Mac Musings

What Should We Expect in a Video iPod?

Dan Knight - 2005.10.05 - Tip Jar

iPhones and video iPods remain the stuff of rumors. Motorola's ROKR is a step in the direction of the iPhone, but it's definitely not up to Apple standards.

All iPods with screens now have color displays, but they're not up to snuff for video, nor do they have the CPU power to do video justice.

The hot rumor this week is that Apple will unveil a video iPod on October 12.

Let's think about it. What would be the pros and cons of a video iPod? What changes would Apple have to make in the design?

Why Video?

Would you want to watch a movie on a tiny iPod display? Or even a TV show? Probably not, at least with the present resolution. A higher resolution display and a larger screen might make that practical.

One thought is that the video iPod would be used primarily as a storage device, allowing you to display your movies on a TV using some cables. The internal screen would be used primarily to navigate the menus and preview your location within the movie.

Another possibility is video storage, as more DV camcorders are moving away from tape and to solid state memory and hard drives. If you could move your video to your iPod, you could free up space on your memory card or hard drive. I think this is a likely use.

I don't think storing movies from DVDs on the video iPod makes sense, at least not without some sort of conversion process. DVDs store a lot of data, and 2-3 movies could easily fill up a 20 GB iPod.

If Apple were to come up with a program that could convert DVDs to a lower resolution - matching the screen of the video iPod - that would help a lot. But it might also tie up a lot of processing power on your Mac.

Design

Video always has a horizontal format, and today's iPods are vertical devices. For a video iPod to successfully display video, it needs to have a rectangular screen. The minimum ratio would be 4:3, the same as conventional TVs and the most popular monitor resolutions (640 x 480, 800 x 600, 1024 x 768).

video iPodMore likely is a wider aspect ratio, such as the 3:2 ratio of the 15" PowerBooks. This would display full screen video with black bars on the side, widescreen with black bars at the top and bottom. The grainy image at right purports to be a phonecam shot of a video iPod, although the veracity of the photo is debated.

This is pure speculation, but perhaps we'll see a 360 x 240 pixel display that's maybe 2-1/2" or 3" on the diagonal. That would make the video iPod a bit bigger than the regular iPod, but a rectangular screen makes that a necessity.

Drawbacks

We're looking at a fairly high-end unit here. The CPU should be able to do QuickTime on the fly, so perhaps we'll see this as Apple's first device with an Intel CPU.

And it's going to need more than 20 GB of storage space. I'd guess 30 GB as a minimum, and 40-60 GB would be better. That's going to raise the price.

And then there's the larger display, which will probably cost at least 50% more than the one used in the regular color iPod.

All things considered, we're looking at a larger, more expensive iPod if Apple adds video.

Will Apple Do It?

Jobs only knows, but I think the time is ripe for a video iPod. Digital video camcorders have essentially displaced analog ones. DVDs have replaced videotape. Color screens have become so affordable that they're used in the US$200 iPod nano.

CPU horsepower is sufficient that ripping your DVDs to a lower screen resolution is no longer a daunting task, and the codecs in QuickTime 7 are the best yet. I think it would be practical to have iTunes 6 handle video as well as audio.

I'm guessing that Apple will announce a video iPod, and that it's going to wreak havoc with Sony's UDF movies for the Playstation Portable. After all, if your computer can rip your DVD for use on a video iPod, why buy discs that can only be viewed on a handheld system?

And there's a natural market at the holidays approach. A lot of people are buying digital camcorders that uses flash memory, and this is the time of year that they're most likely to fill up those memory cards as kids unwrap gifts, etc. Imagine how nice it would be to copy the video to your iPod, erase the card, and get back to recording.

My prediction is a video iPod with an Intel Xscale CPU, at least 30 GB of storage, and a 3:2 ratio color display. It will be marketed as a great backup device for digital cameras and digital camcorders, and iTunes will be extended to handle ripping DVDs to the video iPod's native screen resolution.

The video iPod will be able to display movies on a TV using S-video or composite video. And you'll be able to store your iMovies on the video iPod as well, continuing the theme of the Mac as a digital hub.

Price? On the high end, maybe $450 for 30 GB, $550 for 60 GB.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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