Saturday, September 16

Free TV Downloads Foreshadow iTunes Movie Experience

Apple is freely offering iTunes Store downloads of last season's finale episodes for three series-- Grey's Anatomy, Lost, and Desperate Housewives-- in a promotional deal they're calling the "Million Hit Lowdown." Apparently they're offering one million of the free downloads well as half-hour "catchup" specials from Entertainment Weekly to describe premise and characters for the uninitiated. Here's the iTunes Store link if you would like to go and check it out for yourself. (Did you notice that all three shows available in this promotion are products of Disney/ABC?)

I was intrigued when I found out about this while browsing the Store on Thursday night. Grey's Anatomy was on the television at the time; right when I started to tell my wife about what I'd found, there was an ad for the free downloads on the TV-- a very weird coincidence.

In any case, I downloaded the special and finale for Grey's. As I've seen every episode to this point I'm hardly one of the "uninitiated viewers" who are undoubtedly the target of the EW special, but I was more interested in the process of downloading and viewing the videos than I was in the actual content of the shows.

Though the recap episode was undoubtedly broadcast as a half-hour spot on some network or other, the removal of commercials in the download made it only 22 minutes in length and 219 megabytes in disk space. The finale, which was a double episode spanning two hours of ABC's schedule this past May, weighed in at a hefty 85 minutes and 955 megabytes.

I'm not quite sure how long the downloads actually took to complete, since I clicked the "get episode" button on both shortly before going to bed. The next morning, however, I awoke to see both shows fully downloaded and present in my iTunes library. After spending the day in the office, I came home last night to try out the videos with my wife.

The short special was good-quality on our 19" CRT (this is the one with an antenna that we use for TV shows; our 27" CRT is only hooked up to a DVD/VHS player). It looked like any other programming we watch on that set; better, actually, because the video was piped in directly via RCA cables and not tuning into an over-the-airwaves broadcast signal. I used the S-Video-to-RCA adaptor that was included with my PowerBook to get the video onto the set. The first half of the long-form episode was good as well, but in the second half there were some tiny video skips in places. The audio played just fine, though.

It was obvious that the second half (which was technically "another episode" though they were originally broadcast back-to-back) was edited differently; the places where ABC had inserted commercials had five or six seconds of black, while the first half had had the scenes fade right into each other. Whatever differences there were in the editing process may have caused the viewing artifacts, but their very presence was a bit annoying.

In an attempt to figure out the problem, I tried again this morning with the PowerBook hooked up (again via the S-Video adaptor and RCA cables) to our 27" television set. I watched the entire finale again, this time careful to make sure that iTunes was the only application running. I doubt that my menubar email notifier was the problem, but this time there were no video stutters. Another problem surfaced in this attempt, though: black areas of the screen were a bit fuzzy. Areas of color looked fine, and textured blacks like hair and clothing showed up all right, but flat blacks like shadows of people, an on-screen plastic telephone, and the digital black fades between scenes stood out with some degree of pixellated gray blotches. These even showed up when viewing on my PowerBook's LCD screen.

I'm sure the upgraded video resolution in the iTunes Store that is new since Tuesday makes these images better than they would have been before, but it's still not quite the quality I would want for my personal video collection. If I want to be able to have television programs or movies available for multiple viewings, I'll stick to DVDs displayed via my set-top player. The only reason I would ever purchase a video from iTunes would be to see a television episode for which I had missed the original broadcast. The quality is good enough for something like that, but I wouldn't spend money on full seasons of shows that can be seen in better quality (and with extra features) on plastic discs from Amazon or Target.

All in all, I'm glad that Apple gave us this opportunity to freely try out the new video quality offered by iTunes. It kept me from wasting $10 to find this out with a low-quality copy of The Sixth Sense or O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

NOTE: I'm not saying that my experience couldn't have been better with a higher-quality television or more efficient cabling. But I don't have the money for a plasma TV with DVI inputs. Something tells me, though, that a high-definition setup couldn't have done a whole lot to improve the VGA-resolution image that was being output from the computer.

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The Geek Code desperately needs updating, but in any case here's mine (as of 2010-02-28):

Version: 3.12
GIT/MU d+(-) s:+>: a C++> ULXB++++$ L+++ M++ w--() !O !V P+ E---
W+++ N o++ K? PS PE++ Y+ PGP t !5 X- R- tv+@ b++ DI++++ D--- e*++
h--- r+++ y+++ G+

If you really care about knowing what that all means, you either know the code already, or you can get it decoded for you here.