PSP versus iPod: What's better for video?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a head-to-head comparison of the Sony PSP and the iPod with video. The first installment was a hands-on comparison of the technical specifications.

Two of this season’s hottest portable entertainment systems are Apple’s new video-capable iPod and Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP). While they’re fundamentally different — the iPod’s strength is in its music playing capability and the PSP is primarily a gaming system — both can play video. Let’s take a look at how they compare specifically as portable video players.

The PSP

Sony’s PlayStation Portable is considerably larger and bulkier than the new 30GB and 60GB iPods, but it has a much larger screen — it’s 4.3 inches, compared to the 2.5 inch display on the iPod. The PSP screen uses a wide aspect ratio, which means it’s better for watching movies and TV shows that take advantage of that cinematic width. It’s higher-resolution — 480 x 272 pixels, compared to 320 x 240 for the iPod.

The biggest downside to the PSP is its extremely limited storage capacity. Unlike the iPod, the PSP doesn’t have a built in hard drive. All of its files — saved game info, as well as digital music, photos and videos you may have copied over from your Mac — go on a Memory Stick Duo Pro flash media card. Those cards are no bigger than 2GB right now, so you can’t store any more data than a basic iPod nano. So forget about taking a season’s worth of TV shows with you, but that’s more than enough space for a couple of feature length movies that are properly formatted and compressed.

The PSP connects to the Mac using USB 2.0. A cable isn’t included, but it’s trivial to buy one that works. If you know what you’re doing (or read the documentation carefully), you can navigate the contents of the memory stick and click and drag video files to the right place. They have to be in the right directory for the PSP to recognize them, and in MPEG-4 format.

If you don’t want to roll your own video, an increasing number of companies offer videos in Universal Media Disc (UMD) format — the small optical disc that the PSP uses for games and commercial films. UMD’s are sold at retail — there are hundreds of movies that run the gamut from action to drama, anime, comedy and more that are either available or planned for release in the near future, including many new releases that are being offered simultaneously with their DVD counterparts.

Third party help

The PSP has been a popular target of shareware and commercial software developers. A handful of PSP synchronization utilities have popped up that help you manage digital music, movies and photos, and much more. Two of the most popular — Nullriver Software’s PSPWare, and RnSK Softronics’ iPSP — include video conversion capabilities. Kinoma Producer, developed to help you convert video to formats that PocketPC and Palm PDAs can work with — now supports PSP also.

If you have Roxio’s Toast 7 Titanium, or if you use Elgato’s EyeTV Personal Video Recorder (PVR) software to record video from cable, antenna or satellite, you can use those applications to convert video to PSP format as well.

Because Apple’s iTunes Music Store applies Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to the TV shows and movie shorts it sells, you can’t buy video from iTunes and get it to work on the PSP — an unfortunate limitation, but one that we’ve gotten accustomed to with iTunes and third-party MP3 players.

Look ma, no hands

LocationFree is a new Sony technology that distributes video — including cable TV, DVD video and DVR video — over a wireless network. With the most recent software update, version 2.50, the PSP adds a new feature called LocationFree Player, that allows you to watch a video broadcast from a LocationFree Base Station (The PSP has built-in wireless networking). It’s a niche product that requires you to make a large hardware investment, but if you’re already a Sony home theater enthusiast, it may make a difference in your decision making.

Watching videos on the PSP is utterly painless. Some are quick to discount the PSP’s multimedia abilities, dismissing it as a mere game console, and they’re wrong. It’s patently obvious that the PSP’s designers sought from the ground up to make the device well-suited to play video, music and display photos along with games — the navigation is intuitive and simple (scrolling menus from the PSP’s main interface lets you access your videos), and playback is managed through the use of the PSP’s navigation keys.

After all’s said and done, watching video on the PSP is a superlative portable media experience. The large, wide-format screen is perfect for watching movies, and it’s great when you’re commuting or on an airplane. Using the right combination of compression techniques, you can easily squeeze two or three feature-length films onto a Memory Stick Pro Duo card, and the PSP’s battery should last for several hours without needing a recharge (unfortunately, you will need to plug it into a wall to charge it back up — unlike the iPod, the PSP doesn’t recharge its battery over USB 2.0).

The iPod

Although the 2.5-inch display of the iPod is markedly smaller than the PSP, don’t discount it for video — it’s startlingly clear. It’s perfectly comfortable to watch videos or TV shows from, although the aspect ratio of the screen doesn’t make it ideal for movies that are rendered in “letterbox” format, as they’ll leave bars on the top and bottom of the screen.

