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Video Ipod

Several weeks ago, Apple announced their newest version of the iPod, the much anticipated one that allows owners to watch videos.

I generally have very good rationalizations when it comes to upgrading my gadgets and this time was no different. After all, I had resisted getting the photo iPod when it came out earlier this year. No, I figured, there needs to be a very significant value added over and above what I have in order to upgrade. Having a better screen, even allowing you to view pictures (something I could do on my Phone for years now) was not enough.

While I said I'm not the biggest video buff, especially these days with a new baby in the house, the various new features and enhancements that were better than my old 4th Generation monochrome iPod (all of a year old now) just added up to a critical mass and convinced me that it was time to upgrade:

For one, there's the video, of course. While I'm probably still probably going to be using the iPod 99% or more for audio, it would be nice to load many of my unwatched DVD's that I've been wanting to watch for years, not to mention TV shows that I miss on a regular basis these days, or whole series that I missed out on. As you may have heard, Apple and Disney teamed up to offer some of Disney's content, which includes some ABC shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives". I'd always heard raves about Lost, but never got around to watching it last year and I'm one of those people who refuse to pick up watching a show when I haven't come in at the beginning – at least dramatic shows. While buying the shows individually can add up at $2 a pop, one thing that I haven't heard mention in the other articles I've read about these downloadable shows is that you can actually buy a season's worth of a show for nice discounted - about $1.40 per show instead of the normal $1.99. Unfortunately, you can't do this with a season that isn't complete - I can't pay for all of season 2 of Lost because it hasn't all been made available yet and Apple just doesn't seem to have the mechanisms in their iTunes Store to handle this kind of "subscription" of ongoing content. Maybe their venture into podcasting will help them implement something like this in the future, though.

Then there's home video. We got a digital camcorder last Spring in anticipation of our first child and I've been slowly trying to figure out video editing and production. I figured it would be a nice thing to keep a collection of clips of events or just clips of our daughter playing and smiling.

The new iPod will also let you record audio at 44kbps, rather than a measly 8kbps for previous models. Not that I have any big plans to start my own podcast, but this does at least open up the possibility of recording audio on the go, whether that's just notes to myself, a conversation, a class, or our daughter "talking" to us.

The large capacity of the 60GB iPod would seem like more than enough for all your possible needs, but Video can take up a LOT of space. We are talking hundreds of megabytes per hour - and that's highly compressed! Even at 60GB, Apple states its capacity at all of 150 hours of Video. This might seem a lot, but I have about 1,400 hours of Audio Books currently on my iPod, and these take up less than 20GB. This audio book collection keeps growing as I continue to download books from a subscription to Audible.com and little time to actually listen to them and move them off the iPod. Another 12GB or so are taken up by a music collection which I'm sure will grow as our daughter gets older and we put more music for her on it. Finally, there are couple of gigabytes of podcasts that I can't seem to get caught up on either! So already I was getting dangerously close to my old iPod's limit of 40GB! That extra space will really be useful, although of course I would love to have 100GB (or 200GB for that matter) instead of 60GB!

My old iPod supposedly had 12 hours of battery life, and while that might have been true initially, it always seemed the battery meter was getting low way before that time. It could be the battery meter was just faulty, who knows. In any case, the new 60GB model that I bought is rated at 19+ hours of playtime for music, so I think I could safely listen for many days without having to recharge. Of course, Video can kill the battery in around 3 hours, so if I end up using it a lot for that, I may have to look into a battery pack that expands battery life to 9 hours for video.

Finally, the new iPods are considerably thinner than the old ones. For someone who has lots of gadgets and sometimes carries them in pockets, this definitely helps me not look like a total buffoon, in addition to just being more comfortable to carry.

Oh yes, also, I figured, I could sell the old iPod on eBay and not pay full price for the new one.


Equipped with an airtight rationale for upgrading, I went to the Apple store the week after the new iPod was announced and was told that it wouldn't be in until the end of the month (October). However, on the iLounge.com forums, people were sighting them at other Apple stores across the country, so I kept coming back and pestering the poor Apple store staff. Within a couple days they had the 30GB model, but it was not on display. Instead the item was tucked in the pocket of one of the staff that let me look at it. He said there would be no 60GB model until the following week, but I knew that these estimates seemed always to be very conservative. So I continued to return every day and ask if they had a 60GB model and within just a couple of days, they did and I grabbed it!

