How to Download High-Quality 1080p HD Movies from iTunes

iTunes window with iTunes logo

All HD content looks noticeably better than standard-definition movies or TV shows, but did you know there are multiple levels of HD quality? When the iTunes Store started offering content in HD, it only supported the lesser of the levels: 720p. As the higher-quality options, known as 1080p and 4K, have become the standard for HD devices and content, the iTunes Store has upgraded, too.

Getting the highest-resolution content isn't the default at iTunes, but it's definitely what you want. Luckily, with one small setting change, you can ensure that you always get top-quality 1080p movies from the iTunes Store.

The Difference Between 720p, 1080p, and 4K HD

The three dominant HD resolutions—720p, 1080p, and 4K—are all high definition and may be hard to differentiate using the naked eye, but they're definitely not the same. That difference will be most noticeable when watching 720p content on a device that supports 4K. The picture quality, in that case, won't be as good as 1080p content on a 1080p device or 4K on a 4K device.

The 720p HD standard offers a 1280 x 720-pixel resolution, while the 1080p standard packs in 1920 x 1080 pixels. The 4K format goes even further, offering images with a resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels (technically two resolutions qualify as 4K; the other is 3840 x 2160). Needless to say, 4K images contain more information and more pixels, leading to a more detailed and high-quality image.

It's worth knowing that because the 1080p content has 2.25 times as many pixels as 720p content, and 4K has 4 times the pixels of 1080p, the better-looking formats take up more storage space and will take longer to download. That said, Apple's compression technology allows it to create 1080p files that are just 1.5 times bigger than 720p files, according to Ars Technica, which means content from the iTunes Store downloads faster and needs less storage than you might expect.

Apple Devices That Support 1080p HD

As noted above, for the first few years of HD support at iTunes, content was only available in 720p. In keeping with that choice, Apple's devices only supported 720p HD content. With the introduction of 1080p at iTunes, that changed. As of this writing, the following Apple devices support 1080p:

Of course, any HDTV that supports 1080p HD can also display 1080p content from iTunes.

Apple Devices that Support 4K HD

While many Apple devices support 1080p, a much smaller number support 4K. They are:

How to Always Download 1080p HD Content from iTunes

Since not all Apple devices can play 1080p content, Apple gives users a choice of which kind of HD content they'd prefer to download. You don't make this choice at the iTunes Store when you buy or rent movies or TV shows. Instead, you make the choice in the iTunes program itself. To do this:

  1. Make sure you're running iTunes 10.6 or higher. If not, download it here.

  2. Then open Preferences (on a Mac, this is in the iTunes menu. On a PC, it's under Edit).

  3. In the Preferences window, click on Downloads (in some older versions of iTunes, click on Store).

  4. In the middle section of the window, look for the option titled Download full-size HD videos. Check the box next to it.

  5. Click OK to save that change.

Your iTunes is now set to download 1080p content whenever possible—but there's one catch.

The Two Limitations

There are two subtle limitations when it comes to trying to always get 1080p HD content from iTunes.

First, not all content in the iTunes Store is available in the 1080p format. Just beneath the Download full-sized HD videos option is a note that says 1080p movies will be preferred over 720p. With that setting, you'll get 1080p HD content whenever it's available. If it's not, you'll get 720p.

There's no specific warning that iTunes provides when it's going to give you a 720p movie, so if you care about that you need to check out the information about the item you're interested in. To find that, go to the movie's page in the iTunes Store and look for its price. You'll see what HD formats the item is available in.

Second, if you're running iTunes 11.0.1 or earlier, you can only download 720p HD content, regardless of your settings. You can still stream 1080p HD content on these versions of iTunes, just not download it.

What About 4K?

The iTunes Store added support for 4K movies and TV shows in 2017, but only a subset of the content in the store is available in 4K. Perhaps because of the relatively small number of 4K offerings, there is no setting in iTunes to make sure you always download 4K content. If Apple updates iTunes with that option, this tutorial will be updated, too.

The iTunes Store isn't the only place you can download video from. You can watch Netflix offline by downloading videos there. Learn more in How to Download Movies From Netflix on to Your Mac or iPad.