The massive storage capacity of the iPod — 30GB or 60GB — is more than enough to store a gigantic amount of video: Up to 150 hours for the 60GB, according to Apple’s own measurement. Actually getting the iPod to play back that amount is a different story, however — you’ll be lucky to get more than two hours without having to recharge the battery.

The iPod’s dock connector provides another distinct advantage — you can sit the iPod on Apple’s Universal Dock, or third-party hardware like the DLO HomeDock — and watch video on a television using either a composite video cable or S-Video cable. The PSP has no such connectivity, although a few companies have tried to hack together systems to let you watch your PSP’s video on a big screen. Sony seems unwilling to do a system themselves, and given their broad interests in the home entertainment market, perhaps it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to cannibalize sales of, say, their DVD players.

You’d think that video optimized for the tiny iPod screen would look horrible on a large TV, but you’d be wrong — I bought a couple of Pixar shorts from the iTunes Music Store, and they look quite good on the 27-inch standard-definition television screen we keep in our living room — somewhere north of VHS quality, I’d estimate. Not nearly as crisp as, say, a DVD player, but still watchable enough that my kids sat transfixed through “Boundin’.”

Third-party support

Just like the PSP, a growing number of third-party utilities are popping up with support for converting video to the iPod. In fact, some of the same software that works with the PSP — Elgato’s EyeTV and Kinoma’s Producer — can be used to make iPod-ready video. Splasm Software’s Podner has also emerged as a useful utility for optimizing video for use on the iPod.

What’s more, Apple has updated its own US$29 QuickTime Pro software to provide iPod video authoring capabilities. Any video you can open in QuickTime Player can be converted to a format suitable for the iPod, although it may take some tweaking before you’re happy with the results.

And although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s worth noting that several companies have stepped forward to offer adult entertainment formatted specifically for the iPod. It’s been noted time and time again that a new technology medium’s mainstream popularity often goes hand in hand with its use to distribute pornography (widespread use of VCRs, DVD players, even the Internet has been tied to this phenomenon). So as distasteful as some may find it, it may be a harbinger of even broader public support of the iPod.

iTunes is the delivery conduit through which video is put onto the iPod — you can click and drag your video files into iTunes, and the next time your iPod syncs, the files will be copied over. If there’s something wrong with the file and the iPod can’t make heads or tails of it, iTunes will let you know.

When you buy video for the iPod from the iTunes Music Store, it’s arranged in categories including Movies, Music Videos, Podcasts and TV shows. iTunes only provides limited ability to change this (I could toggle between Movie and Music Video, for example, but I could not tell it that my EyeTV recordings were TV shows).

Tying up distribution and delivery

One of the iPod’s strongest advantages is Apple’s ownership not only of the device itself but also of the iTunes Music Store. Video distribution through the iTunes Music Store is still nascent, obviously — selection is extremely limited, and it’s only available in the United States — but it’s a strong and important start, and it’s sure to expand in the weeks and months to come.

As simple as some of these utilities are to use, converting video for use on the iPod is still a multi-step process that’s quite time-consuming — the same goes for the PSP as well. There isn’t a single solution that’s a “home run” for getting video onto either of these portable devices, although they’re getting better.

So who wins?

Of the two systems, I strongly prefer the PSP for watching video. Its large, wide screen and superior battery life provide a better video viewing experience than the iPod. The larger screen permits you to watch it a bit farther away, too — I can comfortably watch a feature film with the PSP in my lap, for example, while I prefer to keep the iPod about half an arm’s length from my eyes.

The increasing distribution of pre-recorded videos on UMD discs is another big plus — it’s trivial to walk into an electronic superstore and buy a video for the device. They range in price from $15 to $30 — roughly comparable to DVDs.

The iPod wins for portability, however — it’s much smaller, easily slipping into a shirt pocket when you’re not watching video, for example, and its screen is remarkably clear and detailed for such a small area.

The other area where the iPod wins is in video distribution. While you can convert video to either the PSP or iPod easily enough if you have the right hardware and software, it's still a technical process that does take a little bit of time to master. Only the iPod has an entire legal video distribution system behind it -- the iTunes Music Store. And $1.99 per show seems like a fair price to pay, given the hours you'd spend ripping and converting content otherwise.

One way or the other, I hope the third-party solutions for converting and synchronizing video for both the PSP and iPod continue to be improved and refined. No matter how much the selection of movies on UMD and iTunes grows, there are always bound to be gaps that I'll have to fill myself -- and besides, how else will I be able to so easily tote that great video of the kids playing in the leaves in the backyard?

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