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

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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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Comments

1

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 alexarch in Dallas, TX on February 13, 2008 at 11:27 AM (CST)

2

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 RNB in Bakersfield, CA on February 13, 2008 at 11:37 AM (CST)

3

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 Smelley on February 13, 2008 at 1:04 PM (CST)

4

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.

billycakes

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

5

Smelley,

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)

6

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 jbelkin on February 13, 2008 at 2:08 PM (CST)

7

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 Gubbins on February 13, 2008 at 2:18 PM (CST)

8

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 bjdraw on February 13, 2008 at 2:37 PM (CST)

9

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 gavin blur on February 13, 2008 at 3:52 PM (CST)

10

Gavin,

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)

11

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 Galley in Greenville, SC on February 13, 2008 at 5:14 PM (CST)

12

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 infinitespecter on February 13, 2008 at 5:18 PM (CST)

13

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 MorganB on February 13, 2008 at 7:13 PM (CST)

14

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 Mike Hanley on February 13, 2008 at 7:16 PM (CST)

15

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

Posted by popeye9000 on February 13, 2008 at 7:34 PM (CST)

16

=> 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 techydude on February 13, 2008 at 8:01 PM (CST)

17

popeye9000,
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 techydude on February 13, 2008 at 8:10 PM (CST)

18

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 Davester on February 13, 2008 at 11:42 PM (CST)

19

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 Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on February 14, 2008 at 8:41 AM (CST)

20

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 danbee on February 14, 2008 at 9:12 AM (CST)

21

Has anyone noticed a difference in the 2.0 software for playing back DVD’s that have been ripped?

What’s the best format to rip DVD’s in? What about converting the DVD’s I’ve already ripped? Is Dolby Digital now supported?

Posted by jpage4500 on February 14, 2008 at 9:32 AM (CST)

22

Is this really an accurate comparison considering Blu-Ray content is delivered in 1080p (native resolution of the monitor in question) and Apple TV content is only 720p? (I relies APTV has a 1080p option but h.264 movies are still 720p) The APTV image is being upscaled not unlike the SD-DVD player and would naturally result in a loss of image quality or softening. It’s comparing apples to oranges.

Although I don’t know what cable’s excuse is.

Posted by Producer Dave on February 14, 2008 at 9:35 AM (CST)

23

Producer Dave: Yes, it’s accurate. The purpose of the comparison was to give each device the opportunity to perform its content as best as it claimed was possible. We picked the best comparison video we could find across all of the formats, and gave each format the chance to shine with a great TV and the settings each device claims to be best-suited for the TV.

Ultimately, on the hardware side, it’s up to Sony, Apple, and Scientific Atlanta to optimize their hardware so that consumers can get the best results without stupid amounts of fussing around. Companies needn’t and shouldn’t upscale or downscale video content if they believe that consumers will see the best results without it. Similarly, on the content side, it’s the movie/disc producers and cable companies’ responsibility to produce clean, high-quality transfers that take maximum advantage of these formats. Failures to deliver on these two core concerns (simple hardware, clean content) are just a couple of the reasons HD is such a mess right now; companies, not consumers, will ultimately need to be the ones to resolve the problems.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on February 14, 2008 at 9:58 AM (CST)

24

Thanks for the detailed comparison.  This is very helpful.

One thing I’ve noticed about standard DVDs is that often posterizing can be quite pronounced, and noticeable during normal viewing in dark, low-detail areas of the picture.  The last example with the close-up of the actors is this kind of picture.

Your photos of the screen are quite contrasty, and have a bit of blown-out highlight and lots of solid black.  It’s hard to determine whether this is a characteristic of the original picture, or a limitation of the photography.  Perhaps screen captures would convey this aspect better, if it is possible to create them at all.

Posted by Michael Zed on February 14, 2008 at 12:15 PM (CST)

25

great piece, best i’ve ever found on this very hot topic of PQ comparisons. thanks!

and i totally concur with your last paragraph conclusion on the best value. which is why i went and bought a PS3 last month (once the HD war essentially ended) instead of an AppleTV.

Posted by Alfiejr on February 14, 2008 at 2:05 PM (CST)

26

Music Videos…¦

Apple needs to release a fix for Apple TV that will allow continuous looping of Music Video playlists. (You are currently limited to viewing one video at a time and are thrown back to the main menu to select another video.) I’ve read all the mainstream reviews of this excellent product but no one seems to be reporting this sorely lacking feature. If you go to the Apple Support forums on Apple TV you’€™ll find literally hundreds if not more of postings about this subject. I love the new upgrade and am wowed how Apple incorporated Airtunes into the product! Bravo! But this continuous playback of music videos feature has been lacking since the initial 1.0 version and lots of people were expecting the upgrade to fix this. Myself and countless others have purchased many music videos in hopes we could make a playlist for parties and let itunes continuously play them similar to audio only music. Apple should implement what seems like a minor fix or explain why they can’€™t.

Posted by tedmonson on February 14, 2008 at 6:27 PM (CST)

27

There’s a huge problem with this test.  It only compares paused images, so it’s only interesting in the context of what does paused output look like.

