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A look at Apple TV movie rentals

It was the Saturday night before the Oscars and my wife and I realized that there were several nominated movies we hadn’t seen yet. It was also a very rainy evening and we were in no mood to drive to a movie theater or even to the local Blockbuster store.

So we used Apple TV to download “In The Valley of Elah,” featuring Tommy Lee Jones who was nominated as best actor in a leading role. On Sunday we watched “The Assassination of Jesse James,” which was nominated for best cinematography. Other Oscar nominees available for rental include “Michael Clayton,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Ratatouille” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Many of the nominees, including best picture winner “There Will be Blood” were not available.

If this had been the eve of last year’s Academy Awards we would have had to either rent the movies from a video store or watch them on a PC, but this year we got to watch our rented nominated films in our living room on our high definition set thanks to Apple’s newly enhanced Apple TV.

Apple TV is a small box that sits on or near your TV and connects to the Internet via a wireless WiFi network or a wired Ethernet cord. Ever since it was first released in 2007, it’s been able to stream video, music and photographs from a PC or Mac running iTunes, and it also has its own internal hard drive, enabling you to transfer iTunes files from a computer to the box itself, so, once the files have been transferred, it can work even if the computer is turned off or the network connection is down.

The device also lets you download free video and audio podcasts and access YouTube video.

Apple TV was introduced in January 2007, but in its first year on the market it didn’t sell very well. Apple CEO Steve Jobs even referred to it as a “hobby” during an on-stage conversation last May with Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg at the Journal’s annual “All Things Digital” conference.

But, during his Macworld keynote address this January, Jobs announced new software and services for the device that would allow people to rent movies directly from the Apple TV. The movie rental deal also applies to movies you rent on a PC or Mac to watch on iTunes or on an iPod.

He also lowered the starting price from $299 to $229 for a unit equipped with a 40 GB hard drive; $329 buys one with a 160 GB drive. Both versions have an 802.11n WiFi wireless adapter. Apple TV only works with widescreen (16 by 9 format ratio) high-definition or enhanced definition TVs. A free software upgrade allows you to rent movies, buy songs and download podcasts on the original Apple TV.

Before this change, the only way to watch a movie on the Apple TV or iPod was to purchase it (for $10 or more) on a computer running iTunes, and either copy it to the Apple TV’s internal disc or stream it via your home network. As Jobs pointed out during his keynote, the purchase model works with music that people want to listen to over and over again but not so much with movies that many people simply want to watch once.

As I recall, that doesn’t apply to children. When my kids were little, they would watch their favorite movies over and over again until they (and my wife and I) had them memorized.

With the newly enhanced Apple TV you don’t have to use your computer to buy or rent movies, music or download free podcasts to your TV. You can do it from the comfort of your easy chair using only the small Apple remote control. The process is incredibly simple.

Even though movie files can be large, you don’t have to wait for them to download before you can watch them. Even larger high-definition movies are available for viewing within a minute or two after you order them. If you start watching the movie immediately after you order it you might see a little choppiness at first but I noticed that went away after I gave the device a few minutes to download a bigger chunk of the movie.

There are three prices for rented movies. Older movies typically cost $2.99 while newer ones cost $3.99 but you have to pay an extra dollar if you want to watch it in high definition (most movies are not available in high-def). I watched one movie in standard definition which looked pretty much like a standard DVD, but when it came to the Oscar nominees, I sprang for the extra dollar which was worth it for the higher, though not highest, quality. High definition movies are in 720p which is basically the same as some TV networks high-def programs. Blu-ray and HD-DVD high-definition DVDs are in the higher 1080p format. To my eyes, the difference between 720p and 1080p isn’t dramatic but it could be for some videophiles.

It bothered me a little having to pay $4.99 to watch a high-definition video considering that Netflix doesn’t charge extra for its Blu-ray movies but my biggest complaint about Apple TV is that movies disappear 24 hours after you start watching them. You can watch it as many times as you want during that period but if you haven’t finished it by then, it’s gone. This is also true with videos you rent to watch on a computer or an iPod, which annoyed me to no-end last month when I rented a movie to watch on a plane but wasn’t able to finish it on the first flight and it was gone by the time I boarded the plane for the return fight. Even Blockbuster lets you keep movies for more than one day and Netflix lets you keep them as long as you want.

To be fair to Apple, this restriction is imposed by the studios and it’s the same with MovieLink, CinemaNow and xBox. Speaking of Microsoft xBox, you can also rent movies to watch on that device. As with Apple TV, you can reportedly download them directly to the box to watch on a TV, though I have not yet tested that feature.

My only other complaint about Apple TV is that, so far, the selection is very limited especially when it comes to high-definition movies. That, of course, will change over time. If you want to find out if your favorite movies are available, you can explore rental movies on your computer using Apple’s iTunes software.