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Archive for the ‘Products I Might Like To Purchase’ Category

Purely because I don’t want the previous post to be the first thing on the front page of my blog, here’s something completely meaningless: a list of movies that I’m particularly looking forward to getting when they come out on Blu-Ray!

  • The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951, natch)
  • All the Pixar movies, especially Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.
  • All the Kevin Smith movies, especially Clerks and Chasing Amy
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Some of the Woody Allen movies, especially Annie Hall
  • All The Star Wars’s, especially Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Amélie
  • American Beauty
  • Dr. Strangelove

I rented a movie from the Xbox Live Marketplace today and I thought I’d give some thoughts about it. I’m particularly interested in movie rentals at the moment, because I’ve noticed that I’ve only watched the vast majority of the DVDs that I own once. I’m keen not to make the same mistake again with high definition (HD) movies, so I’m planning to just rent from now on, except for the handful of things that I love and expect to watch many times. I’m also quite excited about online movie rentals because it seems clear to me that this is the future, but, as we’ll see, sadly they haven’t got it perfected just yet.

Apple have also started doing movie rentals from their iTunes Store, and they’ve just launched in the UK, so I’ll be comparing how it matches up with the Xbox Live Marketplace (although I haven’t actually tried Apple’s service yet, so I’m just talking about specifications and such at this point). I’ve also recently started renting DVDs and Blu-Ray discs from LOVEFiLM (just like a UK version of Netflix), so I’ll be comparing with that, too.

I realize that this is a long article, so if you just want the highlights: the video and audio quality is good, but not as good as Blu-Ray, and the price seems very expensive when compared with disc rental services.

If you want the (glorious?) detail, please read on!

What’s good?

The movie I rented was “I Am Legend”, which is 100 minutes long and the HD version was a 4.54GB file. I was expecting that to take a while to download, so I started it downloading last night, planning to leave it going while I went out food shopping. To my surprise, though, the movie said it was ready to play about 3 minutes after I started downloading it, so the movie can play even when it’s only partially downloaded. That’s a great, great feature, so I’m surprised that Microsoft doesn’t make a big deal about it. It’s particularly important that they should be clear about this, because when you download a regular video file from Xbox Live (such as a game trailer) those have to be downloaded completely before you can start watching them, so I think that most Xbox Live users would expect movie rentals to work the same way. Dividing 4.54GB by 100 minutes gives a bitrate of 6.5Mbps, so anyone with broadband faster than about 7Mbps (including a margin for download overheads and such) should be able to watch the film as soon as they’ve purchased it.

The huge convenience of being able to rent and watch very quickly is the main advantage of the download services, since DVD rental by post requires you to wait at least a day to get your disc, and old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar rental shops require you to expend a certain amount of time and effort to rent, and then more time and effort to return afterwards. Apple also allows you to start watching while downloading, and they also do a lousy job of telling potential customers about that advantage.

I don’t have one of the Xbox media remotes, so I was using the standard controller to watch the movie. That was actually perfectly fine; the functions are sensibly mapped to buttons and it just took a minute of experimenting to figure out what was what. The only niggle is that the controller switches itself off if you don’t use it for 15 minutes, so it has to be turned back on next time you use it by holding down the start button for a few seconds.

What’s not so good?

As I mentioned before, the movie is encoded at approximately 6.5Mbps. That’s probably 6Mbps for the video and 448kbps for the audio. The video is 720p (1280×720) and the audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s actually a lower bitrate than a typical standard definition DVD, but the resolution and quality are higher because it is using a more efficient encoding (Windows Media Video, aka VC-1). How does that compare with the competition? Well, the iTunes HD rentals are also 720p, but apparently their file sizes are a bit smaller (~4GB versus ~6GB) so presumably their bitrate is lower. Xbox rentals don’t compare so well with Blu-Ray, though. Blu-Ray discs can store up to 50GB so they can be very luxurious with the encodings. The “Juno” Blu-Ray I’ve rented, for example, has 1080p video (1920×1080) at around 35Mbps.

