I've been playing with the extended system information page that you can get to by going to
and I see some interesting things. First off it lists the resolution, profile/level and bitrate for streaming shows. I tried a few different ones, SD and HD, and they're all streamed as 1280x720 High@4.1 with a bitrate of 2.24Mbps. So basically it's equivalent to the Best option when downloading.
When you do a download at Standard it 960x540 High@4.1 with a bitrate of 1.24Mbps.
The bitrates scale pretty well to the resolution so I can see why no one really notices a difference. Although on an iPad 3 with the higher res screen the resolution difference may be more apparent.
Also it seems that they are using standard encrypted HLS for both streaming and side loading, which explains why the side loaded programs are not downloaded with a backup of the iPad.
However I'm wondering, since it is using HLS, if it might be possible to hijack a stream on a PC and at least view it?
I'm not an HLS expert, or an encryption expert, but I think desktop browsers also support HLS so it could be possible.