Video iPod: What we've learned

Thanks to an earlier-than-expected arrival at our local Apple Store, we’ve had our hands on some video iPods for a little more than a day. And in that time, we’ve learned a few things about video creation and viewing—so allow me to share.

•  Ripping DVDs is pretty easy, but don’t use H.264. If you own a DVD and want to put it on your video iPod, that sounds like fair use to me. And HandBrake is a great tool for the job. It can rip a DVD (or part of a DVD, such as one episode of a TV show or one chapter of a movie) to either H.264 or MPEG-4 format. But even though the H.264 movies it creates look nice in QuickTime and can be imported into iTunes, and Apple says you can play H.264 movies within certain parameters on the new iPod, these movies will not transfer over to the iPod. So stick with the MPEG-4 encoder.

•  HandBrake encoding is really fast. Using a dual 2.3GHz Power Mac G5, it took 56 minutes to convert an 81-minute movie directly from one of my DVDs. That’s also one-and-a-half times real-time encoding, which is pretty speedy.

•  QuickTime encoding is really slow. With QuickTime 7.0.3 installed, anyone using an app built on QuickTime that has an export option (iMovie and Final Cut Pro, for example) can create H.264 movies that will play on the iPod. And if you’re a QuickTime Pro user, you can choose the Export To iPod (320-by-240) command for any movie that QuickTime can display (except for MPEG movies, which have audio and video mixed together in one track, and will convert without audio). This process takes a looooong time. This is far from scientific, but using the same computer I mentioned above, it took 68 seconds to convert a 24-second video clip (the only such conversion I timed) from my Canon PowerShot SD300 digital camera, which is almost three seconds for each second of video using a fast computer with 1.5GB of RAM. And from what we’ve seen, that’s on the fast end of Apple’s encoding. However, the output from QuickTime seems to work every time and looks great. It just takes forever.

•  320-by-240 videos actually look pretty good on a TV. The iPod’s screen can display videos at 320-by-240 pixels, so that’s how Apple encodes video for the iPod (and it’s a good way for you to encode as well). A standard definition TV has a resolution of 640-by-480 pixels, which is four times that of the iPod. So you’d think that using the iPod’s video output feature on a TV would mean video would look pixilated and generally nasty. But it actually looks pretty good. Sure, put your face right up to the screen and you’ll see blocks and artifacts, but if you sit back on the couch, the video isn’t that much different from what most people are used to on a TV.

•  You really can watch a movie on this thing. Yes, the screen is small. But it is also really crisp and video looks great on it. I almost missed my stop on the train yesterday because I was so engrossed by the TV show I was watching. Even widescreen material—with black bars on the top and bottom—is nice to watch.

•  iPod organization needs some work. The iPod excels at cataloging your music—you can slice and dice by artist, album, or genre. But when it comes to video, there’s work to be done. There are four sub-menus for video on the iPod: Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, and Video Podcasts. But as far as we can tell, only shows purchased from the iTunes store can appear in TV Shows, organized by series and season. You can choose to classify the rest of your video collection within iTunes by choosing Get Info, clicking on the Options tab, and choosing Movie or Music Video from the Video Kind pop-up. Although the Music Videos and TV Shows menus will display videos organized by artist or show title, the Movies menu won’t.

•  Video Podcasts doesn’t work quite right. We subscribed to the (quite funny) Tiki Bar TV podcast that was featured during Steve Jobs’s presentation last week, and set it to automatically sync to our video iPod. But trying to find it was a challenge: although the iPod’s Video menu does contain an item called Video Podcasts, it was empty. We could only navigate to Tiki Bar TV by navigating to the Music menu, choosing Podcasts, and then selecting Tiki Bar TV. The podcast played fine from there, but we haven’t figured out quite why it’s not showing up in the Video Podcasts menu where it belongs.

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