Subjectively, the video quality of “I Am Legend” was exactly what I was expecting: better than DVD, but not as good as Blu-Ray. I didn’t notice any encoding artifacts, and everything looked very good, on the whole. I’ve already been spoilt by Blu-Ray though, because I did notice at times that things were a little “soft”, compared with the sharpness of 1080p on Blu-Ray.

The sound is a similar story to the video. As I mentioned, it’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound at around 448kbps, which is exactly the same as you’d get on a DVD, and from Apple’s HD rentals. Blu-Ray’s extra capacity comes in handy again, here, and they can manage 7.1 channel uncompressed audio at higher than CD quality. I’m not too fussy about that at the moment, because my audio system isn’t fancy enough to take advantage of that.

What’s bad?

The video/audio quality described in the section above is an understandable compromise given the equipment and bandwidth that the majority of Microsoft’s customers will have available today. Unfortunately the problems in this section are less forgivable, because they are oversights that could and should be corrected:

This first point might bother you, because it describes a small technical problem that you’ve probably never noticed before, but you might notice it every time you watch a film after you’ve been told about it, so you might want to skip this paragraph if that’s the sort of thing that bothers you. Still here? Cool. As you might know, films are recorded at 24 frames per second. Most TVs, on the other hand, display 60 frames per second (fps), so to display a film on a TV we have to do something a bit odd. On a 60 fps HDTV, we have to repeat the frames. The first frame is shown twice and then the second frame is shown three times. That pattern repeats so that 24 frames fit into 60. That works okay, and most people don’t notice that the motion is not completely smooth (I’ve found it’s most noticeable on slow panning shots and during scrolling credits). In the last few years, however, TVs have started coming out that have a mode that actually displays 24 frames per second (usually referred to as 24Hz, and unfortunately you have to very careful to ensure that a TV can actually do 24Hz display, because some of them will accept a 24Hz signal, but then display it at 60 fps as described above). This is great and marvelous, because we can finally watch movies just the same as they are on the big screen. Unfortunately, though, the Xbox 360 doesn’t know how to output 24 fps, so you don’t get the benefit of a smoother picture even if you have a fancy-pants TV. Likewise, Apple TV can’t output 24 fps, but Blu-Ray wins again because it definitely does support 24 fps (hallelujah!) I really hope that this can be fixed with a software update on the Xbox 360 and Apple TV, because it’s one of the small things that really bugs perfectionists like me.

As anyone who’s ever played a DVD knows, most of them come with plenty of bonus features, such as making-of documentaries and commentaries, and even the most basic disc comes with chapter marks and subtitles. So what did my download rental of “I Am Legend” come with? Not a thing! There’s no reason why extra videos and commentaries shouldn’t be available as additional downloads, and I was really surprised that the movie didn’t even have subtitles. That was mildly annoying for me, as I sometimes use subtitles to catch inaudible dialogue, but if I was deaf you can bet I’d be fuming right now about accessibility and equal rights. The Xbox 360 video player does have options for alternate sound tracks and subtitles, but they simply weren’t used. Obviously all that material is prepared for the DVD release, so the fact that is wasn’t available with the download just seems lazy, like the download is done as an afterthought.

If you have a 360 then you’ve probably noticed that it’s a noisy son-of-a-gun, with the cooling fans doing a passable impression of a wind tunnel. My 360 is one of the newer models that is supposedly cooler and quieter than the old ones, so I dread to think what they were like. Playing a movie shouldn’t be a particularly stressful task for this console, so I was hoping that the system would be smart enough to slow down its processor and the cooling fans, but it doesn’t do so. In fact, bizarrely enough, it seemed that it kept the game disc spinning (albeit at a slow speed) even while the movie was playing from the hard disk. That’s easily enough fixed by taking the disc out, but it’s mildly annoying and contributes to the impresssion that the movie downloads are a bit half-assed. While I was watching the movie the fan noise did fade into the background mostly, but I did notice it a few times during quiet scenes. Again, I really hope this can fixed by a software update.

