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Apple iPod: Talk about portable TV
[May 02, 2006]

Apple iPod: Talk about portable TV

(Newsday (Melville, NY) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 02--It's not quite Dick Tracy's TV wristwatch, but Apple's video-capable fifth-generation iPod does put TV in your pocket.

The ultra-sleek gadget's introduction in October sent techheads swooning and tubeheads into a download frenzy. In conjunction with its release, network TV hits such as ABC's "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" were for the first time made officially available over the Internet soon after airing for fans to buy, download and watch on the portable device at any time - or place - they wanted.

The euphoria was immediate.

The reality came next.

Few TV programs were initially available for iPod at Apple's iTunes Music Store, though the list of specially formatted downloads has grown steadily with the addition of NBC shows and cable offerings such as "South Park." (Third-party sites also offer Pod-ready content.)

Early purchasers of iPod also began griping in online forums about perceived shortcomings of the device itself. Even with its enlarged 2.5-inch color screen and a shiny black model joining the ubiquitous white iPod, the $300 gadget soon seemed less like a true viewing device than a regular audio iPod spiffed up with video capability.

Its 4-by-2.5-inch size was handy to carry and use - on the train, at the airport, in a waiting room - but not so handy to watch. While the picture was surprisingly sharp, the screen remained 4x3 squarish in dimension, which meant TV's new widescreen-designed content had to be letterboxed. That made the viewable area even smaller - the size of two postage stamps. The optimal viewing distance seemed about a foot away from the eyes, requiring the iPod to be held up by hand to be effectively watched. OK to kill time with a quick music video, maybe. Not so great for an entire episode of "Alias." Speaking of which, that being an hour series, a single episode could devour nearly half a full battery charge. Video use hogged so much energy as to make iPod an extremely short-term viewing option.

The wow factor

Sound was another issue. Audio quality for solo use was much the same as music with iPod's trademark white ear buds. But because the device didn't have a speaker, it wasn't great for shared viewing. And half the thrill of having iPod video was the wow factor of showing it off to friends - who then had to step back a century to a silent-film experience.

"Apple has been doing a pretty good job of spinning the video iPod since its launch in October, but I'm a skeptic," says Phillip Swann, a technology analyst whose Web site has been tracking the device's adoption. Swann notes Apple reported in February that 15 million videos had been downloaded in its first four months. "But when you actually start to do the numbers," he added, "that's not many." Apple reported selling more than 22 million iPods in the fall and winter quarters (though included iPod models such as the Nano and Shuffle do not support video).

"A lot of people downloading the video have been using it on PCs and laptops, and not even using the video iPods," Swann says, citing a studio president who estimated half those downloads were being viewed on the larger screens of computer monitors. "When you get beyond the hype and spin that they're good at weaving," Swann concludes, "watching movies and TV long-form on a 2.5-inch screen makes no sense."

Ah, but what about a 3.5-inch screen? Or even larger? Apple-watch Web sites such as have been whispering that the display on the next generation iPod may fill the entire front, making it a "true video iPod." And Apple devotees fully expect the innovative company to eventually provide a device matching those 5- to 7-inch portable DVD players, but with digital storage capability.

Indeed, portable storage is what iPod has handily provided many owners who use its up-to-60-gigabyte hard-drive capacity not just to hold music but to record lectures, transport documents and organize photographs. Now the card-deck-size video model can store up to 150 hours of video. Entire TV seasons or all of your home movies (converted through your computer to iPod formats) can be slipped into your pocket, for viewing not just on-the-go but when you get to a friend's house.

TV sets can display iPod content in the same way as a DVD, even through the same cables (using adapters or the extra-charge iPod Universal Dock). Of course that requires finding or carrying the cables, which adds considerable bulk to the "portability." It also means that if you want to watch more than a couple hours' video, you need a computer to plug iPod into, or an electrical outlet (with Apple's available-to-buy power adapter). Video quality from an iPod fed to a larger screen turns out to be a flashback to the first era of home TV content storage. Programs that look sharp in the iPod screen or computer window suddenly seem to have been recorded on a VCR in extended-play mode. They're certainly watchable, but utterly low-tech compared with the DVD clarity we're used to.

Not the TV experience

That points up a key distinction. Music on iPod sounds much like the music we hear from big home-stereo systems. Video on iPod is not at all what we think of as the TV experience, not in an age of big screens, DVDs and high-definition detail. Shows downloaded from Apple's iTunes Music Store arrive in a copy-protected format and limited resolution not meant to translate beyond iPod or the computers that download its content. Your purchases are trapped in their own universe. And they don't come cheap. That $1.99 per episode may make for a simple selling strategy, but it often translates to more than you'd pay for a season collected on DVD. Even short-form offerings are still $1.99 for each music video, each highlights clip, each animated short.

All of which is not to say that iPod is a bust. Far from it. TV shows can now be watched on subways, in office-break rooms, just about anywhere. The quick-hit device neatly showcases those new "media snacks" exemplified by the "viral videos" circulating on the Internet. And ABC/Disney's groundbreaking deal last fall to provide iPod content created what one TV critic calls "the land of second chances," allowing viewers a simple way to catch missed episodes or replay their favorites. The device may not replicate the experience of living room viewing. Instead, iPod creates its own viewing experience - wherever it goes.


Among downloadable TV content for iPod at the iTunes Music Store (

ABC - "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Commander In Chief," "Alias," "Night Stalker"

NBC - "The Office," "Scrubs," "Law & Order" (plus "SVU" and "CI"), "The Apprentice," more; clips from "SNL," Leno, Conan; vintage shows "Alfred Hitchcock," "The A-Team," "Saved by the Bell," more.

CABLE - "South Park," "The Daily Show," "Laguna Beach," "Battlestar Galactica," "Monk," "Sleeper Cell," "Wildfire," "That's So Raven," "SpongeBob," more.

SPORTS - CBS' March Madness condensed games, ABC Bowl Championship highlights, ESPN Winter Games, more.

MUSIC VIDEOS - Thousands of current/vintage choices.

ORIGINAL VIDEO PODCASTS (most free) - Hundreds of made-for-portable viewing series and shorts related to TV shows (adultswim cartoons, MTV News, PBS' Texas Ranch House), movies, music, animation, technology, sports, religion, more.

Other iPod video options:

Downloads of TV/movie content in iPod's MPEG-4 format can be found at many online sites (some of questionable legality).

Software is also widely available to convert other forms of video (personal DVDs, DV camcorder footage, QuickTime) for iPod use.

- Diane Werts

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