One of our biggest complaints with the Apple TV was the dearth of HD video content. The product is capable of streaming 720p high-definition video, but to date, all of the movies and TV shows at Apple's iTunes Store are encoded at a "near DVD" resolution of 480p. But HD content has finally arrived on iTunes--and it's free. The Washington Post announced today that its online HD video podcast--which is shot in 720p high-definition--will now be available through iTunes.
We downloaded the two most recent episodes of the podcast--Edwards Family Values as well as Contamination and a Crusade--to evaluate the video quality. Overall, it was a big step up from previous iTunes fare, but critical viewers will find it falls short of HD broadcasts and even most DVDs. When viewed on a 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV, the improved resolution was evident on the images of John Edwards speaking to an auditorium full of students, but false contouring and solarization artifacts were easy to pick out in the background (white walls were a prime culprit). Close-ups of Edwards' face also exhibited some swimming pixels. Likewise, the depth of field offered was good, but not comparable to what you'd find on an HD broadcast (let alone a Blu-ray or HD DVD movie).
The problem here isn't resolution but bitrate--4,061Kbps with a mono soundtrack. That's a big improvement over the 1,516Kbps encoding found on a purchased episode of The Office, but merely 40 percent of the 10Mb capacity found on a standard-definition DVD. (Apple TV maxes out at 5Mbps, or about 5,000Kbps.) Of course, the better video quality comes at the expense of file size: the Edwards video was a mere 8.5 minutes long, but the file was a rather meaty 250MB--the same size as the aforementioned 21-minute episode of The Office. In addition to the increased download time, the large file size and bitrate affects streaming performance as well. Live streaming from an 802.11g laptop to the Apple TV (via an 802.11n Belkin N1 router) did produce the occasional buffering hiccup--the source PC would need to be wired or upgraded to 11n wireless to guarantee smooth streaming--but once we synced to the Apple TV's hard drive, play was perfect.
Of course, iTunes and the Apple TV were always capable of HD streaming, but the big news here is that the HD content is available through the iTunes Store. (Previously, you needed to download the HD file--say, a high-definition trailer at Apple's Quicktime site--and then manually import it into iTunes.) Video podcasts are a nice first step, and the fact that they're free is always welcome. But we're hopeful this is a trial balloon that will signal the availability of high-definition movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store in the not too distant future.
Note: Since originally published, this blog post has been updated with hands-on analysis of the HD video performance on Apple TV.