1080P, AKA Apple TV’s Downfall

by Hadley Stern Apr 07, 2008

I love my Apple TV. It streams all my music in an easy to use way. My kids can watch their favorite Lego Star Wars video for the umpteenth time (YouTube is my youngest sons idea of television). I can stream photos of just mentioned children to my TV. Watching video podcast rocks. But there is one downfall to Apple TV when it comes to video.

Quality.

Apple is at the moment selling a product that delivers an experience that is not the best it could be. What is the best? 1080P, or Blu-Ray in my case. Watching a movie in 1080P is an unmistakable step up. This is HD on steroids. This is a picture so smooth, clear, sultry and perfect that anything less is....well, less.

And this is, unfortunately, where the Apple TV comes into play. Watching "HD" content on the Apple TV does not compare to the true HD experience of Blu-Ray. Let's put it another way. A Blue Ray disk can hold up to 50 GBS (although, I think most movies are single-side, and use 25GB, anyone knowledgeable on this out there?). An Apple downloadable rental, or purchase comes in about a gig. Sure there is some compression in there (which is part of the problem). But take something that is 25 or 50 times bigger in file-size and chance are it is going to look a heck of a lot better.

We live with this compromise in digital music partly because, unless we are audiophile wonks, it's pretty hard to tell the difference between an iTunes Music store purchase and a compact disc. But this is not the case with movies. Even the most unsophisticated viewer will be able to tell the difference between Apple's version of HD and Blu-Ray. Apple's version isn't even as good at HD on television (at least in my case with FIOS HD). Apple TV may render HD by the letter of the law, but it certainly doesn't even come close to abiding by the technical definition.

Renting a movie on iTunes was, as is typical of most Apple user experiences, a pleasurable and straightforward task; handing over $4.99 has never been so easy. But compared to Netflix, who provide Blue Ray movies for the same price as DVDs, (unlike Apple which has a price difference of a dollar between regular resolution and their version of HD) iTunes rental is not compelling if you have a Blue Ray player. It is undeniably more convenient, but if you have spent all this money on a Blue Ray player and a 1080p set watching movies from an Apple TV is absurd.

So how can Apple address this? I am not sure of the technical issues streaming Blu-Ray-like quality over the internet but I'm sure it is difficult at best. But it will happen, it is just a matter of who does it first. Here Apple has an opportunity to be a leader in technology, much like it was with Ethernet, SCSI, FireWire, and not having floppies. This is a technical and logistical challenge and Apple is up to the task. Unfortunately right now Apple has released a product that is as expensive or more expensive for far less quality. Apple TV 2 was a huge step up. But the time for Apple TV 3 is sooner rather than later if Apple really wants any meaningful participation in the digital family room.

What do you think? Am I being too picky? Is Apple TV HD quality enough? Or am I spot on? Let me know below.

Comments

  • I thought the Apple TV only HD rentals were “1080P” in resolution and came in 4-5 Gigs in size. Blu-Ray disk utilize both layers though.

    Tanner Godarzi had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 70
  • Hi,

    AppleTV HD is 720P. Still, this is best viewing experiene I have had so far. Please do not foget that in most countries, DSL means somehing between 512Kbit/s and 2 Mbit/s and results in HUGE download times if Apple will really go 1080P in the near future.

    Even today the intersection of HD TV owners and High Speed DSL owners is not that large. And of those, most have not ever heard of the Apple TV to begin with.

    So I think it the best to stay with 720P at the moment and get a larger customer base first, then go to 1080P if the infrastructure can support it.

    Best

    Jan Fuellemann

    Fuellemann had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 3
  • But there is one downfall to Apple TV when it comes to video…Quality.

    The AppleTV hardware is capable of both 720p and 1080p HD rez and 16:9 and even anamorphic aspect ratios.

    The issue at hand is not technical capabilities of the ÓTV but the current pipe width from Cupertino to your home.

    True, Blue-Ray is today considered the best HD carrier. It provides exactly the same encoding format - MPEG4 H264/AAC/AC3/DTS as the one you can get from iTunes HD rentals.

    The similarities end there. What really makes the Blue-Ray’s pix quality is, get this, the <u>BITRATE</u>. Whereas Blue-Ray is typical multiplexed rate is 50Mbps, iTunes HD rentals’ typical muxed bitrate is only a measly 2-4Mbps.

