Since Apple generally announces and releases finished products that provide complete end-to-end solutions, its decision to slowly roll out bits and pieces of its wireless streaming software over the last six months was unusual. The gradual, post-hardware release additions of AirPlay and Home Sharing to iOS devices and the Apple TV—along with persistent rumors of an upcoming “iTunes Cloud” service—are quietly transforming users’ conceptions of Apple’s media players, and leading to some fundamental and generally positive changes in the way that they work.
One year ago, a 16GB iPad or 160GB Apple TV largely relied upon its own storage capacity for movie and music playback. Today, the same 16GB iPad can instantly draw upon multiple wirelessly connected iTunes libraries to stream content, and a considerably cheaper Apple TV with zero user-controllable storage can do the same—or receive content directly from iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. When everything’s working properly, it’s an almost magical experience, and consequently buying the biggest and most expensive Apple device available is no longer strictly necessary for users with huge media collections.
Though Apple has only hinted at its future plans for wireless streaming, we appear to be in the midst of a transition to an age in which devices only need the built-in storage space to hold what they can’t access wirelessly at home. Apple apparently plans to hasten this transition by giving iTunes a wireless storage locker, from which at least some media content can be accessed from any wireless network, even when the user’s not at home.
But increased dependence on wireless streaming also has some consequences that are worth considering, particularly in light of the iPhone family’s already and unexpectedly heavy impact on cellular networks—and the capped-bandwidth cellular data plans that were introduced in the United States as a direct result. Here are some of the issues that consumers should be aware of before depending too much on wireless streaming solutions rather than the built-in storage of their iOS devices.
1. Your Computer As Conduit. Ever since the second-generation Apple TV became fully dependent on streaming from computers and the Internet rather than built-in storage, we’ve noticed that at least one of our desktop computers automatically wakes up whenever the Apple TV wants to hunt for content to play. iTunes Home Sharing enables this as a convenience, and though it’s certainly quick and convenient, it has a consequence. At least for now, the disadvantage of an Apple TV without a hard drive or other user-accessible storage is that it will lean heavily on another machine for content, likely drawing more power and possibly putting a little additional strain on the hard drive inside a computer. The computer needs to stay on for as long as the Apple TV is browsing it and pulling content from its hard drive, often keeping its screen, processors, and connected peripherals powered on at the same time. Apple could improve this by offering a smart standalone network storage device—say, a better Time Capsule—capable of streaming media content to multiple devices without the need for a computer.
2. Broadband Pipes. Relying on Internet streaming demands more from your broadband Internet service provider (ISP), which most likely has offered you “unlimited” service but has previously seen only modest use of the capacity it’s selling you. In the U.S., so few users have strained their broadband capacity in the past that ISPs have continued to offer “unlimited” service, only occasionally warning people that they were really exceeding reasonable thresholds. But that’s changing. Netflix and other streaming services are beginning to cause dramatic increases in demand for bandwidth, enough to actually strain existing broadband networks during certain peak hours. In some countries, data is soft-capped, hard-capped, or throttled at a certain amount so that your Internet service will be charged for overages, cut off, or slowed down if you exceed a specific amount of monthly usage. Rumblings have suggested that broadband providers here are considering the same thing; some have already begun to implement caps and throttling on a trial basis.
What will broadband limitations actually mean for users? iLounge’s most aggressive video streamer and downloader is Jesse Hollington, based in Canada. His broadband service was soft-capped at 60GB per month with a $1 per GB ($30 maximum) overage fee. In one month, between his iTunes downloading, streaming, and regular Internet access, he actually hit 150GB of usage—a crazy high number, leading to the peak overage fee in addition to his regular service charge. He recently had to change his plan to accommodate what appeared to be a trend of increased wireless usage, attributable largely to pulling more and better-quality video content from the Internet, including Netflix.
Though Netflix is growing in popularity—and improving by leaps and bounds in content—it knows it has a problem on its hands. Because of the hit Canadian users are taking due to its service, Netflix opted to dramatically reduce the default bandwidth demanded by its services, noting in a March 28, 2011 e-mail that “starting today, watching movies & TV shows in Canada will use 2/3 less data on average with minimal impact to video quality. For example, watching 30 hours of Netflix movies & TV shows will only use 9 GB of data, well below most Canadian ISP data caps. Previously, 30 hours from Netflix typically used 31 GB.” The change was simple: Netflix turned off HD streaming and lowered the quality of standard-definition streaming for Canadian customers by default. It can be turned on again as desired, but the fact that it was cut so dramatically was explicitly related to bandwidth caps.
