Part 1: Portable Video Players

Today, Apple's various iPod models dominate the portable media player landscape. The cute little iPod shuffle 2G (SuperSite review) is almost ludicrously small, like a "Saturday Night Live" skit come to life, perfect for the gym, a jog, or any time where form and functionality are at a premium. The best-selling iPod nano 2G (SuperSite review), meanwhile, almost completely defines the genre of flash-based MP3 players, with a gorgeous color screen, a super-slim and sexy form factor, and a choice of several colors. At the high end, the iPod with video (5G, Late 2006, SuperSite review) is today's ultimate portable player, with support for video, downloadable movies and TV shows, podcasts, games, and a host of other content. And looking ahead, the iPhone--and any widescreen iPod derivatives that it may spawn--will no doubt set the tone for a new generation of devices.

From a sales perspective, there's iPod and then there's everyone else. But are iPods really the best solutions in each market segment? After all, iPods aren't compatible with all of the Windows Media-based online services, such as Napster, MovieLink, URGE, and CinemaNow. And content you buy at the iTunes Store won't play via Media Center's 10-foot UI on your Media Center PC, or in Windows Media Player. Put simply, Apple's solutions are trend-setting, innovative, and excellent, but they're not for everyone. And with that in mind, I'd like to start a short exploration of some of the iPod alternatives out there, see how they compare with specific iPod models, and determine whether there really is life outside of the Apple digital media ecosystem. Let's start with the high-end: Movie players.

Portable Video Players

In the portable video player comparison, I present three contestants. First up, of course, is the market leader, Apple's iPod with video. Apple's movie-playing iPod is limited to 320 x 240 on its tiny 2.5 inch screen. This, combined with the awkwardness of actually holding the device during a commute or flight, makes the iPod's video playback features ancillary to its music and podcasting functionality. On the other hand, because the latest iPod with video can now work with higher-resolution movies that it can actually display--TV shows and movies sold via the iTunes Music Store are available in resolutions up to 640 x 480--you are at least provided with a bit of future-proofing. You can purchase or encode TV shows and movies now that will work with iPod but look even better on upcoming models.

Second, we have the Microsoft Zune (SuperSite review). Slapped together in 2006 as a quickie solution to counter Apple's success with the iPod, the Zune is sold in only one version, a 30 GB model that competes, naturally, with Apple's 30 GB iPod (Apple also sells an 80 GB version). Like the iPod, the Zune offers a native 320 x 240 resolution, but it does so in a slightly larger 3-inch screen. For video fans, however, the Zune offers a single and important improvement over the iPod: The Zune displays videos vertically across the display, allowing users to rotate the device and use the display's native aspect ratio more effectively. The result is an even larger video display than the 3-inch to 2.5 inch comparison would suggest. On the negative side, the Zune is not supported by an online service that supplies purchasable or rentable movies or TV shows, so you'll need to do your own encoding. And unlike the iPod, the Zune is (currently) limited to 320 x 240 video; you can't (yet) future-proof your Zune-compatible movies by encoding them at 640 x 480. Microsoft tells me this will change in the future, but it's a problem for early adopters.

Finally, I present a true video player: The Archos 604. This device is a true multitasker: It provides music, photo slideshow, and video playback as you'd expect, but it also offers optional TV recording capabilities and other advanced functionality. For purposes of video, know this: The Archos offers a much larger display than the iPod or Zune, and one that provides substantially better resolution. The Archos features a 4.3 inch 16:9 display with 480 x 272 resolution. Like the iPod, it will work with higher resolution videos, too, though the Archos goes up to a whopping DVD-quality 720 x 480, perfect for future proofing. It also supports a wider range of video formats than the iPod or Zune, though some are optional and require paid software updates. Like the iPod and Zune, the Archos features a 30 GB hard disk. This isn't adequate for a device that will include music, photos, and videos. But I think of the Archos as a dedicated video player, and 30 GB is enough for 30 DVD-quality 2-hour movies. Yep, it's a workhorse.

