iTunes movie rentals: Are they worth it?

This is probably old news if you’re Stateside (or Europe-side, for that matter), but recently Apple launched iTunes Store movie rentals over here in Australia. I thought I’d give it a spin.

Now, generally I don’t touch DRM-encumbered content – if I buy something, I should be able to do what I like with it, right? – but I figured that movie rentals are a different ball game. Obviously, without some sort of DRM, the concept of renting a movie online wouldn’t work. So, fair enough I guess. And the movies on the iTunes Store are only AUD $3.99 to rent, which ain’t too bad.

However, the range of movies available is tiny, weighing in at around 700 movies last time I checked. There’s also a lot of crap on there; I can’t see myself renting Uptown Girls or Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine any time soon. (Are the movie choices as bad in other iTunes Store countries?)

We decided to rent Groundhog Day, which is one of the better movies available. The process of renting the movie was pretty much as straightforward as buying an album, though it did ask me to authorize my Mac twice. The download weighed in at 1.2GB, which took a couple of hours to download over my ADSL line.

The big problem in Australia is download limits. Pretty much all ISPs here limit the amount of GB you can download per month, which is a bit pesky. My ISP gives me 10GB during peak hours and 15GB during off-peak, so I set the movie to download during the off-peak time.

Once you’ve downloaded the movie, you have 30 days to watch it (there’s a little counter next to the movie in iTunes so you know just how much time you have left). The moment you start watching it, you then have 48 hours until the movie expires. You can watch it as many times as you like during those 48 hours. This is a decent enough timespan; if you fall asleep, or your kid wakes up bawling, halfway through the movie, you can watch the rest the next night. When the movie expires, iTunes automatically deletes it from your hard drive.

Generally speaking the whole experience wasn’t too bad. One niggle was that we couldn’t watch the movie through Front Row; we had to use iTunes (presumably so it can pop up the dialog asking if you want to start watching and kick off your 48-hour time limit).

A slightly more serious problem was that the sound was pretty muffled so it was hard to hear speech in the movie. No problem, I thought, as I fired up iTunes’s equalizer to boost the speech. But no – the equalizer had no effect whatsoever. Not sure if this is because it was a movie, or because it was a rental. Either way, I was unimpressed. So we ended up watching the movie at maximum, almost deafening volume just so we could hear what the actors were saying.

So it’s not perfect, but there’s something quite futuristic about being able to rent a movie and watch it, all without leaving your armchair. (Assuming you don’t mind sitting in your armchair for 2 hours while it downloads.) I’d like to see the sound quality improved though, and Apple really should expand the pitifully small range of movies available.

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6 Responses to “iTunes movie rentals: Are they worth it?”

  1. John Says:

    I’ve only rented a few of movies off iTunes but the experience has been good. With a cable modem the download time is about twenty minutes. It will be nicer when there are more movies. This is up to the film producers. We haven’t had any problems with the sound. Maybe there was an issue with how that one movie was coded. FYI: this is in the US.

  2. cdude Says:

    I can’t really address the Aussie download cap limitation, but I can say that I’ve been VERY pleasantly surprised by how much I like the movie rental feature. DEFINITELY worth it, financially.

    Here in the US, there is one major movie rental chain: Blockbuster. Your average movie rental costs $3-4 to rent.

    Naturally, I avoid it like the plague. I much prefer a small, independent local shop that is about 2 miles from my home. They have rental for $0.99 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so naturally I prefer to rent there when possible. Even on weekends, rentals are about a dollar cheaper than Blockbuster.

    I did the math, though. My car gets about 20mpg in the city. To rent a movie on a Tuesday or Thursday from my super-cheap local shop, I drive 2 miles, there, and 2 miles back. Then the next day, I have to return it, so another 2 miles there, and 2 miles back. That’s 8 miles, total, to rent the movie. That’s approx 1/2 gallon of fuel. So at today’s price of roughly $4 per gallon, my $0.99 rental just cost me $2.99. My $4 rental from Blockbuster (which is across the street from the smaller shop, ironically, so same distance) is $6. So the iTunes movie rental is actually noticeably CHEAPER than renting the movie from the shop! And after a long day at work, I don’t have to run TWO errands out of the house to watch the movie (rental and return). No risk of late fees, etc. if I get distracted and forget to the return the movie the next day.

    As far as I’m concerned, the ONLY downside is there are no special features. That’s a big problem for some movies, but no problem for others. So sometimes I’ll still make the drive, but others, using the iTunes rental is fantastic.

    The biggest downside to the iTunes movie rentals, as the reviewer noted, is there is a relatively small selection. My wife and I probably rented 10-20 movies on it before we pretty much caught up with all current releases we had not seen. It seems like new releases do not hit the iTunes store as soon as they hit the local video store, in some cases. Sometimes they are released same day, other times they are released like a month later, and still other times they don’t come in at all! What’s up with that? It’s pretty annoying to see a new movie I want to rent, get all excited, and then be let down when I see it’s available for sale only, and not for rent.

    Like the article’s author, I have no interest in BUYING DRM’d movies with no special features (rentals, no problem, but not buying). I’d rather spend roughly the same money on purchasing the DVD, where I am then free to do whatever I want with it. (DMCA notwithstanding, Handbrake gives me a lot of freedom for dealing with my personally-owned DVDs)

  3. Pat Says:

    I use the rental with the ATV and enjoy. Connect the ATV via toslink to my receiver and most of the new release play 5:1 surround sound. Usually can start the movie about 5 minutes after the download begins. I usually rent the HD version which looks great on the Big screen. As far as number of movies in US store I counted 1887 on ITunes using the power search and there are about 300 or more in HD so hopefully your content will start filling out. When movie rentals started Apple had about 700 titles available in the US and less then 100 HD.

  4. Matt Says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    @cdude: interesting that iTunes is the cheapest option. And of course I guess it’s better for the environment too! Yes I don’t think I’d ever buy a movie from iTMS while they have DRM and no specials.

    @Pat: nice to hear about your ATV experience. I wish you could rent HD movies on the regular iTunes too!

  5. Albert Says:

    i feel like u said something wrong in ur post: if I buy something, I should be able to do what I like with it, right?
    Actually, no! Copyright exists for a reason….like if u buy a book u r authorized to make 100 copies and give them away for free? If u were a photographer (which I am) would u like to spend an entire day taking photos and then give those pictures to whoever…and after that they can make 1,000 copies and sell them. Being ur work it is ur right to legally protect it and sell right to it. If u pay for a rental or a copy of a digital movie, that’s all u can do: watch it on ur laptop. Technically when u buy a dvd u can watch on whatever player but u cant copy it (yes, u can’t) and do whatever u want with it. Yes u own it, but u have no right to make 100 copies and share it, sell it or whatever. it’s called copyright.

  6. Matt Says:

    @Albert: You’re missing the point of the article. I’m not suggesting I should be able to make 1,000 copies of a movie file and sell them. I am saying that if I purchase a license to use a movie file, I should be able to use that movie file for my own purposes, such as watching it on any device I like, and making copies for non-commercial personal use. I am not talking about redistributing copies of it.

    This is called “fair use”: