Wednesday, September 17, 2008

HD TV Shows at iTunes Store

With the recent release of iTunes 8.0, Steve Jobs and company at Apple has also made available, for customers at Apple's iTunes Store, TV shows in high-definition for the first time.

HD episodes of Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives, The Office, 30 Rock, Monk, Lost, and many other hit series can be purchased for $2.99, $1.00 more than the standard-def versions.

When you click on a "Buy Episode" button in iTunes, if the episode is HD, what you are supposed to be buying and downloading is actually two versions of the show, one HD and the other SD.

I find that there is a bug in Apple's implementation, however. If you use a Shopping Cart at the iTunes Store, rather than 1-Click Shopping, you can't get the HD shows. In my tests, you only get the SD version placed in your cart, not the HD. Then when you click on "Buy Now," the SD version only is downloaded.

Other people have reported online that they don't even get the SD version, just an indication that the show is mysteriously "unavailable."

The solution is to go into iTunes Preferences, under "Store," and click "Buy and download using 1-Click." That deselects "Buy using a Shopping Cart." (Make sure you have emptied your cart before doing this.) Now when you click a "Buy Episode" button, you will get an iTunes dialog asking you to confirm your purchase (unless you have previously told iTunes to disable this message). Once you authorize the purchase, the download will begin immediately of the two versions of the show.

iTunes 8.0 will then have both versions in its library. You can play either one, either in iTunes 8.0 or in QuickTime Player 7.5.5 (which, if you don't already have it, you need to get).

The HD version of the first episode of Monk, Season 7, "Mr. Monk Buys a House," is currently a freebie. It plays with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels with a total bit rate of 4541 kbps. (QT Player shows the data rate as being a bit lower: 4107.45 kbits/s.) This is true 720p resolution.

QT Player's numbers for the SD version are 853 x 480 non-square pixels in a 720 x 480 frame, at 1624.86 kbits/s. The SD file for this close-to-one-hour show takes up 509.8 MB, while the HD version uses 1.37 GB — nearly three times the storage.

The HD version plays just fine on my Apple TV, either when synced or streamed, with full resolution that is visibly better than that of the SD version.

Despite what I seem to have read online, it does not appear that iTunes 8.0 is smart enough, if you inadvertently try to sync an HD show to your iPod Touch, to substitute the SD equivalent. Instead, you have to manually arrange to sync the SD version. (I sync TV Shows using a selected playlist; syncing TV Shows by show rather that playlist, however, does not get around this problem.)

This shortfall, though minor, points up the inherent problem with the way Apple is implementing HD. It looks to me as if the only reason to bundle an SD version with an HD show is for the benefit of the iPod. (Maybe some older Macs than my MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.5.4 will, like an iPod, refuse to play HD, but I don't know this for a fact.)

If the iPod Touch (or iPhone) could just be updated so that it would play HD versions, downrezzing them as necessary for the coarser screen, Apple could omit the SD version entirely — saving about 20 percent on download time and storage requirements, plus obviating the iTunes Store bug that causes problems when using the Shopping Cart.

Coming alongside the iTunes and QuickTime upgrades was an upgrade (version 2.1) to my iPod Touch software. As part of the upgrade, there was a concurrent upgrade to the iPod's firmware. I wasn't aware that iPods have upgradeable firmware, but since they do, I have to wonder whether they could be made compatible with HD video.

HD video as implemented at the iTunes Store has higher bitrates than the iPod can nominally keep up with, and probably uses B-frames ("bidirectional video frames") to slim down storage requirements. But if the iPod's bitrate limit and allergy to B-frames could be overcome, voila: (albeit downrezzed) HD video!

I can pretty much guarantee that future iPods/iPhones will have it. Is there any hope for current 'Pods?

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