    That big difference is where the detail in each frame. Each frame is subdivided into regions, then to macroblocks as small as 4x4 pixels. Each of those must have <u>enough</u> bits to render precisely at the decoder - the display engine. With only just enough to recreate, as the ÓTV then the remaining bits must be extrapolated - guessed at.

    Although, ÓTV quality is watchable it isn’t meant for as archival quality. Not even close. ÓTV is not competing with Blu-Ray here, where BR costs over $20 and iTS HD rental is $4.99.

    So, although I agree that the ÓTV is lacking in quality vis-a-vis compared to BR, this quality in bitrate (equating bigger filesize Tanner) will be offered as we progress towards bigger pipes to homes.

    Like my encoding/decoding research in the past year, 4-8Mbps H264 encoding for any aspect ratios up to 1080p is bare minimum for a very good HD quality. 8-10Mbps is comparable to a 50+ Mbps Blu-Ray muxed stream rate.

    I still like ÓTV’s chances in the living room. It only needs a DVR & digital tuner to complete the package - and I expect that with Take 3 soon. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Hi,

    agree, but since I do not need a DVR and my TV already has a digital tuner, I need Safari to surf the web. Best would be to synchronize my bookmarks AND I want that bluetooth keyboard but WITH a trackpad (so it looks like a MacBook keyboard with trackpad).

    Then I can settle on my couch wink

    Fuellemann had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 3
  • The problem of it being “HD ready” or “True HD” is only minor.
    I live in Europe and up till now, it seems that Rights and Lows in Europe forbids the usage of itunes movies here. I wouldn’t mind at all if I could watch every movie I chose @ 720p. The simplicity this action involves is amazing. But, if you take a look in itunes stores in other countries in Europe, you will notice the complete absence of movies!!! Some only have video clips and thats all they have!. Some countries don’t even have movie video clips!!!
    So for us, this is the real problem and not 1080p, which is not yet ready for streaming…

    diogenis had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 5
  • Hi diogenes,

    I just buy iTunes Gift Certificates for the US iTunes Store and thus can access all the content in the US iTunes Store from here in Berlin. It is a lot of fun to download and watch movies right from the living room.

    Fuellemann had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 3
  • Yes, but to do this first you need to have an account in the US itunes. To have an account there, it means that you must be a US resident. Otherwise you break the ULA.
    No, this is not the proper way: I don’t intend to break the law to pay for a service :p. Consumerism should have some limitations.
    They should finally resolve the situation with Europe and the rest of the World once and for all, if they truly want apple TV to succeed. Incidentally, in Europe I don’t think there is a netflix or netflix like service, so there is a lot less competition. Also, posts work a little different in Greece at least (I dunno for the rest of europe). As far as I know, in USA all you need do is place your mail for pickup in that mailbox of yours. In Europe we still need to to the local shop, which is out of the question for some, or use some dropboxes, which also present further limitations as to how many dvds you can put in one of them.

    diogenis had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 5
  • Jan,

    The problem with that is that Blu-Ray is really picking up steam and Apple needs to match the best quality out there. People are spending a lot of money on their high-def TVs and spending another 300 bucks on an Apple TV which doesn’t make the most use of the TV won’t be convincing in the marketplace.

    Robomac,

    Thanks very much for the details on resolution. If the Apple TV is 1080p capable why not make it available for people like me who have FIOS?

    Diogenis,

    thanks for the European perspective. I’m from Canada originally so I know too well the frustrations of having to wait for technology to move beyond the US. Not sure what the solution is there though.

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 114
  • this blog post wasn’t done very well. two bad omissions of known facts:

    - as Infidel points out, the ATV hardware CAN and DOES handle 1080p. so the limitation is really with the iTunes service, not the ATV hardware. thus this post is mis-directed.

    - the competing Vudu system does offer 1080p rentals/purchases - using its own torrent-like download network of Vudu units. reportedly it works well. the post fails to mention this very significant available alternative.

    the one thing the post does well is discuss the pricing differential between ATV/iTunes and Netflix/BluRay movie rentals. you pay quite a bit more for on-line rentals and get somewhat less in picture quality with much worse usage limitations. for me, this - not the PQ issue - is the fatal flaw of the ATV. i figured out quickly the money i save renting by mail will pay for the cost of buying a PS3 in a few years.

