The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

One of the main announcements at this year’s Macworld Expo was the news that Apple would begin offering movie rentals on the iTunes Store for viewing on any of the devices in Apple’s current product line, including the iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, or through iTunes on your computer.

Although Apple will be offering movie rentals in both standard and high-definition formats, and they have managed to get all of the major movie studios on board, the content that is presently available for rental remains somewhat limited. It is expected that Apple will be increasing this catalog in the coming weeks, but with this week’s release of the Apple TV 2.0 update, only 75 High-Definition (HD) titles are currently available for rental, and Apple’s previous catalog of standard-definition movies has also only increased slightly at this point, with most of the existing titles now being available for purchase or rental, and a few new rental-only titles.

Further, the differences between the various Apple media devices and restrictions that may have been placed on Apple by the movie studios have resulted in a rental experience that differs quite a bit from the flexible “watch-on-any-Apple-device” service that many iTunes Store users have become accustomed to with purchased content.

In this two-part series, we will first begin by exploring some of the differences in working with rental content as opposed to purchased content from the iTunes Store, and we will then look at how the rental experience works both in terms of buying, watching, and transferring rentals on and between Apple’s different media devices.

In part two we will be taking a more in-depth look at the actual format, resolution and quality of the content available from the iTunes Store via iTunes and the Apple TV.

Buying vs. Renting

The recent announcement of the rental service has not changed the way in which protected content purchased from the iTunes Store works. This content can still be transferred onto multiple Apple devices, including up to five authorized computers running iTunes, five authorized Apple TV devices, any number of iPhones, and any number of current or even previous models of iPod.  Further, purchased content obviously does not expire, and once downloaded will remain in your iTunes library indefinitely—even if that content has been removed from the iTunes Store itself.  Music content can be purchased from an iPhone or iPod touch and will automatically transfer back to your main iTunes library the next time you sync, and with the new Apple TV 2.0 update, content can also be purchased on the Apple TV and transferred back to your main iTunes library.

Rentals on the other hand, are much more restricted, since they are transitory by their very nature. In much the same way as a DVD rented from NetFlix or Blockbuster must eventually be returned, so too must the digital rentals from the iTunes Store. Of course, since a digital download has no physical media that must be returned, the solution is to just automatically expire the digital download after the rental period has expired.

For content rented from the iTunes Store, the rental time restrictions are fairly straightforward: You can keep an unwatched rental movie in your library for up to 30 days, but once you actually start watching it, you have 24 hours before it expires. While the 30-day unwatched retention period is more than reasonable, the 24-hour restriction to finish watching a movie falls more in-line with cable providers’ “video-on-demand” services than traditional rental services like Blockbuster or Netflix.

Unfortunately, the restrictions on rented content as opposed to purchased content don’t end with the time limits…

  • Rented content is restricted to only being stored in a single place at any given time. Unlike purchased content, which is synchronized from your main iTunes library onto your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV, and can easily be in several places at once, rented content must be moved from your iTunes library to whichever device you want to use it on. If you decide later that you want it on a different device, you must move it back to your iTunes library, and then move it back out to the new device. To make matters even more complicated, you have to actually be connected to the iTunes Store and logged in using the account that was used to rent the content in question.
  • No specific facility is provided for moving a rental from one iTunes library to another. Copying the file between libraries manually will not work, as the authorization keys will not be updated—the resulting video will import into the secondary iTunes library, but will not play regardless of computer authorization. The only way to accomplish transferring content to another iTunes library seems to be via an iPod or iPhone – a much more convoluted process than should be necessary.
  • In terms of iPod support, iTunes rented content is presently only supported on the current model iPods—the iPod classic, iPod nano (video), iPod touch and iPhone. Rented content cannot be transferred to or viewed on a fifth-generation iPod.
  • Supported iPod models and the Apple TV must be running recent firmware versions. The Apple TV requires the major 2.0 update, while the iPod classic and iPod nano require v1.1 firmware, and the iPod touch and iPhone require v1.1.3 firmware. The $20 application package for the iPod touch is not required to enable rental support.
  • Content rented on the Apple TV 2.0 interface can only be stored and viewed on that specific Apple TV. It cannot be transferred back to your iTunes library, or transferred to a different Apple TV device.
  • High-Definition content can only be rented from the Apple TV 2.0 interface. It is not available via the iTunes application itself.
  • How Much Do They Cost?

