How to Get the Highest Resolution When Watching Movies in iTunes

Screenshot: David Murphy

I’m ever-hopeful that Apple will take a look at its Windows iTunes client someday. I realize Apple probably prioritizes this somewhere between “wipe bugs off the windows at Apple Park” and “design a new box for pizzas,” but that doesn’t mean that we Windows fans can’t dream.

Right now, iTunes is a mess. It’s unpleasant to use, its UI feels pedestrian, and its settings are confusing. And nowhere is this more apparent than when you’re trying to watch a simple movie. Here’s what I mean.

By default—at least, I believe this is default, as it’s what popped up on my iTunes when I first installed it via the Microsoft Store—iTunes on Windows plays back movies at a maximum resolution of 1080p. You can check this yourself within its settings (Edit > Preferences > Playback).

When I stream any movie in my library, right-click on the window, and set the movie to play at its “actual size,” it does not look like it’s playing in 1080p. Here’s a quick picture of what the streaming version of Dredd actually looks like on my 3440-by-1440 monitor:

1080p, eh?
Photo: David Murphy

When I download the movie—again, using iTunes’ default settings—I get the same-sized player when I set it to “actual size.” Again, this doesn’t feel very 1080p.

Still not feeling very 1080p
Photo: David Murphy

Contrast the size of that player with this one, a regular 1080p test movie (technically, 1920-by-800 pixels) that I played using good ol’ VLC:

Quite a bit bigger
Photo: David Murphy

Here’s where things get interesting. If you’re streaming your movie in iTunes, this smaller-sized player is as big as the movie gets if you’re too quick to pick the “actual size” option. You have to wait for the movie to play for a bit before you pick “actual size,” which will then allow you to watch it in a 1080p-sized window.

This isn’t really a problem if you enlarge the player or full-screen it as soon as you start watching, but it’s a quirky sizing issue worth highlighting for those watching in a window. Unlike other streaming services, which give you a full-sized player at a lesser quality, Apple’s implementation gives you a smaller player (if you’re too trigger-happy with “actual size”) until your stream switches over to 1080p.

That’s not too confusing, but we’re not done yet. There’s another setting within iTunes’ that actually controls the quality of movies you download—and it’s not the setting in “Playback.” Under the Downloads section of your settings (naturally), you’ll want to uncheck “Download high-quality SD videos” and check “Download full-size HD videos” if you want to download and view 1080p versions of your movies.

When you set up iTunes like that and watch an HD movie, and then right-click and select “actual size” for the player, you get the larger version:

Photo: David Murphy

This solves the confusing quality issue—something you can always check by right-clicking on the movie, selecting “Movie Info,” selecting “File,” and looking for the movie’s “video quality” line.

How easy is it to tell 720p from 1080p?

If you didn’t realize iTunes’ quirks, and you’re watching your film in full screen mode, you might not even notice that the movie you downloaded has a resolution of 720p instead of 1080p.

I looked at the files iTunes was downloading with and without the “Download full-size HD videos” option checked. They were named differently—“04 Dredd (HD).m4v” in one case and “04 Dredd (1080p HD).m4v” in another. While, true, a 720p movie is still “HD,” someone glancing at the file name might not know that “HD,” in this case, does not mean “1080p HD” per se.

Nor is the file size a dead giveaway. The 720p version of Dredd clocked in at 3.19GB to the 1080p version’s 3.53GB. Both were also listed as having the same dimensions (640-by-266) in Windows’ File Explorer, which couldn’t be correct. The videos’ frame rates were also incorrectly listed at 0.10 frames per second, which would look like molasses if it was true.

When I watched both versions of the video, I was a little surprised at how tricky it was to see the quality differences. I was sitting about a foot and a half away from my monitor—a 3,440-by-1,440 display—which should have made it easy to see the difference between a stretched 720p from a 1080p picture. It’s there if you look closely, but I’m not sure this is the kind of thing I’d pay much attention to if I wasn’t comparing one image against another. Or, to put it another way, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you the picture was 720p unless I looked at the settings.

“Download full-size HD videos” unchecked (1080p), streaming video:

Screenshot: David Murphy

“Download full-size HD videos” unchecked (720p), downloaded video:

Photo: David Murphy

“Download full-size HD videos” checked (1080p), downloaded video: 

Photo: David Murphy

To keep me honest, there’s (obviously) a very large quality difference between a full-sized version of this “HD” video and what you get when you set iTunes’ Maximum Resolution to something like “Standard Definition.” The quality loss is very apparent:

“Standard Definition” setting for Maximum Resolution
Photo: David Murphy

It’s a little annoying that Apple’s implementation of streaming and downloading in iTunes is confusing. Changing these settings is easy, sure, but I can see a lot of people looking at the “Maximum Resolution” setting and going, “Well, that’s set to 1080p, so this tiny video I downloaded must be 1080p.” Not quite true.

Video playback settings are easier to decipher on macOS Catalina’s Apple TV app—one of the three that Apple split out from iTunes—as you have only two settings to pick from and they’re both located in the same place:

Here’s a fun annoyance, though: If you’ve previously set your Mac to download lower-quality videos (or if that was the default and you didn’t know it), switching to “Download full-size HD videos” or “best available” isn’t going to automatically update all of your 720p files to 1080p. You’ll have to manually delete and re-download them, which will be annoying if you already downloaded your entire library.

Let’s recap

To watch the highest-quality movies in iTunes:

  1. Make sure your Playback and Downloads settings (if applicable) are all set correctly in iTunes’ settings—1080p or “Best Available,” depending on your operating system.
  2. Check movies you’ve previously downloaded (via “Movie Info”) to see if they’re 720p, not 1080p.
  3. Watch streaming movies maximized or full-screen, if possible; if you pick “actual size” too soon in your player, you might (incorrectly) assume your streaming movie must remain tiny (and 720p) forever.


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