Lincoln's palette presented a challenge for highly compressed internet delivery formats
Those deep shadows are the name of the game when it comes to a great home-theater experience. A properly calibrated display will render every shade of gray visible while preserving deep blacks. The effect in Lincoln is profound; the depth adds a palpable three-dimensionality to each scene.
A major issue with deep shadows is that they are very hard to render, which made me nervous about how Lincoln would look from an online-delivery format. In the past, I have found that dark scenes pose the greatest challenge to AVCHD compression. My fear was that the iTunes HD and Vudu HDX versions of Lincoln would not look good on a calibrated home-theater system.
But before I talk about picture quality, it is worth discussing sound for a moment. Lincoln's soundtrack is not dense, nor is it very intense. I felt that the sound-quality differences between Blu-ray and the online formats were noticeable but not profound. Fans of uncompressed audio are compelled to choose Blu-ray, but in this case, the audio is not a reason to reject iTunes or Vudu.
Vudu HDX is not available on PC or Mac, a disappointing omission. The Vudu HD (720p) version that does play on a PC looked similar to the two iTunes HD versions, which were clearly not Blu-ray quality. Vudu HDX played from the PS3 was a bit better looking, possessing some of the detail one expects from 1080p content, but still well below Blu-ray in terms of detail rendition. Unfortunately, the deep shadows were not clean; they suffered from noise and instability, cause by macroblocking in the darkest shades.
In past comparisons, I received a number of requests to add Amazon's HD streaming option. With Lincoln, I decided it was time to take a look. My immediate reaction viewing Amazon HD on the PS3 was that the video looked similar to the other online formats in terms of detail rendition, on par with iTunes 1080p on the PC.
Sadly, Amazon does not allow HD video on the PC platform; I would have preferred to take direct screen grabs. Amazon does seem to use a distinctly different algorithm to deal with shadows—instead of jumpy noise, it tends to freeze up into static clumps. There were still major image-quality issues, and overall, I found the look of the video to be unacceptably distracting—but it was different.
I started thinking about the influence of the device itself when it comes to online delivery—for example, Vudu HDX consistently looks the best on a PS3, if only because not all Vudu movies are available in HDX on a PC or Mac. With that in mind, I decided it was time to add an Apple TV to the mix. I wanted to know if the poor performance I saw from iTunes HD 1080p on the PC manifested in a set-top box. I am no conspiracy theorist, but sometimes I think studios deliberately hobble movies meant for playback on a HPTC, presumably because it is the platform most associated with copyright violations.
In this case, I had no such luck. In some ways, the Apple TV rendition of the same file looked noticeably worse. Shadows suffered from considerable macroblocking artifacts, which were absent in the PC-based iTunes playback. Perhaps the money I spent on my PC video card (Nvidia GTX-660) was worth it after all. At times the Apple TV rendition looked a bit sharper than PC-based playback, but not enough to make up for the inferior rendition of the shadows.
Suffice to say, Lincoln challenged my assumption that a big-budget movie with a 2013 release will generally look good when viewed in an online delivery format. I began these comparisons after viewing Skyfall from iTunes; at the time, I was impressed with the quality I saw. Subsequent comparisons between online formats and Blu-ray revealed the superior overall quality of the physical format, but the margin of difference was typically not that large. For some movies, such as Life of Pi, the experience provided by the 1080p online formats was fully cinematic and immersive.
With Lincoln, no online format was suitable for home-theater use—they were only good for casual viewing. Vudu HDX on a PC comes the closest to being acceptable, but issues with rendering deep shadows and blacks are too prevalent to ignore. No one frame can convey the damage done by aggressive compression; when a movie uses shadows as extensively as Lincoln, the integrity of the dark gradients is of utmost importance. When the movie is playing, the Blu-ray looks like a window into another world, an illusion the online-delivery formats cannot maintain. Here are some images that illustrate the point.
These screen grabs illustrate the highest quality achievable from each format, when using a PC. iTunes HD was the best-looking online-delivery option, but it's still far cry from Blu-ray quality. Amazon's offering is SD only on PC, and the picture quality was abysmal. Vudu also disappointed, limiting PC users to a blurry 720p Vudu HD format, instead of 1080p HDX.
An outdoor scene produces the same results from PC-based formats. Only Blu-ray achieves a quality level that is suitable for home theater use. Amazon SD looks so blurry, it's not even good enough picture quality for a modern smartphone, much less a TV. Take note of how the dust in the bottom left corner of the Vudu HD version looks like a white blob, likely the result of heavy-handed noise reduction algorithms.
Switching from a PC to the PS3 allowed Vudu to stream in HDX format, which came closest to Blu-ray in terms of quality. iTunes HD looks slightly sharper on Apple TV, but color and shadow regions are superior in the iTunes/PC version. Amazon HD was the worst-looking among the formats, even in HD. Amazon's offering also had cadence issues; playback was the least smooth among the formats.
A comparison of formats through dedicated devices—Apple TV for iTunes HD and PS3 for Vudu HDX and Amazon HD. Apple TV renders a significant amount of detail but also a lot of color noise. The image appears to flicker when watched. Vudu HDX is also relatively sharp, but noise reduction negatively affects textures—the smoke in the HDX version becomes an amorphous blob. Amazon HD is the least impressive online-deliver format, it is only 720p and looks it.
Sometimes pixel-peeping is the best way to illustrate a point. In this image, it is clear that Vudu HDX and Blu-ray enjoy a resolution advantage over the rest of the formats. It is also evident that the PC-based online formats are not as sharp as the PS3 and Apple TV based streams.
When comparing the two iTunes HD renditions, the PC-based version was much cleaner looking in the shadow regions. This translated to more realistic-looking shadows and a better viewing experience.
Edited by imagic - 4/5/13 at 2:03pm