I've used each of these devices, in succession, on an elliptical trainer at the gym. I use this contraption 3 or 4 times a week for a fairly aggressive cardio workout, and I've found that video is more effective than music (for me, at least) in keeping my mind off the pain I'm experiencing while doing so. The iPod's screen is unacceptable: At a relatively square 2.5 inches, the screen is too small to watch easily at the distance from which the device must rest on the shelf on the elliptical trainer. I've tried cartoons such as "South Park" as well as movies I've ripped myself and purchased from the iTunes Store. "Pirates of the Caribbean," for example, was too dark and tiny in its widescreen aspect ratio, which only utilizes about half the screen, to be considered watchable. The entire effect is disappointing. In other situations--a bus- or train-based commute, or a plane ride--the iPod's video display is merely adequate, and only for short amounts of time. I found myself cramping up on a plane while trying to watch a movie on the iPod. TV shows like "The Daily Show," where it's more important to hear than see, seem to work best.

The Zune offers a slight upgrade, thanks to its ability to rotate the device and watch video content across the widest part of the screen. For the Zune, I was forced to rip my own video content, so I began converting DVD movies and Media Center recorded TV shows to a Zune-acceptable WMV format using tools such as CloneDVD ($39) and TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress ($99). (For the record, CloneDVD Mobile is both cheaper and quicker, but it doesn't work with recorded TV shows. Both produce high-quality output files.) I found the Zune's display to be superior to that of the iPod, mostly because of the screen size. However, the Zune screen is still a bit too small to work acceptably at the gym, and it results in the same uncomfortable viewing experience on long commutes and plane rides. Overall, it's marginally better than the iPod from a viewing perspective, but less convenient because there is no commercial video content to purchase.

The Archos hits the sweet spot . It's large and gorgeous screen is definitely big enough for watching movies at the gym, and while it's not as large as a portable DVD player, I found it to be quite acceptable for movie viewing on a recent flight to Europe, when I watched ripped "James Bond" and "Rome" DVDs. In both cases, the movies and shows were recorded at 720 x 480, and two-hour movies take up about 1 GB of space each. I haven't tested commercial movie content on the Archos, but it should work with services such as MovieLink and CinemaNow, as it is a PlaysForSure device. Additionally, the Archos includes a removable battery, unlike the Zune or iPod, so you can buy an extra and swap it out during long trips. You may need to: The Archos, like the other devices, eats battery life quickly when playing video. I was able to barely watch two movies on the thing before the battery died.

To better understand the video experience, consider how the displays compare in these simulated screenshots:


Figure 1: Just the screens. Here, you can see a simulated display on the iPod, Zune, and Archos screens, shown to scale.


Figure 2: Relative sizes of each device, showing how the video experience improves on larger screens.

Determining which way to go

Overall, the Archos provides the best pure video experience, and if that's your only consideration, then it's the clear winner. In real life, however, things are rarely that clear-cut. As an all-around media player solution, the Archos brings with it a few limitations. First is cost. Though the 30 GB iPod and Zune both cost about $250, the 30 GB Archos is quite a bit more expensive at $350. Secondly, the Archos has a confusing interface scheme: Both the hardware buttons and the on-screen menus are confusing and difficult to use, and much less intuitive than the excellent Zune and iPod interfaces. Battery life is also an issue, though that's true of all of these devices.

There are other things to consider. While the Zune offers a decidedly better video experience than does the iPod, and therefore would be my second choice from a purely technical perspective, the iPod is supported by a wonderful online service, the iTunes Store, which is stocked with an amazing array of content, especially TV shows. These videos look great on notebooks as well, making them even more useful. So your decision should be based at least partially on how you intend to get content on the device. If purchasing commercial TV shows and movies is more interesting to you then ripping DVDs or converting your own content, the iPod is the best choice despite its other limitations.

Ultimately, I'll continue using the Archos solely for movies, both at the gym and on the road, but I would never consider using it as my only media player. In the next section of this review, I'll examine both the Zune and the iPod from the perspective of all-around usefulness. That is, which of these devices is good if you need a multitasking device that can do it all? We'll find out next. And in future parts of this review, we'll look at pure music players like the iPod nano, as well ultra-mobile players like the iPod shuffle, and some of their key competitors. At the end, I'll wrap it all up with a handy comparison chart. See you soon.