Filling Your Video iPod with Content

Last week, I took a look at Apple Computer's latest iPod, which blends all the great features we've come to expect from the premier MP3 player on the market with a brand-new feature: video support. The problem, of course, is how to get video content from a PC or Macintosh into the new iPod. As it turns out, you have a variety of ways to do so. Let's take a look.

Buy Videos and TV Show Episodes from iTunes
The first method couldn't be easier: Simply load Apple's award-winning iTunes player (version 6.0 or later), navigate to the increasingly misnamed iTunes Music Store, and choose Music Videos, Pixar, or TV Shows. To date, Apple doesn't have a lot of video content available for purchase: There are about 2000 music videos, 6 Pixar animation shorts, and all the episodes from five TV shows, two of which are current hits: "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." Each video or TV show episode costs $1.99, which isn't horrible, especially if you want to catch up on that episode of "Lost" that you missed. Encoded in 647Mbps MPEG-4 format, one-hour TV episodes (usually about 43 minutes of actual video) take up a little over 200MB each.

As simple as this is, there are caveats, as always. The iTunes-supplied videos and TV show episodes are available only in the iPod's native 320 x 240 resolution, so they don't provide full fidelity when displayed on a TV set, using the iPod's optional AV cables. You tend to see MPEG artifacting, and more so than with a typical digital cable signal. (These TV shows do, however, look decent on a typical computer display, if you don't mind running them in a window at double size.) These videos are also more restricted than the music content you purchase at iTunes: Although you can copy them to as many as five PCs or Macs, and copy them to an unlimited number of iPods, you can't burn them to DVDs.

The iTunes video and TV show experience is barebones at the moment, but I expect it to grow dramatically in the days ahead. It's just a shame that Apple doesn't offer a higher-resolution option and let you transcode the shows down to a format the iPod can use. Or, it would be nice if the iPod could simply play higher-resolution video at its native resolution on the fly.

Converting Home Movies
Many people, of course, have home movies that might be suitable for viewing on a new iPod. However, to get this content into a format the iPod can use, you need to do a bit of format conversion. The iPod supports two video formats: H.264 (up to 768Kbps, 320 x 240, 30fps) and MPEG-4 (up to 2.5Gbps, 480 x 480, 30fps). Most home movies are likely in MPEG-2 format—if you adhere to my belief that MPEG-2 is the one true video format—or, God forbid, Windows Media Video (WMV), which will require some extra work.

If your home movies are in WMV format, you're going to want to first convert them to AVI format, which is dramatically less compressed than WMV but is more compatible with non-Microsoft software. Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 2.0, part of Windows XP, can do this easily enough: Simply import the video into WMM 2.0, and drag it to the Storyboard. Choose File, Save Movie File, and select DV-AVI format.

Both Mac and PC users can use Apple's excellent QuickTime Pro 7 ($29) to convert MPEG-2 or AVI video to an iPod-friendly format. There are two ways to do this. Apple now includes a handy new Movie to iPod (320 x 240) export type that pushes video directly into an acceptable H.264 format. And this works fine for typical 4:3 home video.

But if you're working with widescreen video formats, as I am, you'll need to tinker a bit. QuickTime Pro lets you specify options for many of its export types, so I use Export to MPEG-4 and manipulate the settings so that the resulting file fits within the iPod's limited range of formats but retains its widescreen aspect ratio. For example, I've created a number of home videos at 720 x 405. To convert these for use on an iPod, I've been toying with a custom resolution of 480 x 270, a data rate of 2Gbps, 30fps, and MPEG-4 Basic MP4 file format. The resulting files are a bit large—a 5-minute clip is about 75MB—but the quality is absolutely excellent, given the resolution, and these movies look fantastic on the iPod. You might experiment with smaller data rates to achieve an ideal balance between size and quality.

Windows users might also consider a free tool called Videora iPod Converter, which can convert various video formats into iPod-friendly 320 x 240 H.264 video. Note, however, the Videora is no good for widescreen videos, which it will flatten into tall and skinny-looking 4:3 movies. But if you're using more standard 4:3 video, this is a good solution.

Video conversion, or transcoding, is a time-intensive prospect, so don't be surprised to discover that your home movies require quite a bit of time to convert. This task is still the type of thing that's best done overnight or on a second PC.

Converting DVD Movies
Although it's technically still illegal to back up a DVD movie for personal use, I'll temporarily thumb my nose at the ill-conceived Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and at least discuss the process. After all, you paid for the movie. Why shouldn't you be able to watch it on your own iPod?

Mac users will want to check out a free (and open-source) tool called Handbrake. This wonderful utility rips DVD movies to MPEG-4 format and, when used correctly, can be made to format the resulting movie in iPod-friendly format. However, my advice is to rip DVDs to full-sized, full-quality MPEG-4 originals and use QuickTime Pro to convert them for use on the iPod. Although this is time consuming, I did this double conversion recently with the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, ultimately converting my original 632 x 356 MPEG-4 version into the 480 x 270 format described above, because the film is in widescreen format. The results were surprisingly good, although the conversion took the better part of an afternoon on my G4-based PowerBook. I'm told G5 systems can rip DVDs and convert video far faster.

On the PC side, I use a variety of tools to rip DVD movies. Slysoft AnyDVD ($39) unprotects Hollywood DVD movies, letting you use conventional software tools to duplicate or rip them for backup purposes. And I use a free tool called Auto Gordian Knot (AutoGK,) to convert unprotected DVD movie files into XviD or DivX videos. As with all video processes, these tasks take a lot of time and are best performed on a secondary PC.

Hopefully, that's enough to get you started. If you need more information about DVD ripping, please refer to my previous commentary, Fair Use? How to Back Up DVD Movies.

Organizing and Synching Video
Once you've got the content, you simply need to add it to the new Videos library in iTunes 6 and set up the application to sync that content with your iPod. Videos appear in iTunes using a pleasingly graphic screen by default, although you can revert to the standard text-based view, if you'd like. Enjoy your video content on the go, or via your TV set with the optional AV cables. This is truly the beginning of a video revolution.

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