A Closer Look

Portable Video, Just Not Always Convenient

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Why is it that importing video to portable devices is not nearly as easy and effortless as putting music or video games on them?

The long-anticipated trend of mobile video got a big lift from devices created for distinctly different purposes: music and gaming. Apple Computer Inc.'s new video iPod and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation Portable (PSP) can play digital video on small but surprisingly bright and clear screens, allowing you to watch movies on the Metro, catch up on the latest episode of "Lost" over a lunch break, or casually show off eye-catching videos of the kids at the office.

On the music side, it's easy to convert any CD you own to a portable format for either player and nearly effortless to buy songs from huge online catalogues. But despite the much stronger-than-expected interest in portable video, the selection of movies licensed for sale for playback on those devices is extremely limited, and converting your own DVDs takes a good deal of effort.

While the iPod and the PSP support a wide range of digital music formats, including the most popular (MP3s), they support only a narrow range of relatively obscure video formats.

For example, Apple's iPod is not compatible with Apple's own Quicktime video format. A wide range of movies can be viewed online using iTunes or the free Quicktime player. But many of them can't be saved for later viewing, unless you purchase Quicktime Pro ($30, http://www.apple.com/quicktime ). And even then, movies from Apple's Web site in Apple's Quicktime format that play in Apple's iTunes can't be loaded onto Apple's video iPod.

To make this happen, you first have to run through a process in Quicktime Pro to convert the files to the video iPod format, then copy them to iTunes and finally download them to the iPod. Even after this cumbersome process -- a stark contrast with the rest of the sublimely intuitive iTunes experience -- the process still may not work with all videos on Apple's site or in iTunes.

Sony's video conversion tool, the PSP Media Manager ($20, http://www.sonymediasoftware.com/ ), is more limited than the versatile Quicktime Pro, but it converts video and installs it on the PSP in an easy, one-step process. The only decision you have to make is between two quality modes. It can also rip CDs to MP3s, copy photos to the PSP, and handle a host of other PSP media management features.

A minor limitation is that the PSP must be connected and not doing anything else for the video conversion to happen. And the amount of time it takes to convert it can be longer than it takes to watch it. Fortunately, multiple files can be converted simultaneously.

There are alternative, free tools to manage the conversion processes, including PSP Video 9 ( http://www.pspvideo9.com/ ) from Canadian company Videora Holdings. Unlike the PSP Media Manager, the conversion and installation process involves two steps instead of one. It also adds more encoding options, which can be confusing for beginners. But the basic settings allow for a one-click conversion, and copying the file to the PSP is relatively simple. Best of all, the PSP does not have to be connected during the long conversions.

There are also free converters for the video iPod. Videora also makes an iPod Converter ( http://www.videora.com/en-us/Converter/iPod/ ). It also has a simple, one-click setting to convert video files to iPod compatibility, but relies on iTunes to install them on the iPod. The program has a wide range of video output settings under the hood for power users to fine-tune, but most users can safely ignore them.

All of these tools can also convert and install your own home movies onto your portable device, provided you first convert your precious memories from tape to digital video files -- either directly over FireWire or by using analog video hardware. Mac owners will want to use the import feature on iMovie, which saves the video clips as digital files. Windows users have plenty of third-party software programs available to do this, as well.

As for the commercial DVDs in your personal library, that's still an issue. The video conversion products will not rip your copy of a Hollywood movie into your computer so that you can convert it for playback on a portable device. That's not to say it can't be done, though.

Tools to decrypt DVDs are only a Google search away, but generally are not for sale in the United States. The movie buyer's right to watch movies in a time and place of his own choosing is still a legal issue, seemingly in conflict with the movie company's right to control copying of its content.

That's something for the courts to hammer out. In the meantime, consumers must watch what they can and hope for more to become available.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company