    Compared to Apple’s traditional $0.99 per track music pricing, Apple has chosen a slightly more complicated pricing structure for their movie rentals, distinguishing between “New Releases” and older content in their pricing model.


    At this point, movie rentals are only available from the U.S. iTunes Store, although Apple has announced plans to expand this internationally by the end of 2008.

    Renting Movies in iTunes

    Renting movies from within iTunes works in much the same way as purchasing content—simply log in to your iTunes Store account, find the movie that you would like to rent, and click the “Rent Movie” button that appears beside it:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Note that some movies may be available only for rental or purchase, while others may be available for both. If a movie can be either purchased or rented, both options will be shown on the same movie page:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Although movies cannot be rented in HD format via the iTunes application, the iTunes Store rental pages do indicate where a movie is available in HD format on the Apple TV.

    The main iTunes Store screens do not necessarily distinguish between those movies that are available for rental versus those that are available for sale, but you can limit your search in the iTunes Store to only include those items that are available for rental. Simply select the “Power Search” option found at the right-hand side of most iTunes Store pages, and select to search only for movies.  A checkbox will appear to allow you to filter your search to only include content that is available for rental:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Once you have selected a rental and purchased it, it will download from the iTunes Store in the same way as any other purchased content, however rather than appearing in the “Movies” section, rentals are placed in their own “Rented Movies” category in the iTunes Source list:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Unlike other categories in the iTunes Source list, the “Rented Movies” category cannot be manually enabled or disabled under your iTunes preferences. Instead, it appears automatically only when there is current rented content actually in your iTunes library, and will only show the content that is currently contained in your library. If you’ve moved your rented content to your iPod, iPhone or Apple TV, it will not be shown in this listing, and if all of your rentals are on other devices, the category itself will not be shown.

    The “Rented Movies” category also provides a subtle indication if you have any rented movie content that is going to expire within 24 hours with a red icon in the iTunes source list:

    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Content that you have started watching is also similarly highlighted with a red expiry notice in the rental listing itself:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Further, iTunes will offer periodic reminders when you have movie content in your library that is due to expire:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    As mentioned earlier, there is no method to move a rented movie directly from one iTunes library to another, so ensure that you purchase and download your rented movies onto the computer on which you plan to watch it or transfer it to your iPod or Apple TV from.

    Renting Movies on the Apple TV

    With this week’s Apple TV 2.0 update, movies can now be rented directly from the Apple TV interface itself, without requiring iTunes or a separate computer. Renting content from the Apple TV is relatively straightforward, with the new Apple TV menu layout designed to place emphasis on the various available online content. Selecting “Movies” from the left-hand side of the main menu will show five or six options, only the last one or two of which provide access to your own purchased movie content—“My Movies” provides access to your movies that have been synced to the Apple TV, and “Shared Movies” provides access to any movies stored on other iTunes libraries that are accessible to your Apple TV (this latter option only appears if you have shared libraries available and configured for access by your Apple TV).


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    The remaining menu options direct you to the iTunes movie catalog, where you can view the movies that are available for rental, view previews, and choose to rent movies in either standard definition of High-Definition formats, subject to the availability (not all movies are available in both formats).

    Renting a movie on the Apple TV is generally as simple as finding the movie that you would like to rent, selecting it, and then choosing the appropriate rental format:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Selecting a movie for rental will display an additional prompt to confirm that you actually want to rent the movie, listing the format selected, and reminding you of the terms and conditions of the rental—notably that the movie may only be viewed on this Apple TV, and that you will have 30 days to start watching the movie and 24 hours to finish watching it once you’ve started.


