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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

An iPod Worth Keeping an Eye On - New York Times

An iPod Worth Keeping an Eye On - New York TimesOctober 18, 2005
An iPod Worth Keeping an Eye On

Call it the iPod Paradox: with each successive version, Apple’s 30-million-selling music player gets thinner and thinner, but its feature list grows longer and longer. By next year, no doubt, the iPod will act as a radio, remote control and coffee stirrer, but will be thin enough to roll up into a tube.

The latest model, unveiled last week, is deliciously thin (4.2 by 2.4 by about 0.5 inches). In addition to its usual repertoire (presenting music, digital photos, calendar, address book and song lyrics), it can now play video.

Now, there’s no such thing as a Video iPod. The new model is simply called the iPod; its thicker, videoless predecessors have gone off to the great eBay in the sky.

All the debate about “Will anyone buy a video iPod?” is suddenly moot, because the new model is the same excellent music player plus video.

The biggest surprise: watching video on the tiny, 2.5-inch screen (320 by 240 pixels) is completely immersive. Three unexpected factors are at work. First, the picture itself is sharp and vivid, with crisp action that never smears; the screen is noticeably brighter than on previous iPods. Second, because the audio is piped directly into your ear sockets, it has much higher fidelity and presence than most people’s TV sets. Finally, remember that a 2.5-inch screen a foot from your face fills as much of your vision as a much larger screen that’s across the room.

Many people — including Apple’s chief, Steve Jobs — have predicted that video on the iPod would never be as popular as music. One crucial reason is that watching requires your full attention. You can’t do something else simultaneously, like driving or working.

In practice, these predictions turn out to be absolutely accurate. (I established this fact through scientific hands-on testing. Unintentionally absorbed in an episode of “Lost” while walking through Grand Central Terminal, I marched directly into a steel support girder.)

Watching iPodvision also requires one free hand to hold the device, which feels awkward after a while. Remember, too, that in urban settings, where iPods are muggers’ favorite delicacies, you have to hold the thing out in full view.

You feel like you’re wearing a bumper sticker that says: “I’m an idiot. Rob me.”

In less public situations, though, pocket video is a delight; it’s escapism on demand. Waiting for the plane, waiting for the doctor and waiting for the waiter come to mind. Long car rides are a natural, too (passengers only, please).

Plane rides are somewhat less successful candidates for video, because the battery life is so poor. The 30-gigabyte model ($300), which can hold 75 hours of video or 7,500 songs, plays video for just over two hours on a charge. The 60-gigabyte model ($400) holds twice as much, but manages three hours of video playback. (Apple says that battery life is far better when playing music: 14 and 20 hours, an iPod record.)

With a $19 video cable, you can connect the iPod to a TV for a bigger picture, but don’t expect high definition. The 320 by 240 pixels of video quality, which look so pristine on the iPod’s screen, get magnified four times on a TV. The result is blurry and VHS-ish, barely tolerable from couch distance.

You load up the new iPod the same way you loaded up the old ones: by connecting it to a Mac or PC that’s running Apple’s free iTunes jukebox software, which now handles videos.

And where are you supposed to get the video in the proper file format (H.264 or MPEG-4)? You can export home movies directly from Apple’s iMovie video-editing program.

You can convert existing video files using software like QuickTime Player Pro ($30, for Mac or Windows). You can even convert commercial DVD movies, if certain Web sites are to be believed.

You can also download videos from the iTunes Music Store, which is suddenly in need of a name makeover. And here’s where things get much, much more interesting — maybe even more interesting, in fact, than the video iPod itself.

This music store offers free video podcasts, which are short, usually homemade Internet broadcasts. Pixar animated shorts cost $1.99 each. You can also buy any of 2,000 music videos for $1.99 apiece; of course, the price includes the song itself (which costs 99 cents when sold separately).

There are plenty of places online to watch music videos, but Apple has assembled the first legal centralized place to download and keep them.

But the biggest news is that Apple now sells TV shows: name-brand, day-old, network TV shows.

Incredibly, Apple has persuaded Disney, which owns ABC, to make available all episodes of five TV series, including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “That’s So Raven.” Each show costs $1.99 — an easy impulse buy if you missed an episode.

They play back beautifully, with no network logo in the corner, no yearlong wait for the DVD, and no commercials. (One 43-minute “hour” of TV takes 12 minutes to download with my cable modem, and about two minutes to transfer to the iPod over its U.S.B. 2.0 cable. The TV shows, music videos and short films are lightly copy-protected: you can play them on up to five computers and an unlimited number of iPods, but can’t burn them to a CD or DVD.)

Selling shows the day after they’ve been broadcast may seem like an obvious money-recouper for the TV networks. But until now, TV and movie companies have been terrified by the prospect of Internet distribution; their executives still wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares of file-swapping teenagers. That Mr. Jobs persuaded Disney to dip its pinky toe into these waters is an impressive development — and a very promising sign.

Now, the new iPod is the smallest, simplest and best-looking pocket video player, but certain people should steer clear. Don’t buy the iPod if you want to buy pop music at online stores other than Apple’s; their tunes won’t play on it.

Don’t buy the iPod, either, if you’re convinced that video cries out for a bigger screen; Archos, Creative Technology, iRiver and Samsung make music/video players with 3.8- to 7-inch screens and better battery life. As a bonus, most Archos players can record directly from a DVD, TiVo or cable box, and you can load up the other brands with shows recorded from a TiVo.

But that’s not an apples-to-Apple comparison. Those players are more expensive, much bulkier, two-handers that don’t slip into a pocket unless you’re a kangaroo. (The Archos GMini 402 is only slightly larger than the iPod, and also costs $300 — but offers a smaller screen and much less capacious hard drive.) And loading them up with TV shows is infinitely more technical and awkward than Apple’s nearly effortless, one-click procedure.

Of course, most people aren’t likely to be bowled over by the breadth of Apple’s video catalog at the moment. Five TV series only? United States only? Big deal, right? Then again, the iTunes Music Store itself was an equally tiny experiment once (Macintosh only, United States only). Today, it’s a wildly successful international phenomenon.

Here’s hoping that Apple’s video trial is similarly successful — not for Apple’s sake, but for TV and movie fans. If so, the new video-capable iPod might turn out to be the crowbar that cracked what was once an uncrackable problem: how to deliver cheap, fast, convenient, economically feasible, piracy-resistant, Internet-based movies and network TV shows, on demand, to the masses.

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