Are Movies from iTunes Store Worth the Price?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Last March, Apple began selling HD versions of movies in the iTunes Store. Previously, such films were available from iTunes only via Apple TV. This change led me to take a fresh look at purchasing movies, standard and HD, from the iTunes Store. My conclusion: Given the current pricing, the benefits of buying from Apple are minimal at best.

To see why, let's look at one example: Quantum of Solace.

DVD and Blu-ray. You can purchase the standard definition 2-Disc Special Edition of this latest James Bond movie for $19.99 from The second of the two discs is stuffed with extras, such as the usual "Making of..." features, that have been favorably reviewed overall (as noted here and here).

Don't care for the extras? A single-disc version is available for half the price, just $9.99.

Do you demand high definition quality? No problem. You can purchase the Blu-ray version of the movie for the same price as the two-disc standard version: $19.99. The Blu-ray disc appears to include all the extras you get with the 2-disc edition (as noted here).

iTunes. So how does this disc pricing compare to purchasing the movie from the iTunes Store? Downloading the standard definition version will set you back $14.99. For the high definition version, you pay $19.99.

Bear in mind that films purchased from iTunes do not come with any of the extras you get with a typical disc purchase. Also, the iTunes' high-definition version has a 1280x720 resolution, as compared to the higher 1920x1080 resolution of Blu-ray.

Comparison shopping. Consider this low end price comparison: You can buy just the movie (with no almost no extras and no high definition) for $10 from Amazon. Or you can get pretty much the same thing from Apple for $15. As a bonus for going with the disc version, you can use any DVD player to watch the film on your television. With the iTunes version, watching the movie on TV pretty much requires either an Apple TV or a direct connection from your computer to your TV.

Other comparisons work out the same way: Buying the disc version saves you money or gives you more features or both.

Why buy from iTunes? Given all of this, is there any reason to buy a movie from iTunes? Perhaps. Depending upon what you intend to do with the movie, the iTunes version can be the simpler and more convenient choice.

The iTunes version lives on your hard drive, where it can be copied and backed up. If you have a laptop, you can easily play the movie wherever you go, without needing to take the disc with you and without requiring the extra drain on the laptop's battery to play a disc. Assuming you don't mind the smaller size, you can even play the movie on an iPhone or iPod (typically after converting the movie via a command from iTunes' Advanced menu).

True, with the relevant software (such as MacTheRipper and HandBrake), you can similarly convert a DVD movie to a digital version that is stored on your Mac's hard drive. It too can be converted to play on an iPhone/iPod. But this takes more time and effort than many users will want to spend.

One final benefit of iTunes: If you don't yet own a Blu-ray player, iTunes offers a great alternative for viewing films in high definition.

Still, I believe that the pricing of movies in the iTunes Store will cause most people, at least cost-conscious ones, to look elsewhere for their movie purchases. Apple may have its hands tied here. The pricing appears largely dictated by the movie studios, despite Apple's clout in setting iTunes Store pricing for other media. Regardless, before downloading of movies from iTunes becomes a popular choice, its prices will have to drop.

[Note: The iTunes Store is more competitive as a source for renting movies. But that's a topic for another column.]

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People actually purchase movies?  Wouldn’t that mean you plan on watching the same movie more than once?  Why would you do that unless you have memory problems, or are studying screen writing?  Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to simply rent it?

Ted Landau

People actually purchase movies?? Wouldn?t that mean you plan on watching the same movie more than once?? Why would you do that unless you have memory problems, or are studying screen writing??

There are indeed many movies that are worth watching only once (too many movies these days are not even worth one viewing). For these, rentals are often the best way to go.

Still, buying a DVD is often cheaper than a pair of theater tickets. Some families prefer the convenience of ownership and figure they’re saving money compared to seeing the movie in a theater.

Of course, this column was not about whether or not you should buy films. It was only about comparing the different options for doing so.

Still, I do disagree with your main assertion. I strongly believe that good films are worth seeing more than once. In fact, I often get more out of a film the second time I see it than the first. I see things I missed the first time, or get a better understanding of the themes in the film, or appreciate the acting more. Even without such benefits, there are numerous films I have seen several times, simply enjoying them again on each occasion.