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Note the format listings that appear on this particular confirmation:  “Apple TV Widescreen Format” is basically just standard-definition, while HD indicates either “HD with Dolby Digital 5.1” or merely “HD” as the possible formats—a subtle reminder that not every HD movie is also encoded with Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound at this point.

    Selecting OK will normally complete the rental transaction and start downloading the movie.

    If you have not yet setup your iTunes Store account on your Apple TV, you will also be prompted to do this the first time you rent a movie (or make any other purchase from the Apple TV interface). If you have synchronized your Apple TV with your iTunes library it will pick up your iTunes Store account name from the iTunes application, but for security reasons you will still be prompted to supply your password:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Once you have entered your password, you will be asked if you want the Apple TV to remember the password for future purposes:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Selecting “Yes” will store the password and account information on the Apple TV, and you will not be prompted for them when renting in the future unless you change your password on your iTunes Store account.  Selecting “No” will require you to enter your password each and every time you purchase or rent something from the Apple TV.

    The Apple TV will also remind you if you are about to rent a movie that you have already previously rented or purchased on this iTunes Store account:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Note that this check provides no distinction between formats, so if you had previously purchased or rented a movie in standard-definition via iTunes to watch on your iPod, you will still receive this reminder when renting the high-definition version.

    When purchasing a rented movie directly from the Apple TV, it will start downloading immediately, and you can actually begin watching it while it is still downloading. A notification will appear on the TV screen when enough of the movie has been downloaded to begin watching it:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    On a reasonable broadband connection, you should be able to start watching a rented movie about five minutes after the download begins.

    It should also be noted that the Apple TV will only download a single rented movie at a time, and always gives priority to the most recent movie rental purchased, pausing all other downloads until the more recent ones complete.  This can be overridden by selecting any of the movies with a status of “Waiting for Download” and choosing “Start Download” from the movie information screen:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    This will resume downloading the selected movie, pausing the download of any other content until the selected item is completed.

    Note that although other types of content such as TV Shows can be purchased directly on the Apple TV, movies can only be rented directly at this point. Movie purchases must still be made via the iTunes application and synced to your Apple TV as before, and movies are not available for purchase in HD format.

    Transferring Movies Between Devices

    Movies rented using iTunes on your computer can be transferred from your computer to an iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. Unlike purchased content, this process moves the rented item from your iTunes library to the external device. You must also have an active Internet connection and be able to access the iTunes Store when moving items between iTunes and an external device.

    Moving a rented item to an iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV is pretty much the same across all platforms. Ensure the device is connected and appearing in the iTunes source list on the left-hand side, select the device, and then choose the “Movies” or “Videos” tab (depending on the device). A two-column view will appear above the normal movie transfer options listing the movies in your iTunes library on the left-hand side, and the movies on your device on the right-hand side:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    To move a rented movie onto your device, simply highlight the movie in question, and click the “Move” button. The movie will immediately appear on the right-hand side of the window, indicating that it is queued to be moved. Note that this does not actually initiate the move process—like other synchronization settings, you must still click the “Apply” button for this to take effect.

    Once you click “Apply” the iPod will initiate a sync, and the movie will be transferred to the iPod in much the same way as any other video content:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    A movie can be moved back to your iTunes library in much the same way. Simply select the movie from the right-hand side, click the “Move” button, and then click the “Apply” button to save the setting and initiate a sync.

    The movie will be transferred back from the iPod to the iTunes library, and will once again appear under the “Rented Movies” listing.


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    You will also notice that movies on the device have a “Delete” button which appears beside them. This will remove all traces of the rented movie from your device without transferring it back to your iTunes library:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    In other words, the rented movie will be permanently lost, as you would be deleting the only version which exists—the one the device. As with the process of moving movies between devices, however, clicking the “Delete” button does not take effect until you apply the changes, so if you accidentally queue a movie for deletion from your iPod, you can simply hit the “Cancel” button instead.

