Apple TV 2.0 vs. Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable: The Comparison [updated] | iLounge Article


Apple TV 2.0 vs. Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable: The Comparison [updated]

Apple calls them “high-definition movie rentals,” but to people familiar with Blockbuster Video, Netflix, and HD cable box alternatives, Apple TV 2.0’s new ability to download and play back certain 720p movies is more of a “video on demand” service—with certain advantages and limitations. So how do Apple’s HD movie downloads compare with DVDs, Blu-Ray Discs, and currently available HD video on demand content? We did a direct comparison to help you see the differences.

Updated February 14, 2008: Based on reader requests, we have added an additional set of comparison photos to this article, showing how an Apple TV 2.0 “standard-definition” movie rental looks alongside the other versions. We have been awaiting comment from Apple regarding whether or not its standard-definition rentals are truly DVD-quality, as was suggested during the announcement of Apple TV 2.0 in January; our photographs seem to suggest otherwise. To help you quickly distinguish between Apple TV’s HD and SD rentals, we’ve put new labels on these shots to differentiate them, and made minor text updates to note references to the HD Apple TV video; in all photos, the SD rental is clearly less detailed than the HD Apple TV version, as well as the DVD. If you’ve previously viewed this page, please reload the images to see the updated HD labels on the prior Apple TV images.

The Film and the Equipment

After reviewing all of the options in Apple’s catalog of 75 high-definition movies, we chose 20th Century Fox’s Live Free or Die Hard (known as Die Hard 4.0 overseas) as a test film. Unlike the majority of the other films in the library, Live Free or Die Hard was not only available in Blu-Ray Disc and DVD versions, but also could be downloaded as a HD video on demand from our cable provider, Bright House Networks, using a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD set top box. Additionally, the latest Die Hard was one of relatively few live-action movies in Apple’s collection from 2007—unlike older films such as Superfly or cartoon content such as The Simpsons Movie, we could rely on the quality of the HD video transfer and different types of action, dialogue, and detailed scenes as fairly representative of other modern films. For our tests, we bought both discs and rented videos from both Bright House and Apple.


We used a very recent 40” Sony Bravia XBR4 television with 1080p and 120Hz support for our testing, and set all of our HDMI-connected playback devices to display at their best possible resolutions: the Blu-Ray Disc player was a PlayStation 3 console at 1080p, the Apple TV was set to its new 1080p mode, the Scientific Atlanta cable box was set to its maximum of 1080i, and the DVD player was the same PlayStation 3 at 1080p, set on normal upscaling mode. Four test screens were picked as representative of the film’s content, and a Nikon camera was used to shoot each paused screen at 1/80 of a second.

What We Saw

While the Blu-Ray version was the clear winner of the bunch, we were surprised by how well the Apple TV fared in comparison to the other formats we tested. Its weakest performance was in the straight shot-for-shot resolution test, where we looked at how all four devices displayed a scene with fine details. Here, the Blu-Ray Disc’s image couldn’t be beat—it is capable of putting out a true 1080p (1920x1080, 2.0 Megapixels, 60fps) signal with the right source material, and with Die Hard, it had a clear edge on detail when viewed up close. By comparison, the cable on-demand HD video displayed at 1080i (1920x1080, 2.0 Megapixels, 30fps), which made its output look very similar to the Blu-Ray when paused, and in some cases, better than Apple TV, for which HD videos are capped at 720p (1280x720, 0.9 Megapixels, 60fps), while DVDs run at 480i (720x480, 0.35 Megapixels, 30fps) before upscaling. Each device was set up to let it make the most of its video signal on the Sony’s 1080p display. You can see the differences below—look to the people to see how finely they’re rendered by each device.


Yet, other than in still image tests, the resolution numbers didn’t necessarily make one video better than another: compression, motion, color, and aspect ratio were other differentiators. Four of the versions—Blu-Ray, HD/SD Apple TV, and DVD—presented Live Free or Die Hard in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, while the cable version reformatted the film to roughly 16:9, resulting in an image that better fills your TV but has other issues. When we actually watched the cable HD video, we noticed that it contained more blurring and artifacts during fast-moving scenes than we saw in either competing HD format, and had the most highly compressed sounding, worst audio of any of the formats we tested. In other words, the cable box’s video might hit a peak of 1080i resolution, but what you actually see and hear from second to second will be compressed enough that you don’t get a better experience than a lower-resolution 720p Apple TV video.


Smaller letterbox black bars aside, the cable video’s only positive was color: in person, though the photos mightn’t show it, we’d give a slight edge to the cable version. All five versions displayed very similar color range, but the cable image looked a little more lively, perhaps because had more of the screen to occupy with colors rather than black. The Apple TV, Blu-Ray, and DVD colors were all neutral and clean; no one would complain about their accuracy.


