy the episode off of iTunes.
Purchasing via iTunes
Anyone who has used iTunes for purchases before knows that it's generally very easy to find what you're looking for. A quick search in the text field got my right where I wanted, but I could have easily browsed through the links and genres in the iTunes store interface to find my television show.
I was given the option to purchase the entire season or single episodes at a time. Additionally, I could choose either High Definition or Standard Definition.
I planned to watch this on my Mac Mini home theater setup, so I opted for the HD version. Once Apple validated my account credentials, the download began. Conveniently, Apple sends you both the HD version for your computer/AppleTV device, as well as the SD version for your iPod. Unfortunately, the estimated download time was over 2 hours. This obviously wasn't going to be something I could start streaming immediately... so I was going to have to wait yet another day to find out what happened to Don and the gang in the season finale.
Watching my HD Download
The following day, the download was complete so it was time to check out my TV show...almost. The show appeared in iTunes as well as the Front Row application, but when I selected it, I was given the warning at the top of the page -- one of my display devices wasn't HDCP compliant. I didn't understand how -- my Mac Mini was connected to two HDTV's in mirrored mode using "Mini DVI to HDMI" and "Display Port to DVI" using a DVI to HDMI cable. I thought instead I could just play the SD version of the show since I was now growing impatient, but I couldn't find an option anywhere to play just the SD version. After some digging around online, I discovered that the Display Port on the new Mac Mini does not support HDCP unless you happen to have one of Apple's fancy new displays. Instead, I disconnected the monitor attached to the Display Port and voila! I had video!
Picture and Sound Quality
Picture quality was excellent. I had watched the majority of Season 1 on BluRay and the picture quality from the HD iTunes download was on par with the blu-ray picture. While there isn't a ton of action, the costumes and set pieces are incredible and definitely worthy of the HD treatment. As a side note: at this time, DirecTV does NOT carry AMC in High Def, so this really was the only way for me to get Mad Men in HD. As such, I'll forgo watching Mad Men Season 3 on DirecTV and instead wait for a blu-ray or iTunes HD download.
As for sound, I'm under the impression that Apple does not support Dolby Digital for surround sound, but according to the FAQ on Apple's support page they do support Dolby Pro Logic:
Do movies support surround sound?
Yes. Movies include audio which is encoded using Dolby Surround which delivers multichannel audio when played using Dolby Pro Logic systems.
Unfortunately, this is probably enough to prevent me from using iTunes for any action movie downloads/rentals, but for most TV shows, the quality is fine. I would have to do an A/B comparison test to offer any more comments on the sound, but for my Season Finale, the sound was good.
Aside from a few technical hiccups, the overall experience was good. I'd like to do a few more tests to see if my download times were typical or if things might speed up in the future. It would be great if an HD movie or television show could begin playing after only a few seconds of buffering. Also, I'd appreciate it if Apple could provide some additional error messaging to help with the HDCP issue, but in all honesty, I couldn't reproduce the error while writing this article so it's possible a recent iTunes upgrade or perhaps the Perian codec helper I recently installed may have fixed the issue. Based on the picture quality alone, I would love it if Apple offered an "all you can eat" option like Netflix. I still find the pricing a bit prohibitive in trying to justify it against the DirecTV and Netflix bills I already have, but I would seriously consider dropping the two and focusing all purchases through iTunes for month or two to test out if the economics work in my favor. After a bit of finagling, I finally got everything working and the results were quite good.
What did you think of this review?