How to Always Download The Best Quality HD Movies from iTunes

Make the most out of your HD TV

iTunes window with iTunes logo

When the iTunes Store started offering content in HD, it only supported the lower tier: 720p. As higher-quality options such 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 in iTunes, but it's what you want if your TV supports it. With one setting change, you'll always get top-quality movies from the iTunes Store.

Instructions in this article apply to iTunes 10.6 and later.

How to Always Download 1080p HD Content from iTunes

Since not all Apple devices can play 1080p content, Apple offers a choice of which kind of HD content to download. You don't make this choice at the iTunes Store when you buy or rent movies or TV shows. Instead, you'll make the choice in the iTunes program.

  1. Open iTunes.

  2. On a Mac, select iTunes > Preferences. On a Windows PC, select Edit > Preferences.

    The Preferences menu in iTunes
  3. In the Preferences window, click Downloads.

    Downloads tab in iTunes preferences
  4. Select the Download full-size HD videos check box.

    Download full-size HD videos option in iTunes
  5. Click OK to save changes.

    Click OK to save changes
  6. iTunes is set to download 1080p content whenever possible, but there are some limitations.

Limitations to Full-Size HD Videos

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 the program will prefer 1080p over 720p. With that setting, you'll get 1080p HD content whenever it's available. If it's not, you'll get 720p.

iTunes doesn't send a warning or alert when it's going to give you a 720p movie, so if you care about that, check out the information about the item you're interested in. To find this information, go to the movie's page in the iTunes Store and look for its price. You'll see which HD formats the item is available in.

In iTunes 11.0.1 or earlier, you can only download 720p HD content, regardless of the settings. You can stream 1080p HD content on these versions of iTunes, but you can't 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, no setting in iTunes ensures you always download 4K content.

The iTunes Store isn't the only place to download video. You can watch Netflix offline by downloading videos there. Learn more about how to download movies from Netflix on to your Mac or iPad.

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

The three dominant HD resolutions — 720p, 1080p, and 4K — are high-definition and may be hard to differentiate using the naked eye, but they're not the same. That difference is 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 is 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). 4K images contain more information and more pixels, leading to a more detailed and high-quality image.

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 take longer to download. Apple's compression technology allows it to create 1080p files that are 1.5 times larger than 720p files, according to Ars Technica, which means content from the iTunes Store downloads faster and needs less storage than it usually would.

Apple Devices That Support 1080p HD

With the introduction of 1080p at iTunes, that changed. These Apple devices support 1080p:

  • iPhone 6 Plus and later
  • 3rd generation Apple TV and later
  • 3rd generation iPad (which sports a 2048 x 1536 Retina Display) and newer
  • All MacBooks
  • Mac Mini
  • iMacs 2006 and later

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, fewer of them support 4K. They are:

  • Apple TV 4K
  • iMac Retina 4K
  • iMac Retina 5K.