Note that getting the Scientific Atlanta cable box to pause on precisely the same frame as the other devices was a challenge; the cable box doesn’t offer the same precision pause, rewinding, and forwarding controls of the other devices.

What impressed us about the Apple TV HD rental was that the video, despite needing to be sent over the Internet rather than residing comfortably on a DVD or Blu-Ray Disc, 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.


A motion test revealed the heavier artifacting and blurring present in the HD cable version, which on paper should have looked better than the Apple TV and DVD versions, but didn’t.


The same high-motion scene in its full-frame presentation.

Because of its cleaner motion and audio, we felt that the HD Apple TV 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.


It’s also worth noting that the Blu-Ray Disc’s biggest video and audio advantages are real, but will be lost on many HDTV users. Since the majority of HDTVs sold before 2007 were not capable of displaying true 1080p output—most were capped at 720p or 1080i—the superior video quality of the Blu-Ray versions of movies won’t be noticeable on such sets, and the difference between the Apple TV and Blu-Ray versions will be less noticeable. If you’re using a TV without the ability to display 1080p video—especially if you don’t have a receiver capable of decoding the Blu-Ray Disc’s DTS-HD signal—an Apple TV rental will be an almost complete substitute for renting the Blu-Ray.

Cost and Convenience

That brings us to the final points: cost and convenience. Both of the on-demand HD rental services, cable and Apple TV, charged the same $4.99 fee to rent Live Free or Die Hard for a 24-hour viewing period, but the rentals worked differently. The cable box downloaded the video for immediate viewing—ready to start within 20-30 seconds, even if you want to skip around in the video—as many times as you want in a 24-hour period, disabling it under any conditions after 24 hours. By comparison, the Apple TV HD rental requires at least 2-3 minutes of downloading time before you can start watching, and takes an hour or so to finish downloading, but keeps an unwatched video for 30 days, letting you start and finish watching it as many times as you want over a 24-hour period. These are small differences, but Apple TV’s formula is more convenient if you want to queue a bunch of videos for playback whenever you’re ready, assuming you have the hard disk space to store them.


Fine details on Bruce Willis’ face are considerably easier to see on the Blu-Ray version of the video; Apple TV does well, too.

Netflix and Blockbuster Video have a clear advantage over these services: pricing. Blockbuster’s monthly rental packages start at $3.99, and Netflix’s at $4.99, letting you rent and return a number of movies for the same price as the cable box and Apple TV let you see only one. Both Blockbuster and Netflix rent both DVDs and high-definition discs, with much larger libraries of both than Apple or your cable box can offer. Assuming you already have a DVD or high-definition disc player, you needn’t buy special Apple TV hardware or rent an HD cable box. But with Blockbuster and Netflix, you have to actually return each video after you’re done, whereas the Apple TV and cable option requires no such effort. Once you’ve bought into Apple’s or your cable company’s on-demand hardware, returns aren’t an issue.

From where we stand, frequent and quality-sensitive video watchers will find Netflix or Blockbuster to be better month-to-month values for HD video rentals than Apple TV or on-demand cable services, while Apple TV provides an option that’s in the upper middle of the pack on quality and the best on convenience, so long as you’re willing to pay the $229-$329 cost of entry. The question is: are you?

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I’ve had a plasma 1080i HDTV for a year and a half, and we just got HD cable (actually Dish’s Echostar service).  For a year and a half I was gritting my teeth from watching a crappy signal on an excellent tv.

After being blown away by the increase in quality to cable HD, I’ve been looking into getting a Playstation 3 for BluRay content.  From these pictures, I’m just as pleased with the upscaling DVD as the Apple TV and BluRay pictures.

In other words, my eye isn’t discerning enough to really crave the BluRay.  I already have a cheapo upscaling DVD player, and I’ve been pretty pleased with the picture quality.

It looks like Hollywood will have to completely abandon the DVD format before I switch.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 11:27 AM (CST)


If the Apple TV played ONLY movies, then yes,  Netflix or Blockuster would be the better option. But that’s not the case. Apple TV has many more features offered in its total package. With online purchasing and renting of music and videos, access to Flickr and YouTube, streaming, etc., Apple TV is the right choice for me.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 11:37 AM (CST)


NIce comparison. Helpful. I’m most freaked out, though, but the additional top and bottom image area that is present in the HD Cable version. I realize it’s reformatting for 16:9 and I realize it’s losing a bit of image on the sides, but holy crap, why don’t the other’s include that top and bottom image. It’s like they’re cutting off more of the image to give more of a widescreen effect than is appropriate.