How a device displays paused video is usually quite different from how it displays video during playba

Posted by Some Guy on February 15, 2008 at 1:12 PM (CST)

28

- techydude please spare us your trolling

—alex
i would go to a store to see a bluray movie before making my final decsision rather than relying on these pictures. they’re meant for comparison but you should view the real product in person.

Posted by akin on February 15, 2008 at 2:31 PM (CST)

29

Is it just me (or my work pc and display combo) or are there noticable color differences between the shots?

The first few shots show the Apple HD with more green than the Blue Ray, and in later shots the cable HD shows way more blue.

Is this real or something in the photos?

Posted by jschaffe on February 15, 2008 at 3:37 PM (CST)

30

Knowing this topic is on picture comparisons of the Apple TV and other devices, I have to agree with tedmonson about the music video issue. Apple needs to fix this. Again, sorry to get off topic…

Posted by Tenchi211 in California on February 16, 2008 at 12:11 PM (CST)

31

I agree with Producer Dave about the comparison.

I would love to see this done with a 720p television, as that is the most common HD television resolution and the native size for two of the caparisons. Yes, Blu-Ray would be downscaled and the DVD would be upscaled. But right now, everything except for the Blu-Ray is being upscaled to the 1080p resolution.

I got a feeling the Apple TV results will appear just a sharp as the Blu-Ray. The Cable will still look like an upconverted DVD and the DVD will still look… well, like a DVD.

Posted by ian.aberle on February 19, 2008 at 4:01 PM (CST)

32

Yes, jschaffe, I see the same thing. In fact, to my eyes the first few Apple TV HD shots look dreadful. Even the cable version has dramatically better color than the Apple TV HD version. Heck, if the Apple TV SD version has better color. Perhaps this is an artifact of how they took the screenshots, though. I don’t know. But if this is all I had to go on, I sure wouldn’t pick the the Apple TV HD version.

Posted by sjonke in Maryland, US on February 20, 2008 at 2:59 PM (CST)

33

In your update to the article you wrote “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.”

Actually your photos DON’T suggest that, since you were comparing apples and oranges [pun intended].

A little further down you said “... the DVD player was the same PlayStation 3 at 1080p, set on normal UPSCALING mode.”  (Emphasis mine.)  Upscaling (AKA upconverting) will give a near HD quality picture to regular DVDs.  One can only see it, as you did, with a player that has an upconverting chip and playing through the HDMI interface.

Your “DVD” photos compare almost exactly in quality to “HD Apple TV” photos in every case—and better than the “HD Cable” photos for sure!

Why not update your article again with a comparison of “SD Apple TV” with a DVD player that does not have the upconverting chip?

Posted by TimeCruiser on February 21, 2008 at 5:17 PM (CST)

34

I’m happy with an upscaled DVD image, since that’s what people will use to watch DVDs on an HD display - although of course the quality will vary from player to player.

But, please can you link to the hi-res captures of the full-screen comparisons ? By scaling them all down to 600px wide you make all the HD shots far lower quality than they really are…

Posted by mistertones on February 22, 2008 at 10:51 AM (CST)

35

With your last sentence, you make it sound like the Apple TV is the only HD solution that costs you extra. You forgot to mention where I can get a Blu-Ray player or HD Cable subscription for free! (-:

Posted by MountOlympus on February 22, 2008 at 5:29 PM (CST)

36

TimeCruiser: The answer to “why not” is exactly as Mistertones notes, and we explained at the top of the story—we wanted to give every format the chance to look its best, not its worst. Virtually no one with an HDTV would want to watch DVD content through an old, non-upscaling DVD player; this is the same reason we don’t turn the Apple TV and all other HD devices down to 480p and compare how they all look at their lowest possible quality.

Mistertones: We provide the crops above as samples of the full-frame images.

MountOlympus: “Free,” no, but you can get Blu-Ray or HD-VOD playback as included components of multi-function products; for instance, Blu-Ray is included in the PS3, and HD-VOD access is included with Time Warner’s digital cable boxes. So assuming that you already have a digital cable box in your home providing cable service, you only pay for the HD-VODs you want on an individual basis.

The difference between purchasing these options and Apple TV is nuanced, but boils down to the question of your pre-existing tastes and needs. If you like TV enough to already have digital cable, and are subscribing to certain companies’ cable services, HD-VOD access has zero additional cost. If you like games enough to already have a Sony PS3, Blu-Ray access has zero additional cost. If you like watching iTunes TV or movie content so much on an HDTV that you already have an Apple TV, iTunes Movie Rental access has zero additional cost. Conversely, if you have none of these options today, you can pick whichever you prefer, and decide which delivers the experience you want. Sales estimates suggest that more people already have PS3s or HD cable boxes than Apple TVs, but perhaps this will change.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on February 23, 2008 at 4:03 PM (CST)

37

Thanks, Charles, for an interesting comparison.  It’s good to see someone doing this, and may well lead to some providers making improvements.

One big “oops” you’re probably not aware of is that you’ve been a bit unfair to the cable provider.  When in PAUSE mode (all your pictures) the Sci-Atlanta box (as well as Motorola STBs) show only a single field of a 1080i HD signal.  I.e., all your pix are half-rez 540 lines from the full image!