    You can also view a listing of the rented movies stored on your iPod, iPhone or Apple TV simply by expanding the device and selecting the “Rented Movies” category from on the device:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    This listing will not only show the rented movies that are on your device, but also a “Status” column which contains the date and time that each movie is due to expire. As with any other category, this listing will be greyed out unless you are looking at a manually-managed iPod. Further, as with the main iTunes library, the “Rented Movies” category only appears in the device content listing if there is rented content on the device which is viewable by iTunes.  Note that when viewing an Apple TV, movies rented directly on the device will not be listed here—only those movies that were originally transferred from iTunes will be shown.

    If you are managing your iPod manually, the same “Move” options as described above are still available to move content between your iTunes library and your iPod, however you can also transfer rented movies to the device simply by dragging the movie from the “Rented Movies” listing in your iTunes library onto the iPod, as you would for any other content. This does not work in the reverse direction, however—to transfer a movie from your iPod back to your computer you must still visit the “Movies” tab and follow the procedures described above.

    As noted earlier, movies purchased directly on the Apple TV cannot be transferred to iTunes. In fact, these movies will not even appear when viewing the Apple TV “Rented Movies” listing from within iTunes.

    Watching Rented Movies

    Watching a rented movie in your iTunes library is handled in much the same way as any other video content. Simply locate the rental and double-click on it to begin watching it. If you haven’t started watching it yet, iTunes will ask you to confirm that you actually want to start watching this particular movie, notifying you that you will have 24 hours to finish watching it once you begin:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Rented movies on an iPod classic or nano are shown under the Videos menu, in a Rentals section:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Within this section, each rented movie is listed, with the time remaining until the content expires, based again on whether you have started watching it or not. As in iTunes, content that is due to expire in less than 24 hours will be indicated with the expiry information in red:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Selecting a movie from the rentals section on the iPod classic or iPod nano will show a screen providing the option to either play the content or delete it:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    This is the only confirmation that you will receive when playing a rented movie on your iPod. Once you select the “Play” button, the movie will begin playing and the 24-hour limit to finish watching it will begin.

    On the iPod touch and iPhone, rented movies show up at the top of the “Videos” section, above any purchased movies under a “Rented Movies” heading. The time remaining is also shown right on this screen, and selecting a rented movie for first-time playback will present the user with a pop-up confirmation dialog:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    The iPod touch and iPhone also now provide direct support for chapter markers. However, this feature is not exclusive to rented movies—purchased movies generally include chapter markers as well, and they can be added to movies you encode yourself. The chapter menu is accessed from an on-screen button to the right of the “Play/Pause” button when viewing a movie on the device:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Rented video content can also be deleted directly from the iPod or iPhone. On the iPod classic and iPod nano, the delete option is available as an alternative to “Play” when selecting a rented movie. On the iPhone and iPod touch, a rented movie is deleted in the same way as any other video content on the device—simply perform a left-to-right sweep with your finger across the movie title and a “Delete” button will appear.

    Note that as with deleting content from the iPod via iTunes, deleting a rented movie from the iPod will result in it being permanently lost, since rented content on the iPod has been removed from the iTunes library, so this option should only be used after you’ve finished watching a rented movie and want to free up space on your iPod.

    It should also be noted that performing a “Restore” on your iPod or iPhone will also result in any rented content that was stored on the iPod being permanently lost as well, since no backups of this information will normally exist anywhere else, and in fact even if the file has been backed up, the authorization to play the movie has been transferred to the iPod/iPhone itself.

