iPod-Ready Videos? Not So Fast, and Not So Clear

iPod-Ready Videos? Not So Fast, and Not So Clear 1

The debut of Apple Computer’s new “iPod (with video)” last week set off a firestorm of discussions on video encoding techniques, playback, and quality. To date, however, Apple has only disclosed two formats that are guaranteed to play on the new iPod, and it has released only one affordable encoding tool to create iPod video files. That program, QuickTime Pro 7.0.3, is available for $29.99 from Apple, and it is assured to properly convert your existing videos into the recently released H.264 video format.


Several members of the iLounge editorial team have been working on converting videos to iPod-ready format since immediately after Apple’s announcement last Wednesday, and what follows are some preliminary notes on the wisdom – or lack thereof – of doing so, as well as downloading iTunes music videos and TV shows. If you want to avoid the initial $29.99 cost of QuickTime Pro, which itself is a surprise given that CD-to-iPod conversion is free with iTunes, there is a $1.99 charge for every iPod-formatted video you download from Apple. (Alternatives to QuickTime Pro are also available for more advanced users, and we’ll be discussing their performance in our upcoming tutorials.)

Our conclusion is that – at least for now – only hard-core users will even consider converting multiple full-length movies for the iPod, and even the conversion of short video clips requires time and involves consequences you should know about early on. Similarly, you may be surprised by the low image quality of iTunes music videos, especially by comparison with free videos the same bands have posted online, and even by comparison with seemingly better-encoded iTunes TV shows. We both hope and strongly believe that Apple will take further steps to ease the video encoding process for users in the months to come, as well as to guarantee superior picture quality for its paid video downloads.

How Long Does Conversion Take?

We’ve run tests on different machines and with video files of numerous sizes, but generally, the answer ranges from “longer than you’d expect” to “unbelievably longer than you’d expect.” Here are some of the findings on a dual 2.0GHz Power Macintosh G5 computer – more powerful than the average Mac, and comparable to the mid-class Windows PCs being sold today.

Source: Full-Length Movie (MPEG-4), 625×352 23.98fps, AAC Stereo 48kHz, 1 hour 42 minutes duration.
Result: Full-Length Movie (H.264), 320×179 23.98fps, AAC Stereo 44.1kHz, conversion time: 10 hours, 11 minutes (approx. 6x realtime).

Source: iPod Introduction Video (Sorenson Video 3), 320×240 15fps, QDesign Music 2 22.05kHz stereo audio, 6 minutes 52 seconds duration
Result: iPod Introduction Video (H.264, 320×240 15fps, AAC 44.1kHz stereo audio, conversion time: 10 minutes (approx. 1.45x realtime).

Source: Tokyo Game Show Footage – RR6 (DIVX), 960×540 50fps, no audio, 1 minute 20 seconds duration.
Result: Tokyo Game Show Footage – RR6 (H.264), 320×180 46fps, no audio, conversion time: 11 minutes (approx. 8.25x realtime).

Source: Tokyo Game Show Footage – PDZ (DIVX), 960×540 25fps, no audio, 1 minute 6 seconds duration
Result: Tokyo Game Show Footage – PDZ (H.264), 320×180 25fps, no audio, conversion time: 3 minutes (approx. 2.73x realtime).

Source: Home Movie.mov (H.264), 320×240 29.97fps, AAC Mono 48kHz, 1 minute 4 seconds duration
Result: Home Movie.m4v (H.264), 320×240 29.97fps, AAC Stereo 44.1kHz, conversion time: 2 minutes (approx. 1.88x realtime).

What do these findings suggest? Even on a good computer, converting videos for iPod playback is nowhere near as fast as ripping your CDs into iPod-ready music files. Techies will say “duh,” but first-time video encoders need to realize that under most circumstances, conversion from most unprotected digital video files will take at least two times as long as the original running time of the video, and quite possibly substantially longer – 10 hours is not unusual for an under two-hour movie. Two factors – videos with high frame rates and/or long running times – are most likely to drag out your encoding process.

Note: We are not factoring in the additional time it may take to break the encryption of DVDs and copy their files to your computer. All of our tutorials going forward will assume that you are the complete rights holder for the DVDs you are ripping, having made them yourself with a program such as iDVD, and therefore have the right to break your own encryption. This process can add another hour or two to the full-length movie estimate above, depending on the speed of your DVD drive and other factors.

What Do I Lose During Conversion?

The simple answer is detail. In our testing, no matter what format or quality the original source material was in, the iPod-ready video file didn’t look as good. But for videos that started out at 320×240, they didn’t look too much worse: only a little dimmer and a tiny bit blurrier. Here’s a set of two images from the iPod Introduction Video, displayed at the same resolution as they’d be on an iPod screen, showing the slight difference. The re-compressed video is on the right.