Am I just ignorant of something here, or is this as glaring as it appears.

FWIW, I considered that this was due to different frame captures since the cable box was less accurate in that regard, but that’s not the case.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 1:04 PM (CST)


i’m a brit living in los angeles
and i got apple tv some time ago
primarily to watch my downloaded uk tv shows
on my bravia.
obviously,there’s the converting and transfering process to go through
but after that i’m pretty happy with the result - even the image quailty
(and some of the sources are a bit dodgy!)

but there is more to apple tv than that kind of usage or the new movie download rentals.
for instance, i have my iphoto library loaded
and me and the family spend a little too much time watching those scroll by.
maybe the best way of looking at old photos i’ve ever seen.

i also use youtube on there
calling up songs or clips
as i want and end up getting stuck on that for much longer than i would on my puter.

just thorght i’d mention these couple of surprisingly nice bonus features.


Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 1:08 PM (CST)



This surprised us as well. Even more strange is the lack of a “Original Theatrical Aspect” notice on the cases of the Blu-Ray and DVD versions of the film. As I personally didn’t see the film in theaters, I can’t say with any certainty whether the film was shown in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio seen in the BR, DVD, and Apple TV versions of the film, or whether the extra imagery seen in the cable PPV version is actually closer to what was seen during the film’s theatrical release.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 1:17 PM (CST)


Cable also compresses the video signal - it might be listed as 1080i but technically, it’s not. It’s been compressed by the upload and then after it’s downloaded and sent out. So, even though they are listing and “sending out” numbers like 1080i, it’s nowhere near the original file that was used to create the BR disc ... (even that is compressed) ... satellite compressed SD to an even greater degree ... a true broadcast HD comparison would be to get it from an antenna - the only comparison might be Star Trek: TV series? One of the few on HD (though not Blu Ray), airing in HD on some stations and available in iTunes ...

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 2:08 PM (CST)


This is all very well and good, but what about a discussion on the audio?

A compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack running at a low bitrate, compared to the lossless soundtrack of a blu-ray? The video resolution is only half the story….

Dolby Digital sounds muddy compared to the pristine sounds of the modern lossless audio codecs found on high definition discs.

In addition, the newer blu-rays are offering 7.1 soundtracks, uncompressed. How does Apple TV and cable compare to that?

Not very.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 2:18 PM (CST)


Wow, nice job guys!

Don’t forget, you have to wait another 30 days to watch on ATV or Cable after Netflix gets the movie. Assuming it’s in stock. And there is no option to buy the movie on the ATV.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 2:37 PM (CST)


I have tried all options thus far and I can say the netflix price per month is good - but I have found myself not geting the movie in the mail when I wanted and then needing to run to the store to rent. plus sending back scratched versions that don’t play sucks.

renting from store is a process of driving looking getting and then never returning the movie - cost usally 2 times the rent price.

CABLE - is out - selection sucks

Apple TV - looked great downloaded and streamed in 2 minutes - no storage after watching was nice - plus - I tested placing the movie on MY iPod and iphone and took it on a trip——something the artical missed——- very cool to be able to take away!

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 3:52 PM (CST)



Just to clarify, movies rented through the Apple TV (both SD and HD) cannot be transferred to an iPhone, iPod, or a PC/Mac. However, movies rented from the iTunes Store on a computer (instead of through the Apple TV interface) can be transferred to the Apple TV for viewing.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 4:01 PM (CST)


BD definitely looks the best.  Apple TV looks surprisingly good, and HD cable is downright scary at times.  SD DVD?  Well, they had a good run of 10 years.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 5:14 PM (CST)


Just a small correction. In the article, it’s stated that DVD is 480p before upscaling. That’s not true. DVD, all DVDs, are 480i. It’s up to the player to deinterlace the video to get 480p.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 5:18 PM (CST)


I can answer the aspect ratio question.  What you are seeing on Apple TV and the BluRay disc is the actual aspect ratio that was shown in the cinema.  It is also the aspect ratio as it was intended by the director and the movie was framed with that aspect ratio in mind. 

What you are seeing on cable is the open matte version of the film.  When the movie is filmed the camera can capture an image even and square as say a silent film.  It then is matted to block the top and bottom of the image to provide that wide aspect ratio that is popular with action movies. 

When a movie is transfered to home video the matting can be left out to please people that dont like black bars on their screen.  However, the director never really intended this part of the image to be seen and you may well see say a boom mic drop into the frame from time to time.  You also loose the artistic framing of the original image.