Impressions

My general impressions of this "5th Generation" iPod model are generally favorable. I'll talk about the video aspects of it below, but other than that, it seems to work as well, for the most part, as my old iPod. The big color screen is of course a whole lot prettier than my old monochrome model, but it also seems a bit more "sluggish" in its display. That is, when navigating between tracks or even between the different "pages" of an individual track (the scrubbing page, the album art page, the rating page, etc.), the screen doesn't transition immediately, but lags a second or two before changing. When navigating to the next track, the audio for that track kicks in immediately, but the screen stays on the old track's info for a second or two before changing. This isn't a huge deal, but it makes it feel a lot less responsive than I would like. A couple of other minor issues that may or may not annoy some people follow:

1. The lack of a true power supply. All previous iPods had a separate power supply to charge the unit, but for these, you have to charge them via the computer via the supplied USB cable. Not particularly convenient if you want to take the iPod with you on a trip and don't want to or can't bring your computer! You can still buy a power supply separately, but for the price, Apple really shouldn't be REMOVING accessories that were previously included.

2. The lack of a firewire interface. IPods can no longer connect to a computer via firewire. Some people believe firewire is faster than USB2 despite that according to the specifications USB2 is slightly faster. I've also heard that for video transfer from digital camcorder, firewire is critical. But I'm not sure how much of that is pure transfer speed and how much are other factors like consistently steady throughput. In any case, there's probably not a tremendous difference between the two and so you wouldn't notice a big different unless you are transferring a significant amount of content.

3. The removal of the port on the top of the iPod which many accessories use. This essentially has made these iPods incompatible with dozens, if not hundred of accessories that used this port. I had two of these myself, which I was fortunately able to sell along with my iPod. Many others, I'm sure, would have much rather keep their accessories, especially if they were expensive to begin with and/or can't be resold for much.

Video: is it the Video iPod or iPod with Video?

When these new iPods first came out, Apple touted them not as the "Video iPod" but as an iPod "with Video capabilities." It was as if they still weren't ready to come out and say that video was in any way a central feature. They had to qualify this release by saying that the iPod was still primarily a music player. Whether this was BECAUSE they didn't think the video capabilities were good enough, or whether they actually didn't put everything they could into making video as good as it could be, I'm not sure. What I do know is that video on the iPod works reasonably well considering the small screen size, and some other issues that I'll get to below.

As far as screen size is concerned, Apple enlarged the screen as much as they could within the confines of the standard iPod dimensions. They even sacrificed a bit of size of the click wheel in order to do this. Sure, they could have radically altered the design by stretching the screen across the entire front and changed the click-wheel to some other interface, or even implemented a touch screen that included the clickwheel as an image on that screen instead of an actual hardware click-wheel. Obviously, though, Apple did not want to take such a big risk in radically altering the interface that has helped them win and maintain such a commanding majority of the MP3 player market. As it stands, the screen is certainly watchable, but I don't know if I would want to spend multiple hours staring at it! Even holding it up close, watching an episode of Lost, I felt a little like I was taking the images in through a straw. A big straw - maybe something akin to the cardboard tube that paper towel is wrapped around – but still it was constraining, if you understand what I mean.

The other way that Apple made a very hesitant step in the direction of Video was in its choice to only allow a couple of video formats to be compatible with the new iPod. Neither of these formats is proprietary per se, but they are not particularly popular outside of Apple's own software. I'm sure part of this was also to prevent those who have big libraries of video in more popular formats (read "DVIX"), that they've either converted themselves or gotten illicitly off Grokster or BitTorrent, from easily playing them on the new devices, thus getting Apple slammed by big media companies as being too friendly towards file sharers. The result is that you can still do this, but it just takes more work: if you have a bunch of DVIX-encoded video files, you just have to convert them yet again to H.264 or MPEG4.

As for what kind of content there is available, you can download a select list of ABC TV shows - five to be exact from Apple's iTunes Music Store. You can also download around 3,000 music videos. Whether it's a 3-minute music video or a 30-minute TV show, the price is still $1.99. Apple also announced that, after the first 20 days from the launch of the new iPod and the video content in the iTunes music store, over 1 Million of those videos had been purchased. They did not reveal how many were the TV episodes and how many were music videos. Not bad considering this product was brand new and wasn't even easy to find in stores for the first couple of weeks after the launch. Then again, I wonder how much of these purchasers were people like me who don't plan to make a habit of doing it, but still wanted to see a sample of what they could have on their new iPods without going through all the effort of converting.

Unfortunately, it seems that the other networks are not jumping onto the Apple bandwagon, but at least for now scrambling to sign deals to make their content available in other "downloadable" forms. NBC has signed a deal with DirectTV and CBS has signed a deal with Comcast so that respective users of these services can download shows onto their DVR. But you can't then transfer these shows to a portable player, which is the main feature of the iPod. So, this then forces people who want to have portable content into either recording these shows themselves and converting them, or even worse obtaining illegal copies on the Internet - all because the networks still want to limit how people watch, despite this supposed venture into new forms of content distribution. Just today AOL and Warner Bros. announced a new online venture to bring older tv shows to the internet, but again, there seems to be no plan to offer an option for content portability. Another announcement today from Hasbro does involve portable content, but only through Hasbro's VUGO device. Even at best it looks like the interests involved will still end up carving out small domains where only certain content is available via a given service/device. A fragmented mess that's bound to encourage pirates to record or obtain the content illegally and crack the protective DRM that prevents it from playing on all but one device.

