I love Ars Technica; I think it’s one of the finest tech sites on the Internet. But I was a bit concerned by their article Wednesday morning comparing the quality of iTunes’ new 1080p content to Blu-ray. While the article concludes that Blu-ray is still the superior format from a picture-quality perspective, its comparisons, performed with a questionable methodology, led site after site yesterday afternoon to quote the analysis and declare “iTunes nearly as good as Blu-ray.”
While the definition of “nearly” is certainly open to debate, I hope to show that for videophiles and disinterested wives alike, the answer is “No, iTunes is not a good replacement for Blu-ray among those who care about picture quality.”
First, my testing methodology is different. Ars used a camera to take pictures of their 1080p monitor displaying the content. Using Windows, one can get around the DRM limits that Apple places on iTunes content, so I was able to take screenshots of both the 1080p iTunes version and the Blu-ray, delivering a far more accurate comparison.
I used the same film, 30 Days of Night, as used in the Ars comparison, and took screenshots in uncompressed TIFF format. The images were completely untouched (you’ll notice drastically better colors in the Blu-ray) and were only converted to JPEG in the final step of uploading to the The Mac Observer’s servers. One thing to note is that iTunes stubbornly doesn’t let you dismiss the player controls when the movie is paused, so I tried to move the control panel away from the focus area on each iTunes screenshot.
What’s displayed below are side-by-side 300x300 pixel excerpts from each 1920x800 pixel image, with Blu-ray on the left and iTunes on the right. Click on each 300-pixel image to see the full screenshot. I’ll note that throughout the entire film, the colors on Blu-ray are superior, hands down. That alone may be reason enough for some people to choose Blu-ray, but these screenshots show that a large amount of detail is lost to Apple’s compression as well.
Here, skin and facial hair is mushed together by Apple’s compression and becomes unnaturally smooth.
This is a dark scene but you can see that the Blu-ray retains detail around the mouth; the beard is clearly visible. On the iTunes version, the detail is so far gone to compression that it looks like the character has no beard on the left side of his face.
Here again, skin in the iTunes version loses all its fine detail. Skin is supposed to have detail, not be smoothed out like an airbrushed model.
Detail on the Blu-ray stands out on the blood splattered on the character’s face, the hair in the background, and the edges of his jacket.
The female character’s eyes are sharper, her hair has detail throughout and the skin is realistic. The iTunes version blurs the skin and hair, and is softer overall.
While working on these comparisons, my wife, who normally doesn’t care about these things at all and will happily watch standard-definition Netflix and cable shows all day long, entered the room and saw the two versions of the film I had up on my screen. Without telling her what I was doing and why, she said “Wow, why does that one [the iTunes version] look so bad?” I then explained my purpose in comparing the two formats and she watched as I ran through the movie picking out screenshots. Without caring about Blu-ray or knowing which video belonged to which format, she identified the Blu-ray as being superior every time.
This article is not intended to tell you that Blu-ray is wholly better than iTunes content. There are many advantages to iTunes that Blu-ray doesn’t offer, and there are many advantages to Blu-ray besides picture quality, such as lossless audio, extra features, and the ability to loan or sell the film. So, by all means, tell me that iTunes is more convenient, is available any time without having to go to a store, and may perhaps be cheaper for new releases (although that advantage becomes a liability after a few months when retail Blu-rays are heavily discounted and iTunes HD purchases are still $20).
But don’t tell me that iTunes’ current iteration of 1080p content is “nearly as good” as Blu-ray. They are worlds apart for any discerning viewer and those who care even a little bit about picture quality won’t be turning to iTunes for their favorite films any time soon.