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.

  • If it's streaming I don't mind but downloading them takes too long.
  • FALSE - the 4S can play 1080p. Whoever wrote this was not thinking - how can a device that TAKES 1080p VIDEO NOT PLAY IT BACK. And the iPad 2 supports 1080p after iOS 5.0, it's all on apple.com. As of current all A5 devices support 1080p, all A4 support 720p, all previous only SD. The reason A4 doesn't support 720p is apples 1080p content utilizes High Profile 4.0, requiring more processor power.
  • Yes the camera takes1080p video but playback won't be true 1080p on device.
    Ipad2 camera isn't even 1mp. Look up the formats vs device specs. Don't be caught in advertising hype.
    Silly rabbit.
  • One more important connomept is that if you are a mature person, travel insurance for pensioners is something you ought to really consider. The older you are, greater at risk you happen to be for permitting something negative happen to you while overseas. If you are never covered by some comprehensive insurance, you could have a number of serious troubles. Thanks for giving your good tips on this website.
  • How can the iPhone 4S and iPad 2 playback 1080p when their resolution is 960x640 and 1024x768 (respectively)???
  • They CAN play it back in that when you click the button, the movie plays and you see it. However, what he's saying is that you're not seeing it in 1080p. There are simply not enough pixels on any iDevice besides the 'new iPad' screen or a new AppleTV hooked to a 1080p TV that can display the resolution of this format correctly.
  • Also, apple has had 1080p trailers for years and are encoded in mail profile, not high resulting in higher file size and lower quality.
    This article is littered with wrong information - please do your recherche first. Or at least own the products and hit "get info."
  • "please do your recherche first"
    "recherche"? Seriously!?
  • Second paragraph above is wrong. ("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.")
    iPhone 4s supports 1080p, taken from http://www.apple.com/iphone/specs.html:
    "Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, High Profile level 4.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps..."
    and apparently iPad 2 supports 1080p, taken from http://www.apple.com/ipad/ipad-2/specs.html:
    "Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, High Profile level 4.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps"
    The tech pages for both the iPhone 4s and the iPad 2 have this as well:
    "Video mirroring and video out support: Up to 1080p with Apple Digital AV Adapter or Apple VGA Adapter (adapters sold separately)." - Hard to believe they would support mirroring video at 1080p but wouldn't be able to play it back on the device itself.
  • Yeah, sorry, I was unclear. I’ve added a clarification. You can load 1080p content onto the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, but you can’t play them at native resolution because neither device has a 1080p or greater screen. (They get down sampled.)
    That makes streaming 1080p a bit of a waste. Buying could be good to future-proof your collection, if you have the extra storage space.
  • If you have a 1080p TV why would get anything less? If you feed it a 720p image the TV will up convert it and it will not look very good.
    Even Ars comparison doesn't make sense. One of the videos is being converted so the comparison really doesn't work.
  • So I find the 1080p exciting and all, but when I recieve my new iPad and I can't get 1080p content in Canada I will be a little disappointed.
  • But then again, specially in Canada, most folks have internet bandwidth limitations. Streaming/ Downloading 10 1080p movies is half my internet bandwidth and I still need to use it for other purposes. Netflix optimized it's HD streaming to use less data. I am sure there will be many who face similar constraints. Unless internet bandwidth and usage caps become cheaper, I am using SD format or buying Bluray, DVD's.
  • I wanted to visit and let you know how much I loved diriovescng this blog today. I might consider it a honor to work at my workplace and be able to utilize the tips contributed on your web site and also participate in visitors’ remarks like this. Should a position involving guest author become offered at your end, make sure you let me know.
  • What the heck is that black line going through the image? And the most important question... is that movie even out, yet? Are we a torrent downloader, Rene? ;)
  • It's a line separating the 720p from 1080p versions. And it says CLEARLY in the post that I was comparing iTUNES MOVIE TRAILERS. (Reading before commenting is appreciated :p)
  • Yes 1080p is worth. My I remind you that content from iTunes is stored for free in iCloud so download watch delete also Apple uses that Stream loading thing were you stream and download at the same time.
  • only if it's better then the not really 1080p that passes for iphone video recording. Sorry but it records ok but that don't look like the 1080p camera results i've seen. especially indoors.
  • If I have an iPad 2 & am getting the NEW iPad is it better to download in 1080p?
  • Better question, can your eyes even tell the difference between 720 and 1080? Yes at one inch away from the screen, but at what distance does it not matter anymore?
  • This paves the way for an Apple TV (3rd gen) that will support 1080p content. Currently, 1080p on your iPad doesn't really MEAN anything. The pixel density is so tight you would never see the difference on that screen.
    If however, you are sending the video via AirPlay to a 50-80" screen, you will start to see the benefit of a 1080p capable device. Currently, Apple TV only supports 720p, so beyond ~50-55" you MAY start to see very slight degradation in quality.
  • This weekend I did a comparison of HD movies streamed via Netflix. I looked at one movie on my PS3 which handles HD at 1080p and then compared it with the same movie on my current Apple TV (720p). There is a slight but obvious difference with the PS3's 1080p content winning - meaning I'll definitely get the Apple TV upgrade.
  • wonderful blog!there is a great news you can download the mario duck hunts game really nice game you can use not only for iPhone but also for iPad and there is 3 new things that make the user more enjoy,1.you have extra bonus,2. New Jingles for the game,3. and the most important Finally users will be able to kill the annoying DOG.check this link more games you can enjoy.http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/mario-duck-hunt-mario-games/id389205355?mt=8
  • Thank you very much.I will recommend Direct Bikes to all my friends and tell them about your great service.
  • Hello everyone, I need some help, I have multiple iPhones for the members of my family (iPhone 3Gs, 4, 4S and 5). I just re-downloaded my iTunes HD movie library to 1080, but when I synced my kid's iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS, some of the movies (those updated) didn't synced. I was reading the posts, but was wondering if there's a way to get them those movies, how can I convert those iTunes movies so they can watch them on their phones.