When downloading a movie from the Xbox Live Marketplace the user is reminded about the “usage rights” that they have with regard to the download. Now, I’m totally opposed to all DRM when it comes to things that are purchased for keeps, but I can accept that it’s necessary when dealing with rentals (I can’t imagine the honor system working too well in this case). For the Xbox Live movie rentals you have to start watching the movie within 14 days of downloading it, and you can watch it as much as you like for 24 hours after you first press play. That’s pretty reasonable, I think. What’s annoying is that the download is locked to the console you downloaded it on and can’t be transferred to a PC or a portable device. That’s particularly annoying for me because I have a nice quiet computer hooked up to my TV (and it can do 24 fps too!), but I can’t use it, presumably because the movie studios are paranoid and irrational about copyright infringement. It’s odd that Microsoft has this fairly nice movie rental service, but it isn’t available to people using PCs. I know that not many people have a PC connected to their TV, but I also know that lots of people have laptops, and lots of people like watching movies on planes and in hotel rooms and such. Apple doesn’t shine on this front either, unfortunately, because although you can use their movie rental service on PCs or Macs, you can only download HD movies using their Apple TV device, and when you do that you can’t transfer them back to a computer. Basically, this is yet another pain in the neck caused by the hyper-protectiveness of copyright owners. Dear Hollywood, The latest snake-oil “copy-protection” systems that you signed up to are already broken. Anyone that wants your movies for free can get them already. Please stop annoying the people who actually want to give you money. Yours sincerely, Common Sense.

I’ve left the biggest problem for last, but it’s the first one I noticed when renting the movie. It is, of course, the price. The HD rental that I bought costs 600 “Microsoft Points”. Using a handy calculator, that works out as £5.10, or $7.50 for Americans. No, I’m not going to complain that £5.10 is a third more than $7.50: I get that you can’t compare prices across different economies with widely different tax structures (Euro-users may like to complain, however, that they’re paying 8% more than we are in the UK: that may well be illegal). What I am going to complain about is that it’s much more expensive than the alternatives. Apple’s rentals cost £4.49 for a new HD release. Okay, that’s not much better, but at least I don’t have to buy 1000 Microsoft “points” in order to pay for it (thus letting Microsoft hold on to £3.40 of my money for me). LOVEFiLM, though, is hugely more attractive from a price point-of-view, because their rentals are basically £2 each, including postage both ways. The price varies depending on exactly which package you use or how many credits you buy in advance, but it’s clearly structured around £2 per rental. So for £2 I could have rented the Blu-Ray edition of “I Am Legend”, with substantially better video and audio quality, and with commentaries, subtitles and special features (including, as I’ve just annoyingly read, an interesting-sounding alternate ending). There’s also no difference in price between renting DVDs and renting Blu-Ray discs at LOVEFiLM. Microsoft charges an extra £1.02 for the HD version of a film. They would argue that it costs more because they’re sending me more data, which is a fair point, but I just did the calculations using the prices that Amazon charges for their data hosting service, and it would cost approximately £0.25 to send me the extra 3.2GB for the HD file.

Conclusions?

So close, but yet so far. I feel like I’ve been waiting for too many years already for online movie rentals to become available, so it’s frustrating that both Apple and Microsoft have made available interesting but flawed products. I’m definitely going to stick with getting most of my movies from LOVEFiLM. I might have been able to accept the lower quality of the downloads for the sake of the convenience of being able to decide what to watch spontaneously, but paying more than double for the lower quality option is simply too hard to stomach on a regular basis. I might still use the Xbox Live Movie rentals occasionally, perhaps if I’m particularly in the mood for a certain film right now, for example, but I’ll continue to hope that Microsoft or Apple (or someone else) will fix the problems and put out the online rental service that I really want.

I thought I’d draw your attention to this really great new Adult Swim cartoon. It’s called Frisky Dingo (apparently it’s called that because they wanted to call it “Whiskey Tango”, but ran into trademark troubles). It’s about superheroes and villians and stuff and it’s from the same guys who made Sealab 2021. Here’s a (not safe for work!) preview on YouTube.

