Movie downloads highlight iTunes 7 overhaul

Apple jumped into the movie retail business Tuesday, offering digital downloads of motion pictures through its iTunes store at prices ranging from $9.99 to $14.99. The addition of full-length movie downloads comes as part of a new version of iTunes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs billed as the most significant since the music player’s debut in 2001.

The redubbed iTunes Store offers more than 75 movies from four studios owned by Disney—Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Films. New releases will appear on the Store the same day DVD versions of the movies hit retail shelves. Apple will sell these new releases for $12.99 as pre-orders and during the first week of availability; afterwards, they’ll sell for $14.99.

In addition to new releases, the iTunes Store also offers a selection of older movies as part of its Library offerings—these are available for $9.99.

Jobs estimated that download times would be about 30 minutes assuming a 5Mb/s broadband connection. Users can start watching movies a minute after the download begins. The movies are available in 640-by-480-pixel resolution, the new standard for iTunes playback.

As with television shows, which were added to iTunes last fall, movies can be downloaded from iTunes for viewing on either a computer or an iPod. The same FairPlay digital rights management rules for television shows and music videos apply to full-length movies bought via iTunes—you can play movies on up to five authorized computers and an unlimited number of iPods, but you can’t burn movies and TV programs to a disc.

Apple adds movie purchases to iTunes less than a week after online retailer Amazon.com opened a video download store of its own. Amazon’s Unbox offers videos from more than 30 movie and TV studios for storing on up to two PCS and two portable video players; the service is not compatible with either Macs or iPods. Unbox charges between $7.99 and $14.99 for movie purchases, with rentals available for $3.99.

In a nod to the depth of Amazon’s catalog, Jobs acknowledged that Apple has just four studios supplying iTunes with movies. However, he also noted that iTunes’ TV downloads launched a year ago with just five shows from assorted Disney-owned networks; these days, TV offerings at iTunes have swelled to 220 shows from 40 networks.

To that end, Apple announced Tuesday that the NFL Network would begin offering video highlights through iTunes. Users can download highlights from individual football games for $1.99 the day after the games are played. There’s also a season pass option for $24.99 that lets fans select season-long highlights for their favorite team.

“We’re going to add more [movies] every week and every month,” Jobs said.

iTunes 7 changes

In addition to selling movies, Apple also updated its iTunes music and video jukebox app. iTunes 7 is the first major upgrade to the venerable application since iTunes 6 arrived last October. This update introduces several enhancements to iTunes’ look, feel, and functionality.

The left navigation pane features new sections with separate libraries for music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, and radio. The Source List also has separate headers for the iTunes Store, devices that are connected to your computer including iPods and CDs, and playlists.

A new three-position switch alternates between view modes. In addition to the standard view, an Album View allows users to scroll through music libraries by album. Tracks are listed alongside cover art for each album. The third view, Cover Flow, lets you browse through your library as if you were flipping through a stack of CDs, with a 3-D representation of albums covers that appears above the music list. iTunes 7 also adds a feature that allows users who have iTunes Store accounts to freely add missing album cover art to support both of the two new views.

The Album and Cover Flow views also work with other iTunes content, including movies and TV shows.

iTunes video capabilities have also been greatly enhanced. Previously, purchased videos were available at 320-by-240 resolution. iTunes 7 bumps that up to 640-by-480, four times the previous resolution, which Apple calls “near-DVD” quality.

The software also adds gapless playback for music and movies, and will update previous purchases in your library to add continuity. Another new feature is integrated iPod syncing, so that users no longer need to go into Preferences to manage which files are synced with an iPod.

A free upgrade, iTunes 7 will be available today from Apple’s Website or via Software Update.

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