    With rented movie content, there is essentially a separate “authorization key” for each movie that is updated from the iTunes Store each time you transfer the movie to a new device.  Therefore, even if you have a backup of a rented movie, or you attempt to manually transfer it to another iTunes library, the authorization to play it will not be present on that device. Attempting to play back a rented movie on a computer that does not contain the authorization key will result in an error message advising you that the content has been authorized to play on a different computer or device:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    On the Apple TV, a “Rented Movies” option will appear when there are any rentals in the Apple TV library. Rentals purchased directly on the Apple TV and those transferred from iTunes are grouped together in the same listing, with no specific distinctions between them.  High-Definition rentals are normally listed with an “HD” as part of the cover art, but are also not distinguished on the listing itself in any way.


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Below each movie listing, the time remaining until expiry will be shown, or the progress of any movies that are still being downloaded.  More details on any of the rented movies in the library can be found simply by selecting the movie:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    The movie can then be played back simply by selecting the “Play” button. Note that no additional warnings are provided when playing a rented movie for the first time—it will simply begin playing once the “Play” button is selected, effectively starting the 24-hour countdown timer for that particular movie.

    UPDATE: Note that you will not be cut off in midstream if you are watching a movie when it happens to expire, as long as you continue watching it. In other words, you can begin watching a movie when it has even as little as one minute left to expiry, and you will still be able to watch the entire movie through to the end, even navigating back and forward during the movie and pausing it for short periods of time, as long as you do not actually exit or close the movie viewer. Also note that on portable devices, simply pausing a movie for more than a couple of minutes will result in the device going to sleep, and the movie will expire at that point.

    In fact, the iPhone and iPod will even provide a message to this effect when you begin watching a movie that is going to expire soon:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    By contrast, instead of a pre-emptive notification, the Apple TV asks for confirmation when you stop a movie that is already past the expiry time, advising you that the rental has expired and that the movie will be deleted immediately if you stop watching it.


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Watching a movie on your computer works in much the same way. If you’re watching a movie through iTunes that has already expired, and you attempt to stop the movie or close the playback window, iTunes will provide you with a dialog box offering you the chance to resume playback, or stop (and delete) the movie:


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)

    Watching a movie on the iPod classic or iPod nano is similar. You are not presented with a warning when you start watching the movie, but instead are presented with a message when attempting to return to the main menu. Here the choices are fairly obvious: Resume or Delete.


    The Complete Guide to iTunes Movie Rentals, Part 1 (Updated)


    With the Apple TV 2.0 update and its foray into the movie rental business, Apple has recognized that most video consumers are more interested in rental-based video services than actually collecting libraries of movies, and with these changes it has suddenly become a more relevant player in the world of online digital video. The ability of the Apple TV to function as a standalone device and obtain content without the need to be tethered to an iTunes library will hopefully be a step in the right direction for a device that previously fell into an odd space between the digital media enthusiast and the average consumer.

    While the Apple TV 2.0 now works very well as a standalone device, it now seems to have taken a step even further away from the central iTunes library. The ability to rent movies directly on the Apple TV is an extremely useful feature, but the complete inability to even see this content from iTunes makes this an uncharacteristically inflexible solution in contract to Apple’s traditional “consume-your-media-anywhere” approach that has otherwise always applied to purchased content.

    Apple’s new movie rental service is definitely a step in the right direction, but as we’ve noted earlier, it has far more in common with a cable provider “video-on-demand” service than with traditional DVD rentals, both in terms of the price, the convenience, and the time restrictions. A large, high-quality movie catalog will make Apple a serious contender for the video-on-demand consumer, but we suspect that this new service is likely going to be of lesser interest to users of traditional video rental services such as Blockbuster or Netflix.

    Coming Up Next…

    In the second part of our series, we will be looking at what you can expect in terms of video quality from iTunes movie rentals downloaded to your computer or Apple TV from a technical point of view, comparing resolutions and bit-rates of the different types of content.  In the meantime, be sure to check out our Comparison Article on Apple TV 2.0 vs. Blu-Ray, DVD & HD Cable for a visual comparison of the different formats.

    Continue to Part 2…


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