This is very clearly seen on your first “HD Cable Crop” image.  Look at the underside of the cap of the mauseleum-type structure on the left, and the stair-stepping due to the single-field display will be painfully obvious.  That’s going to unfairly impact the sharpness and detail of every comparison picture for Cable.

Secondly, since all your images are downrezzed for publication, a lot of the detailed differences are simply lost.  But in spite of this limitation, I was still able to glean a decent impression of the differences between the other (non-cable) options.

Lastly, it should probably be mentioned that cable providers vary… with some passing signals through without processing, and others reducing bit-rates to squeeze more channels in.  HD-VOD is also an area where the VOD version may well be significantly lower quality (showing exaggerated artifacting on heavy motion), than the SAME material from the SAME cable co., when broadcast on a normal live channel.

Posted by VideoGrabber on February 28, 2008 at 5:00 AM (CST)

38

I think the authors need to study up on video standards. 1080p is 30 frames per second. 1080i is 60 fields per second, making 30 (29.97) complete frames in one second. 720p is also 30 frames and 480i is 60 fields.

Nobody is yet transmitting in 1080p with 60 frames per second!

Posted by LarsDennert on February 29, 2008 at 2:43 PM (CST)

39

Actually, Lars, the problem is somewhat more complex.  At this point, there are no broadcast or cable services that are transmitting even 1080p at any frame rate, much less at 60fps.  All LCD/Plasma TVs and most modern DLP TVs by their very nature will take a 1080i 60fps signal and “upscale” it to 1080p 30fps for presentation. This doesn’t mean that the original signal is 1080p, merely that the TV is presenting a progressive signal rather than an interlaced one.

Likewise, any theatrical presentation on Blu-Ray or HD-DVD is going to remain at 29.97 FPS (in North America, anyway), since the original film source is 24fps (by the very nature of film), and the Telecine conversion (also referred to as “3:2 pulldown”) will only produce a 30fps signal—there’s really no point in going higher.

A few rare HD-DVD/Blu-Ray discs, particularly those from television sources (mostly documentaries from places like the Discovery Channel) will provide full 60fps 1080p presentation. However, this is not going to be a common experience for the typical Blu-Ray/HD-DVD user.

By contrast, the Apple TV is limited to 24fps when operating in full 720p presentation (1280 x 720) regardless. iTunes HD source material is therefore encoded in its native 24fps (no 3:2 pulldown).

With movies however, which is what we’re primarily concerned with here, there is nothing to be gained by any frame rate higher than 24fps, since that’s the limitation of original source of the content.

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on February 29, 2008 at 7:33 PM (CST)

40

I’ve had a plasma 1080i HDTV for a half of year. I had broken decoder, actualy the cable was fake. 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.

Posted by hank on May 28, 2008 at 3:24 PM (CDT)

41

I’d like to see an Xbox Live HD movie in comparison as well.  I downloaded an episode of South Park in HD a year ago and it kind of pops out at you.  I’d be interested in how one of the systems with the HDMI or SVGA output compares.

Posted by Caleb on June 10, 2008 at 3:53 AM (CDT)

42

In terms of rental services, one other not mentioned is starting to become popular: Redbox - these self-service machines rent good ol’ DVDs for $1/day. They’ve showed up in just about every supermarket around us (south orange county, ca). The low cost plus relative convenience makes them, imo, far superior to Blockbuster, etc. for the less frequent movie-watchers out there and the masses that haven’t gone with a high def format. Of course, having to wait for some indecisive person to make up their mind (they have current availability on their website) at the kiosk detracts from the convenience. Anyhow. Apple TV or Mac Mini is more than just rentals, as others have said. Replacing crap TV time with “iLife time” is probably the best thing about them.

Posted by docbrown88 on July 8, 2008 at 1:57 PM (CDT)

43

As a newby I found the article illuminating and helpful. I have a further question - I’m trying to reduce the number of boxes sitting in the corner of my room and wondered whether the Loewe Connect would give me good access to itunes movies at the HD quality by downloading the movie to my computer. Or will I still need an Apple TV to get this quality. If that’s the case I’m thinking might as well buy into Bluray. Can anyone help?

Posted by newbechoo on September 2, 2008 at 4:01 AM (CDT)

44

Listen people. Nothing compares to 1080p blue ray. Those pictures above do blue ray no justice!

If you believe you can’t tell a difference, then let me tell you that you haven’t seen true 1080p blue ray.

Posted by George A. Romero on November 1, 2008 at 6:11 AM (CDT)

45

George (post 44) is absolutely correct.
Bluray is the best.
AND, for anyone with a decent sound system, please note: BLU RAY’S SOUND is INCREDIBLY BETTER that anything out there!

Posted by mv on June 13, 2009 at 10:11 PM (CDT)

46

I was paying a total of $145/mo for my HD cable and internet access….now i quit all my broadcast tv sources and have my AppleTV and a Blu-ray player….I watch only the stuff I want to watch without commercials and it costs me less per month….best of all….no American Idol or think you can dance shows!

Posted by Len Imbery on October 6, 2009 at 12:22 AM (CDT)

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