So, obviously I recommend that you respect copyrights and wait until either Bravo gets around to showing it (and when they do you’ll have to visit their web site every day to find out if it’s on because they treat their advance schedule like a trade secret), or you’ll have to wait until the Adult Swim subscription service adds it to their line-up (no hint when that might be, I’m afraid, and tough luck if you have a Mac). Of course, you could just wait six months for them to put it on a shiny disc so that you can actually watch it at decent quality when you feel like it. Oh wait, you can’t do that because you’d have to import it and it won’t play on your unmodified region-locked DVD player that you have because you also have a great respect for content-owners’ ability to stifle free trade and keep an iron-fisted control over distribution (I would have thought that letting people buy your products would be a good business strategy, but hey, I don’t have an MBA).

Oh well, I guess you won’t be watching it at all, because there’s clearly no other way.

So, by now it’s old news that the iPhone is going to be a closed system which will not allow any old third-party applications to be installed on it. The excuse given (stability of the phone and the network) is very weak, but the real rationale is understandable. They simply can’t allow unauthorized software because versions of Skype and Windows Media Player would be made in a heartbeat. The former could potentially undercut the cellular carriers and the latter would finally allow users to use Apple’s beautiful devices without being locked-in to their online store.

So, is it a disaster that iPhone users will be shackled to whatever software Apple and Cingular deem appropriate? Well, no. All mainstream games consoles are also closed systems, and they prove that a closed system can still be perfectly adequate for an excellent consumer experience. But, what about the tinkerers who want to be able to run their own code and do things that these cool embedded computers were never meant to do? Well, inevitably, talented people find ways around the technological measures that restrict them, and we can expect that a “home-brew scene” will crop up within days or weeks of the iPhone release in June.

However, a home-brew scene is hardly ideal: there’s always a certain amount of hassle involved in going against the grain, and as a result these things don’t tend to reach a very broad audience. For instance, there are custom versions of the Sony PSP system software available that let you run games off a memory stick (for a welcome boost to the painful disc loading times) and the latest version also de-restricts the crippled built-in video playback on the PSP that normally prevents the watching of full-resolution videos. But the installation procedure is a pain, and keeping up with the latest updates is tedious (the updates are needed because Sony forces their fixes onto users by making new games require them). So, all things considered, it’s very hard to recommend these sorts of things to someone who isn’t a dedicated geek with a slight stick-it-to-the-man mentality.

So it seems likely that this is the situation we’re going to find ourselves with on the iPhone. But what if there was another option? How about if Apple issued cheap ‘developer licenses’ for the iPhone that allowed you to develop and run unofficial software on your own device, but didn’t give you the ability to distribute your software to regular iPhones that don’t have the license. That way the tinkerers of the world could have all the geeky fun they wanted, without hurting Apple’s and Cingular’s business interests. The licenses would be cheap enough for “hobby programmers”, but expensive enough that no-one would try and sell the software they’d developed, hoping that the users would buy a developer license in order to run it. I’m thinking $100 would be the sweet price-point, and I for one would be there in a flash.

It would also be a great way of encouraging the sort of small-time developers who should be able to shine on a platform like this, where innovative applications would not require huge budgets. Developers who come up with interesting apps could pitch them to Apple and those that make the cut could be sold on the iTunes Store, so the system would benefit Apple, the developers and, of course, the iPhone end-users.

Wowzer. Needless to say, I want one. The only little niggles that I can see so far are the lack of UMTS (3G) and the weird screen resolution (320×480? Huh?). According to Wikipedia, EDGE is apparently being deployed by Orange in this country (and T-Mobile too it seems), so hopefully that will make up for the missing ¼G (apparently EDGE is called a 2.75G technology). Will we miss video calls? Doubt it.

It would also be swell if the thing had a memory card slot for expansion, but I’d be amazed if they put one in because selling you a new one of that thing you just bought seems to be a major part of Apple’s strategy at the moment. It’s also gunna be ridiculously expensive: apparently the $600 tag is with a two year contract.

Despite those problems, today I’m glad that I don’t work at any of the following companies:


See my contact details and more stuff from me at JJC1138.net.