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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Confessions of Video iPod Junkie

by Ted Landau
December 15th, 2005

I confess. I am in love...with my new video iPod. I mean...why does anyone reject this fabulous gadget in favor of that iPod nano? OK; the nano is smaller and lighter, and has a no-moving-parts flash drive. If I try hard, I can see where these might be good reasons for some people to prefer a nano. But aside from that, what's the big deal? The "big" iPod is still small and light and fast, significantly more so than older generations of iPods. All iPod models can fit in your pocket.

Oh yes, the nano is cheaper. But is it really worth the savings? The difference between the high-end nano and the low-end iPod is just US$50. For this extra $50, you get 7.5X the amount of storage space! That's the difference between room for 1,000 songs vs. 7,500 songs, assuming you use your iPod only for music. But this difference was also true for the iPod mini, and it did not prevent the mini from becoming the best-selling iPod. So I am not surprised that this irrationality continues with the nano.

It's all about video. What makes the nano even less attractive, compared to its upscale brother, is that only the "big" iPod gives you video. For that $50 difference (or even $100, if you compare it to the low end nano), this is not something you want to pass up lightly. Yes, I know, there are those who dis video on the current iPods. Its screen (even though it's larger than any previous iPod screen) is too small, its resolution is too low and its battery life (when playing video) is too short. All true. But who cares? An iPod is still a fun and compelling medium for watching video.

Watching music videos on an iPod is a different experience than watching MTV or VH-1 on a large plasma TV, to be sure. But it has its own advantages. The iPod images are crisp and smooth; even relatively small size text remains readable. The sound, through the headphones, is better than you'll get with the speakers that come standard on most TVs. And you have the advantage of portability. You can watch it while commuting on a train or while in a doctor's waiting room. Personally, I've already watched the Weapon of Choice video more than a dozen times, and I still get a kick out of it. And, if you are driving in your car, you can simply choose to listen to the audio-only version of the video (so you don't need to buy two separate versions of the same music).

Video also works well for watching TV shows downloaded from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS). I've already had two occasions where my scheduled recordings of Lost episodes got messed up. The ability to download these missed episodes, the very next day, is a great backup. And they screen without commercials! True, I sometimes watch these episodes on my Mac rather than my iPod. But I have used the iPod as well.

Actually, once a TV show is on your iPod, you can easily watch it on a larger TV. All you need is Apple's $19 AV cable. It connects from the iPod's headphone jack to any standard pair of audio input jacks on a TV. The image quality is not great (you are still dealing with the iPod's relatively low resolution), but it is more than fine for catching up on an TV show.

Video beyond iTMS. Apple continues to add video content to the iTMS (such as NBC shows, including Law & Order). But there is no need to limit yourself to what iTMS provides. You can record any TV show and play it back on your iPod. I have been doing this with El Gato's EyeTV 200. The latest version of the EyeTV software (1.8.4) supports direct exporting to the iPod format. EyeTV also makes it easy to edit out commercials. I can usually produce a clean copy of a one-hour show in about 5 minutes.

[Note: I recently got Miglia's EvolutionTV to check out, and to see how it compares to EyeTV. It arrived too late for me to cover in this column. I'll give you my impressions of it next month.]

With software such as HandBrake and iSquint, I have even ripped DVDs of complete concerts (such as from Lyle Lovett and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) — so that I can watch or listen to them on my iPod.

Other Web sites are also providing iPod-compatible video, much of it free. In some cases, it comes in the form of video podcasts, with an option to subscribe to get the latest podcast automatically. Not surprisingly, at the frontiers of this endeavor (as they have been with every previous new technology) is pornography. Now, if porn is your preference, you don't need me to point out where to find it. But, if you want to get a peek at how attractively free iPod video content can be packaged, check out Suicide Girls. It's more "amateur erotic" than outright porn.

Making it personal. Finally, you can take your own video creations, recorded with a digital camcorder, and import them to a video iPod. All you need is iMovie HD (together with QuickTime 7.0.3 or later). See this Apple article for details. In fact, any video that can be opened by QuickTime Player Pro can be converted to the iPod format. See this Apple tutorial for details. Still, I prefer iSquint here: it's simpler to use and it's faster to complete a conversion.

If you already have a color iPod, you may have already discovered the coolness of carrying around hundreds of family photos – to show off to unsuspecting friends and relatives. Now, with the video iPod, you can show off home movies as well.

Technical note. Although the process of converting videos to iPod format is fairly simple, things can and do go wrong. Here is one critically important point to bear in mind:

The video iPod supports two types of video: MPEG-4 and H.264 (which is the default format for iPod). The problem is that there are several variations of these formats, and not all of them work with the iPod. Actually, H.264 is itself a variation of the MPEG-4 standard (called MPEG-4 Part 10). One potential road to trouble is that, with the H.264 format, profiles can be "main" or "baseline." Only the baseline profile works with iPods. There is no way of telling by looking at a video file (or even its Get Info window) in the Finder whether it's the "right" type for an iPod or not. All types are simply identified as MPEG-4 files. To make sure you do it "right," your best bet is to use software, such as the ones discussed here, that have a specific option to produce iPod-compatible files.

Bottom line. If you thought you didn't want a video iPod because you didn't think you'd use its video features, think again. If you get one of these babies, I'm betting you will be surprised at how glad you'll be.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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