A great film is a work of art and benefits from repeating viewings, just as with any other form of art. If your attitude towards films is to think of them as no different than the latest episode of a reality TV series, your comments are understandable. That’s not my viewpoint.


Rpaege’s argument was phrased in a somewhat condescending way (...“unless you have memory problems”), but I believe his point was relative.

If we compare these two main categories (movies and music), I believe we can all agree that people buy a lot more music than they buy movies, simply because, over time, you can listen to a music recording many, many times (depending on how much you like it). However, with movies, even if it is absolute favourite of yours (in my case, Burnt by the Sun, by Mihalkhov), you’d probably see it at most a dozen times in the course of your life. Music allows a person to do other things; movies require complete attention for complete enjoyment.

In my case, I have about 300 CDs (and some iTunes tracks) and about 50 movies on DVD (90% of that is Disney… two little girls at home). The remaining 10% are 2001 Space Odyssey, The West Side Story and similar other classics. I can’t say I have seen any of the 10% more than twice. The Disney stuff shows solid signs of wear and tear, though…


What really would improve the iTunes store is a single listing of all the rentals, or a search which only reveals rentals.  If I really want to buy from the store, I’ll do so after renting. As it stands, you have to go through the “top rentals” one by one on the AppleTV, or use the Wish List one by one to save those ones you wish to rent later.


Actually, when I downloaded the HD version of Quantum of Solace - It was on sale for $14.99.

I got the HD version to play on my AppleTV at home, but ALSO got an SD version automatically that will play on my Mac, iPhone or iPod - no conversion needed for that (maybe the old iPods required it)  Which means for $14.99 I got an HD version that looks great on my HDTV, AND a portable version to take with me when traveling!  Awesome value, I’d say.  (and no, I almost never watch the “extras” anyways)

Yes, Hollywood has decided that the convenience of downloading a movie means you should pay more for it (versus driving to the store and buying it).  But Apple has no control over the mental faculties of the Studio Big Wigs.

After years of buying DVDs (since I hated rental store selections), I now no longer need to spend any more $$ on shelves, cabinets, etc: so yet another “value” of downloads.  I only purchase the few movies that I absolutely LOVE and watch over and over(...and over). The rest, I rent or buy on iTunes.

In fact, since owning my AppleTV (around 2 years now) I haven’t purchased but a couple of DVDs at all!  Yay!

Convenience & Selection, HD quality, FREE portable SD version, no physical storage!  All positives!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

For me, the issue is HD content. While Blueray seems to have won the battle for now, prices of BD players are still a bit more than an impulse buy. If I buy a bunch of Blueray movies and then the Chinese come up with their own blue laser format and it does to Blueray what Blueray did to HD-DVD, well, I’ve got a bunch of brick disks five years down the road. I’m more confident that whatever I buy on iTunes Store will continue to work with Apple players into the future. The movies are all software, untied to a hardware format.

Ted’s cost analysis fails to account for the cost of a BD player. You’ve got to amortize that into the disk price. If you buy 10 disks per year, and your BD player was $250, well, that’s $25/disk spread over year 1, and $12.50/disk spread over years one and two. You’ve already got the computer and probably use it for other things when you go iTunes. Even Apple TV does great for podcasts and YouTube. Try those on a $250 BD player.

Finally, I’ve only bought movies from iTunes when they weren’t available to rent. And I’m all about HD, because SD doesn’t feel right on my 46” Sony. My cable company doesn’t have FX in HD, so I bought the season pass for Rescue Me in HD this year. Latest episode is downloading now. There are enough HD snobs like me for Apple to have a strong movie business for years to come. The bandwidth issue of delivering everything in HD on every cable channel won’t be solved for a decade, because the streets gotta be dug up to put fiber to every suburban home. A la carte systems like iTunes Store will let people get the HD stuff they love anytime.


