Mac Musings

Higher Resolution Content, Video iPod Speculation, and Apple's Big File Size Problem

Daniel Knight - 2006.07.13

Why is it that Apple can sell you a music track for 99¢, a one-hour TV show for $1.99, but not a full-length movie at any price?

Apple's Frank Casanova, director of QuickTime Product Marketing, says, "you could request a movie from Netflix before this [1.5 GB] download gets to you."

There's a problem with that, and it isn't how long it will take broadband users to download a 1.5 GB file. It's the size of the file. When video is optimized for the iPod's 320 x 240 display, a half-hour (actually 22 minutes) TV show weighs in at about 100 MB.

Basic Math

Do the math. Today's 90 minute movie would come in at about 400 MB, and one of those long 2.5 hour movies at about 650 MB. Small enough to fit on a CD. And a lot faster to download than Apple's theoretical 1.5 GB file.

Cult of Mac's Pete Mortensen reports downloading half-hour TV shows in as little as 5 minutes, which means it should be possible to download an iPod version of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest in as little as 30 minutes.

Your mileage may vary depending on your broadband speed. Cable will be fast. DSL will be a bit slower. Most wireless protocols should perform decently. And dialup users should simply forget about it.

Better than iPod Quality?

This raises another question: Why is Apple looking at 1.5 GB movie files instead of 400-700 MB ones? And I think I have the answer: Better than iPod quality. It quickly explains the inflated file size.

What if Apple were to offer movies in a higher resolution than 320 x 240? Well, they'd come in bigger files. And they'd look a whole lot better when viewed on your computer display or TV screen, even if they wouldn't look any better on today's video iPods.

Widescreen Video iPods?

Standard DVD quality is 720 x 480 and movies weigh in at several gigabytes in size. That's why DVDs hold 8.4 GB per dual-layer side. And standard iPod quality is 320 x 240, which means movie files about 1/10 that size.

To hit 1.5 GB with a 2-1/2 to 3 hour movie, we can more than double the number of pixels, perhaps going to 480 x 320 or 512 x 320. (That's nearly the same resolution as the original Macintosh with its 512 x 342 9" b&w display.)

Today's video iPods should have the processing power to convert this to their native 320 x 240 resolution, and higher resolution videos would look a lot better viewed on your computer display or TV set.

And it would work perfectly with a video-oriented iPod with a widescreen display that's better suited to movies - and also many of today's TV shows.

A Better Delivery System

That still raises the question of content delivery. Delivering millions of movies per month would put a huge strain on Apple's servers.

The solution: Distributed processing. Instead of serving all the movies from a single location, spread the load among thousands upon thousands of computers throughout the market.

If that sounds like BitTorrent, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. Apple could build a modified version of BitTorrent into iTunes, one that would only be able to initiate a torrent through Apple and would also contact Apple's servers upon completion of the download to verify full receipt of the file and initialize DRM.

Include the right for Apple to use your broadband-connected computer (but not dialup ones) for content distribution when you purchase your first movie from the iTunes Music Store, and you're all set.

That still won't solve to question of how long it may take any particular individual to receive a movie, but it would minimize the impact on Apple's servers.

And then come up with reasonable prices. And start offering higher resolution TV shows, music videos, and the like.

Whether Apple will go this route I can't say, but it sounds like a viable use of today's technology to meet the needs of tomorrow's market.