Not bad at all, right? There’s a hint less contrast and a little smoothing of fine detail, but both are barely apparent at this size. The problems only start when you begin to expand the videos to the size they’d be on a modern television set. At that point, you’ll notice very significant artifacting and loss of detail. Again, the re-compressed video is on the right. (Right-click the image and copy its location to your web browser’s window to see the same image at full-size, where the differences are more apparent. Note that this is the same frame on both videos, then look at the top of the tongue and both eyes.)


With higher-quality videos – ones that are closer to or higher than DVD-quality – the loss of detail is profound when viewed at higher resolutions. Images become highly blurry. You can guess which one of these images is the original, and which is the iPod-formatted duplicate.



On a positive note, the high-resolution version looks very acceptable – not perfect, but good enough – viewed at smaller, iPod-ready resolution. In fact, one of our 50 frame per second videos stuttered when played back on even our dual-2.0 G5 computer. But not surprisingly, when QuickTime Pro converted it to a 46 frame per second video at iPod-ready resolution, it ran far more smoothly.


Problems were evident when we expanded the compressed video back up to its original 960×540 resolution. At that point, it looked as it did a couple of shots up.

Is QuickTime Pro Really That Dumb?

The “Movie to iPod” conversion tool used by QuickTime Pro appears to be intentionally locked in a way that precludes users from tampering with the settings – for better or worse. Consequently, when on iPod setting, QuickTime only outputs to H.264, and seems to love to make 44.1kHz stereo audio tracks from anything but silent movies. These settings resulted more than once in this problem: low-quality iPod-ready video files that were actually larger than their higher-quality source materials.

The iPod Introduction Video, for instance, started out as a 31.9MB file in outdated 2001 video and audio formats. But when converted to Apple’s newest and most efficient 2005 video and audio formats, it became a 33.8MB file, most likely because QuickTime doubled the audio sample rate. This could have been avoided, potentially, by giving users control through a menu like the one you can pull up by fooling around a little with the Movie to QuickTime Movie export settings:


Why hasn’t Apple done this? Most likely because QuickTime generally compresses audio and video well enough. Our 960×540 Tokyo Game Show videos started life as 162.57MB and 36.32MB files, shrinking to 5.67MB and 4.76MB files, respectively. That’s plenty of saved space.

Our full-length (1 hour, 42 minute) movie, encoded in H.264, similarly nosedived in total space required. It started as a 1.02GB file, and QuickTime Pro shrunk it to a 512MB file. In other words, you could expect to fit around 58 movies of that size on a 30GB iPod, and 116 on a 60GB iPod, assuming you had no music, photos, or data files on there.

Do I Really Want to Convert Full-Length Movies to iPod Format?

So far, because of the time required and quality of the resulting files, our feeling is “probably not.” It’s a lot of work to convert even one movie, and we feel pretty confident that you’re going to want to re-convert everything again six months or a year from now when a better iPod video player comes out. Apple’s continued references to the new iPod’s “video as a bonus” strongly suggest that while these low-res H.264-encoded QuickTime movies will play on future iPods, they won’t be the best those iPods can do. We’re strongly hoping that’s correct.

If you’re planning on trying to watch movies on your TV without an iPod USB Power Adapter and Dock, the answer is much more likely to be “definitely not.” As you’re probably aware, Apple has already disclosed that a fully charged 30GB iPod will run for only 2 continuous hours in video playback mode, which we believe at this point is based on on-screen display of video rather than iPod-to-TV display. So you’ll probably want to consider an add-on battery pack – groan – if you’re going to both listen to music and watch even one full movie on the iPod while in transit.

But on-iPod versus on-TV watching is an important difference, because last generation’s color iPods/iPod photos take a significant battery hit when outputting to a TV. In a test of color 4G iPods this weekend, an on-screen photo slideshow ran for 5 hours, 51 minutes – a bit higher than Apple’s 5-hour estimate – but when output to a TV, fell to only 2 hours and 6 minutes. That’s a loss of 64% of the iPod’s play time. Because of different battery capacities, the new iPods do not claim to be able to run in photo slideshow mode for that long, and it is highly likely that they will have similar limitations when outputting to a TV. (If the numbers carry over, which we hope they won’t, the 30GB iPod will run for only 43 minutes through a TV, and the 60GB for only 65.)

What About iTunes Music Store Video Downloads?

At this point, we’re not very enthusiastic about the quality of the videos we’re seeing at the iTunes Music Store – a fact we’re inclined to attribute to the early growing pains of rushing a video store together rather than any inherent problem with the concept or technology. Positively, we’ve found videos easy to download. We are still reeling from our attempts to purchase and download videos months ago from iTunes, when a video-laden Gorillaz album aborted transfer part way through and never sent the videos we’d bought. So far, the videos we’ve downloaded in iTunes 6 have each taken a bit of time, but come through and played properly.


