The perils of iPod movie-watching

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, I’m a speaker on the MacMania V cruise, which is currently wending its way through the Caribbean. To get the embarkation point, I had to travel from the northwest corner of the United States to the southeast—just about as long a journey as one can make within the Lower 48. And until teleportation becomes more than just science fiction, that means spending quite a few hours in aluminum tubes with wings.

Unlike most other long haul flights, however, I was sort of looking forward to the Portland-to-Atlanta leg of my two-hop flight. I knew that legroom would be lacking (it was), the food would be marginal at best (a single “snack box” for a four-hour-plus flight?), and that the person in front of me would recline their seat (they did), removing that precious six-inches of open air space I was actually using. But despite all of that, I was looking forward to the journey. Why?

Because I have a newish video iPod, and I had bought a few movies from the iTunes Store to enjoy during the flight, and this was really going to be my first chance to try out the movie-watching capabilities of my recent purchase. So after takeoff and the climb past 10,000 feet, it was time to test-drive movie watching on the iPod.

I’m not thrilled with the movie selection in the store—only Disney and its studios, and a seemingly limited collection at that. Still, I’d managed to find a few movies that I was interested in—movies that didn’t make my “I want to own that on DVD” cut, but that were still on my “someday, I'd like to see that” list. At the risk of great personal embarrassment, I will reveal that the collection included Flightplan, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Given that golf is one of my favorite avocations, I decided to start with The Greatest Game Ever Played .

The movie is the based (somewhat loosely, I’d say) on the story of Francis Ouimet, an unheralded amateur who won the 1913 U.S. Open, defeating Harry Vardon, considered the best player of his generation. (He still holds the record with six British Open victories.) The movie takes you through Francis’ upbringing, culminating with coverage of that 1913 U.S. Open victory. Overall, it was an enjoyable if somewhat formulaic film. But enough about the movie…

How is experience of watching a movie on an iPod? The picture is small, most definitely. But it’s not so small that it’s annoying. Even though I was watching a movie about golf, I usually had no trouble at all spotting the ball in flight. Occasionally, there would be a long shot of a ball on green, and then it was pretty hard to spot the ball. But for the most part, the image and sound were fine—excluding a fairly major problem that I’ll discuss in a bit.

The biggest issue I had was what to do with the iPod itself while watching the movie. I started with the iPod in my right hand, which seemed OK… for a while. After about 10 minutes, though, you realize that while the iPod is light, it’s not particularly light when you’re holding it as a dead weight against the force of gravity. So the I tried setting it on my right leg, but looking down at the screen proved quite uncomfortable for my neck. So down came the tray table, and I set the iPod there. I still had to look down, of course, but the angle was a bit better, so it was more bearable. It still wasn’t ideal, though.

So what did I do? I MacGyvered it! I pulled out a couple of paperback books, my cell phone, and my CD/DVD carrying case (I had brought along some traditional movies as well). Unfortunately, I didn’t snap a picture of the setup—mainly because there wasn’t any way to get to my camera without destroying my creation—so a textual description will have to suffice.

I put the iPod on top of the CD/DVD carrying case and one book, put the second book behind the iPod, and then used the cell phone (with its anti-slip coating) in front of the iPod to hold it at just the right angle. Now the iPod was much higher (still not quite eye-level), and I was able to watch hands-free with little neck strain. It may have looked ungainly, but it worked. There must, however, be a better solution. For all you road warriors with video iPods, where and how do you place your iPod for watching a movie? Some sort of dock-like device with extendible legs would be ideal, though I doubt such a product exists.

After I figured out where to put the iPod, I was enjoying the movie, which had succeeded (mostly) in making me forget I was locked inside the human version of a flying sardine can—until the sound started freaking out, that is. Instead of dialog and music, I started getting loud chirps, pops, and other not-so-good noises. Then the video froze, then went to a black screen. Not good at all. And when did this happen? At one of the high-drama moments in the movie, of course. Francis Ouimet was lining up a key putt in the title match when suddenly my iPod decided I had seen enough.

I tried using various combinations of fast forward, rewind, and pause, but nothing would move the movie past this troublesome spot. I even tried an iPod reset, but to no avail. It would appear that there’s a bad spot on my iPod’s hard drive. (I’ll have to reformat it and copy everything back to it when I get home again.) But what was I going to do about the movie? It had me interested enough that I wanted to watch the last 20 minutes!

Then I remembered that I had transferred my purchased movies not only to the iPod, but also to the MacBook that I’d be using for my onboard presentations. Working carefully in the 1-by-4-foot cube of space that marked my seating area, I disassembled my movie watching stand and did my best impression of a contortionist to reach my underseat bag and pull out the MacBook.

With the seat in front of me reclined, and the minimal leg room to begin with, there was no way I could use the Mac Book in a normal fashion—placing it on the tray table, for instance, required the screen to be angled too far forward to view. So I wound up with it on my lap, tipped forward a bit to get the angle correct. My neck wasn’t thrilled with this setup, but I only had to endure it for 20 minutes. Thankfully, the movie played perfectly through the troublesome spot, and I was able to see it through to the end.

During this 20 minutes, it also became obvious that, although the iPod is a decent movie playback device, when it comes to watching a movie, screen size counts. I blew the picture up to full screen on the MacBook, which made it a bit fuzzy. But it was still much easier to watch than the view provided by my iPod. It almost seems that my brain doesn’t have to work as hard to analyze the large image, making the viewing experience more enjoyable. As long as I’m traveling in coach, though, the iPod is probably the preferred solution—simply because there’s just not enough room to place and open the Mac Book in the limited space given in a coach seat. (I had another article I wanted to work on during the flight as well, but the lack of space meant that there was no way to type other than one-handed hunt-and-peck, and that’s just not a very fun way to work.)

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