Mobile Media Still Has a Long Way to Go

Late last month, I embarked on the first of 9 straight weeks (3 or 4 days each week) of business-related travel. I tend to get a lot of work done on these trips, thanks to the isolation of hotels, planes, and airports. But depending on the situation, I also have a lot of downtime, during which I like to listen to music, watch movies, and read books and magazines. For example, from time to time I might get stuck in a cramped steerage—er, coach—seat on a 5-hour flight, and the second the person in front of me reclines his or her seat, any hope I had of writing on the laptop is gone.

Unlike most people, I tend to take two laptops when I travel, which gives me a good mix of battery life and work- and play-related activities. I use an Apple Computer iBook almost exclusively to watch DVD movies because of its excellent battery life and light weight, and I synchronize it with my Apple iPod for audio books and music. My Windows laptop is my workhorse for Microsoft Office applications and other work-related activities, but it also contains a copy of my music library as well as several eBooks, which I access with Microsoft Reader.

Most of the travel for this 9-week jaunt, however, is in support of a Microsoft Mobility Tour, so I'll be traveling with four Tablet PCs and a couple of Pocket PC devices. This cargo has a few ramifications, not the least of which is that I'm anything but mobile when I'm lugging around all that hardware. So I probably won't take my iBook, which is a problem because the ultralight Tablet PCs I'm using don't have internal CD-ROM drives, let alone DVD drives. So I knew I'd have to figure out some alternatives. As I write this, I've completed 3 of the 9 weeks of travel, and my experience thus far with new types of mobile media has been mixed at best. Below are some of the technologies I've tried.

Books and Magazines
Microsoft Reader works all right on a laptop, but it shines on the Tablet PC, thanks to the device's portrait display, which better resembles the page of a book, and the fact that most of the devices include hardware buttons that facilitate page turning without having to use the stylus. Microsoft Reader is also somewhat usable on Pocket PCs, although the small screen on those devices makes reading painful, especially for people with less-than-perfect eyesight, and the devices' small navigational buttons often cause me to skip over pages inadvertently. I recently purchased several Microsoft Reader-formatted eBooks (see the URL under Resources below), including recent best-sellers and business-oriented titles.

Tablet PC owners can also download a trial version of Zinio, a digital magazine reader. Zinio is a decent idea—the magazines look like hard-copy magazines, with the same layouts and graphics-heavy presentations. And you can choose from a variety of popular titles, such as "Business Week," "National Geographic Traveler," and "Windows & .NET Magazine." However, based on the miserable performance of the trial issues I tested, I won't purchase a subscription any time soon. Pages load slowly, and you have to scroll around each page, resulting in the type of miserable document redrawing I haven't seen since 1990, when I tried to run Windows 3.0 on a 286MHz machine with 2MB of RAM.

I've been working with digital music for several years and have a massive collection of music I ripped from CDs that I copy from device to device as I travel. That routine works well, but I took this opportunity to test some of the digitally delivered downloadable music that's now available online to see how it works. For this test, I skipped the budding subscription music services—although I'll look at them soon—and went straight for the direct digital downloads. The theory is that you pay for it, and you own it; you don't have to pay any monthly subscription fees.

Unfortunately, my experiment was a dismal failure. Several online services let you buy music in a variety of formats, but I went with one of the heavy hitters, Universal Music Group, which lets you download individual songs for about $1 and entire albums for about $10. Universal has a library of more than 60,000 songs, with more on the way.

The problem is Digital Rights Management (DRM). Universal's library is available in Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Liquid Audio formats through a variety of online retailers. In one instance, I chose Best Buy and purchased Sting's greatest hits package, "Fields of Gold," in WMA format. Like all DRM-enabled media, this album has a set of restrictions. You can export it to certain portable music players and burn it to a CD. However, although the music files worked fine on the road, I couldn't make them work on my desktop computer when I got home. Instead, I got an error message about a license I needed, and my attempts to obtain the license failed. I'll keep working on this problem, but the experience was disappointing.

Because I wouldn't have access to a DVD drive while I traveled, I checked to see whether I could download full movies to my hard disk, perhaps for one-time-only use. That way, I could watch them on a Tablet PC, then delete them afterward. The recently released Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 includes access to a variety of so-called Premium Services, one of which is CinemaNow, which currently offers more than 350 downloadable movies in Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 format. The movies are generally about 450MB to 600MB in size, depending on length, so you need a broadband connection to download them. And although CinemaNow offers subscription services, you can download and view movies over a 24-hour period, from the time of first viewing, at a cost of $2 to $4, which is less than most rentals. (Newer movies cost more, of course). CinemaNow seemed like a great solution.

Sadly, it wasn't. Because CinemaNow requires an active Internet connection when you launch the movie to ensure that your 24-hour viewing license is valid, you're probably better off using the service at home. If you download a few movies to your notebook's hard disk, as I did (the original "Psycho" and "The Scorpion King," in my case) and try to watch them on a plane, you're out of luck because the player tries to acquire a license online each time you play the movie. However, I was able to watch the movies in a hotel room. The quality was all right, too: Encoded at 700Mbps, the WMV files offer decent resolution and sound quality, albeit in so-called standard frame or cropped format (i.e., no letterbox format).

I also tried to play TV shows that I recorded on a Media Center PC on a standard Windows XP laptop and a Tablet PC. That plan worked because of a new free XP update available from Windows Update—but with several caveats. First, you need XP and a compatible DVD decoder, such as the $10 add-ins Microsoft sells from its Web site or a full DVD-playback application such as WinDVD. Second, you have to use WMP 9 to view the shows. Third, you can't edit them: Windows Movie Maker refuses to understand the format, and you can't edit out commercials. And finally, the files are humongous: Recorded at Best quality, 2100Mbps shows use a whopping 3GB per hour, severely limiting the amount of content you can bring with you. On the other hand, the quality is amazing, and I simply deleted shows after watching them to free up disk space. Still, I'd really like to have a WMV conversion utility to save disk space from the get-go; there's no reason these files couldn't be much, much smaller.

Mobile-capable media is better than ever but it still has drawbacks. I'd like to have DRM-enabled content that lets me take my media wherever I go, in a variety of formats. Disk space and Internet connectivity are huge concerns everywhere, but they're especially problematic when you're traveling. I'll explore this area a lot this year—as a frequent business traveler, I have a vested interest—but I'm interested in your experiences taking media on the road. What have your experiences been like?

Microsoft Reader eBook Catalog

Microsoft Reader


Universal Music Group

Best Buy Digital Downloads


DVD Support in Windows XP
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