The highs and lows of iTunes videos

With today’s announcement that Apple now sells video content from NBC as well as a select group of programs from ABC, we have the opportunity to examine how iTunes stacks up against other sources for archived television programming. What turns the tide is the wider availability of complete seasons of select programs.

For example, iTunes now offers Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 1. As with other television shows, you can purchase individual episodes for $1.99. If you care to, you can also purchase the entire season for $54.99 (a savings of $22.62 over what you paid if you purchased all 39 episodes individually). Yet dash to Amazon and you discover that you can have those same 39 episodes in a three-disc DVD collection for just $28.98—a savings of $26.01 over the iTunes price.

Move to more modern collections that contain fewer episodes and iTunes fares better. The first season of Law and Order , comprised of 22 episodes, costs $35.99 on iTunes. Shop Amazon for the DVD version and you pay $44.99. The first season of the American version of The Office costs $11.94 from iTunes versus the DVD set from Amazon for $18.99. Season 1 of Lost is $4 more at Amazon— $38.99 for the DVD set compared to iTunes’ $34.99.

Beyond price, what’s the advantage or disadvantage of procuring old television shows the new-fangled way? Let’s take a look.

Advantages

Immediacy Those who want a particular program (or season) right now can realize their dream. Over a fast broadband connection you can download a program at about 2x real time—around 11 minutes to download a 23 minute program. Purchasing a DVD set requires waiting for UPS/FedEx/Postal Service to bring the goods to your door or taking a trip to the local video emporium. And for recent shows—an episode that played last night or last week—there is no DVD collection. If you’ve failed to purchase a TiVo or have come late to a series and want to catch up, iTunes offers the way.

A la carte ordering iTunes lets you purchase single episodes, making it easy to grab just the four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by The Man himself. With DVD season purchases, you get it all, the good as well as the not-so.

Synopses Click the i icon next to an episode entry in iTunes and you’ll see a neat summary of the episode’s plot.

iPod compatibility Sure, you can rip DVDs to an iPod-compatible format with tools such as HandBrake (Mac) or DVDx (Windows), but it takes time—an hour or so for a full-length movie. Use iTunes and you wait no longer than the time it takes to download the video and transfer it to your iPod.

Disadvantages

Resolution Apple has maintained for, well, ever , that one of the main purposes of the iTunes Music Store is to sell iPods. Likewise, the video content available from The Store is largely intended for the 5G iPod. Project these videos on a TV and they’re not so hot—banding and pixilation is evident. If you intend to watch archived TV programs on something other than an iPod or within iTunes, a DVD set might be the better way to go.

Non-transferrable Videos purchased from the iTunes Music Store are protected so that you can play them on up to 5 computers or on as many iPods as you can toss them onto. But unlike with The Store’s music files, you can’t burn them in playable form to disc. (You can burn them only as back up files.) If you like to share your favorite videos with friends, a DVD makes it easier to do.

No extras If you’re the sort of person who’s interested in commentary tracks, deleted scenes, cast bloopers, and “the making of” documentary features, purchase the DVD set. iTunes offers no special features.

Selection And, of course, iTunes’ offerings are currently pretty limited. Swell as it may be to have The Office , Law and Order , Lost , and Desperate Housewives at your beck and call, how much cooler would it be to be able to grab episodes and seasons of The Daily Show , The Simpsons , South Park , The Sopranos , Rome , Arrested Development , The Larry Sanders Show , How the Grinch Stole Christmas , I Love Lucy , and on and on and on and on? There’s a rich television history out there. If the point of these videos is to sell iPods, bringing the bulk of that history to the iTunes Music Store would sell a passel of the things.

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