Less positively, the video quality has been somewhere between mixed and poor. The sample episode of Desperate Housewives we downloaded was very acceptable for tiny (read: iPod) screen viewing, and just acceptable (a bit artifacted and jagged-looking) when made larger on the computer screen. But the otherwise beautiful video for Only by Nine Inch Nails, which shows a PowerBook G4 with Altec XT1 speakers playing the song through an iTunes-like visualizer, displayed visible compression artifacting and jaggedness even at a small size, and in a very prounced way as it scaled larger. It’s worth a brief note that the Only video is 4 minutes, 41 seconds long, requires 18.6MB, and listed as a “low complexity” “protected MPEG-4 video file.” The Desperate Housewives video has the same characteristics, but consumes 209MB and 43 minutes, 31 seconds.

Except under unusual circumstances, we are going to hold off on downloading videos – particularly music videos – from the iTunes Music Store until the quality level is noticeably better, and/or the price drops. In a smart promotional move, Nine Inch Nails offered the same video for free download from its web site in four versions, two of which are QuickTime, and one at a higher resolution and file size. We have to assume the $1.99 video at iTMS is just the poorly compressed one, possibly recompressed another time, but in any case, it wasn’t worth paying for.

Parting Thoughts

We’ll obviously have more to say on these video features in the days to come, but for now, we offer the following three pointers: think twice about transferring full-length movies to the iPod, and if you do, don’t toss your originals away. And be judicious about buying this first crop of low-resolution videos. Apple has pulled off an impressive coup by offering videos and TV shows through its store, and a simple video encoder for at least some of your existing video content, but it still has several steps left to take before iPod and iTunes video as anywhere close to the excellent experience of iPod and iTunes audio.

  1. Hey guys,
    do you have to convert “.mov” to the iPod format? I wonder if iPod can just play the .mov with no modification…
    Any ideas?


  2. Am I really the only one in the known Universe that has observed that the new iPod supports a much higher standard videoformat besides H.264 320×240?

    Just check the specs. You can get MPEG4 video at 2500Kbps and 480×480 pixels. That’s comparable to SVCD–quality, which to most people is almost on par with DVD. In fact the more efficient compression that MPEG4 entails should make this even better than SVCD. The horizontal resolution is stretched upon viewing (640 at 4:3 and 852 at 16:9) but the quality on a big screen is very good.

    It’s very easy to convert to this format using QuickTime Pro. When finished just open the settings for the videotrack and change the horizontal scaling for playback.

    I have an article showing this at my own Mac/Apple site. In swedish, but with screendumps that should be easy enough to follow. A full tutorial is in the works as soon as I can test the quality with an iPod hooked up to a TV.


  3. Floridante: We’re going to be trying a ton of different videos with the new iPod to see what does and doesn’t play. Unfortunately there are a lot of different strains of MPEG-4 and .MOV files, so there are no guarantees.

    Davermont: You’re almost entirely correct – it’s now $29.99, and the (wishful thinking) $19 price we had on there has been fixed. Since we purchased QTP7 when it first came out, it’s been a while.

    cubeXpert: You’re not the only one. But there has to be a reason Apple is not _promoting_ this standard for the iPod, even though it’s supported. Stuttering video? Something else? We’ll have to see when we try the new iPod with files formatted for something like this.

  4. Jeremy: I think the only reason is that the lower standard is good enough to watch TV and puts less strain on the iPods storage and battery capacity.

    The download time for the same material converted to this higher standard is roughly three times longer too. Not a really good experience if a one–hour show takes an hour to download. Bandwidth is not without cost for a commercial service like iTMS.

    But for personal use, ripping DVDs to take along and watch on a friends TV this format should be really nice. It’s in the iPods specifications, so it simply must be up to the task.

  5. If another iPod does come out, you can be sure that it is at least a year away. All iPod iterations have been around for one year–at least.

  6. Jeremy, I’d like to hear your views about when you think a new iPod will come out. My 3G iPod broke last month, and when I saw the Nano come out, I knew a new iPod would be right around the corner so I waited to buy a new one. Now that it’s here I don’t know if I should buy one, or wait a while because this isn’t that big a step in the right direction. I’m concerned about the 2-3 hours of video viewing time and the scratching problem. Do you think there will be another iPod released within the next 6 months, because that’s all I’ll being to wait.

  7. You can reduce the encode time considerably if you seperate out the resizing of the video. If you don’t resize at the same time you encode the file the encode time for Apple’s H.264 is between 1.5 and 2x of the video length.

    Apple’s MPEG-4 (Part 2) encodes at just over 1x but the file size and quality aren’t as good as H.264.

  8. I am interested in all of this for one practical purpose, and I don’t know whether it’s doable or practical. I’m interested in using this as a teaching tool in the classroom.

    What about converting a tv show, say a documentary, and hooking the iPod to a television at school to play it?