Put me down as one of those who enjoy all the extras that come with a 2-disc set.  I’m a big fan of _how_ movies are made and like to watch all of the “making of” documentaries.  I will never pay for an iTunes movie download specifically because there are no extras.  I have bought TV episodes and animated shorts, though, so it’s not like I don’t consider iTunes an option.


@ gopher
I feel you pain on the listing.  If you are renting via the App store then Power Search which is located on the left allows for searching for rental only. Select movies then power search and select only available for rent.


It isn’t a very good deal to buy movies from iTunes since in most cases you can find similar prices on either DVD or Blu-ray. The real clincher isn’t just the extras you get on the discs but the fact that the video quality is much better on the physical media (DVD/Blu-ray). In fact, I’d say that the iTunes HD movies are only slightly better in quality than standard definition DVDs. Thus, in the case of the HD content Blu-ray is much better than the iTunes HD. On a quality basis alone your better off comparing a standard definition DVD to the cost of an HD movie purchase on iTunes.

In a perfect world (you pay for what you actually get) I’d say that standard definition iTunes movies should sell for $9.99 (new releases) and HD movies should go for $14.99. This would be an average $5 drop from the current prices. Of course, there is a convenience factor here but I think that is easily offset by the differences in the quality and the common addition of extras with the physical media.

However, rentals are a different matter. Here I can see some benefit in using iTunes. For rentals, the convenience factor probably does compensate for the lack of quality and extras. However, those $1 per day DVD rentals that are available at the grocery store vending machines are actually pretty nice.


iLounge did a comparison between Blu-Ray, HD AppleTV and HD Cable, plus DVD and SD Apple TV. While Blu-ray was in every instance clearly superior, Apple TV was often times better than HD Cable, even though cable delivered 1080i, while Apple TV only did 720p. They made sure to reinforce the point how surprised they were by the image quality of Apple TV in HD.


I recorded a great movie off TV with my PVR the other week (Being John Malkovich).  The unfortunate thing to do here in the UK is split a film either side of the news.  So I had a few friends round to watch this film only to realise half way through I’m missing the second half.  I checked various places to find this film (Vuse said 14 hours to download), then i checked iTunes.  It was only available to buy for ?6.99 and only took half an hour to download.  As it was my second viewing I thought it good value as I’d probably watch it again and we didn’t have to go to the video store late at night.


For rentals, the convenience factor probably does compensate for the lack of quality

What “lack of quality?” the iTS’s HD rentals provide excellent image quality with true 5.1 sound.

those $1 per day DVD rentals that are available at the grocery store vending machines are actually pretty nice.

...until you factor in the cost of gas going back and forth…and your time to do so.


What ?lack of quality?? the iTS?s HD rentals provide excellent image quality with true 5.1 sound.

As I said, iTunes movie rentals are not too bad of a deal. However, standard definition DVDs give you nearly as good of image quality as iTunes HD and the DVDs also offer 5.1 sound.

those $1 per day DVD rentals that are available at the grocery store vending machines are actually pretty nice.

...until you factor in the cost of gas going back and forth?and your time to do so.

I don’t know about you but I generally go to the grocery store at least once every week and I pass by two different stores that have these rentals nearly every day. There is a convenience factor with iTunes rentals, but you’ve got to weigh that against DVDs that can run as low as $1 per day and which offer quality superior to Apple’s $4 iTunes rentals.

The situation today is that the content providers (movie and TV studios) don’t want to allow any mechanism that can really compete with the sales of physical media or the revenues that they get from cable and broadcast TV. Thus, for the time being there is going to be a cost disadvantage applied to purchasing via services like iTunes. The rental situation is a little better, but under some situations you’re still going to pay more directly out of the pocket (total cost) for the Apple TV experience.

Ted Landau

A general reply to some of the comments:

From a cost-of-materials point of view, it seems obvious that downloaded movies should cost significantly less than DVDs. There are no packaging, shipping costs, etc. to worry about with downloads.

The fact that downloads are not cheaper in the comparisons in my column is partially due to Amazon selling DVDs at a discounted rate. But the movie industry could take that into account. The real issue, I believe, is that the movie industry is not yet ready to fully commit to downloads. They keep download prices high as a way to subsidize DVD sales and assist all the businesses that depend on such sales. Over time, this will change.


standard definition DVDs give you nearly as good of image quality as iTunes HD

No, not even close.

