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Hand it to iPod: Tiny TV looks crisp

Posted by iNext - 2005-12-25

You've got the whole TV world in your hand - if that's where you want it.
By now, you probably know that those industrious iPodders at Apple have added TV to their music box, streaming Apple Store-supplied video onto a screen that's roughly the size of a small Post-it Note. And all you need to join this brave new TV world are good eyes, a steady hand and a desire to see some very tiny Desperate Housewives misbehave in your palm, which does have a certain undeniable appeal.

It also helps to have that sort of techno-centric sense of adventure that allows you to value the novelty of a device over its practicality. No one really thinks a 2.5-inch display makes an ideal TV screen, just as no one thinks, say, the back seat of a crowded bus is the ideal place to catch up on Lost. The gizmo truth is that many people want to watch TV on their iPod not because they should, but because they can - the techno "wow" at work.

At the moment, your chances to be wowed are limited: Desperate Housewives, Commander in Chief and Lost from ABC, Law & Order and The Office from NBC, and a handful of others. But if iPod's music history is any model, the list likely will grow.

What you'll get for your roughly $2 an episode is an image that is bright, clear, crisp and, of course, small. While the picture's sharpness is at first a pleasant surprise, it's also a viewing drawback for TV shows: The iPod's exaggerated contrast works against scenes shot in either bright sunlight or shadow. Which means, for example, when the Lost castaways are all sitting around the fire, pretty much all you'll see is the fire.

And though this may seem obvious, one of the major viewing problems is inherent in the concept of a handheld TV: You have to hold it. Not only that, you have to hold it steady and at the proper angle, or the image either washes out or gets drowned in reflections.

Still, it's not as if you'll be holding it for hours on end; the battery would give out even if your eyes and arm didn't. The video iPod is a supplement to your TV, not a substitute. So the only real issue is whether, given its ease of use and portability and its undeniable cool factor, the iPod provides an acceptable viewing experience.

As with so many TV questions, the answer depends on the show. With Desperate Housewives, for example, I'd say yes, with reservations. With Lost, probably not.

What the shows share are popular favor and serialized stories: You want to watch, and you don't want to fall behind. Which makes you wonder why ABC added Chief before Grey's Anatomy.

The crucial difference for iPod purposes is that Lost relies far more on visual sweep than Housewives does. It's not just the scope of its gorgeous island long shots that you lose, it's also the subtleties, the things going on in the shadows in the background.

While Housewives also loses some visual spunk when shrunken, the show's main draws are funny lines, fabulous women and shifting plots, all of which download quite well. It makes you think iPod TV will really come into its own when it can offer more and better sitcoms than The Office. Why pay for a show you won't watch free?

Actually, if you can get past the idea that it costs the same $1.99 for a 12-minute puppet skit as it does for an hour of Lost, the current best iPod-able bet may be Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's Conan O'Brien visit to the Star Wars movie line.

In a sense, the video iPod takes us back to TV's very beginning, when screens were so small you practically had to sit on top of them to see them. Yet in another way, it offers a polar-opposite experience. In its early age, TV viewing was a communal activity, with friends and family often gathering at the one house in the neighborhood that had a TV set. Now, TV viewing has become so private, we want it for our eyes and ears only.

Apparently that's progress in miniature.

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