updated 11:15 pm EST, Thu March 8, 2012
Previous Apple TV hardware still limited to 720p
Users trying out the new Apple TV software update v5.0 have uncovered a significant change in the way the unit (both the previous 2011 version and the new 2012 edition) handle "iTunes digital copies" that are often found on purchased Blu Ray and SD DVDs of movies. Once the digital copy is transferred to iTunes, other devices can just stream the movie from iCloud -- effectively an "iTunes Match" for movies at no additional charge.
The iCloud "backup" of authorized digital copies from DVD (which requires entering a redemption code that came with the DVD into iTunes) was not mentioned during yesterday's presentation, when Apple announced that movies purchased from iTunes would now automatically be backed up in the cloud for free re-downloading. The change treats legitimate digital copies provided on DVD as though the user had bought the movie from iTunes, giving them access to up to 1080p quality and allowing authorized devices to stream the movies from their iCloud "backup."
Not all digital copies that originate with commercial DVDs work yet, testing has discovered. Due to licensing conflicts, digital copies of movies from Fox and Universal do not yet trigger an automatic iCloud copy, though they can still be streamed to other devices on the local network. The system also doesn't work with so-called "UltraViolet" DRM'd digital copies mostly provided by Warner Bros. and Sony, which must be managed using a separate application (though consumers who have complained about issues with UV digital copies are often given an iTunes redemption code to "fix the problem").
The move is likely to put more pressure on studios to include iTunes digital copies, rather than UV or other DRM schemes, on their Blu-Ray and DVD releases. The automatic backup and resulting instant accessibility to movies on all a user's devices should result in a powerful consumer preference for the iTunes standard, particularly when Apple's iPad and Apple TV continue to dominate their respective device markets.
Testing has also shown that the latest Apple TV hardware unit carries with it support for High and Main profile Level 4.0 H.264 compression for its 1080p support. This allows movies and TV shows in 1080p to avoid being twice as large in file size as one would expect from the 2.25x improvement in resolution from 720p, very important for better streaming and crucial when using cellular data. A quick test of 1080p file sizes from iTunes showed a average increase of only 30 percent in file size over 720p copies of the same content.
An example used by Ars Technica of Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows that the 720p copy, at 2.91GB, is nearly three times the size of the 1GB SD version, but the 1080p copy using the new compression profile was only 3.65GB in siz, just 22 percent larger than the 720p version despite the doubling of pixels. The more recent Hugo's 1080p version was only 21 percent larger than the 72op copy, 4.84GB compared to 3.99GB.
Being compressed, Apple's 1080p still does not measure up the quality of a Blu-Ray release, but the compression is advanced enough that most consumers would be hard-pressed to notice the difference. The choice of the High profile for compression of 1080p is likely the reasoning behind the inability of the most recent Apple TV version to be upgraded to play 1080p movies -- the decoding requires more advanced hardware, which is provided by the single-core A5 variant found on the third-generation Apple TV. This would also mean that iTunes 1080p media is unlikely to work well on non-A5 mobile devices, including non-current iPhones and iPads. [Comparison graphic via Ars Technica]