Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Miss Media Junkie v. iTunes

I finally caved and rented "Margin Call" through the iTunes store the other day. I'd been anticipating this one since hearing the buzz about it from the Berlin International Film festival back in February. I was a little wary of iTunes though. I use the service to listen to free podcasts all the time, but I find the interface very user unfriendly, and I'll be damned if I can figure out how to get individual audio files into my iPod Nano without them automatically self-sorting into odd places. The Slash Filmcast is many things, but "jazz album" is not one of them.

But I had an iTunes gift card that had been sitting around since last year, so I figured it was at least worth an attempt. I've tried pretty much every other major online video service, from Amazon Prime to MLink. It was time to give iTunes a whirl. Initially there were the usual hassles of creating an account and E-mail verification, but that's par for the course these days. Then I went browsing. Again, I really dislike the iTunes web interface, which requires a lot of scrolling through bulky graphics. Most titles are automatically sorted by popularity, so the indies and foreign films I like are always buried about three or four pages back with the dreck. Fortunately "Margin Call" was a new release, and had its own separate graphic in a sidebar touting the fact.

Then there was actually renting the film. This is the part of the service I take the most issue with, because after clicking the "Rent" option for "Margin Call," there was no confirmation of my transaction. I didn't get any kind of onscreen acknowledgement or instructions as to what to do next. An E-mail receipt didn't show up in my inbox until this morning, after the period I had to watch the film had expired. If I hadn't noticed that $7 had been deducted from my gift card balance, a small line of text at the top of the page, I might have been tempted to click the button again. I know that Apple likes to let the user intuit things without a lot of explanation, but this was really pushing it.

So where was my movie? Fortunately I had my iTunes desktop application open, which was automatically downloading the video file for me. It took a little clicking around for me to find my video download queue, but I got there eventually. Then came the next eyebrow-raiser. "Margin Call" is 105 minutes, but the file size was well over 3 GB, which I thought was a bit much. If there's anything that's going to keep me from using this service very often, it's the sheer amount of resources it requires. A film of the same length streamed in HD over Netflix is about 1 GB smaller in size. Oh, and it starts automatically while iTunes makes you wait an hour for the entire file to finish.

The quality of the viewing experience was very good though. I have no technical issues with the iTunes video player. Watching the film at home can't compare to seeing it in a theater on the big screen, but I felt I got my money's worth. $7 is cheaper than what I usually pay for an evening ticket at my usual art house theater, which isn't playing "Margin Call," by the way. To see this particular limited release, I would have had to drive about three towns over. That makes iTunes a good option for me regarding films that only get platform releases, that I might not otherwise get a chance to see before they reach DVD. With the holidays and so many prestige titles coming in the next few months, the convenience factor is very attractive.

However, there is still the little matter of resources. I'm not willing to put down $7 for every new movie I want to see, especially since matinees and discount tickets are usually priced lower. So I don't see myself using iTunes too often for films, unless it's another of these simultaneous or early VOD releases of something I'm highly anticipating that isn't otherwise accessible. The majority of the time I can wait for the DVD, or I'll pay a little more and drive a little farther for the theater experience. I wouldn't have watched "Tree of Life" through iTunes, for instance, because that movie simply has to be seen on a theater screen. "Margin Call" is a boardroom drama, and looked fine on the old laptop.

Anyway, it's nice to know I've got options.

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