By adding a movie-rental feature to iTunes, Apple enters new territory for its online digital media store.
Up until now, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has insisted that people who use iPods and iTunes are more interested in owning their content than renting it; it's because of that that iTunes enables users to buy individual tracks or albums that they can transfer to iPods or iPhones, play on their Mac or PC or burn to audio CD.
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That changes with the movie-rental service announced earlier this week at Macworld Expo. Now, when you go to the iTunes Store, you can rent movies, rather than buying them, just as if you were going to the corner video store. You can keep the downloaded rental for up to 30 days, although once you start watching it, you have 24 hours before it no longer will be viewable.
But a different approach may be what Apple needs to bolster the movie business at iTunes. Full-length movies have been available for purchase at iTunes (at least in the US) since September 2006. But they can cost anywhere from £5 to £10 for new releases - sometimes only a few quid less than a DVD, with less content and with lower quality.
Little wonder, then, that movie sales haven't caught on as Apple hoped they would, even though Apple says it has sold millions of movies since adding that feature to its store.
Now, the same movie that once cost $14.99 to download - 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End', say - is also available as a $3.99 rental in the US. And it's coming to the UK later this year. But is the experience worth the rental price? To find out, we went on a movie shopping spree.
Right now, iTunes' rental library is considerably smaller than the catalogue of movies available for purchase. But that should change quickly in the coming weeks - Apple expects to have 1,000 movies available for rent by the end of February.
Paying for and downloading a movie is just as it was before, though there's now a new Rentals area in the Movies section of the iTunes Store, where you'll see the options you have for renting - as opposed to buying - a movie. As we published this article, the catalogue fits on a single page in iTunes, and runs the gamut from recently-released action films such as '300' to classics like 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', comedies, family films, and some offbeat fare like the ribald puppet movie from South Park's creators, 'Team America: World Police'.
Rentals cost $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for older titles. Apple will also offer high-definition movies for download from the revamped Apple TV, but HD content won't be available until the new rental-enabled Apple TV software update is released; when it does appear, it will cost $4.99 to download new HD titles and $3.99 for older movies.
If you download a movie on your Mac (or on a PC), you can transfer the file to an iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV (more on that below); however, movies downloaded through Apple TV can only play on that device. (The Apple TV software update won't be available for another few weeks, so we're unable to test that feature at this time. Rest assured that we plan on doing that the minute Apple releases the update that enables you to download movie rentals directly to the Apple TV.)
As mentioned above, you have 30 days to start watching the rental, but once you start, you have a 24-hour window to finish watching before the rental expires.
You'll need iTunes 7.6 to download rentals, as well as QuickTime 7.4 - both software updates came out immediately after Jobs' keynote.
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