The image quality of the iTS’s HD movies is unexcelled by anything but Blu-ray.

DVDs that can run as low as $1 per day and which offer quality superior to Apple?s $4 iTunes rentals.

The iTS also offers $1 rentals.

The rental situation is a little better, but under some situations you?re still going to pay more directly out of the pocket (total cost) for the Apple TV experience

That would be the rare situation indeed. And nothing beats the convenience or ease of renting movies on Apple TV.


jcn_13 said: standard definition DVDs give you nearly as good of image quality as iTunes HD
No, not even close.

It’s close enough as to be almost a matter of opinion or in the eyes of the beholder, but I’ve done my own comparisons and I stand by my statement. And note, resolution isn’t the only factor in what determines what is “better” in overall quality.

Of course, if you’re not comparing against a good, progressive scan DVD player then all bets are off. You might also look at the results over on iLounge where they compare iTunes SD and HD against DVD and Blu-ray. They actually like the iTunes HD but it’s obvious that there is more difference between Blu-ray and iTunes HD than there is between iTunes HD and DVD (and the iTunes SD is quite obviously dead last).

Note, I’m not saying that all DVDs are equal to iTunes HD quality, just that iTunes HD is often only a little better than DVD while Blu-ray is significantly better than either DVD or iTunes HD.

In any case, there can be a lot of variation between encoding samples. So you can find DVDs that are either good or bad and the same applies to the material on iTunes.


In support of the $1 rentals at the drug/grocery store, remember that I didn’t have to shell out for yet another box.

I have a decent Chinese made progressive scan DVD player that cost around $50. I have a good Samsung LCD TV (46” 1080p) upon which those $1 rentals look great!

I note that you can buy a 40gig Apple TV for $199. But the difference between it any my DVD player is 150 of those $1 rentals. I don’t watch 150 movies in a year, so for me, the DVD player and the $1 rentals from the drug store that I pass everyday going to and from work (on my bike!) are a better deal.

I do create my own content and I’d love to be able to show that on my TV without creating a DVD, but I usually have to make DVD for friends and family so what the heck.

Now, If the Apple TV had a DVD player and PVR built in, I’d gladly purchase one and maybe even rent some movies on it. It would be an upgrade to the current DVD player. But we’ve no more room at the inn under our TV (and no justification for another $200 purchase that only augments a function I currently have.)

But wishing for more/different features is not the point. My point is I agree, buying a movie from iTunes is not worth it for me. Neither is renting one…

Doug Petrosky

He wasn’t talking about renting and but if he was, selection would have to come into play. Although I must say the $1 DVD rentals are very reasonable. That said, as for purchasing I have made the switch to iTunes and I don’t plan to look back. Unlike your one off comparison, as a whole, new release iTunes movies are at least a few bucks cheaper than their DVD and HD counterparts. You can read my justification on my rant at:

But the bigger point is LEGAL use. The legal use options for iTunes content totally trumps anything on DVD or bluray. Physical media can get lost or damaged and although I know there are ways to backup DVD and even ways to RIP them for personal use this is no where near what I can do with iTunes purchases.

So for me SD iTunes = DVD and HD iTunes is the virtual equivlent to Bluray for all but owners of the newest HD TV’s (mine is only 720p because it was purchased 4 years ago). So with quality out of the equation and price a wash or edging toward iTunes, the real question is usability and iTunes wins in my house.


There’s another factor to consider. Movies downloaded from iTunes—whatever the resolution—do not contain the alternate language tracks, closed caption feeds nor subtitles.

For the 35 million Americans with hearing loss, not having access to subtitles and/or captions effectively turns every movie into a SILENT movie. Until Apple wakes up and makes their titles accessible to those with hearing loss, I can’t even consider buying from them.

My wife is late deafened (she started losing her hearing in her 30s from a genetic defect) and we REQUIRE captions or subtitles on every DVD we rent or own.

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