    Will the video on the tv screen be acceptable?


  9. From what’s in this article, do you think Newer better video ipods will follow or are they just going to improve this version through software upgrades??

    I really want to kno because i want to get video ipod but don’t want a super video ipod to come out six months later

  10. I want to know if it’s a matter of software or hardware for the ipod “video” to give a decent tv projection. I read that the sony psp improved considerably with a new software that came out.

  11. You didn’t include probably the most important piece of information about any of the video clips and that is the video bitrate?

    Could you possibly post them 😀

  12. The article is very interesting. What I find strange is that people seem to forget that before Steve’s announcement of music videos available for $1.99 each, they were all available for free from iTunes at higher res with no DRM. I would think that having to now pay for something that was always free (and basically and ad for the band) would have caused more of an uproar? I mean $1.99 isn’t that big of a deal, but the basic principle is HUGE!


  13. I’ve just converted a bunch of our kids home movies via iMovie and QT 7.*** – transfered them to iTunes. I’m anxious to see how it turns out on the new iPod. To be able to show videos during family get-togethers is priceless.

  14. Would you not get better quality from your DVDs, and more control, by using something like Handbrake to rip the DVD directly into H.264 at 320×240? You’d also be able to specify the video bitrate directly, and perhaps crop left and right a few pixels on widescreen movies so that that black bar effect is less noticable.

  15. I might be the only one but I used QTPro to convert .mov to .mp4 and found the file size to be smaller and better quality than H.264. If you have QTPro you can go on NIN website and download the video there, so I tested it on Only (the video in the article). It was 12Mb .mp4 vs. 20Mb H.264 and I actually liked the .mp4 better.

  16. grrr…apple screwed us…sorta…

    make us buy thier extra software for video conversion…

    ohh well theres always crack sites…

  17. i just got the ipod and i spent days workin on it
    the ipod does not have as big of a iHype as the others mainly because people have not been satisfied with it

    i got quick time pro and tried to convert a short video well i gave up and started looking for video on itunes

    now that all the music video’s are $1.99 (which is acceptable) but pixar has a couple of videos that they stick in every movie they have and have them on itunes for $1.99

    so i think later on people are gonna give up on converting movies themselves and the ones that do are gonna put their logo on it and share it using random share softwares.
    so i think it will get alot easier to get a movie on your ipod but its not gonna be so legal unless itunes work something out.

    but for the video quality well its good enough for the screen. They probably did that for the same reason they have .5 mega pixel camera on the cellphone (just too expensive and good enough)

  18. Is is just me or the review has missed the ONE thing most ordinary iPod-V users would hope to do – export home iMovies to it? All your tests seem to be re-compressing already compressed/encoded video/audio. I would like to see the result of encoding, say 15 minutes (~4GB) of 720×480@29.97fps (DV stream) to either standard ‘QT to iPod’ or manual MPEG4.

    In addition, I’m not quite sure I understood the comparison between the source file at original resolution and ‘expanded video’ (the target file, somehow scaled to the screen size of a TV set or of the original source file). What point is there to be made by up-scaling small compressed images? When you scale an image up (‘zoom in’), there are no hidden pixels that suddenly somehow appear, in order to make the picture sharper; once the video size is reduced during the encoding/compression time, those pixels are gone. Manually enlarging the video (by zooming in, or resizing the QT player window) will neither improve, nor make worse, the image. All it does is duplicataes the existing pixles to make it look bigger. To me, the only objective way to compare the image quality would be to 1. start with a hi-res hi-q source (DV Stream, DVD rip, or such); 2. re-size the source to the iPod image size and frame rate, without any compression (keeping it in DV stream, for example); and 3. compressing and encoding the re-sized version. Compare the resized source with the compressed version and this will give you meaningful answers.

  19. Converting full length movies doesn’t take that long!!! I just got my iPod 30GB this Christmas and I have been able to convert 3 full length movies on it so far…none of which took longer than 35 minutes: Napolean Dynamite, Nip Tuck, and Lord of the Rings. Hint: I purchased a $30 Cucusoft DVD to iPod Converter online which was ready to use as soon as I purchased it. It automatically converts the DVD in the Computer to a mpeg file…all you do next is drag it to itunes (you can drag is straight over your ipod icon on the left)…AND thats it!! 30 bucks isn’t bad. I have SBC dsl but I don’t think this has anything to do with the speed of the Cucusoft converter.

    Hope this helps!
    Dec. 27 2005

  20. Hey,
    Well I have the new Ipod
    I have the 30GB one and Ive downloaded atleast 5 music videos to it so far…
    Its simple.. and the videos are actually really clear on the screen.. Its simple just download the free video Converter


    and then open iTunes, then plug Ipod to computer and then transfer the video to the ipod.

    Its that simple.. If any complications email me


    My name is Stephanie.


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