    Alfiejr had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 18
  • 1080p does not have to happen via AppleTV any time soon and it is doubtful that anyone will really care. If quality is king BluRay wins for the next 5-10 years. The reason is simple, bandwidth or the lack there of. On a good cable connection you can watch an Apple 720p HD movie almost immediately. I don’t have statistics on this but I would guess that we are talking about less than 25% of the current US broadband homes have this throughput. If you up this to 1080p you more than triple bandwidth. So now I have to wait 3 hours to start a 1.5 hour movie and the homes that could start watching it in real time drop to probably 5% or less.

    So, someone can fix my numbers above if they have more information but I’m guessing I’m close. So the second question is what does it buy you. And the rule of thumb that many people in the industry go with is that at a viewing distance of 10+ feet you need a 50+ inch TV to see the difference between 1080p and 720p. So yes, 1080p is better but most viewers will not notice it.

    AppleTV as it relates to HD Video rentals is currently at the sweet spot. It sells on instant gratification, not on max quality. All that has to happen to make it better is more selection.

    Doug Petrosky had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 26
  • 1080p is why I don’t have an AppleTV, and why instead I use a Mac Mini running the port of XBMC (the original XBox Media Center). It plays 1080p content perfectly, and does lots of other stuff AppleTV will never do. You can check it out for yourself at http://www.osxbmc.com.

    leafmuncher had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 1
  • It does seem that the main complaint here is the iTunes rental service, not the ATV itself.  If you never have any interest in renting HD movies, then the ATV is probably a fine enough media center.  I currently use the Xbox 360 to stream content from my Mac, and it works great.  The ATV probably has a better interface and it syncs (the Xbox only streams) with the trade-off being a lack of gaming.

    I have yet to rent an HD movie on the Xbox but the HD trailers look spectacular - way better than HD cable.  The prices and selection are comparable to the ATV - ie crappy and too expensive.

    I keep toying with the idea of getting an ATV, with no desire whatever for the HD rentals, just the ability to easily get content from my Mac to my HDTV.  If I didn’t already have the Xbox, I think the ATV would fit the bill pretty nicely.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • If the Apple TV is 1080p capable why not make it available for people like me who have FIOS? -Hadley

    The market isn’t there to make such big expense on big, fat pipes just yet. More on this later…

    To prove if your ÓTV unit can do 1080p, sync it up with your external iTunes library (PC/Mac) hoping you have encoded by way of Handbrake of 1080p/H264/AAC content? wink Then use FrontRow to find your “external” library and see if I’m wrong.

    I sync mine with two Mac minis with HD content and works just fine.

    So, the limitations is currently iTunes HD rentals. They are not meant for HD purists like us, unfortunately.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Current 1Gbps and newer 10Gbps L2/L3 switches & routers in the data centers can barely keep up with demand for bandwidth today.

    What will be needed are the latest 150Gbps OC-3072 ATM/Ethernet switches to sufficiently have enough bandwidth for everyone wanting VoD+IPTV+1Gbps data delivery.

    Today’s economics just can’t afford such massive overhaul for the few privileged FIOS HD subscribers. I am not saying the technology won’t get there. It will just baby-step along the way to that goal.

    After all, we HD afficionados will push the carriers faster than they are willing to invest. It will be the chicken that crosses the road the fastest won’t end up roadkill. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 07, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Apparently, since the BBC launched their streaming iPlayer onto the web, which shows recent TV shows at a quality somewhere between VHS and DVD, ISP’s in the UK have seen a 20% surge in network traffic, and are afraid that they will be put out of business, as they can’t afford to maintain that level of constant net traffic without putting up their prices or having the content provider (i.e. the BBC) subsidise their running costs. The BBC have told them where they can stick it.

    What does this mean? It means that HD streaming/downloading from, say, iTunes store at the quality we’d like will see the end of those £8.99/month allegedly up to 8Mb, allegedly unlimited broadband connections once and for all. In Hong Kong, you can get a 100Mb/s net connection. In the UK, most people get between 1Mb and 4Mb. My American father-in-law lives in the sticks and gets a 22k dial-up. To get anything else he’d need satellite at a cost of $99/month.

    BluRay will be the equivalent of SACD/DVD-A in the audio market. DVD is so cheap for the quality, and most HDTV owners think they are watching HD because that’s what their TV is. If the network bandwidth problems can be solved then Apple will do very well in a few years time. Let them iron out their problems and sort 480p/576p pics at 8mb/s delivery, and people will be happy enough.

    evilcat had this to say on Apr 08, 2008 Posts: 66
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