Great review!  Very helpful for me as I am thinking of buying an Apple TV

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 7:13 PM (CST)


Smelley and Charles Starrett,

Hopefully this nerdy film major can help with the aspect ratio question!  I saw Live Free or Die Hard in theaters, and it was 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The “extra image” probably comes from the fact that often a film is actually recorded in a non-super-widescreen format. (35mm is actually physically 4:3 shaped - there are a number of ways to put a widescreen image on that)  One way is to just shoot normally, with guidelines on the viewfinder, never intending to show anything outside of the 2:35 area.  The picture is still recorded, but nobody cares about it.

As an example of this, Universal did a pre-screening of American Gangster at my university, and it was clearly shot as a normal 4:3 image intended to be cropped.  How could I tell?  Well, unlike a movie theater our school didn’t have black masks to put over the projector to block the unwanted image.  Result:  We spent about a third of the movie distracted by the clearly-visible boom mics in the top of the frame!

So the cable company likely used some of that “extra” image to help fill the screen.  Heck, the film’s creators may have even taken special care to keep boom mics out of that area, knowing that something like this was likely to happen.  However, the true, “intended” format of the picture is still the 2.35:1 version.  Not only is the extra imagery unimportant, it can actually throw off the composition in shots that were framed for the wider format!  (If anyone has any printing background - think the “bleed” area of a printed page.  yeah, there may be some graphics extending there.  But you never intended anyone to *see* them)  Of course, lopping off the sides like a “pan-and-scan” transfer butchers the composition as well, so I don’t really know which “fill the screen” method is more desirable for the cable company here.

Hope this helps with the confusion!

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 7:16 PM (CST)


Although there would be no real difference from Blu-Ray, why was HD DVD not part of the comparison?

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 7:34 PM (CST)


=> to: Smelly & others re: aspect ratio <=

this is the age-old misunderstanding so many people have about “wide-screen”.  modern flat-panel hi-def TVs are generally 16:9 (or close to it).

But the movies themselves can be literally anything from 4:3(1.33:1) obviously rare nowadays, thru 16:9(1.78:1), and up to 2.4:1 or 2.35:1 as in the Die Hard movie used in this review.

If the original content is 2.4:1, then in order to keep it being stretched vertically if displayed on a 16:9 TV, then there MUST be bars at the top & bottom.  otherwise everything would look stupidly tall/thin.

this is the way the film’s director wanted it to be seen, and DVD/HD-DVD/Bluray/AppleTV are being faithful to that by not dicking around with the aspect ratio in order to quell ignorant consumer’s demand to have their entire screen filled with an image.

In order to fill a 16:9 screen that cable-HD provider is chopping off the sides in order to both fill the screen & maintain correct aspect ratio.  essentially they’re doing you a disservice - you aren’t seeing all that there is to see.

check for yourself on some of the stills above - the cable-HD shows less content at the left & right than the others.

i wouldn’t touch it with your USB stick, let alone mine…

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 8:01 PM (CST)


HD-DVD is dead.  not literally, yet, but highly likely.  after bowing out of CES with a whimper following the bad news the week before of another two studios defecting to Blueray, consumers and reviewers can now focus on what we all had a reasonable expectation of right from the start - ONE hi-def disc standard.

sad really, if any company deserves a worldwide boycott for crimes against humanity in the now 3-decades-long DRM Wars, it’s the devil incarnate: Sony.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 8:10 PM (CST)


I chuckled every time I heard someone said consumers picked BluRay over HD DVD. Heck, you have been able to buy a HD DVD player for hundreds of dollars less than a BluRay player. And they have similar audio and video quality. I think the choice is pretty easy for the consumers. The studios love DRM so they sided with Sony. So, they really made the choice for the consumers.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 13, 2008 at 11:42 PM (CST)


Infinitespecter: What a difference a single letter can make. That’s been fixed, thank you.

Re: Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD as comparison source—we happen to own Blu-Ray players (only the ones in our PS3s, not standalones), and not HD-DVD players. We considered the prospect of going and buying a HD-DVD player and disc solely for the purposes of comparison, but it didn’t seem like a wise investment given (a) that the test results would have been basically the same as Blu-Ray, and (b) what’s happening with the format these days.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 14, 2008 at 8:41 AM (CST)


techydude - “In order to fill a 16:9 screen that cable-HD provider is chopping off the sides in order to both fill the screen & maintain correct aspect ratio.  essentially they’re doing you a disservice - you aren’t seeing all that there is to see.

check for yourself on some of the stills above - the cable-HD shows less content at the left & right than the others.”

Actually I did, and while the cable does seem to have a little less picture on the sides it seems to have considerably more image at the top and bottom. Check the shot with the car and helicopter, you can see the pavement in the cable shot, but it’s cropped off on all the others.

I was quite surprised to be honest.

Posted by Charles Starrett on February 14, 2008 at 9:12 AM (CST)

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