1080p iTunes video: Is the difference in image quality worth the difference in file size?

Apple has made 1080p TV shows and music available for streaming and purchase via the iTunes Store. The price is the same as the previous 720p HD content, but is the image quality better enough to justify the bigger download sizes and increased storage they'll require?

First of all it's worth remember that, as of now, only the new iPad and the new Apple TV, in addition to iTunes on the desktop, can even play back 1080p content. If you primarily watch your iTunes TV shows and movies on an iPad 2 and iPhone 4S or older device, 720p is all you can play. That makes the choice simple -- there is none.

[Clarification: As pointed out in the comments below, you can load 1080p content onto iPad 2 or iPhone 4S, but the screen density is insufficient to play them at native resolution. For streaming, there's no reason to go 1080p. For purchases, you may want to swallow the size difference and go 1080p simply to future-proof your collection.]

If you're getting the new iPad and/or the new Apple TV, however, you have the choice. With one flip of the Settings, you can go from 720p to 1080p. That makes the choice not so simple.

Ars Technica has taken a look and compared 720p vs 1080p content from iTunes, and the results are surprising. 1080p iTunes content isn't that much bigger than 720p, but still manages to look better.

n the iTunes 10.6 preferences under Store, you can select whether HD downloads come in 720p or 1080p resolution. In the iTunes Store, movies conveniently list the file size for the selected format. A couple of examples: Hugo is 1.74GB in SD, 3.99GB in 720p, and 4.84GB in 1080p. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is 1.00, 2.91, and 3.65 gigabytes, respectively. However, to determine the quality difference, I looked at two (currently free) TV episodes: episode 1 of season 5 of The Big Bang Theory, and the first episode of Awake.

The reason Ars gives is that the new Apple TV supports High Profile H.264 decompression up to level 4.0, while the iPhone 4S and the new iPad support it up to level 4.1. That means they can handle more bits per second, and otherwise better optimize quality vs. file size. However. Ars also found the amount of extra detail in the 1080p versions varied greatly between videos and even within videos. In other words, 1080p didn't always make a big difference to the overall quality of the experience.

While not directly comparable, if you want to look at the difference between 720p and 1080p without buying or downloading entire movies or TV show episodes, iTunes Movies Trailers is a good resource. I checked out a bunch of recent trailers, including The Avengers and noticed not only differences in quality but in color fidelity as well (look at the greens in the image up top). File sizes weren't outrageously different either.

Check out their full report via the link below, and let us know if you're going to be flipping your iTunes switch to 1080p.

Source: Ars Technica

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.