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Video to Go

The latest pocket-size gadgets make movies and televisions mobile.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

Strap me into a metal tube at 30,000 feet for six hours, and a player full of music is poor ammunition, indeed, in the mind-numbing, spirit-rotting battle against boredom. On the other hand, put a device in my hands that is loaded with a few good movies, some television that aired after my bedtime, the episode of "Lost" I missed last week and concert videos from my favorite bands, and there's a good chance I won't get up mid-flight and start using a rolled-up copy of Cigar Aficionado to bludgeon the smelly, snoring fat guy who is squeezed into the middle seat next to mine.

To that end, the new generation of MP3 players has evolved beyond its musical roots to include enhanced devices with photo and video playback that go by their own new term: Personal Media Players, or PMPs. I'm not sure the awkward new moniker is going to stick, though I do admit briefly considering "Pimp Your PMP" as a title for this article. I suspect that the new coinage may be unnecessary, as most folks will default to saying "iPods."

Apple has earned its 70 percent of the portable player market. I'm still not hot to make an iPhone my cell phone, but the iPod touch, with its quirky lower-case spelling, delivers all the iPhone's coveted media playback features without the phone. This sleek device, with its big, beautiful screen and slender, seductive shape, embodies all that's right about Apple design and engineering. And for those who prefer a more pocket-friendly silhouette there's the cute little iPod nano, a slender sliver of media pleasure.

Yet, while I own both iPods, I find that I also travel with other portable players in my bag as often as not. To understand why, let's take a minute to consider not the portable players themselves, but the way you'll fill them with music, videos and photography.

Are You Content With Your Content?

The driving factor behind your media player purchase has to be whether it will play back the content you want. For standard MP3 music files, which are supported by every player on the market, this is a no-brainer. Photo files are no problem either, since the JPEG format files used for nearly all personal digital photos are an accepted standard. With video and non-MP3 music, however, the situation gets a bit more complicated.

For starters you may not want to acquire your music permanently. Steve Jobs insists you do, and that's why he allows you to buy music downloads from the online iTunes store for your iPod, but refuses to add a subscription music service. I have to respectfully disagree. Buying music is fine if you have a committed relationship with a tune or an artist, but more often than not listening to music is a flirtation, a fling, a good time followed by profound disinterest. That's why music subscription services make sense. For a flat monthly fee you can play millions of songs, new and old, from nearly every popular artist you can name. Napster and Rhapsody offer services that let you listen on your computer and download tunes to a variety of portable players, including those from Archos, Creative, iRiver, RCA, Samsung, SanDisk, Sony, Toshiba and others, for just under $15 a month, while Microsoft has its own subscription service, compatible only with its Zune players, at the same price.

When it comes to downloading videos, on the other hand, Apple enjoys a distinct advantage over the competition. Purchasing movie downloads is unappealing—you pay nearly DVD prices and can only watch the movie on a computer or compatible portable player. Apple, which still offers movie purchases, recognized this and recently upgraded the iTunes store to allow rentals as well. Film rentals cost a reasonable $3.99 or less for 24-hours. Competing movie download sites offer both movie purchases and rentals for computer viewing, but only purchased films can be viewed on a portable device. That leaves Apple as the only pocket-friendly movie rental source...almost.

The one intriguing exception is a video subscription service from Vongo, part of the Starz cable network. Subscribers pay a flat $9.99 monthly for all-you-can eat access to roughly 1,000 movies and 1,500 additional video selections at any given time. Your downloads can be viewed on a PC or downloaded to a variety of portable players from Archos, Creative, Samsung and Toshiba—sorry, no iPods.

Of course, you can also purchase TV shows for download, at about $2 each, from iTunes, Amazon Unbox and other sources. Being a frugal type, I prefer to record my own. PC owners running Microsoft Vista or Media Center Edition computers already own an elegant software application for recording shows and another (Windows Media Player) for transferring those shows to many portable devices (though not, alas, the iPod). If you don't have a TV tuner built into your PC, adding one either inside the box or via USB port is practical and inexpensive. Unfortunately, cable channels today are broadcast with encoding that prevents nearly any of their programs recorded with the Media Center software from being transferred to portable devices. The workaround: a separate, more user-friendly recording program. Lately I've been using PowerCinema 5 from CyberLink ($100), and the results are very good. For Mac owners, Pinnacle Video Capture for Mac ($100) provides the gizmo and the software you need to create iPod-compatible files.

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