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Saturday 19 January 2008

Apple TV and DivX [Lurks]

Penny Arcade came up with an interesting historical reminder in their latest comic. Also discussed in the purple prose of the news page. Their central premise is that the idea of the convenience of DRM controlled rental movies in the lounge is now being hailed as the second coming as a feature of the new Apple TV (I can't be arsed to link that junk), when in fact the original DivX players offered exactly the same thing and were lampooned into oblivion by Internet Liberals.

Some of you might be a shade confused here. DivX was originally a DVD player with a modem . You could get DivX DVDs, in effect, and basically rent them via some electronic DRM system or optionally even buy them. This was made out to be something massively evil back in the day. The fact that a pirate codec ripping off Microsoft's MPEG4 source code decided to call itself DivX in later years was actually a rare form of American irony. DivX is now, somehow through ways I don't quite understand, an entirely legal provider of MPEG4 codec.

Anyway, I remember the DivX arguments well. I honestly remember that I hated the DivX idea but that was because the usual packs of Internet Liberals (the guys now generally advocating piracy and being able to steal music and rip DVDs etc) had the whole thing in their head as a restriction. Where as in fact it was trumpeting the kind of model with AppleTV and the Xbox 360 live movie/tv download service is offering today. Cheaper access to content you want.

So what's changed? Hard to say. I think if you look back then we all had a different idea about videos and DVDs. These were things to own. The idea that you didn't really own something and you could just watch it when you wanted and then couldn't watch it again seemed alien and wrong.

Fast forward to today and there's so much content, and we're used to obtaining TV, movies and christ knows what else via digital means has caused us all to think about DVDs differently. I have a shelf of DVDs and they represent a particular time frame where that seemed a good idea. Later I thought, hang on... I don't watch these movies again, not really. Why do I want to own it? Much less why do I want to pay a good slice of wonga for it, more than it would cost to go to the cinema to see it?! So I stopped.

Now if I look at my hard drive it's got massive folders of unfiltered drop stuff in a regular Usenet leech folder and a Bittorrent leech folder. Huge amounts of shit just drop in there. I generally watch and then forget about and end up deleting later every time that drive gets a bit full. Anything that I decide rules I copy out into movies, television, music folders on the big archive drive. A fraction of what I leech actually gets that honor.

I can't speak to Apple TV because, well, it's bollocks. iTunes is bollocks. Lack of 1080p is bollocks etc. However Microsoft have launched the movie download service for the Xbox 360. You go in, see a movie you want and leech it. I think you need to start watching within a week or something, and when you've started watching it you need to finish watching it in a day or so. That concept seems to be getting as ribbing from Penny Arcade. But how's that different from those pay-per-view movie and sports channels on satellite? Except for the fact you don't need to watch at a specific time slot. It's also perfectly obvious that renting a movie via this system is a lot cheaper than buying the DVD. Let alone the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray. So where's the problem?

I can't wait for this stuff to be done correctly to be honest. Watching movies and television is worth money to me if it's the stuff I want to watch. I steal it now because it's the only way to get it but it is a bit of a faff and of course quality is variable.

Of course content owners end up being own worst enemies as usual. They wont sell me in the UK the latest episode of some hit American TV series in HD. Not until some terrestrial channel has aired it months later. They, of course, still fail to understand that content is in a global market now. Region locking is fundamentally bollocks.

Yet if some movie appears on the 360 which I haven't seen and I'd like to see, I'd absolute fork over some Microsoft points and watch it. It's HD (albiet only 720p but 1080p is prohibitively large really), the encode quality is clearly great from source material. It's surround sound pumped straight out of the 360 via optical into my DD decoder speakers. Media playback controls are perfectly competent on the 360.

Let's be honest though, there's going to be some leechable HD x264 rip in a Matroska container that plays beutifully on a PC - ripped from a Blu-ray source - out weeks before the studios deign to flog it on these services. On the other hand there's a lot of movies out and I don't see them ALL before they reach this weird period where studios decide pay-per-view is good distribution timeframe. So I can see me using it.

The thing I wish they'd do is just output the premium US television NOW. When they premier on the big channels in the US, this shit should ALL be up on a service so you can buy the television episodes. In my little imaginary utopia things like Firefly would still be on the air because those thousands and thousands of us around the world that loved that show when we were downloading it would all be paying a few quid.

And who knows, the yanks might suddenly realise the market for HBO-like quality material is actually bigger because they aren't so absurdly reliant on the whims of American prime-time couch-droolers. All those great shows that were axed... they could be running. Leave MEGA STRUCTURES and MOST DANGEROUS PETS on the network television (and channel Five) as normal, chuck out quality shows for the world market. It'll come. I wonder how long we'll have to wait.

It is funny though, looking back at DivX and looking at how much we hated the very idea of the same thing which sounds like hot sex today.


  1. I completely agree, they're missing fantastic opportunities to prop up their existing business models. The reason they won't release stuff world wide is all the fingers in pies in hte territories. It could possibly put distributors out of business or tick off Murdoch. Not that I give a rats.I do have some problems with the AppleTV specifically though. It's still not as good as walking 5 minutes to my local shop to rent a DVD: You have to watch the movie within 24 hours of starting to download it. In most DVD shops, even premium titles are due back by close of business the next day, giving you 2 evenings to split your viewing over if necessary. Older titles have a rental window of a week. Fix: make it 48 hrs. No 5.1 on standard def. Typical Apple 'nickel & diming'. Standard def stuff is all plain stereo, pony up more & a longer download, just to get as good as DVD. DRM = playing in iTunes. Presumably, those of us with HTPCs won't have to buy an Apple TV to use this. Just play in iTunes and full screen it. Except that Quicktime & iTunes (at least on Windows) suck donkeys. My HTPC is a E6600 with nVidia 630i chipset & integrated Geforce 7100 graphics. No gaming rig, but it plays 720p and 1080p fine, either using VLC payer or Windows media player in conjuction with ffdshow and Haali media splitter. Quicktime however gags like a whore on 720p with a notable reduction in quality dropping video frames & desyncing the audio. Dunno if it's a chipset thing to be fair as I didn't notice the problem on the last board I had in there which was ATi based, but CPU is only at 40% so something's pretty screwed. Price. It's still a 200 quid just to rent movies. Unlike the 360 which does a whole lot more.


  2. In essence, Mac stuff sucks.


  3. MS's Live movie store is a little more forgiving it seems. Once you download it, you have 14 days to watch it, the 24 hour rule only kicks in once you hit play for the first time.

    That said, I fell houl of this the other week. Friday evening, I decided to tryout the movie store by paying for Zodiac in HD. Kicked off the download and left it running for a few hours. When I returned at 8pm, it said "ready to play". Reasoning that my 20Mb could have downloaded it in this time, I settled in for a couple of hours entertainment. Exactly half way through the film, I started to get "buffering" messages. Uhoh. On closer inspection, I found a progress bar, a progress bar that was stuck at 50%. Obviously what had happened was that the first bit had downloaded quickly and the system had extrapolated that I could watch the film while downloading the rest, hence the "ready to play" message. Sadly, the connection had then slowed down - maybe Virgin's bandy throttling, I don't know.

    Of course, now I was stuck in the situation that the rest of the film wouldn't download that night, and that I had to watch the remainder by 8pm the following night, so I couldn't even postpone to the following evening. A pain in the arse, and probably as much my fault as MS's, but certainly something to bear in mind when doing it again.