Low Quality and Absent Features Hobble Portable Video

When Apple Computer started offering short videos and TV show episodes for $1.99 through its iTunes Music Store late last year, I thought it was a good idea, but then I've been working with online video services for a few years now. Apple's offering promised to take this technology mainstream, however, and as recently as last week, the company was touting the success of its TV show and video downloads: To date, customers have downloaded and purchased more than 15 million videos, from a selection of more than 60 popular TV shows, more than 3500 music videos, and a small collection of Pixar and Disney short films.

What's not to like, right?

The problem is, in the real world, these videos don't represent a good deal at all. And now I'm beginning to rethink my opinion on downloadable digital video. In fact, it's unclear to me why any individuals need to own this content at all.

Problems Arise
My first glimpse into the problem came last October, when Apple released its video iPod and added the first round of videos to the iTunes Music Store. I immediately downloaded a small collection of test videos, including a few TV show episodes (the pilot episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives) and a couple music videos. The quality wasn't inspiring. Because the Apple downloads are matched to the capabilities of the iPod, they're encoded at 320 x 240 and about 650Kbps. This resolution is lower than that of standard-definition TV. Put another way, it's poorer quality than VHS, a technology that's over 25 years old.

When you watch these videos on an iPod screen, they actually look startlingly good, thanks to the small size of the display. But then, you can watch only about 2 hours of video—if that—on a single battery charge. That, combined with the uncomfortable pose you'd have to maintain while watching on an iPod, makes the device an unacceptable solution for portable video.

The quality problems are exacerbated when you try to watch these videos elsewhere. There are two logical alternatives: a notebook or desktop computer, or a TV set. As computer files, the videos you download from iTunes will work fine on any Windows PC or Macintosh, assuming that you've installed iTunes and authorized that device to play videos you've purchased. But the high-resolution screens of most PCs—my iMac runs at 1680 x 1050, for example—makes the tiny iTunes videos look like animated icons, they're so small. And when you enlarge them, the low quality of the encoding becomes apparent, with banding, artifacting, and other visual errors. They look horrible.

While we're talking about quality, let's not forget what else you're missing when you purchase videos from iTunes. Although the entire first season of Lost is available for $34.99 on iTunes, it's not letterboxed like the original show, and it includes none of the extras you get with the DVD set of the season. That DVD set, incidentally, can be purchased for $38.99 from Amazon.com, comes in full-quality widescreen, and includes an entire bonus disk of extras. And those DVDs work fine on a variety of devices—not just authorized PCs, Macs, and iPods.

If you're really silly, you can purchase Apple's optional Universal Dock, Apple Remote, and AV Connection Kit, to connect your iPod with video directly to your TV so that you can watch the videos that way. Why is this notion silly? First, the videos often look horrible, just as they do on a computer display. (Exceptions include cartoons, as well as shows in which the quality of the original recording is low anyway, as with Knight Rider and The A-Team.) Second, because Apple designed the iPod poorly, you can use the Apple Remote only to pause and play, and change the volume of the currently playing video; you can't use it to switch between videos or perform other tasks. In other words, you actually have to get up off the couch, walk over to the iPod, and use the device's built-in controls to manually queue up the next video.

Against the Law?
Silliness is one thing, but Apple might actually be circumventing federal law. My wife and I recently took the kids to Ireland for a week, so I figured I'd load up my laptops with a bunch of videos for them to watch on the plane. I downloaded five episodes each of Dora the Explorer, Kim Possible, and SpongeBob SquarePants, and away we went. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I opened up my PowerBook and started up the first video. Just one problem: I couldn't figure out how to enable Closed Captioning, which my deaf son requires. The problem? Apple's videos don't even include Closed Captioning. Is that even lawful? Now try explaining your reasoning to my son.

I'm going to try and get my money back for those 15 useless videos, although I don't have much hope of that happening. But I'm astonished that Apple has gotten away with selling such shabby videos. It seems like people would know better.

Why Own?
That got me thinking. Although I'm a big fan of a show such as The Office, which is available on iTunes, it's not clear that I need to permanently own each and every episode. What I'd prefer is a chance to pay to see each episode, when and where I want. Once I've seen the show, the file can just disappear. Most videos aren't like music: I don't need to watch them again and again. (There are some exceptions, of course, as my kids seem to be infinitely able to rewatch Pixar movies on a regular basis.)

Certainly, most TV shows are one-off affairs. If I could pay $1.99 for a one-time viewing of a 720 x 480 episode of Lost or The Office, I'd be all over that. It's called Pay Per View. And it needs to come to PCs and Macs, iPods, and other portable devices soon. Because right now, iTunes is broken. And anyone who spends good money on such low-quality videos is just hurting themselves and retarding the market for truly viable services.

Change Does Happen
When Napster first debuted its legitimate music service a few years ago, the songs were encoded at a lowly 128Kbps. However, as of the service's most recent upgrade, Napster is now offering songs at a more competitive 192Kbps. The best news is that Napster (unlike Apple and most other competitors) lets you re-download tracks you've already purchased. So, you can re-download all your purchased music now at a higher quality level. That's the right thing to do and, perhaps, a model for Apple to take in the future.

How about it, Apple? I'd like to see much higher quality videos and Closed Captioning. My guess is that these features are far more important to most users than the ability to instantly transfer a low-quality recording to an iPod.

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