Of course, as with music, one might already have a lot of video in the form of DVD movies. These movies can be transferred to the iPod, but it isn't a trivial process. It takes time, some degree of technical knowledge, and experimenting with tools that are still clunky, in beta, or which will cost you additional money. And don't expect Apple to help you very much in this effort. Apple's tool for converting video to a format the iPod plays, Quicktime Pro (Mac users can also use iMovie), will not convert a DVD for you in and of itself - you still need a DVD decoder. Even then, Quicktime Pro is a $30 program and is one of the notoriously slowest video converters out there, although it does seem to work predictably without much hassle. Other applications are a lot speedier, but some have had difficulty in getting them to work at all. Some video formats simply won't convert in some of these applications, whereas other problems could be in the various settings that one can use for a given conversion (bit rates, keyframes, resolution, etc., etc.) that aren't exactly within the iPod's constraints.

I experienced this myself in a free converter for Windows called Videora iPod Converter when I tried to convert some home video clips that were in uncompressed AVI format - what I thought was one of the most basic video formats. These AVI files were created with Adobe Premier Elements and whenever I tried to convert them, they would either not transfer to the iPod or they would only produce an audio track, not a video track. After trying just about every setting I could think of, I finally converted the AVI file to another format, and then converting it with Videora. This worked immediately. Other programs that offer conversion and dvd decryption in one package and have gotten some good reviews are Nero Recode and PQDVD on the PC side, and Handbreak on Mac (and Linux).

In addition to the video that one can download from Apple and the video that one can convert from DVD, there's yet another category of freely available content available on the internet - video podcasts, video blogs, and other such episodic content. A new site that was just created to link to various kinds of content like this that is available in formats that will work right off the bat with the new iPod is FreeIpodVideos.org. A couple of other great sources for free video that you will undoubtedly have to convert to play on the new iPods are the Internet Archive's Moving Images and Google Video.

The one other video issue that I hadn't thought much about before I got the iPod (mainly because I've never had a video-capable device like this) is the issue of outputting the video to a TV. Now, one might ask why you would want to do this if the whole point of having a portable player is to watch things away from home. True, but at the same time, if you could watch something on a much bigger screen, wouldn't you opt for that, especially if you want to share the video with multiple people? Just as people bring their iPods to friends and hook them to a stereo so that everyone can enjoy your music collection, so too can you share videos or pictures. You still have to buy an extra connector to do this either via Apple for $20, or from a Radio Shack or place like it for a bit less.

Once you export the video to TV, you will see that video that has been optimized specifically for the iPod within its native 320x240 resolution, and it will not look very good except on sets that are at most 25". Since most people tend to have larger TV sets these days, this becomes a problem. One way to avoid it is by changing the resolution to something higher than what the iPod itself displays. The iPod will then just scale it down when displaying it on its small screen, but will display all the resolution when connecting to a TV – given the TV can display the given resolution. Unfortunately there are still limits. Apple lists a max resolution for MPEG4 files as 480x480. This is somewhat of an odd resolution, being completely square, as opposed to the more rectangular standard TV screen or the even more elongated widescreen dimensions. But that 480x480 is a bit misleading. What it really means is that 480 pixels times 480 pixels yields a total of 230,400 pixels. So one can create videos of ANY resolution as long as their total pixel count doesn't exceed this. For example 640x360 also comes to 230,400 pixels, but is much more rectangular. In any case, when you pump up the resolution from 240 vertical lines to 360 or even higher, the picture becomes much more watchable on a large TV.

The one issue that remains may not be an issue for everyone, but it is for anyone who has a widescreen TV. It appears that the iPod doesn't support a way to export anamorphic widescreen video to a widescreen TV. By this I mean that anything that is played on a widescreen TV via the iPod, whether that source video is in a widescreen format or not, does not fill the entire widescreen TV. Rather, they show up in the middle, so there are boxes on the sides as well as the top and bottom. I have asked on the forums about this and no one has given a satisfactory definitive issue. I even tried to get in touch with Apple, but I guess a lowly blogger is not worthy of a response. If they somehow surprise me after a week and actually answer my question, I will post an update here. Here's an image of a widescreen movie playing on the iPod itself:

And here's an image of that same movie piped out to my widescreen TV:

Again, this probably is not going to be a huge issue with a lot of people right now, but I was really hoping that this would work since most of my DVD's and all my recent home video is filmed in widescreen. So having to watch it in this small area within my TV set seems a bit pointless. Then again, I could always export the home videos to DVD and get full resolution displays, it just would be nice to be able to view them in the same (or almost the same) way via the iPod on my own and other people's widescreen TV's…

posted Friday, 11 November 2005
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