iPad tip: Always buy or rent the SD versions of movies and TV shows

If you're spending extra on HD, you're wasting money on pixels you really don't need. Of course, there's an exception to every rule...

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
2 min read
A typical SD movie costs $14.99 to buy or $3.99 to rent.
A typical SD movie costs $14.99 to buy or $3.99 to rent. Screenshot by Rick Broida
The same movie in HD costs $5 more to buy or $1 more to rent.
The same movie in HD costs $5 more to buy or $1 more to rent. Screenshot by Rick Broida

As I sit here at 33,000 feet, watching my kids watch "How to Train Your Dragon" on my iPad, I'm struck by several thoughts.

First, in-flight Wi-Fi is just plain awesome. Second, coach seats were made for Netbooks, not laptops. The sardine-can contortions I'm enduring right now are just plain painful.

Third, buying high-definition (HD) movies or TV shows from iTunes is a waste of money--if you're planning to watch them solely on your iPad.

See, many users make the mistake of thinking that standard-definition (SD) videos are intended for iPhones and iPods, while the iPad's large, 1,024x768-pixel screen automatically warrants the HD variety. That's not the case at all.

An SD video purchased from iTunes typically has a resolution of 853x480 pixels, meaning it's almost twice as wide as it is tall--much like the 16:9 aspect ratio you find on modern TVs. The typical HD movie is 1,280x720 pixels, which would seem to match up better to the iPad's screen resolution--at least in terms of height.

However, the iPad's square-ish screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning if you maintain a movie's 16:9 aspect ratio (meaning, you don't zoom in), you're getting an effective resolution of 1,024x576 pixels--barely higher than what you get from an SD movie (which is upscaled to fill the available screen estate).

In other words, HD might look a tad better than SD, but only a tad. And I know there's only a $1 difference between most SD and HD rentals, but when it comes to buying movies, the difference is upwards of $5.

From a purely subjective standpoint, the kids' SD version of "How to Train Your Dragon" looks stunning, at least to my eyes. If you buy and/or rent a lot of stuff, you might save yourself a decent chunk of change over the course of a year by opting for SD over HD. (You'll also save a considerable amount of storage space.)

So why does anybody buy HD at all? For viewing on PCs and TVs, which have more than sufficient resolution to accommodate what HD has to offer. Indeed, if you own an iPad and, say, an Apple TV, or you sometimes watch your videos on your laptop, HD might be worth the extra expense.

What are your thoughts on this? Am I off my rocker, or do you agree that SD is the right choice for iPad viewing?