When it comes to digital movie software, I’ve reviewed several of the major packages by now. Flixster, VUDU, CinemaNow (twice), and Amazon Unbox have all been examined (check the Tech Reviews category if interested in any of the reviews). But anybody who knows anything about digital content delivery knows that there’s another major player to look at: iTunes, produced by Apple, who virtually started the whole “digital content” marketplace with music.
For the purpose of this review, I will solely be looking at renting and playing movies through iTunes. Also, as usual, I am working with the Windows XP version of the software. This may be pertinent in this case.
Apple seems to prefer an insular approach to content providing. Everything about the movie rental process takes place within the iTunes app itself, including shopping for the movie. Rental prices are generally comparable to those of competing services ($2.99 for SD, $3.99 for HD). The rental periods are also comparable: Videos have a 30-day availability window once rented, and when you start playback, this begins a 24-hour viewing window. At the end of either window, the video expires. Conveniently, the next time you log into iTunes after expiration, the file will be deleted automatically after a notification.
Also convenient is that iTunes goes against the grain in accepting Paypal as a payment method; it’s the first service I’ve found which does so. What’s more, if my rental experience is consistent with the norm, merely selecting a movie for rental and downloading doesn’t trigger the charge — I was only charged once I actually started playback (which in this case happened a few days later, so it was easy to observe the difference.)
The file is downloaded to your computer to a location that you can determine in the program preferences. It’s in a proprietary format, as far as I observed; Apple, like Amazon, does not appear to be hopping aboard the UltraViolet compatibility train just yet.
Playback, like rental, occurs within the iTunes application. When playing a video, there are a couple conveniences. First is that the video comes with a chapter index, so you can skip around if you wish. And secondly, the video also has optional closed captioning. And, of course, it has the usual pause button, which isn’t so much a convenience as an essential.
Unfortunately, that is where the convenience ends. The player also features fast forward and rewind buttons, which would be convenient if not for the fact that they appear to be completely inert. I was unable to get them to function at any point during my viewing. That, however, would be a minor nuisance at worst.
What is not a minor thing is the video playback. Several times during playback, the video would freeze and the sound would loop; it would remain so until I used the Task Manager to terminate the window. These freezes would happen anywhere from 10 seconds to 15 minutes apart, and in all numbered somewhere north of two dozen for a 110 minute movie. For the record, iTunes was the only application I had running during this rental. Additionally, I have not experienced this situation with any other form of video software, whether movie rental or simple playback, including Apple’s own QuickTime. I did eventually make it through the film, but it was an aggravating ordeal.
This is where it might be relevant that I am running Windows XP. I am of course aware that XP is considered outmoded nowadays; it has, after all, been followed up by Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8. And considering that Windows as a whole is a competing platform to Apple’s own Mac OS, Apple would be entirely justified if they didn’t make software for Windows at all, let alone for older versions of Windows. If Apple had simply said “Sorry, no XP version available”, I would have shrugged and moved on. But when a company makes software for my system, I expect that software to work. iTunes does not.
This is particularly galling considering the company in question. Apple is not, by any means, a small fly-by-night operation. They’re the second-most powerful software company around, and as Microsoft does not (as far as I know) offer their own video rental service, that makes Apple the largest in this particular game. There’s no excuse for them not being able to do this right.
I have done some searching online, and it appears this is not an isolated issue (and it seems some of the sufferers have newer operating systems). Some of the Apple forums have suggested various fixes, but I feel this is largely academic from my standpoint (and not just because having various solutions implies that most solutions won’t work). The fix for this problem may be easy, difficult, or nonexistent. But even if the fix is easy, it is still far easier for me to simply use a competing service that already works properly. And that is what I will be doing with future rentals. I spend enough of my time fixing computers as it is; I am not going to hijack my entertainment time in order to do so when I can just give my money to someone else instead of Apple.