3. Your Wireless Router. The pipes within your home—the invisible ones created by your wireless router—are also important. Most routers today support 802.11n, a wireless data standard that is more than capable of transmitting high-definition videos from one device to another. All of Apple’s current-generation wireless devices, from iPod touches to iPhones, iPads, and Macs, are capable of using 802.11n. Prior-generation iPhones and iPod touches didn’t support 802.11n, but they can’t play back HD videos, either. Their older 802.11b/g support is adequate for streaming music and standard-definition videos under most conditions.
What role does a router actually play in wireless streaming? If you don’t already have an 802.11n router, you may experience hiccups when trying to stream high-definition videos to Apple’s devices, even if they’re only being sent within your home from a computer to an Apple TV. With a good 802.11n router, however, you can successfully maintain multiple video streams at once. In recent tests we conducted with an Apple AirPort Extreme (802.11n dual-band), we simultaneously streamed an iTunes 720p HD movie from an iMac to one second-generation Apple TV while watching a streaming Netflix video on another Apple TV, and doing a FaceTime video call between two iPhone 4s. These days, that’s a lot of video data to be streaming at once, but as video streaming hardware (and FaceTime-like software) increases in popularity, it won’t necessarily be unusual for a family of four to have a few devices actively using the home router like this at once.
4. Optical Media Versus Digital Downloads. The choice between buying (and in some cases ripping) DVDs/Blu-Ray Discs and making iTunes Store purchases of the same video content continues to be confusing for a wide variety of reasons. Take the purchasing decision behind the recently-released Tron: Legacy, for example.
Buy the Tron: Legacy DVD for $15 and you can’t play it on your Apple devices unless you find a way to rip the content (legally), which is particularly challenging with Disney’s DVDs.
Buy the Tron: Legacy DVD/Blu-Ray/3D set for $25 and you’ll get four versions of the movie. Two will be at standard resolution: one in DVD format, and one as a “digital download” that will play on your iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV at standard resolution as well. The third will be a 1080p high-resolution version that will look better on a typical HDTV than any other copy in the set, but will only play on a Blu-Ray Disc player, and the fourth will be a 3-D version requiring both a 3DTV and a 3-D Blu-Ray player. You’ll also get an app that works on your iPad to provide images and limited text commentary on the movie, as well as special bonus videos normally found on the DVD/Blu-Ray versions of the movie.
Buy the iTunes Store HD version of Tron: Legacy for $20 and you’ll get HD and SD versions of the movie that will collectively play on any Apple device with video capabilities, as well as on any computer with iTunes. You’ll also get iTunes Extras, including the bonus videos mentioned above, but you won’t get the iPad application, which for some odd reason requires a serial number from the Blu-Ray Disc version of the movie in order to work properly. Notably, the “HD” version of Tron: Legacy here is only 720p—noticeably lower-resolution than the 1080p Blu-Ray video—but it will actually play at 720p on all current-generation Apple devices, unlike the DVD/Blu-Ray set, which offers only standard-def video to iTunes and iDevice users. There’s also a $15 version of the movie, briefly sold on the iTunes Store for $10, which is purely standard-definition. (Also noteworthy: the iTunes Extras do not work on iOS devices, nor do they work on the second-generation Apple TV. Apple has claimed that support for iTunes Extras is forthcoming, but it’s been surprisingly sluggish in implementing them for reasons unknown.)
In short, there’s no obvious winner here. Buying the best optical disc version of this movie costs more and gives you much more than the iTunes Store HD purchase, including an iOS app that for whatever reason isn’t included with the iTunes versions of the movie. But buying the iTunes Store version presents the same movie at a higher resolution on iOS devices, without any need to rip files, go to a store, or wait for discs to arrive in the mail. If you’re bandwidth-capped, however, you’ll find that this single HD movie requires 5.5GB to download including the iTunes Extras—a big chunk to swallow if you’re faced with a 60GB per month cap, as many Canadian customers are.
As iTunes and Apple’s related devices continue to grow new (and improved) wireless features, these sorts of issues will increase in importance. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how Home Sharing, AirPlay, Netflix, and other wireless streaming additions have been changing the way you’ve used iTunes and your iOS/Apple TV devices. Share your experiences and concerns in the comments section below.