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 (1920×1080, 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 (1920×1080, 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 (1280×720, 0.9 Megapixels, 60fps), while DVDs run at 480i (720×480, 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?