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Review: iPod Still Better at Music Than Video

Watching a TV show requires far more attention than listening to a song, so it would be no surprise if Apple Computer Inc.'s new video-capable iPod music player provided a less-than-satisfying viewing experience.

After all, the stylish design that puts thousands of songs in your pocket may not seem so cool after you've held it up to your face for hours. And while a tiny screen is great for displaying tune titles, a full-length TV show is another story.

Though Apple could not overcome the inherent shortcomings of video on its popular portable, the latest iPod does a superb job of making the drawbacks seem far less significant than might be expected.

For one, it's touting video as a feature, not the focus, which remains music. It's also kept the same price as the previous generation — $299 for the 30-gigabyte model (7,500 songs) and $399 for the 60 GB model (15,000 songs).

The color display has been bumped up to 2.5 inches from 2 inches while the gadget's overall size has been kept to roughly the length and width of a playing card. Both models are noticeably less thick than previous models.

And the battery life (search) has been extended to 12 hours on the 30 GB model and 20 hours on the 60 GB model when playing music.

The improvements not only enable the video feature but also enhance music listening and slideshow viewing. Apple has created a compelling reason to buy an iPod even if it's never used to watch a single video.

But with all the attention given to video in the months leading up to the launch earlier this month, most new iPod owners will give it a try.

Purchasing and transferring a show is just as easy as music at Apple's iTunes Music Store (search). The content, once downloaded to the computer, automatically transfers to the portable as soon as its connected via a USB cable.

With my 6-megabit-per-second DSL connection, an episode of "Desperate Housewives" was downloaded and transferred to my unit in about 10 minutes. Using the click wheel, I started the video just as I would a song or a slideshow.

The program looked remarkably clear, and I had no problem reading the tiny credits at the beginning and end of the show. The video was largely stutter-free, the audio quality pristine.

I was surprised that I could hold the iPod in a comfortable viewing position for the 44 minutes of the episode (no commercials!). This might turn out to be a very popular iPod use on subways, buses and airplanes.

But continuous video playing severely cuts down the battery life. My 30 GB model lasted just 2.5 hours — still 30 minutes longer than Apple promised — before it ran out of juice.

Unlike music bought at the online store, video can't be transferred to a CD or DVD from the new iPod, thanks to copyright protection technology, though an optional cable can be used to display an iPod show on a regular TV.

The biggest problem is the anemic selection of commercial programming.

Outside video can, of course, be transferred to the new iPod. But so far, offerings are slim in the video department of Apple's iTunes music store.

There are episodes from five Disney television shows — including "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" — for $1.99 a pop. ITunes charges the same to download one of the 2,000 music videos or a half-dozen Pixar Animation Studios shorts.

The business model is promising. If only more content owners would open their vaults.

Even when counting the music videos and video podcasts, the selection pales compared to the 200,000 song tracks available when the iTunes Music Store launched in 2003. Today, it has more than 2 million songs.

Movie studios, television networks and other content providers must determine whether there's money to be made in Apple's latest online venture without cannibalizing their existing businesses.

While waiting for the number of titles to grow, iPod owners can fill their players with home movies and other video, provided their software can encode the video in a supported format (H.264 or MPEG-4 video) and other specifications.

It's a fairly easy process on a Mac equipped with Apple's iMovie or Final Cut Pro. Windows users are advised to buy QuickTime Pro ($30), which has an export setting specifically for iPod video.

Though watching home movies is fun, the promise of commercial content will interest a lot more people. But there's no indication when more TV shows or even movies might arrive on an iPod near you.

In the meantime, there's always music.