Consumer Electronics and Tech news briefs

A stack of newspapers Here are a few interesting consumer electronics and computer technology news that caught our attention this morning:

iTunes offers HD movies
Apple's online iTunes store previously offered high-def movies for "rental" only ($5 per title) via Apple TV. But now you can download HD movies from iTunes to your computer or Apple TV box for $20 a title. You'll also be able to "pre-order" high-def blockbusters, such as Twilight (March 21) and Quantum of Solace (March 24). HD movie purchases will include an HD file for your computer and a standard-def version for your iPod/iPhone, says Engadget.
The takeaway: Having high-def movies that won't "expire" after 24-hours will be a cool option for iTunes addicts. The provision of an iPod/iPhone version of the movies is also a nice plus. Also, based on our tests of other services that provide HD movies online, these new Apple downloads promise to be of higher quality than the company's streaming HD, which—like the other such services we tested—yielded images that fell short of typical HD.

But at $20, these HD titles will cost almost the same as Blu-ray discs, which typically offer extras, such as deleted scenes, that downloads typically lack. And, short of owning an Apple TV unit or other box that facilitates getting these HD titles to your HDTV, you'll likely wind up viewing these movies on the smaller, lower-res screen of your computer.

AT&T offers contract-free iPhones
The wireless service provider is making good on a promise it made last year. Sort of. You too can now buy an iPhone without the one- or two-year commitment to AT&T. But it'll cost $600 or $700 (depending on the model) versus the usual prices of $200 and $300, with a two-year contract. And you still won't be able to use the iPhone on any other U.S. carrier's network.
The takeaway: It's hard to see the value proposition here, since you'll still have no other option but to use your full-priced iPhone with AT&T service, which is only so-so according to our Ratings of wireless service providers (available to subscribers). And you'll essentially be paying anyway for your phone, since AT&T seemingly plans to charge the same $70-plus monthly fees for service to the contract-free iPhones—a portion of which, as with other non-prepaid cell phone service, is actually a reimbursement to the carrier for the subsidized cost of the device.

A really big plasma TV for really deep pockets
Gizmodo is reporting that über-chic Bang & Olufsen will release in July a monster plasma TV on the world: Its BeoVision 103-inch. It won't be the biggest flat-screen on the block. (Panasonic introduced its $70,000 103-inch plasma two years ago and has since upped the ante to 150-inches. But the BeoVision's price tag—$135,000—sure puts it in a league of its own.
The takeaway: Unless you're an AIG executive or part of the Madoff clan, the B&O monster plasma won't be on your shopping list anytime soon. And don't expect it to be in our Ratings of plasma TVs (available to subscribers) either since we—like you—buy TVs at retail price. And this one would blow our budget. The good news, however, is that if you are shopping for a (more moderately sized and priced) Panasonic plasma TV, you'll have some really good options. Check out our earlier post: Panasonic's plasma TV plans for 2009.